Last February I marched up the stairs to my barn studio layered in my winter uniform: snowpants, heavy boots, heavy coat, a hat, a scarf, fingerless gloves. It was frigid and messy in the studio, but it was where I needed to be. I plugged in the electric heater, put on some music and tacked a piece of raw canvas to the wall. It was time to tell my daughter Lisbeth’s story. Lisbeth, now 37, suffered a traumatic injury from a viral illness when she was six years old and never recovered. Over the next several weeks the images poured forth. By the end of the series there were 22 in all. Every day I set up my camera phone and took videos of the process and posted these on my Instagram account. My studio provided a physical and psychic sanctuary – a safe place to splatter and thrash and express the rage, grief and unexpected joy connected to being the mother of a young woman with a chronic debilitating illness. My studio provided the space to birth these images. Instagram provided another sort of sanctuary – a place to share publicly this very private journey with sympathetic others: Artists, parents of children with special needs, and just plain folks offered up cheers of encouragement which helped fuel my will to soldier on and tell my daughter’s painful yet beautiful story. We must find these havens where our truth can be set free, witnessed and acknowledged. This is what it means to be human.
Jeff Woodbury has a shelf in his studio stuffed tightly with 117 sketchbooks (at least, as I write this). I’ve published columns, catalogs and articles about more than 1000 Maine artists over the years, but I don’t know of another artist whose sketchbooks contain more visual ideas than Woodbury’s. His current sketchbook is always with him, and he doesn’t shelve it until every page is stuffed completely with images and ideas. No blank pages. Idea after idea. Image after image. Note after note. Nothing wasted. No leaf unturned.
For Woodbury, a sketch is “getting an idea down to physical form.” Drawing and painting have been part of his artistic practice for 45 years, but at its core, his work is launched by concepts — visual, strategic practice, hypothetical or otherwise. Phrases and notes are part of his process, but the critical kernel is visual thinking. There is a critical difference in contemporary art between “conceptualism” and “concept-driven work,” and this is apparent in every branch of Woodbury’s art.
Woodbury’s sketchbook work comprises an unwieldy blend of physically present ideas with a range of brain pings that reaches to the irrationally other-worldly. He might shift a bean pod to 2D swirl. He might note a red-headed airline attendant as a potential crisis-moment superhero. He might gush over the swollen magenta pinks of a Texas berry pressed into inky service. In a bored moment on board a work-related flight, he might transmutate a pencil into a jet engine… and let it take off on its own path.
From the surface to the deepest depths of Woodbury’s quick-sketched images, we feel the heady brew of his love for historical visual culture as it (generally) dominates and devours imagery of the past as a percolator engulfs coffee grounds. Yet just as often we see the almost meditative pulse of systems art in his sketchbooks: symmetrical drawings made with both of his hands at once, a page filled with lines pulled and limited by the space and time of the process-driven work.
Woodbury is almost bizarrely caught between his reverence for the visual art pioneers before him and the inclination towards individual creativity. He knows them. He learns their lessons. And yet his own path is fundamentally forced by his own integrity-driven inclinations to shift away from where they have trod… onto new ground which he seems to find everywhere, well-seeded and fertile. The easy-ready reading is to see Woodbury as an iconoclast. But considering his consistently productive practice, it’s clear that Woodbury is far more geared towards finding and producing visual ideas than anything else. His personal practice is often ironical and sometimes salty, but through it we see Woodbury as an artist floating up on a sea of ideas – that rare person who can continually churn concepts into robust visual reality.
Below are additional images and comments by the artist. All of the images within this article are culled from Woodbury’s sketchbooks. –Daniel Kany
“I almost always have my sketchbook with me. A friend gave me a leather cover more than 30 years ago, and it’s been with me ever since – my most cherished possession. I’ve filled more than 117 sketchbooks since then, all the same small size that fit inside the cover, which also provides pockets to hold random maps, brochures, stamps, and notes. I rarely remove pages, unless they are finished works, and when I do, I mark the removal, because that’s part of the history, too.
My mind is always churning with ideas, and I need to write them down or I’ll lose them. My sketchbooks are filled with drawings, notes, diagrams, lists, names, plans, dates, collaged pictures, kids’ drawings, and more. The first page is always for names, numbers, and important information, and the last page is reserved for testing pens. It’s been that way for years. It’s a good system for me.
I see my row of sketchbooks as my extrasomatic memory bank, and each book is part of what Zappa called his “conceptual continuity”: ideas come and go, and are not bound by time, but become part of the overall matrix, and an idea written 20 years ago might influence or become part of the current work. Sometimes I’ll look into an old sketchbook to discover a forgotten note, and that might trigger a new arm of work. Other times ideas are written down only to be fulfilled years later – I drew the logo for “CRUD” in 1986, and it wasn’t until 2014 that circumstances came together to stamp that logo into bricks I made with local clay.
I don’t keep a journal or diary, but my sketchbooks serve as a record of my life. And that includes a record of unfinished works and unrealized ideas, and mistakes and poor choices and people lost to time and distance, and some pages are painful to see. But some pages shine with sketches or ideas that caught there first, and grew into decent works. My sketchbook is the garden where I plant those seeds.”
North Yarmouth artist Michael Boardman grew up in Blue Hill. He graduated from the University of Maine at Orono with a degree in studio art in 1986. Since then, drawing and sketching have been critical to his art practice. And Boardman has only ever made his living working in the arts. Over the past decade or so, his art and naturalist inclinations have led him to lean more and more on his sketchbook practice. Currently, Boardman is working with the Maine Master Naturalist Program, a year long course that trains individuals to be able to speak and present about Maine’s flora, fauna and geological features. Boardman’s goal is to ultimately be able to lead sketching workshops to help fulfill the volunteer requirement of the class.
Boardman’s art practice has long focused on landscapes and wildlife that he paints in watercolor and shows throughout the state and region. As he has matured as a painter and attended residencies dedicated to education and environmental awareness, Boardman has come to see himself not only an artist, but a naturalist. During this time, his image-making has become less about executing an appealing painting than about collecting and learning from his experiences. His sketchbooks look more and more like the notes of a biologist or botanist than a landscape painter. But this fits what always drove his interest in the natural world: Boardman’s new sketches and drawings, labeled with notes and observations, are flowing towards a mode that his painting and graphic design experience seem to have made practically inevitable.
“For me,” he explains, “it’s about telling stories. A story could be why did that spruce tree’s trunk and bark turn and twist in that bizarre and aesthetically pleasing way? Or how that glacier carved a path through the mountains and left its remains piled at the edge. Or the story could be the vernal pool behind my house and the myriad forms of life that used it during the spring – that prolific spasm of life that blooms until it dries up and everything is then dead or gone.”
Boardman’s older sketchbooks contain mostly landscape images he came upon during his hikes and travels throughout Maine. While he long worked professionally as a designer and draftsman of images of animals, his painting leaned towards the approach to plein air watercolor long championed by the masters of Maine landscape painting like Church, Homer and Sargent. Sketching and his sketchbook practice now play a much larger role in his artistic activity. Boardman’s more recent sketchbooks are loaded with images of wildlife rendered with an artist’s eye but laid out with a biologist’s precision. Using art as a way to advocate for natural science has shifted his personal connection to his work, which now exudes a sense of ethical urgency.
“I feel a certain responsibility to advocate for the creatures that I draw,” he notes. “Over 50% of animal populations have been wiped out in the past three decades. Recently, for example, the snowy owl has been added to the IUCN red list of species of concern, and it’s a bird I often sketch in the Portland area. One of my sketches of a Portland snowy owl is with a show about urban wildlife that originated at the Rhode Island School of Design that is now traveling around the country. It’s a bird that brings a piece of the arctic to us every winter, and the arctic is already being brutally affected by climate change.”
Boardman has filled many sketchbooks and he is attached to each of them for various reasons. Many, after all, are the travelogues of residencies that have taken him from the islands and remote corners of Maine to the glaciers of Alaska. They aren’t just compilations of images, but entire chapters of his experiences distilled in drawings and notes.
Indicating a page from a sketchbook on which are three images — a foggy tree-lined shore scene, a bird in flight (a marbled murrelet) and a pair of humpback whales — Boardman recalls the trip: “This is from a residency in Glacier Bay, Alaska I did in 2015. It is a place where the glaciers melt into the bay. The fresh water in combination with the tides supports a huge array of life. It’s one of the most dramatic and exciting places within the entire national park system in terms of biodiversity.”
Boardman then presents a page from one of his Maine Master Naturalist sketchbooks. The first difference is obvious: Whereas the Alaska images were simply titled with the name of the animal or place, these watercolor and pencil sketches of lichen are accompanied by copious notes and comments including measurements, identifying features and taxonomic references. “I had always thought lichen were interesting, but when I had to get down and study them closely, it was an amazing experience – lichens are these weird and intense Lilliputian worlds of three or even four symbiotic organisms.”
“Tomorrow,” explains Boardman, “I am heading to Deering Oaks Park in Portland to field sketch a great black hawk that has been hanging out for the past few days. This non-migratory bird is native to Central and South America and has only been seen the U.S. — for the first time ever — this year in April of 2018 in Texas. This same individual bird was then sighted in Biddeford Pool in August. It disappeared for several months and then it just showed up a few days ago in Deering Oaks, where it is no doubt enjoying the abundant squirrel population. (Well, maybe a bit less abundant now.) That is definitely an animal with a story to tell.”
Michael will be exhibiting work at a group show opening in April 2019 at the Portland Public Library, ‘A Critical Balance’ on endangered species throughout the world. For more information about Michael Boardman, visit: www.mboardman.com
The following is a conversation between Solon-based wet-plate photographer Scott Anton and my wife, Paula Kany, who has worked with Scott for years as an art model. Paula isn’t comfortable with the term “model,” and that is probably the inspiration for this entire dialogue. She has found that for many people the word “model” implies someone who plays a passive role without artistic agency. Paula wanted me to come to her shoots with two different photographers who use the collodion process — James Wigger, a studio photographer in New York as well as Scott — so I could see what was happening for myself both in terms of the wet plate process and her “modeling.” I came to see that she was a full partner in the artistry and the ultimate content of the work. That said, I think viewers ultimately see the work differently with a shifting balance between focusing on the work of the photographer and identifying with the figures in the image. In film, most Americans identity more with the actors rather than the directors or writers; and I think this effect is echoed with photography to a certain extent. Of course, presentation matters: If you go to see a show of Joyce Tenneson’s photography, for example, it’s made clear that the photographer is the artist of note. But we aren’t always (not even usually) presented with photography as authored by an artist: In our daily lives, the main ingredient of photography is what is pictured — not who is behind the camera. This is a vast and subtle subject without a singular truth; and what we find in this dialogue is that even people who work closely together have different perspectives.
Scott Anton’s collodion wet plate image featuring Paula Kany and Gemma Hudgell.
Scott uses the photographic technique known as the wet plate collodion process that was invented in 1851 and came, by the end of the 1860s, to replace the daguerreotype as the standard photographic process until it was replaced by the silver gelatin process in the 1880s. The collodion process involves coating and sensitizing a glass or metal plate (using a soluble iodide and a solution of collodion — cellulose nitrate) and then exposing and developing the plate all within about a 15 minute period. This small window necessitates either working in the studio or creating a portable darkroom. (Scott, a farmer, will even use the front of his tractor as a portable darkroom.) And it makes it a labor intensive but dynamic and immediate process.
Scott Anton, collodion wet plate image featuring Paula Kany.
It struck me that the technical aspects of the plate preparation, exposure and developing necessarily took place in the presence of the model at the shoot. During this entire process, Paula was fully engaged with both photographers: The dialogue was continuous. This was particularly interesting to me because I play in rock bands: Dialogue is a huge part of the group creative process, but it is not possible during performance.
The following are snippets from a conversation that took place in August, 2018.
Paula: Scott and I talk about what we’re going to do before we get together, but it’s hardly set in stone. Because we work outside with natural light, we can’t always do what we’ve been planning to do. Sometimes there is a great deal of investment in the setup; and then we couldn’t do what we wanted simply because of the light.
Scott: The planning is important. Paula shows up with props and ideas; but it is the friendship that makes it so much better. I get these moods and I always have an idea of what I want to do; but every model is different and I work off the emotions of the model – their life. Models like Paula come to me because of my talent as a wet plate artist. But I like to incorporate Paula’s feelings even more than her props. That may be what she has going on that month, that week, that day or that year. Trust matters, but it has to do with being able to mix with certain people. Sometimes you don’t have a connection, and that just doesn’t work for me.
Scott Anton, collodion wet plate image featuring Paula Kany.
P: We don’t necessarily talk about content when working; we are far more likely to talk about life. I am friends with Scott and his wife Gemma. And this is one of the most important things about our working relationship. We’re not only comfortable with each other, we really enjoy being together.
S: I really like it when you shoot that first plate or two and the discussion kicks in. You get that image in the water (which is what brings out the image on the plate) and that is when the feedback comes and the dialogue starts for real. I like that. When you critique the work in real time, that is when you move forward. Some models don’t even look at the image in the fix. I can’t work with them.
P: Scott is more classic than some of the other wet plate photographers with whom I work. By “classic,” I mean that he has a narrative sense that fits older themes and art forms like painting or nineteenth century photography. I tend to like darker themes than he does. And sometimes he wants to do things for which I wouldn’t be the best model. What’s awesome, though, is that we always wind up in the same working space. I think we both adjust in different ways to what the other one has in mind.
Scott Anton, collodion wet plate image featuring Paula Kany.
S: I like the banter that goes on with the models; there is not a lot of quiet time, and that’s really important for me. There is always a lot of joking; so every moment is open for comment, so, yeah, Paula or any of my models can give input pretty naturally. I think the ideas are mostly mine, although my ideas almost never come out how I plan. But it almost always works. If it veers off on another angle, I go with it. And I think that’s the way it should be; I might want to do something but Paula is not in the mood. That would make it change direction.
P: Over time, I have gotten more and more involved. For example, I like to go into Scott’s barn and find props – I like weird things, like the bull horn cutter. I am particularly drawn to the things I don’t recognize that have wild shapes. Some of these old farm tools are scary. They’re exciting. They fascinate me and I think that comes through in the pictures.
S: I generally have an idea I want to follow. But stories need props and sometimes the story comes together when we’re talking about props and what to do with them.
P: I think that Scott approaches the content of his work through the idea of storytelling. The stories aren’t necessarily full and complete stories, but there is the sense of narrative, the idea of motivation, that something is going on. That’s important and it’s generally where we come together. Someone looking at the pictures doesn’t need to follow the story; it’s enough to know that something is going on. And I like that sense of mystery. Especially with the old format of collodion. If you sense a story, it feels like you’re getting a fragment of something lost. And I think that’s exciting. It certainly is for me.
Scott Anton, collodion wet plate image featuring Paula Kany.
S: My goal is to find where the emotional state of the model lines up with the story I am trying to tell. I want the picture to feel authentic. When the feelings are real, the picture looks real. Being true to the emotional state of the model is probably more important to me than the story. But when I work with Paula, it is very much about the story; I really don’t think about the viewer, I want to tell that story. Sometimes that means I have a look I want but I can’t get it with collodion. So we work around it.
P: I think Scott doesn’t really want to show me as an older model. But I am okay being seen as an older woman, mother figure, or even someone who is sad or crazy. That elicits a different response than seeing a posed beautiful woman. I didn’t start modeling until I was about 45 and part of what inspired me was the idea of seeing older women as models. Scott and I are still trying to figure that out, which I think is good; it makes him step out of his comfort zone. I like to think that makes him go new places with his work.
S: Maybe. Every model I work with is different. It matters to me how I relate to each model as well as what kind of a mood they’re in. Because of that, my work is always different.
P: I have been struggling with the term “model.” What I do is part performance, part art-directing, part acting. I don’t know if there is a better word than “model,” but I think that to a lot of people it conveys something passive. And my role in the process is anything but passive. I really enjoy being involved in the process: applying the collodion, putting the plates in the bath and so on.
S: The technical part of the process is not something I do with the models in general. That’s just you, since we’ve worked together for a few years. And with you, that’s an important part of the whole process — when we develop the work and see what we get. But, yeah, once we get a couple of pictures, that’s when things really start happening.
P: Because the wet plate process takes so long — the shot itself usually takes between 8 and 15 seconds — you have to be able to hold the pose. That’s why I don’t smile; it’s really hard to hold. And because of that, you almost never see anyone smiling in wet plate pictures, so it would look out of place if I did it. We did one recently and it looked more crazy than pretty. Also, because you have to hold the poses longer, it takes more forethought than digital. You have to get the pose right before the shot. Sometimes that means I have to hold a pose for 5 or even 10 minutes or longer while we get the setting, lighting and props all settled.
S: Sometimes you don’t like what you see in the water (the plate as it develops in the bath) and I say I am going to scrape it off, but then, after some time — an hour, a day, a week — you wind up loving it. Expectations can be limiting. Sometimes it takes time to shake them off. Digital is so predictable, but there is nothing predictable about wet plate. That’s why I like it.
On a hot July morning, I stepped into Ace Hardware in Falmouth for some silicone rubber sealant. While I was standing in line to pay, I noticed a bunch of small works by Erin McGee Ferrell. I picked one up to take a closer look. They were small, thick panels with collaged painting, heavily glazed with polyurethane. They were on sale at the checkout counter for $40 each.
Wall sculpture by Charlie Hewitt, 2018. Photo by David Wolfe.
I was impressed.
I’ve met Erin, who, some years ago, moved to Falmouth from Philadelphia. She’s a strong and highly energetic painter and I like her work. I asked the man ringing up my silicon if he knew anything about the panels and so we started chatting. I noticed a pretty big guy at the next register watching this interaction closely. He looked like a typical working stiff: white hair, dark t-shirt, glasses and some pretty serious ink on his left arm. So, I said to him: “You should get one of these. They’re good and for $40 it’s a deal.”
“Oh, I have plenty,” he said.
Sure you do, I thought, doubting. “So, are you an art person?” I queried, but more as a polite conversation starter than anything else.
Turns out, he was Charlie Hewitt. And he not only owns a bunch of museum-worthy art, but his own art lives with the giants in many of America’s leading museums.
I had known Charlie’s work from a show at the Bates College Museum of Art from about 10 years ago that featured his prints. (Bates has an extensive collection.) More recently, I had become familiar with his large installation pieces in Portland and Lewiston and the work on view at Jim Kempner Fine Art, his Chelsea gallery in NYC. I was particularly interested in meeting him since I had just heard he was slated for a solo show at ICON Contemporary in Brunswick, one of the most consistently excellent galleries in the state.
We went out for a quick coffee and the conversation immediately became fascinating: Charlie came across as allergic to bullcocky and patent commercialism. I hadn’t fully responded to his work in the past, but having connected the dots between his prints and his sculptures, I had, prior to meeting him, gotten the idea that was more my own shortcoming as a viewer than his as an artist.
Charlie Hewitt, “Caypso,” woodcut. Photo by David Wolfe.
As the art critic for the state’s newspaper of record, I write about art rather than artists. But, considering my own personal reevaluation, he had risen to the top of the list of artists I actually wanted to meet in Maine. I would like to think of this as a chance for both of us, but, in all fairness, it was I who was rewriting his script, not Charlie. It was a work day for both of us, however, and so the coffee klatch was break-time quick.
Charlie Hewitt is a Portland-based printmaker and sculptor who grew up in Lewiston. He has major public sculptures from his Urban Rattle series installed in NYC as well as Portland and Lewiston. He recently completed a major solo exhibition at ICON. (It was an excellent exhibition; I regret not having been able to fit in a review as part of my weekly newspaper art critic gig.) Hewitt is no slouch. His work is featured in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; the Museum of Modern Art, NY; the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; the New York Public Library; the Brooklyn Museum; the Library of Congress, Washington, DC; and, among other public collections, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.
Installation view of Charlie Hewitt’s exhibition at ICON
We picked the conversation back up at Hewitt’s exhibition at ICON. We were joined by gallerist Duane Paluska.
Over coffee, Charlie and I had discussed how artworld communications had changed over the years. (Charlie looks about 60, but he’s in his early ‘70s.) With the shifting roles of galleries, social media, and the way commissions now come about — we talked about how that affects the way artists like Charlie communicate with their professional contacts. And as an artist from humble Maine roots who somehow along the way found his way to success, I asked him what was the role of dialogue in his working with gallerists, curators, art dealers, the press and the public. The short answer was that styles of communication had certainly changed but were now changing at an even faster rate what with social media and changes in both how galleries operate and how the art audience interacts with art. (And yes, that starts with the internet and goes everywhere from there.)
When Duane joined us — and Duane knows me well as an art critic who regularly reviews his exhibitions — we primarily talked about Charlie’s art in the show. Ironically enough (or not?), Duane had set up “conversations” between the works in Charlie’s show, alternating prints, paintings and small sculptures so that they visually interacted and echoed each other. And to be clear, Duane is one of the most demanding and exacting exhibition installers in the state; he is one of Maine’s leading sculptors and he’s been running his gallery for well over 30 years. While this idea of “conversations” between the different media (prints, sculpture, paintings) shouldn’t surprise the reader, I have known Duane for a long time and it was the first time I recall hearing him discuss an installation in these terms.
Duane Paluska and Charlie Hewitt at ICON Contemporary in Brunswick.
In other words, we found ourselves dialoguing about the dialogue among Charlie’s works in a conversation curated by Duane. The shapes, forms and approaches certainly enriched each other; and, yes, I was impressed. For example, Duane’s wall on which he starts his numerical numbering system for labels (no wall labels, just number pins and a printed sheet) is tilted, and the piece on that wall is a wall sculpture with somewhat tilted planes, including neon forms. Here, again, the conversation pivoted and Charlie explained how he worked with several different “neon artists” to create the elements he asked of them. (Charlie gives such folks full credit and I admire him for that; particularly because you can imagine he treats them with complete respect as artists in their own right rather than as his “fabricators.”) These new neon pieces indeed complete the conversation among the work: The sculptural forms of metal, after all, match the physical forms of the wood and metal supports that Charlie has long used as a master printer.
Duane and Charlie discussing Charlie’s exhibition at ICON Contemporary
Charlie’s prints reveal a fundamental quality of prints that are made with broad forms in 4, 5, 6, or 7 or so plates: They build up on each other, layer placed upon layer. For even the average viewer, this step-by-step reveals the linear logic we typically associate with narrative. Moreover, the way these tactics are revealed to the viewer echo dialogue: This form falls on top of that form, it came after; it is a response to the prior plate. In fact, this is a quality of painting that reveals the visual intelligence of the painter. But with painting, it is far harder to unpack. Yet we can often sense the stroke or the the form or the gesture that punctuated the thing, delivering it to its final sense of completion.
Not surprisingly, Charlie’s paintings go deep with this logic. The forms surge out over each other subtly, but we can feel that printmaker’s sense of gesture: in the sense that gestures comprise entire layers of the image. (Photoshop is based on this layer logic.) In the combined strength of his painted forms and his proclivity for a narrative sense, however, we can directly sense the lessons of his teacher and mentor, Phillip Guston.
While Charlie generally spoke about his art in terms of hard work and formal terms readily apparent to the viewer, I was caught off guard (I have to admit, I was “rattled” — and, yes, I think the irony is Charlie’s rather than mine… but back to that in a minute) when he told me about his longstanding fascination with the implements of the torture of Jesus on his brutal trek to Calvary. In art (and Christianity), we know these from the 14 Stations of the Cross.
Charlie grew up in Lewiston, a leading center of Maine’s Catholic communities. In his 2006 essay about Charlie, then-Bates Museum of Art director (now the director of the Portland Museum of Art), Mark Bessire wrote about Charlie’s commitment in his iconography to church, family and work.
Where I had seen swizzlesticks in Charlie’s tall rattle works in Portland, Lewiston and NYC, I suddenly saw brutal tools and crucified forms… cruciforms, if you will. Charlie never stated this directly to me, but suddenly the idea of these shapes being cut out (and then made 3D, attached, etc) with flaming torches… well, even if that wasn’t Charlie’s direct intent, the effect of his saying it was something I couldn’t shake, and it was surprisingly dark and moving.
Charlie Hewitt’s “Neon Cloud,” 2018. Photo by David Wolfe
For a diver, going deeper means holding your breath. Getting the best kernels of dialogue often means that as well: hold your breath… and listen. If hadn’t spoken up to that anonymous guy I later found out to be Charlie Hewitt, well, I might certainly be still in the dark. Moreover, I love art as much as I do in part because I let the artist’s work speak to me. Sure, I write about the work; I break the silence with my written language. But I always listen first. I even try not to read the marketing materials before I get my own take on what the work says on its own. The way of a professional art critic, in other words, is not the right way: It’s A way. I get reminded of that often. And I was particularly glad in the case of chancing into Charlie Hewitt.