I grew up in a house made of books: children’s books, classics, detective stories, forbidden publications that escaped communist censorship being passed down by generations of writers. Books lined the walls of our house, a parish established by my minister grandparents who had moved to my small hometown near the Czech-German border after the Second World War.
Books filled the bags my mother brought home from her job at the library. They shaped the quiet moments I spent with my father, an archivist who at times would bring home a rare treat, an old book as big as his desk, that I was not allowed to touch, only admire the yellowed pages and elaborate images that formed the first letters of every chapter.
On the weekends, I would spend long dreamlike hours at work with my parents, run in the hallways and between the tall stacks of the library and the archive, both buildings becoming my playground. The infinite wealth of stories they held offered a safe refuge from the confusing world around, from school that represented the communist establishment which was so at odds with home, with my intellectual anti-communist parents and my grandparents who dedicated their lives to Church, an increasing oddity in the secular domain of the regime.
The never-ending tales on the pages intertwined with the stories I heard about my family; humorous anecdotes exchanged at dinner about the absurdities of communism or eerie accounts of time gone that were only hushed and whispered when the women in the family gathered on Sunday afternoons. Over yarn and needles I listened to the life story of my great-grandmother who became a political prisoner in the early days of communism. Always an excellent cook, perhaps she had learned in the ration days of the war to make something out of nothing, she improved the conditions of her incarceration by offering the jail her cooking skills.
I heard stories of my grandfather who had been taken to a labor camp for his involvement with the Church. I listened to accounts of my grandmother who left alone with two young children took over the ministry, fighting hard to keep a Church presence under a regime that persecuted its members. Decades later when, unbeknown to all of us, the gray days of communism were coming to an end, my mother, too, became the breadwinner when my father, suffering from depression, was taken away to a mental institution. To supplement her librarian income, she would sell the handknits she crafted in the evenings.
Just as my grandfather’s landscape paintings that brightened our days with their vivid greens and yellows, the lives of my parents and grandparents inspired me with the every-day creativity of those who time and time again had to reinvent themselves in order to survive.
The Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat believes that every immigrant is an artist, that “the experience of touching down in a totally foreign place is like having a blank canvas.” In the August 2013 issue of the Atlantic, Danticat suggests that “You begin with nothing, but stroke by stroke you build a life. This process requires everything great art requires—risk-tasking, hope, a great deal of imagination, all the qualities that are the building blocks of art. You must be able to dream something nearly impossible and toil to bring it into existence.”
Like many others who have moved across the world to create the work of art that is a life well lived, I have adjusted to my new home, and like the women in my family, I have crafted a livelihood out of eggs and flour, at times yarn and fiber.
And when words were not enough to give me the answers I needed, where is home and who am I, I reached for the camera, dove into visual language where boundaries are blurred, worlds co-exist and time is but an idea, where in the landscapes taken over here you can hear the echo of the stories whispered over there, where the glossy cobblestones of the streets in my hometown reflect the dreams I spun in my new home, dreams I write down in silver.
When I was four years old, I wound up with a steak knife in my eye. I had more than 20 stitches on my cornea and I spent two weeks in the hospital, during much of which, I had patches covering both of my eyes. The damage was severe. To keep my optic nerve from atrophying, the doctors tried contact lenses, which, in the early 1970s, were hard plastic and not much fun for a wriggly little boy.
I feel very lucky that my left eye tracks reasonably well with the right one. But for all intents and purposes, I only see out of my right eye. My left eye works, but in such a blurry and useless way that my midbrain disregards it. I cannot see stereoscopically.
My brother and sister are older than me and they are superior athletes. My sister is a world champion rugger and both were the stars of essentially every sports team they were ever on. That would not be my path. The vision issue was only part of it: I lacked their natural ability. I play soccer and excel at ping pong, but, as a youth, I quickly got tired of letting down coaches excited about “another Kany!”
Monocular vision is a handicap, but it does offer a few benefits. Television, movies, and photography, for example, are made with a single lens and one of painting’s great triumphs was the invention of single point perspective. I can’t say that these things are more satisfying to me than to two-eyed folks, but since they match my typical experience of the world, I suspect they are. Paintings work hard to convince viewers of depth by means of modeling, atmospheric perspective, etc; and so, from time to time, paintings appear to me with more depth than the real world, at least, from a stationary perspective.
Rather than trying to keep up with my siblings in the athletic arena, I took up music. I began playing bass in rock bands when I was in eighth grade. That was in Waterville, home of Colby College and its vaunted art museum. One day when I walked into Bixler — Colby’s music and art building — I looked up a staircase and saw a painting by Abbott Meader on the wall on the landing. I was in high school, but that painting appeared to me as a vision and it was immediately etched into my mind. It is not an easy painting to describe. It is an abstract landscape, highly controlled and focused. Across the top is a horizontal band that looks like a view of a road through Southwest farm landscape (green field on the left and fallow straw on the right) seen through ski goggles from a motorcycle. Shooting forward to that visual horizon is a series of colored lines that gathers thickly at the bottom of the image and converges towards the top. Pink horizontal bands flow into the scene from the right to reinforce the idea of landscape, but on the left side they billow like drapery or even a ghostly figure. That painting struck me immediately as both visually and spiritually transcendent. That was 1982.
(N.B. I sent this above description of the painting to the artist and it was enough for him to recognize the painting and send me the image included with this text.)
I hadn’t found painting. It had found me. I began to make art somewhat seriously, but I was more interested in seeing and learning about art. At Bowdoin College I studied art history — but not painting. (I now cringe at my rationale: When asked by a friend why I didn’t take painting classes at Bowdoin, I replied: “I don’t need anyone to teach me how to express myself.” Ouch.) I went to Paris and studied art history at the Sorbonne. While in Europe, I wandered into the Rothko room in the Tate Gallery and had what is probably most commonly called a mystical experience with one of Rothko’s, Red on Maroon (1959).
The thing about this kind of experience is its fundamental undeniability. It happened. And it was powerful. And indeed, the easiest way to understand or talk about such experiences is in the traditional terms of mysticism. I can see how when someone would mention this kind of experience to others, they would then easily accept it as proof of “God”. This type of experience is profound and personal, however vague, so it makes sense that people would generally see it as reinforcement of their own cosmology.
Not surprisingly, I have long been drawn to artists who produce such work and who are not caught up in specific religious dogma. My favorite artists have long included Kasimir Malevich, Rothko, Matisse, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt as well as landscape painters with a propensity for bold colors, such as the Fauves (particularly Braque and Derain), Kandinsky, van Gogh, Cézanne, and the German Expressionists. On one hand, I would like to believe my taste has become more refined after 35 years of looking. Maybe it has, but considering my favorite works in the light of my first transcendent art experience — that semi-psychedelic Meader landscape at Colby — I am not so sure it has.
What has been consistent for me is the transportive experience of art. (Transcendence and being transported aren’t the same thing, but they have much in common.) I think we can see this in the movement from artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian from landscape into abstraction. I like to explain the invention of abstraction as the realization by artists that when it comes to legibility, instead of having the viewer need to recognize a legible subject of the painting (that thing, that person, that place, etc), it is enough that the painting be recognized (i.e., legible) as a painting. That is similar to the move from transportive to transcendent.
What I struggle with is akin to the idea that stereoscopic vision sees a physical world while monocular vision sees a visual world. I can’t remember what it was like to see stereoscopically and my closest art friend during all this time — a fellow Colby brat and career art professional — also had eye issues and so could not see stereoscopically. However bizarre and unlikely that may be and however much that might have tainted our ability to understand the vision of others, I don’t think it was by chance that we both have remained steadfastly dedicated to professions in the arts as well as huge fans of painting and visual art in general.
I do not like the scene from Un Chien Andalou, the 1929 silent surrealist short film by Spanish director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí. (Spoiler Alert: That straight razor slashes open her eye. Ouch.)
There is a cliché of a movie director making a square with their thumbs and forefingers and squinting to look through it with one eye. We all understand that: They’re trying to see a scene as ifit were being filmed. What they are doing, however, is orienting themselves to see the scene monocularly. I believe painters do this all the time: They stand directly in front of their work and view it from a fixed point. (And unlike hearing, seeing is based on the dominant eye and backed up by the other.) So, yeah, y’all two-eyed folks can do it, and you often do it on purpose. But some of us—fortunately few (hardly the fortunate few) — can only see the world that way.
Let me be clear: Taking a knife to the eye was a nightmare. (I can still remember the feeling from 48 years ago and it was hellish.) But it does make me wonder if I would have found this enriching life in the arts if I hadn’t mangled myself. I am not glad it happened. But I can say I would much rather be a half-blind art critic than a mediocre athlete.
One of the Founders of the former ArtFellows Gallery in Belfast (local photojournalist, Richard Norton) always had the same question for the artists working around him, “What are you doing? What are you making?”
This neighborly, over-the-fence question is a way of saying that what an artist does daily matters. The continuity of a steady studio practice is a place of invention and exploration, as—or more important than—putting on a show.
Are you staying on a course you have long ago established or have you recently started working in a new medium? Are you suddenly working very large or getting small? Have figures emerged or has your work been consumed with geometry? Have you added color, or moved into monochromes? Does the outside world affect your studio life, or is your interior life reflected in your art? And was there a reason— or was it a whim— that brought you to your current direction?
Share your own State of the Studio with all of us at the Maine Arts Journal for our Summer 2018 Issue.
Journal Submission guidelines for Members Showcase and featured artisits:
We invite UMVA members to submit up to 4 JPEG or png images, (No TIFF files)
Include an image list and statement or essay in Word doc. Format, not a PDF, .
Label each image file as follows: yourlast name_Number of Image_Title_ if you are submitting for a group put your own last name in first.
Label your document file names: Last Name_Title
Image list format: Artist’s Name, “Title of Work”, medium, size, date (optional), photo credit (if not included we assume it is courtesy of the artist).
—Please wait until all of your material is compiled to submit.
Size of images: Images should be JPEG files, approximately 1000 pixels on short side with total resolution between 500KB to 1.2MB.
Put “State of the Studio” in the subject line and submit by email firstname.lastname@example.org the June 1st deadline. MAJ will limit the “Members’ Showcase” section to UMVA members who have not been published in the past year.
We are no longer able to accommodate artists’ pre-formatted visual essays. Our editors will lay-out text and images submitted using the new guidelines above.
Maine artists and arts community members can become members of the Union of Maine Visual Artists by clicking HERE. Membership helps support the UMVA’s advocacy and helps make this Maine Arts Journal: UMVA Quarterly possible. Or you can provide direct support to the MAJ via the link under “Support MAJ!” For a free subscription to the MAJ, enter your email on the side link under “Subscribe” and a link to this Journal will be mailed to your inbox.
It is the MAJ’s policy to request and then publish image credits. We will not publish images the submitter does not have the right to publish. However, we leave the question of photo credit to the discretion of the submitter when there is no required photo credit (photo by self, image ownership freely given, copyright with contract, copyright expired, work for hire). It is to be assumed that any uncredited or unlabeled images are the author’s/submitter’s own images. By submitting to the MAJ, you are acknowledging respect for these policies.
MAJ Editorial Board Natasha Mayers, Dan Kany, Jessica McCarthy, Nora Tryon, Kathy Weinberg
In the spring of 1996, Gigi Aea designed and produced his first hand-painted jacket that was featured in the Metropolitan Museum Fashion Gala, and is still housed in its permanent collection. But the Gigi Aea story begins far away, in a land that juxtaposes European and Asian influences – Georgia, an ancient land formed in 13th century BC.
Gigi was born into a family of three generations of artists. His great-grandfather Alexander Ronishvili was the first pioneer of photography in Georgia and one of the great benefactors of his time, opening multiple schools, hospitals and universities. He photographed everyone from kings to paupers. The astonishing and distinctive life that he led ended dramatically, murdered at the age of 50, poisoned by his rival who also burned down his studio, destroying much of Ronishvilli’s work. The remaining works are housed in the Georgian National Museum and the family collection.
Gigi’s grandfather Giorgi “Gogi” Ronishvili was Gigi’s first and most important teacher and his guide into the world of art. An accomplished cubist painter and creative director of the Georgian children’s magazine “Dila”, he taught Gigi the essentials of drawing and color relationships, while also encouraging experimentation and the development of a unique style. Gigi’s memories of his grandfather are that he was very gentle but very resolute.
European art training starts at the earliest age. Being an artist was never a conscious decision for Gigi, it was more like an end result to the life he led. Having no choice in the matter was like having to breathe to stay alive. There was art created everywhere he looked. Monica, Gigi’s grandmother, was a ballerina and a dance teacher at the Theatrical University. She often danced in the house. Her every act was a performance, her every step a dance. Gogi and Gigi often painted together in the loft studio and Gigi observed and learned every one of his grandfather’s masterful strokes of the brush whether in the colorful city rooftops or intricate cubist paintings unique to his style that appeared as if looking through the angled prism of glass.
In his grandfather’s studio Gigi learned valuable lessons in the way that perspective is built, from masters like Vermeer, and the way it is destroyed, from masters like Matisse. He studied the color palettes of the Impressionists and the colorless Zenga paintings of Japanese masters that influenced the Abstract Expressionists so much. But through all his study and all his work he approached each painting with the fresh, wondrous eyes of a marveled child experiencing the world for the first time, perhaps because becoming a painter was never a decision or a choice, but rather a condition of floating full of sensations and imagery.
In 2014 Gigi’s homage to his grandfather was to organize and co-curate a posthumous show of most of his work at the Georgian National Museum of Art. It was an extremely successful, well-attended and televised event.
Gigi’s father, Nodar Gaprindashvilli was a well-respected portrait painter and a theater stage designer for a number of premier theaters in the Soviet Union. In his father’s studio Gigi learned the harshness of the life of an artist and prepared for the Academy of Arts exams. Gigi was expected to dutifully accept his student responsibilities as an apprentice in his father’s studio. His tasks ranged from cleaning the floors to repairing the skylight and cooking for his father and his friends.
In his grandfather’s studio he was a protégé. In his father’s studio he was a servant. Both lessons have served him well.
Gigi was deeply influenced by American culture from his introduction to the Blues and Rock’n’Roll to Abstract Expressionism, and always dreamed of coming to New York, to experience the hub of raw creative energy.
After attending and graduating art schools in Tbilisi, Georgia and Bremen, Germany, Gigi embarked on his long-awaited journey to New York City with $500 in his pocket and his portfolio of paintings. The paintings, unfortunately, were stolen in the Berlin airport right before his flight. He arrived in New York without any English language skills, job prospects, or work visa. His $500 dollars were stolen from him by a street hustler in an apartment deal that didn’t exist.
Broke and hungry, Gigi relied on the kindness of his childhood friend from Georgia, Agassi, who lent him some money to get a basement apartment in the furthest corner of “bumfuck” Queens. Agassi had emigrated 5 years before and was employed as a fashion designer for Mary McFadden Haute Couture. Gigi’s apartment consisted of a mattress and an ugly metal filing closet. Depressed by the hideous environment, Gigi painted the filing cabinet to look like a grained walnut wood closet. His landlord made it his habit to invasively check on what Gigi was up to every day. When he saw the cabinet that Gigi had painted, he liked it so much that he confiscated it right away and took it out of the apartment. Gigi had to carry it out.
Now Gigi only had a mattress. Still without work, Gigi often went hungry for days, relying sometimes on a local pizzeria to give him scraps of unfinished crusts and an occasional lunch from his friend. He needed to find a job, any job. At the end of his options, he applied for work at Moishe’s Movers in Brooklyn, where he was an outcast and only given an opportunity to work on occasion if nobody else showed up. He had two such opportunities. And the last was pivotal.
Down to his last quarter, Gigi called Moishe’s to inquire if there was work the next day and was told to come in at 7am. He was happy to hear this news. However, not having eaten for three days, he doubted his ability to move furniture for eight hours. Gigi then went into a local Korean grocery store and stole a loaf of bread and a small ham with the full intention of repaying the store owner when he got paid. But he was caught in the act and put in the walk-in meat freezer with a 6’5” security guard. Gigi pleaded, in his broken English, with the store owner not to call police, but to no avail. The store owner went to call the police and Gigi thought that would be the end of his American adventure and he’d be deported. Twenty minutes went by and nothing happened. He was still in the meat locker, but the guard had since left. Gigi was in the locker for another twenty minutes. Unable to stand the cold and humiliation any longer he busted out and walked calmly down the aisle past the guard and the store owner onto the street, where to his surprise and delight, there was no police waiting for him. Gigi remembers that in that instant he was overfilled with a love for New York and understood that everyone there, to some degree or another, has been in the same predicament. The generosity of the Korean store owner was but a proof of this.
Now free, he no longer felt hungry but ready to face the next challenge.
The next day he got up early and went to work using his last subway token. It was a long ride from the end of Queens to the end of Brooklyn. He arrived there with full confidence and strength to work and make money, but alas, he was told that he was not needed after all.
Completely destitute and despondent he called his friend Agassi to help him get back home to Queens, to the basement apartment with the tyrannical landlord. What Gigi didn’t know was that fate had something else in mind for him.
All throughout his stay in Queens he kept working on a textile design for the new Mary McFadden collection inspired by Japan. This effort was a test run that Agassi suggested he should try. Gigi was always fascinated and influenced by Asian art, Japanese art in particular. He used Ogata Korin’s screen, The Great Waves of Matsushima, as his inspiration for the jacket he was creating. Without any prior knowledge of the particulars of textile design and Haute Couture, he simply painted as he would paint any original painting, but with restrictions on the dimensions, material’s borders, design arrangement, and location, since the most challenging and fascinating thing about textile design is its transformation of two-dimensional art into three-dimensional applied art. Every one of the waves, drops and color juxtapositions mattered in the final concept of the piece, the way it would sit on the model and appear on the runway.
Gigi was working with borrowed art materials and painting on MaryMcFadden’s luxurious silk organza, with borrowed money and on borrowed time. He gave his hand-painted textile for Mary’s review to Agassi shortly before his work day at Moishe’s in Brooklyn.
On that day while he was stranded and close to tears somewhere in Brooklyn, somewhere in Manhattan Mary wanted him as her next textile designer for the Haute Couture house. Upon returning home to Queens he found out that he was hired for the exclusive position. The next night he made his great escape from the clutches of his oppressive landlord, fitting everything he had in an old lady’s grocery cart and wheeled it down to the Jamaica Van Wyck subway station where he got on the train that took him to Manhattan’s Upper West Side where he spent most of his New York years.
Gigi continued to create for Mary McFadden, finally designing the “Desert Jacket” which was her all-time best seller and featured in the Saks Fifth Avenue book “Obras de Moda.” On the side, Gigi designed for Oscar de la Renta and Donna Karan in New York until his move to London where he worked on a collection with Alexander McQueen.
Today Gigi Aea is running his own Haute Couture textile design company where he takes great care and pride to create hand-painted designs which are printed in Como, Italy. His textiles are used for both interior décor and fashion and are known for their dramatic design and color juxtapositions. The designs are larger than what is commonly done, which creates the sense of being enveloped by the textile and by the world that particular design depicts.
Gigi Aea is represented by the design house of Studio Sofield in N.Y.C. and Leslie Curtis in Camden, Maine.
Our theme for the Spring 2018 Maine Arts Journal Issue is Origin Stories.
We asked you to tell us the stories you tell of yourself, to share who you are, and how you got here. The thoughtful responses have taken on those questions in varied and individual ways.
Our Feature Artists include Alice Spencer and her Katanga series, informed from the collection of patterned materials gathered from her travels, and which influence her work. Anna Mikuscova shares her black and white photographs and personal journey. Clare Morin reflects on places where she has lived and written about the arts, from England to Hong Kong and Maine. Gigi Aea starts his essay and his journey from an ancient culture and cultured family legacy. Susan Drucker’s delicate yet fully present drawings are a re-imagined family photo album, an alternate history. Included are the beautiful artbooks of Cynthia Ahlstrin, a family portrait by Juliet Karelsen, and more.
Regular contributor, Ed Beem, shares his self-portrait as an arts writer, an aesthetic journey with family and friends. Frequent contributor, and author, Carl Little writes about the extraordinary gift his Uncle William Kienbusch gave him. Contributing MAJ editor, Kathy Weinberg writes about the painter Martin Wong’s retrospective, that ties into a family history and a road trip. Dan Kany is in the Critics Corner with a story of his own vision.
In conjunction with this issue, and narrowing the lens of the topic more specifically to Immigration, Kifah Abdulla (Portland poet, artist from Iraq), Titi De Baccarat (Portland artist from Gabon) and John Ripton (writer, photographer and historian from Maine) have curated a show of the work by Portland area immigrants around the theme of “Migration Experience.”
Included also is a portfolio of images from 12 artists in the Camden Library, and Jonathan Frost Gallery Show “Migration Stories.”
Julie Poitros Santos writes about an upcoming show at ICA MECA: TRACES, TRACKS, and PATHWAYS: Making Migration Visible.
In our Members’ Showcase we welcome Maggie Muth, Lesia Sochor, and Clara Cohan who share their art and stories, and the editors share some highlights of members’ essays.
We have regular features, Insight/Incite: Jane Page-Conway on skateboards, and a poem by Craig Sipe introduced by Betsy Sholl. And a Special feature: Mirlea Saks contributes an essay on Nancy Davidson, the dynamic curator of the Maine Jewish Museum, who has helped shape the art scene in Portland.
Look to the “submit” page for our Theme and Invitation for Summer 2018: State of the Studio: Tell us what you are making and what you are doing. Follow the guidelines for submission.
And now to the issue—Enjoy!
From the editors, Dan Kany, Natasha Mayers, Jessica McCarthy, Nora Tryon, Kathy Weinberg
TRACES, TRACKS, and PATHWAYS: Making Migration Visible Upcoming Exhibition co-curated by Julie Poitras Santos and Catherine Besteman Institute of Contemporary Art, Portland, Maine Accompanied by statewide connected programming 5 October – 14 December 2018
JULIE POITRAS SANTOS Around this time of year, in the 1930s, my Franco-Canadian grandparents migrated, walking across our northern border into Maine in search of work. They crossed the St John River on foot through spring melt and ice flows that reached the height of their knees. I imagine there were times when, from the middle of the vast river, they questioned their decision and their safety. My father relates that they were “running away from their lives” and toward the possibility of work. And as Lucinda Bliss relates, in her Tracking the Border project,
“There were many Canadian immigrants coming to the United States in the early 20th century, largely because of a complex mix of economic and social factors, and the difficult balance of agriculture and industry in the two countries that lasted through the two World Wars and depression, until the explosion of new industry in the mid-twentieth century. The tense post-war relationship between Canada and Great Britain also contributed to a period of instability and high unemployment, and affected the emigration numbers.”
Ultimately, my grandparents settled in the Caribou area, farming the potato fields and contributing productively to the Maine economy. My father, born in Caribou, has worked as an organic farmer, and a town and city planner, making connections in early farm-to-table movements and often fighting to retain what is unique and special about Maine.
As an artist, writer and curator, my work focuses on pathways and nomadic translations of space, using walking as a means to perform field research, and encouraging community through collective walking practices and site-specific storytelling. Moved by recent political conversations and challenges to international movement inspired by xenophobic and nationalistic discourse, and contemplating the vast numbers of people engaged in long walks and journeys across our planet, I wondered about the challenges and narratives inscribed in those passages.
CATHERINE BESTEMAN As a child I loved to hear the immigrant stories of my ancestors, who arrived in the U.S. from Holland, Wales, and Scotland. They became farmers and miners: tough men and women whom I imagined as adventurous journeyers in pursuit of a good life. Only when I married an immigrant did I begin thinking about political borders. Because his Colombian passport flagged him as a ‘security concern’ our border crossings were interrupted by searches by border guards. Borders became an annoyance, an interruption, an opportunity for petty power plays by men empowered by the government to harass travelers.
Later I began working with Somali immigrants in Lewiston, some of whom were refugees from a small village in southern Somalia where I had lived as an ethnographer during 1988-9. To get to the U.S., they had fled genocidal violence across a vast desert on foot to Kenya, where they spent over a decade negotiating safe passage across other borders in search of a permanent home. From them I learned how borders kill, incarcerate, and interrupt not just journeys but also lives. I have spent the past decade interrogating borders, asking whose interests they serve and who they empower, and trying to make the borders visible to those for whom they are merely an annoyance.
EXHIBITION The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 258 million people, 3.4 percent of the world’s population, lived outside of their country of origin in 2017. The U.N. calculated there were 10.3 million people displaced from Syria alone by the end of 2017. Worldwide, an estimated 65.6 million people are displaced from their homes. Whether migrants in search of better economic and social opportunities, climate refugees, or refugees fleeing violence, wars, or other inhumane conditions, millions and millions of people are currently on the move, seeking refuge and setting up lives in entirely new and foreign locations.
In light of the global refugee crisis, the presence of new immigrants in Maine and a vibrant national dialogue about immigration, our curated exhibition TRACES, TRACKS and PATHWAYS: Making Migration Visible seeks to make connections between local communities and illuminate the ways in which we might further understand displacement, exile, mobility and the pathways and stories occurring between loss of home and the invention of a new home in a new place and culture. TRACES, TRACKS and PATHWAYS brings artists together to create forms that provoke community conversations about migration and mobility, and the artists included share an interest in creating work that evokes stories about displacement, exile, mobility, identity, and community.
In addition to the exhibition in the ICA, nearly 50 organizations and institutions throughout the state of Maine are planning related programming in the form of public talks, panels, exhibitions, films, community workshops, and poetry readings during the time frame of the exhibition. A calendar of all associated events will be published in efforts to foster connections between community partners and to inspire public engagement. A symposium will be held in the ICA and an accompanying catalogue will include visual material and essays engaging the works on view. Artists in the exhibition include: Caroline Bergvall, Edwidge Charlot, Jason De Leon + Mike Wells, Eric Gottesman, Mohamad Hafez, Romuald Hazoume, Ranu Mukherjee, Daniel Quintanilla + United Yes, Patricia Tinajero
My current work is a response to the Maine woods. It’s work that describes an experience of “being” in a more direct way than any art I have made in years. The parts of Maine that deeply move me visually and spiritually – the unique beauty, the stillness, the magic, the microscopic as well as vast views of varied landscapes – inspire and encourage me to be present.
After having been a painter for many years depicting figures (people, objects, landscapes and fantasy worlds in a broad range of styles and techniques), I took a stitching workshop at Haystack in 2015. Deer Isle is to me the most exquisite spot in Maine.
At Haystack, through stitching, I began to depict what for years on Deer Isle has blown me away – the mosses and lichen. Working with threads, floss and fiber did something to circumvent my “what I paint” brain and freed me to work with my imagination to describe what I was seeing in the forest in a way I could never have imagined. I experimented with various techniques and ideas, expanding on these first lichen pieces and then the following summer I took a second fiber workshop at Haystack that focused on sculpture. I had always felt intimidated by the concept of making anything 3D (I was a painter after all, right!?)
For the past year and a half I have been making large and small 3D sculptures of lichen-covered rocks, minerals and gems, and am now exploring further into the realm of sculpture.
A new start. Although of course not brand new. All my years of painting inform my stitching. I couldn’t do one without the other. My grandparents, my mother (age three) and her younger brother (my uncle) made a new start in America after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1935. My maternal Grandfather (Hans Levi) was Jewish and my grandmother Bridget Marqvart was not (although she later converted). My grandfather was studying to become a doctor and being inexplicably turned down for residences. My grandmother had two older brothers and one was in the Nazi party, quite high up, Goring’s right hand man, to be precise. He advised my grandparents to leave Germany immediately. They tried to convince my grandfather’s mother to join them and go to America but she refused, choosing instead to remain, in a small town close to Stuttgart called Muensignen, where she lived and where my grandfather had grown up. She eventually went into hiding in Muensingen where a young girl from the town brought her provisions. In return, with heartfelt gratitude, my great grandmother bestowed upon this girl items of her clothing, jewelry, cutlery and other valuable objects.
Eventually my great grandmother was discovered and then, like thousands of others, was killed at the concentration camp Theresienstadt. Meanwhile my grandparents and their two young children safely made it across the seas and eventually settled in Lindenhurst, Long Island where my grandfather developed a thriving practice as a GP doctor, and where my grandmother (despite having had her dreams dashed about going to art school in Germany) became a successful commercial artist. Fast forward seventy years to 2005. My mother received a letter from a woman in Germany saying:
“I have been looking for you for many years. I was the little girl (now elderly lady) who brought your grandmother provisions while she was in isolation. We are having a museum exhibition in the town of Laupheim which commemorates the victims of the Holocaust and we are displaying some of the items your great grandmother gave to me. We hope you can attend the reception.”
My mother and brother were thrilled, went to the reception and had an incredibly rich, moving and welcoming experience in the town that had turned our family away.
Two years later my mother, daughter (then seven years old) and I went back to Muensignen. We visited our new friends, the old house where my grandfather had grown up, the graveyard where my great grandmother had a stone, the museum at Laupheim, as well as art museums in Munich. It was beyond memorable and meaningful and felt like a timely gift to be with my mother and young daughter visiting our family history. Two weeks after we returned to the states my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died two months later. We all marveled at the timing of our trip. Some of her ashes are buried in a plot in the small and charming cemetery in Muensignen and the young girl (now elderly lady) is to this day the one who tends my mother’s grave. Several years before attending graduate school at The Art Institute of Chicago, I began painting psychological self- portraits. This was the focus of my work for many years and saw me through my graduate studies, pregnancy, post pregnancy and more.
The work I made during 2013-2015 (before beginning my lichens and mosses) is entitled “The Apartment.” It is the work that most directly connects to my family and where we come from. Symbolic and metaphorical, the work represents my grappling with the loss of the apartment I called home for fifty years. I grew up in this apartment in New York City’s Upper West Side and remained connected to it throughout my adulthood, the early years of my daughter’s visits there, through my mother’s death and then through my elderly father’s life until he died in 2013.
I loved the apartment tremendously and was very attached to it and when it came time to clear it out to sell, I took on the job. My sister was living in Los Angeles with young children and it was difficult for her to get to NYC, but truth be told, I wanted to lay my hands on every item there.
As I sorted through things, the baby shoes, the pots and pans and plates and cutlery and silver and vases and tea sets, the broken blenders, the whisks and wooden spoons, the books and LPs, the once white now yellow linen tablecloths that belonged to my grandmother from Germany, the porcelain figurines, the paintings, the sheets and towels, the photo albums, the black socks my father wore when he worked as a lawyer, the old toothbrushes and pill bottles and unused Depends, the sweat pants and red fleece jackets my father wore the last few of his eighty six years, the candles, the hammers and screwdrivers, the saved toys for the grandchildren, the art projects my sister and I made as kids, the “important” papers and old bills, my dad’s framed diplomas and NYC Law BAR certification, my old diaries, my mother’s journals and stories she had written for her writing class at The New School, the saved newspaper clippings and black and white head shot photos of my mother as an actress, the Christmas ornaments and VCR tapes and on and on and on and on.
I took note of the items that resonated with me and either kept them, or took a photo of them. The pieces in the body of work entitled The Apartment are responses to these objects using various mediums. It was a powerful body of work for me to make and it truly helped me to let go.
Maybe it even allowed me the psychic space to make a new start with stitching, with making work that has no blatant psychological content, that is about translating what I see and experience when I go into the woods, that often doesn’t have a plan when I start out. As my teacher from Haystack said “You either make a picture, or you make a field.” After making pictures all my life as a painter, with fiber I am making fields. I am sure I will return to making pictures at some point, but for now I am enjoying being in the fields and forests.
There are many things I love about Maine – the woods, the coasts, the mountains, the wildlife, the small towns, a certain scruffiness in the landscape (that you don’t see in Vermont for example and is a different kind of scruffiness from the kind in NH), the resourcefulness of Mainers and their ability to understand irony (I have found, living in various states in America, that not everyone does!).
I have been here on and off (mostly on) for twenty seven years and yet I sometimes still feel like an outsider. From away. It may be that I am one of those people who always feels a bit out of place no matter where I am. I think the combination of my NYC roots (my father’s side of the family is fifth generation from New York City and my father, grandfather and great grandfather attended the same school I did and my great great grandfather helped start it). My maternal European ancestry, and the Jewish culture that surrounded me growing up have all contributed to a feeling that I am different from most Mainers – at least in Farmington where I live most of the time.
The Sandy River Players (the community theater group in Farmington) put on The Sound of Music a few years back. My daughter played one of the Von Trapp children and I played a nun. A dream come true as I had been (like many) obsessed with the movie for my entire life. Besides the wonderfulness of playing a nun, I also had the amazing opportunity to paint a 14′ x15′ backdrop painting for the show. I made a translation of an Oskar Kokoshcka painting that depicts a mountain, the sun partially hidden by clouds, and heavenly rays of light that stream down onto the dramatic landscape. It fit the spirit of the play – hopeful, spiritual, inspiring and grand. Like the Von Trapps and my own family, Kokoschka fled Nazi Germany and escaped to a safe land. While sitting with my fellow cast members in rehearsal I started to wonder whether there was anyone else sitting there (besides my daughter) who had a familial connection to the Holocaust and thus to the story of the Sound of Music. No one did. I ended up telling my story to the cast who were very appreciative and responsive.
Later that same year I had a show at The Jewish Museum in Portland, another experience that allowed me to connect with my roots but this time within a larger community with shared histories.
Although at times I do feel like an outsider living in Maine, I also find a deep connection to those around me who treasure the beauty and quality of life (the way it should be!) that a place with fewer people, fewer strip malls and less corporate contamination offers. I knew even as a child growing up in New York City that I didn’t want to live in the city.
I remember a summer when I was about eight years old and my family had rented a house on Cape Cod. I would go out into the scrub oak forests and find trees whose trunks had hollowed out and fill them with moss carpets and acorn bowls and construct miniature worlds made of sticks and pine cones and whatever I could find. I was alone there in a way that I was never permitted to be alone as a child in the parks of New York City.
And I remember feeling how I was so NOT alone while there in the woods. That there was a kind of company, a silent, greater company that was with me. I encounter that company daily in the forests and on the coasts of Maine.
Art lovers tend to focus, understandably, on art and its makers. Yet one of Maine’s most powerful arts’ leaders is not an artist. A career exceeding 60 years has made the beloved Nancy Davidson, art curator at the Maine Jewish Museum, in Portland, one of her profession’s heavy hitters, with influence extending well beyond New England.
A Maine native, she’s pioneered cosmopolitan, contemporary taste in a region which long favored landscapes and provincial traditions. Approaching 80, she has become a quiet legend by backing obscure artists who’ve gone on to win national fame. She’s an inextricable part of the origin stories of many creators throughout the US.
When I interviewed Davidson, a fading henna pattern twirled around her hand and up her wrist. “My granddaughter’s a tattoo artist,” she explained. “I’m thinking of getting her to give me a tattoo next. I have to support the arts, you know.”
Supporting the arts is what she does. Even great art needs advocates to show it under credible auspices, taking on the managerial challenges many artists find distracting, even distasteful. Artists live in imagination. Curators make exhibitions happen, using executive skill, dealmaking savvy, an eye for talent and formidable social prowess.
How did Davidson get all this right?
In looking for words to express Davidson’s success, MJM volunteer Marilyn Sherry momentarily forgot we were in the museum’s sanctuary.. “Nancy,” she explained with unintended irreverence, “has more contacts than God.”
It didn’t come easily. Before joining the non-profit MJM, Davidson spent decades advising commercial galleries plus years as a gallery owner. She learned the business of art. Even with sublime art, she points out, “you still have to pay the light bill.” But she also believes art involves values that transcend money. Artist William Irvine, who has known Davidson over 30 years, says: “Art was never just a business deal with her. Even during the bad times, nothing put her off. Art is her life.”
Robert Shetterly exhibited with Davidson in the 80’s and 90’s. “I’ll always be extremely grateful. Most of my work at the time was surreal. Not everyone would show it. It was baffling, mysterious, ambiguous, even to myself sometimes.” Davidson didn’t always understand either, but she had faith in him. “She sold quite a few of my pieces. I knew she went through difficult times when she could barely pay the rent. A lot of people would’ve given up. It’s a testament to her love of art that she stuck it out.” To Shetterly, Davidson was out to provoke and educate public taste as much as any artist.
When painter Harold Garde, now in his 95th year, moved to Maine from New York in his sixties, everybody assumed he knew of her growing stature. “It was: Of course, you know Nancy?” Davidson exhibited Garde’s early strappo works. In New York he’d known people who were interested in art and people who were interested in sales. “They weren’t necessarily the same people. But Nancy had a real respect for exploring and discovering.”
Davidson also exhibited landscape and color field painters who were easier to sell, seeing them as neither less nor more deserving of her energies but as a necessary part of the art spectrum. She’d learned that people differ vastly in what they want from art.
Her parents were antique collectors and jewelry store owners; in their home a love of pleasing objects was unquestioned. “Being surrounded by antiques heightened my awareness of beautiful things,” she remembers. The Davidsons traveled widely, showing their daughter art of many kinds. In European museums she found that contemporary art’sclean, pared-down lines excited her.
Her father’s business triggered life-altering experiences. The Longines watch company annually sent him a gift of a signed, limited-edition print by a famous artist of the 40’s or 50’s. These prints acquainted Davidson with artists like Leonard Baskin and Ben Shahn, and with the thrill of collecting.
On a seagoing business trip Sidney Davidson mentioned his child’s precocious fascination with art to a fellow passenger who happened to live near a Maine summer camp, Camp Truda. One evening, at her father’s invitation, he stopped by to meet Davidson. It was a remarkable opportunity to learn from a towering cultural figure: Martin Dibner, who, when he died at 80 in 1992, left a substantial legacy as first director of California’s Arts Commission, first head of the Joan Whitney Payson Art Gallery (now the University of New England Gallery), and bestselling novelist (The Deep Six).
“He sat me down,” Davidson says, “and began explaining what to look for in contemporary art.” Over several visits Dibner gave her a course in art appreciation. It was the first step toward her career. She was nine.
Another formative presence was her art-collecting cousin, philanthropist Bernard Osher. In 2007, Businessweek reported that Osher had donated $805 million to arts, education and social services. Davidson derived a unique benefit from being related to a wealthy art patron. “For years, when Barney bought an original painting, he’d take me along with him.” She met many artists, including sculptor-printmaker Chaim Gross, and was inspired to build her own collection of signed prints.
Becoming increasingly interested in how culture both reflects and shapes humanity, she considered becoming a psychotherapist and enrolled at Boston University. A sociology course required a study of modern artists including genre-busting painter Ben Shahn. Davidson’s family already had that signed Shahn print. Studying him now re-ignited her passion for art. Shahn’s desire to democratize art, bringing art and the public closer, resonated with Davidson’s emerging ideas. “I became friendly with him and other prominent artists of the time,” she recalls. Her collection of prints grew.
At 21 Davidson was pregnant with her first daughter when Rabbi Harry Sky, at Portland’s Temple Beth El, asked her to organize a fundraising art show. Working with Peggy Osher and Millie Nelson, older collectors and experienced networkers, she developed a show combining loaned works by “name” artists with for-sale work by contemporary artists, and limited-edition prints. It was hugely successful and ran annually for seven years. “It was a big deal,” Davidson reflects. “It was the 60’s. Contemporary art in Portland was virtually non-existent.”
The show launched Davidson as an art consultant to galleries throughout Maine. In the 70’s she joined Barridoff Galleries, now a Maine auction house specializing in art, where she created their signed limited-edition print department and managed print exhibitions. One day a humanities high school teacher came by, wanting to learn more about art to help his teaching, and about collecting.
It was a transformative encounter for the teacher, Bruce Brown, and the start of a lifelong friendship that would leave a lasting impression on Maine art. Brown’s interest in art, particularly prints and later photography, blossomed. From 1987 he served two decades as curator of Maine Coast Artists (now the CMCA) .
The 80s took Davidson to Santa Fe, where artist Joe Novak asked her to represent him. She worked with him almost eight years. In the 90s, back in Maine, she opened her gallery Davidson & Daughters. A partnership conflict led to closure after four and a half years, but she still treasures the relationships with artists she exhibited then, like Peyton Higginson, Charlie Hewitt, Susan Amons, Deborah Klotz, Diane Zaitlin, Rush Brown, Ted Arnold and Kate Gilmore. She later showed many at the MJM and other venues.
Wanting a fresh start, Davidson moved to Florida. In a population some 15 times that of Maine’s she prospered as a consultant: “I made a lot of money.” The gallery Studio E, in Palm Beach Gardens, had a contemporary focus that impressed her. She sent them her resume but heard nothing. About a year later she took a friend there. The owner overheard her explaining the art and hired her. She worked for Studio E seven years from late September through May, her clients mostly retirees wanting art for their winter homes. Davidson became the gallery’s star seller.
During her summer returns to Maine she curated for the Susan Maasch and 3 Fish galleries, created a sculpture garden at Maine Art, Kennebunkport, featuring then-new talents Elizabeth Ostrander, Patrick Plourde, Andreas von Hueme, Constance Rush, Roy Patterson and Peter Beerits, and attracted attention with her Critters exhibitions of animal-related art by William Wegman, Bernard Langlais, Dahlov Ipcar and others. The popular series included a 176-piece show in 2011 at the UNE Gallery. She explains: “Everybody loves animals in art, no matter what one’s level of art appreciation.” Bill Irvine, whose work Davidson showed in various galleries, says “she was moving around so much one never knew where she was.”
Around this time Davidson volunteered at the MJM for a year. MJM Director Ani Helmick endorsed her appointment as acting Resident Curator, a job which became permanent and full-time. As of this writing she has shows planned through 2019.
What’s it like to helm the art agenda of an institution like the MJM?
While her position has freed Davidson from some constraints of commercial galleries, she can’t ignore budget realities. She brings in annual grants to cover her salary.
Artists appreciate the prestige of showing at MJM but they need sales, so Davidson works hard to attract buyers as well as browsers. Her chief goal, though, is to show unconventional contemporary art that engages viewers and provokes intellectual and emotional response. She picks the artists but her board wants her to exhibit work with not only artistic merit but also both Maine and Jewish associations. Perhaps her biggest accomplishment has been managing to expand the MJM’s prestige significantly despite these limitations.
Davidson admits her choices aren’t always unreservedly approved. Eyebrows were raised when she recently showed the work of Richard Brown Lethem. But public reaction supported her judgment. Unsolicited comments included one from a visitor who’d just discovered both the MJM and Brown: “I had previously been unaware of your institution’s role in championing cutting-edge art …Thank you for doing this. I hope you will continue to choose to show art that makes this level of cultural contribution.”
Davidson has an unwavering confidence in her mission. She has, she states as a simple matter of fact, “put the MJM on the map as an exciting venue to view contemporary art.”
Bruce Brown agrees: “I like the diversity of her shows.” He singles out her decision to exhibit Rich Entel’s witty show of inventive animals constructed with musical instruments and cardboard cutouts, and the imaginative works of Nanci Kahn, Lin Lisberger and Deborah Klotz.
Continuing to channel her mentor, Martin Dibner, from that summer seven decades past, Davidson encourages MJM visitors to move away from obvious art narratives and connect with what lies beneath the visual surface. “Use the sum total of your life’s experience. Art is subjective. Look into your own life for meaning.”
The Martin Wong retrospective “Human Instamatic” — a road trip to the Bronx, and a family story.
by Kathy Weinberg
Driving along I95 you cross a bridge to get in and out of Maine. You cross a line that separates “here” and “from away,” in a State that declares on its Welcome sign, that it is “The way life should be.” On this sign, a local artists group (ARRT!) temporarily mounted their own sign depicting lobster buoys adorned with the insignias of national flags, and stating, “Maine welcomes our new residents.” A state, a culture, and history move forward — often in increments. Just as crossing bridges takes us from one place—or state of mind—into another, a work of art, or even a simple meal can transport us into another world, or make our own new again.
On one trip, “away,” I was fortunate to see the art and legacy created by Martin Wong who was representative of, yet on the edges of his times. Wong was not a part of a mainstream culture in his day, but is now moving into a broader appreciation.
Wong worked within the European canon, did not feel he had to throw it away, but made it his own. Martin Wong continued to make paintings at a time when painting was falling out of fashion, and became overshadowed by the rise of ironic and then predominantly formalist American art. By tying his personal American scene back to a European tradition that includes and embraces Van Gogh and Goya, Wong tells us that history is alive and available for artists of all times.
It is a five-mile walk to the Bronx Museum from where my husband and I met up with an old friend for lunch before going to see the Martin Wong Retrospective: Human Instamatic. We had spicy cumin lamb burgers at Xi’an, a new chain of North Chinese noodle shops featuring hand-pulled noodles in spicy sauces. Blocks later we stopped in at Patsy’s — the original 118th Street location — for a slice. Our friend knew the history of this oldest coal fired oven pizza in New York, and pointed to where Frank Sinatra once had his own reserved table. This part of Harlem was once an Italian neighborhood, but now Patsy’s, one bakery, and a “red sauce” restaurant were all that remained as evidence. Walking straight up 1st Avenue, we made a jog to reach the Third Avenue Bridge that took us out of Manhattan, into the Bronx, past Yankee Stadium then along the Grand Concourse. The Third Avenue Bridge offers a view of the canal-like, industrial landscape of Old Dutch, upper Manhattan. It is pedestrian scale, and feels more like a continuation than a grand crossing.
We were going on what felt like a Pilgrimage — not only to see the Martin Wong retrospective, but to see it in a neighborhood once famous for its having burned, like ancient Rome. I had often heard stories from my husband’s family about the destruction of the Bronx, the landlords burning buildings to get money from insurance. It was years before I heard the story of how their Uncle burnt down the family house, a house with three generations all living together. He carried a shovel full of coals from the basement furnace to the back yard, dropping some on his way to roast potatoes in a small fire in the backyard with his friends. They called this depression-era pastime “roasting Mickies.”
My husband’s family had moved to the Bronx at a time when Europe was burning and Jews were no longer safe — or welcome — in their home countries. His father and grandmother escaped just six months before WWII officiallybroke out, but the invasion had already begun and villages were burning as they departed in an ox cart. His mother was born in the Bronx and her parents arrived during WWI.
The paintings of Martin Wong’s life, friends and neighborhood are remarkable for the quality of the painting alone. But Wong’s body of work also chronicles both an area and era. The gentrification and expansion of the Lower East Side neighborhood began in Wong’s (too brief) lifetime, continues today, and makes his work an ever stronger, and not too distant, mirror.
Martin Wong moved from San Francisco’s Chinatown to New York in 1978 and eventually settled in the Lower East Side. He made paintings set in, and of, the urban decay in the 1980’s-90’s — after the urban decline of the 1970’s. He paints his adopted neighborhood and his times. His canvases contain detailed brick walls, graffiti, razor wire, paint-scumbled surfaces, but still offer a human tenderness. There is love among the ruins. Love between the firemen — who appear like friendly gladiators or awkward angels in Big Heat. These Romeos are seemingly oblivious to the vacant and rubble-filled lots they occupy. Love appears as a heart built out of bricks, bulletproof, and a visual pun on a heart of stone, capable of surviving in the ashes.
A wit and poetry is written through Wong’s paintings; words make appearances as a narrator’s voice, a poet’s oration. Graffiti words cover buildings, words frame the images; words are written on the walls, appear as headlines or epithets. Words are implied in the hand signs, the alphabet, for the hearing impaired. These signs are a visual language that can be deciphered, like a metaphor for painting itself. A section of the Lower East Side is known as “Alphabet City,” due to lettered rather than numbered streets, so it is fitting that the art of that area should have a written/visual component. Wong’s hand painted sign language for the deaf form hieroglyphs out of stylized symbols; disembodied hands emerge — with pearl buttons — from cuffed sleeves. Throughout art history hands have pointed famously; God’s hand reaches out to a languid Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and the Angel points Adam and Eve out of The Garden of Eden.
Wong’s paintings are filled with books, celestial charts, and cartoons articulated in a hyper-realistic style of trompe l’oeil. Wong’s focus on the details of his art alleviates any didactic or straight political, polemic reading. In The Flood, the hand of the Statue of Liberty, painted as if built from bricks, rises like a chimney in a vacant lot. My immediate association was of the final scene in Planet of the Apes. Actor Charlton Heston sees Liberty’s head and hand buried in the sand, realizes that the statue is beneath; Earth and America as he knows it has been destroyed. He asks of the sky, “What have they done?” That question certainly hovers in the smoky skies of Wong’s world.
The portraits and characters that appear in his paintings are mostly of men, often partially dressed. A giant “brick” phallus rises, like a statue, in a gilded frame, in My Vida Loca. Wong found in the melting pot culture of the Lower East Side, a home and a community, and he walks us through his life there; an exterior window view of his bedroom is seen, perhaps from several stories up, as if we are suspended in air looking in. In Rapture, a painting of a brick wall entirely fills three panels that are surrounded, engulfed even, by a gilded frame. The intertwining oval frames — filled with the bricks — terminate in leaf and filigree so that the rectangle pattern, the weight of the wall, is lightened and relieved. Wong’s scenes of a destroyed neighborhood are not freighted with bitterness. His love of detail and decoration bring a joy to the subject and to a sympathetic viewer. Wong’s paintings are a valentine to the citizens of urban blight.
Wong — as a highly original artist who painted a world that he made his own — worked outside of the dominant art historical canon of his contemporaries. His style recalls other artists, now or at one time, on the borders of that canon: late Philip Guston, De Chirico’s brother Alberto Savinio, and the cartoonist R.Crumb. Wong was familiar with Renaissance art and other historic styles, which manifests in a crucifixion scene set in a basketball court, in the use of the circular or Tondo form, or in Top Cat, a portrait of a Hispanic reclining male, semi-nude in white briefs (tighty-whitey) — a nod to Goya’s clothed and unclothed Maja.
Holland Cotter’s essay/review on Wong (New York Times, November, 2015) refers — in passing — to Wong as an “exotic outsider.” Cotter met Wong many times at the Metropolitan Museum, where Wong worked in the gift shop and looked at art. Cotter’s perception, shared by others, was partly based on Wong’s cowboy clothing — boot to hat — persona, and not having the “correct” art world credentials. Wong had studied ceramics, but was considered “self-taught” as a painter, though he started teaching himself from an early age. He was considered, by some, as a folk artist, although he had showed in East Village Galleries, including Semaphore. He had a retrospective in 1998 at the New Museum, and the director Dan Cameron said that Wong entered the broader picture of art history as: “…one of the more prominent examples of a constructed multinational cultural identity” and, was “Probably the essential painter of the American scene of the second half of the twentieth century.” Wong’s work is now included in the Whitney and Museum of Modern Art collections.
This show in its Bronx location ties in to Wong’s close association to graffiti artists in the area — artists that Wong knew personally and collected. He donated his collection to the Museum of the City of New York before his death in 1998, and it was recently on display there, in 2015. Wong’s is an unquestionable, yet still developing historic niche. Despite having lived for twenty years in New York City, this was my first visit to the Bronx Museum. Crossing bridges is slow work.
You cross bridges to get to Manhattan, a physical construction that is also a mental obstruction. There isn’t one fixed “Real New York,” “True American,” or “Mainer,” it is as evolving and as difficult to keep up with as what is or isn’t out of fashion. It can all change in a New York minute — defined by Johnnie Carson as the interval between a Manhattan traffic light turning green and the guy behind you honking his horn. Parallel histories flourish often unnoticed inside, and outside, its own walls. Sometimes, over time, recognition, appreciation and public opinion converge.
Driving home on highway 95, I thought about the density, diversity and sheer numbers of people living in America’s largest urban area, just a day’s drive down the road. One person’s life and life’s work can reach through time and transcend our differences. I thought about Maine Governor LePage’s remarks about drug dealers from New York coming to Maine with heroin and impregnating white women before leaving . He defended his racist stereotypes by pointing to a 2010 survey that showed that the population in Maine is 95% white. This fact makes Maine the whitest state in the Union. The state is also 83% forested, making it one of the most sparsely populated states as well.
You enter the State of Maine on the Piscataqua River Bridge, high above the river, and rising into the air. Whether you have been away for a short trip, for a long time, are “from away”, or are arriving for the first time, that crossing feels symbolic; especially at the summit where all that is past can fade away, the future is open, and neither is visible for that moment.
And then, with the descent, it all comes rushing back, where we have been, as individuals, and where we — as a culture — are heading.
It begins, of course, with the fact that there is no beginning. There is no true origin or starting point. There are only circles and the stories we tell ourselves. The way we impute beginning, middle, and end, on snatches of our perceived reality.
If you walk behind a row of semi-detached houses in Blackburn, Lancashire, you’ll find the forest where I played every summer of my youth. I was born in this rural patch of northwest England and would have grown up here, if it were not for my father. One day while working as an architect for the local council, he spotted an advert for a job in the Architectural Services Division of the British Colonial Government of Hong Kong. My parents, then young and still adventurous had too many bills to pay, and they saw this as a promise of a better life. When I was two and my brother four, we boarded a plane to Hong Kong.
Every summer, we would return to this house in Blackburn and I would pretend to be English. In the mornings, I would wander down the road to find Sally and Jenny—daughters of an artist called David Schofield. We would disappear into the woods for endless summer days, crafting intricate stories with our imaginations. Today, when I visit that row of houses, a funny thing has occurred. Quietly and gradually, David has installed artworks throughout the woods, like magical walls that disappear into the ground and reappear elsewhere. There are bronze circles that look like portals into other universes and underground dens you can climb into. Being an artist, he kept the practice of transforming reality alive.
I grew up in Pokfulam, on the south side of Hong Kong Island where the sun sets over the Lamma Channel. After finishing high school here, and then college in England, I returned to Hong Kong in my early 20s and got a job writing about artists for HK Magazine. One of the first artists I interviewed was Sun-chang Lo (羅聖莊), a visiting professor in the architecture department of the University of Hong Kong. He was reaching back and animating millennia of Chinese painting through his own, modern, city experience. Born in Guangzhou, China, but raised in New York’s Chinatown, he would rove the city’s streets with his camera, looking for compositions in rusting doors and abandoned objects. He would find perfect shan shui landscapes caught within the peeling paint of walls. His works revealed both the artist and the spiritual seeker’s path.
Writing about Hong Kong artists in the early 2000s meant I was charting a society in a constant state of identity crisis. Hong Kong had been a British colony for 150 years until 1997, when it switched back to Mainland China under a 50-year period, known as “one country, two systems.” There was a schizophrenic dualism in Hong Kong that underpinned everything: international and local, Chinese and British, ancient and modern, fishing community and Asian financial center.
Having realized I wasn’t English while at college, I began to explore my British-Hong Kong hybrid nature. I studied tai chi and chi gung. I began mapping out the energy circuits on my body and tapping into the ancient geography of yin and yang that could be found in the rolling hills and Banyan trees of the ancient parts of the city, amid the vertical, futuristic maze of metal and glass. I met artists like Lam Tung-pang (林東鵬), whose large-scale paintings on plywood revealed the quiet spaces of the hundreds of islands that make up our home—and in the background, that modern, majestic, relentless city. I went into Mainland China on a tai chi retreat and saw the massive northern mountains for the first time. I felt like my Chinese self was meeting her larger self.
When I was 24, I bumped into Buddhism. As the saying goes, when you’re ready, the teacher will appear. I found a center in an old Chinese building in the busy district of Wan Chai. On the top floor lay the Kadampa Buddhist Meditation Center, a serene space with wooden floors, mats on the floor, and a shrine with Buddhas, flowers and water bowl offerings. I joined a Saturday afternoon study program where we dove into The Heart Sutra, Buddha’s central teaching on the nature of reality. We would recite the sutra at the start of every class: “Form is empty; emptiness is form.”
This is also when I found the works of Lui Shou-kwan (呂壽琨). He was born in Guangzhou and escaped to Hong Kong during the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949. Like so many of our city’s greatest thinkers and artists, he arrived as a refugee from somewhere else. He was a classically trained painter and in Hong Kong during the 1960s he found an open port with libraries containing books about the Abstract Expressionists in New York City. His mind was radically opened by this collision of East and West. Hon Chi-fun (韓志勳), another great modernist artist of this generation, once said, “We all wanted to find a way to bridge the Chinese realist tradition with Western modernism and the American painters gave us a model.” Lui Shou-kwan led the New Ink Movement, which changed the direction of Chinese ink painting and inspired an entire generation of artists. His students included another one of my favorite artists, the great ink painter Wucius Wong (王无邪). Lui encouraged them all to create works in an individualized way, from the very depths of their hearts.
At the start of my third decade, my karma shifted again. I married a Mainer and we moved halfway around the world to the United States. For the first few years in Maine, I became like a hologram. I worked as a remote writer and editor for Hong Kong media and arts organizations. I wrote three chapters for a book about the history of Hong Kong art and continued to deeply hold onto my identity as a Hongkonger. I would meet Mainers who would project “English” upon me at the sound of my voice. This led to confusing moments, where I would launch into a five-minute monologue about my history.
I found people like Suzanne Fox who worked with the Chinese community in Maine and together with the artist Mei Selvage we formed an arts event called Yaji. It was a cultural lab held quarterly in Portland. In one event called ‘Migrations Stories’ during Chinese New Year 2015, we featured the New Hampshire-based artist Shiao-Ping Wang. She was creating beautiful, layered works works of her various homes, in Taipei, Taiwan, where she lived as a young girl, and her current home in New Hampshire, right on the state line with Berwick, Maine. Her paintings startlingly revealed the immigrant experience; how home is a layering effect in the mind. Where at any one time, depending on the particular scent that wafts in the wind, you could be sitting in a Hong Kong fishing village, on the hills in Lancashire, or in Casco Bay.
Eight years after moving to Maine, I can tell you that the layers are changing once more. I have begun to wonder if I should hold onto any sense of cultural identity. Am I a British writer, a Hong Kong writer, or an American writer? Or maybe who I am depends on who I am talking to, at any given moment in time.
In Buddhism, we learn that the self we normally see is, in fact, an illusion. The storyteller in our mind is continually creating narratives about who we are. Our minds project a permanent, fixed identity upon this shifting play of change and so much of our suffering arises from this habit. Buddha taught that we are all in fact migrators on an endless journey through cyclic existence (Sanskrit: samsara). This life is just one chapter in a very long and unwinding story. Unless that is, we are able to wake up from the dream, and realize the true nature of things.