Dialogue is defined as a conversation between two or more people, and in literature, philosophy or art takes on many forms and formats. The purpose of dialogue is to explore topics rather than reach conclusions. It is different from a debate and more egalitarian than a monologue.
Artists can choose from many forms to explore their themes or topics. There is the interview format between two artists, or a less formal conversation format, or the lyrical, narrative format. And there is a visual dialogue, through images such as Jim Chute’s “Conversations” series, or Christine Sullivan seeking salon-style interaction.
There are questions extended to artists to explore with others and reflect on the process.
When making art are you seeking to explore dialogue between individuals or is your artwork part of a larger dialogue—a broader cultural perspective? Do curators and art reviewers guide or inhibit your conversations? How do we foster/contribute to dialogue as artists in cultural institutions? How do schools, programs, organizations, UMVA, MAC, MECA, foster or engage their students and programming in dialogue? What is the role of the gallery? The artist?
Journal Submission guidelines for Members Showcase:
Deadline: September 1st
A) We invite UMVA members to submit up to 4 JPEG or png images. Attach to an email, (see below.)
—Size of images:Images as JPEG files, (approximately 1000 pixels on long side, resolution 72dpi) with total file size: 500KB – 1.2MB (No TIFF files)
—Photo/image file name: your last name_number of image_title
Note:If you are submitting for a group put your own last name in first.
B) Include your statement, 150 words or less, and an image list in Word doc. format, not a PDF.
—Document/essay file names: your last Name_title of essay—Image list file name: your last name_image list
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.
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 <http://umvaonline.org/index.php?page=join> . 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 Myer, Nora Tryon, Kathy Weinberg
State of the Studio 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. We asked the artists in this issue to tell us “What are you doing? What are you making?” 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? Featured artist, Meghan Brady shares her experiences in studio residencies and scale. A studio visit with Ron Crusan explores his work, neighborhood and influences. John Bisbee talks about his new politically-charged art. Beth Wittenberg shares her thoughts on consumption, throw-away people, and being without a studio. Pat Wheeler writes about how we can restore ourselves in troubled times. Sarah Stites reveals how drawing is her lifeline to her work. Sondra Bogdonoff writes about how her weaving is augmented and informed by painting and drawing. Tom Flanagan tells us that drawing connects him to the world and his sensibilities. Jim Chute shares his Conversations series and foreshadows our fall theme: Dialogue. Member contributors include Sandy Olson who gets back into her studio and finds new inspiration. And Ruth Sylmor, Ken Kohl, Pamela Grumbach,Judith Allen-Efstathiou, Michelle Leier, Amy Pollien, Alanna Hernandez all share their art, thoughts and inspirations about the State of the Studio.
Janice Moore shares an account of her experience curating what became the USM-LA Censorship story, and we include with it excerpts from letters written by John Ripton and Robert Shetterly with an essay on the topic by Dan Kany, and the National Coalition Against Censorship’s statement about the incident.
Regular contributor Edgar Beem writes about artists’ studios he has known. Dan Kany describes Henry Isaacs’ studio filled with brushes and small canvas “notes”.
Jane Bianco, Farnsworth Museum curator writes about the 19th century portraitist and landscape painter, James Hope. Sarah Bouchard joins us as a guest contributor and interviews Michael Mansfield, the new executive director and chief curator of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art about his personal artistic practice.
Dietlind Vander Schaaf contributes an essay from her place of inner contemplation and asks other artists what they are working on.
Our regular Poetry Feature introduced by Betsy Sholl presents poems by Christian Barter and Dawn Potter. Other regular features include: Insight/Incite about Krisanne Baker’s water activist residency in Malawi.
Richard Kane of Maine Masters talks about how he’d like to see those films used in the schools. ARRT! makes more banners, LumenARRT! makes more projections, Portland and Lewiston UMVA chapters present reports. The issue is full of many essays and artists to meet and explore, so find a porch, a hammock, or an armchair by a fire and curl up with the Maine Arts Journal on a fine, or foggy summer day!
From the editors,
Natasha Mayers, Dan Kany, Jessica Myer, Nora Tryon, Kathy Weinberg
Last summer I was the recipient of a six month studio residency through the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation. I left my modest garage-studio behind my house, where I have been making paintings, drawings, prints and some sculpture over the last ten years, for a large high-ceilinged space at Lincoln Street Center in Rockland. Shifting spaces has been transformative for me.
Mostly I responded to the scale of my new space by following the impulse to work larger. I painted and collaged a series of wall-sized paper pieces that I made on the floor. I had a backlog of painting ideas that I wanted to get out of my head as a way to loosen up my other work. I found it liberating to work on a temporary, unfussy surface that I could reshape on an impulse. Not only did I find relief to my restlessness by turning my back on the loaded history of painting on stretched canvas but I also found a sense of possibility in the physical building itself. The new studio suited me in ways that I could not have predicted and so I have stayed on as tenant.
I am back to working on canvas but it is unstretched and I am still using the floor as my work surface. I’m using the same collage approach as I used with the paper pieces but the materials have slowed the mark-making down. There’s a body-intelligence in making work with the whole physical being — walking around and across the painting or on hands and knees. I trust it.
I talk a big game about being open to change in my studio but notice that I always have some hesitation or resistance to it when the crucial moment arrives. I’m interested in that conflicted moment and what it is telling me. A studio friend refers to it as threshold anxiety.
Very recently I’ve been working on small stretched oil paintings in my old studio again. I feel the same but completely different, like a tourist who has traveled and then come home. The residency and the changes it encouraged remind me to find the place where I stay both flexible and focused in the presence of my work while allowing myself to do all those underrated non-quantifiable studio acts: eat all the snacks, stare at the wall, read, and miss people.
My work has always had an organic, visceral aspect which I consider to be part of my concern with life issues, like vulnerability, passion, and the uncanny.
Drawing in notebooks is my lifeline to my work whether I am in my studio in Maine or Miami or traveling on the road between them. My hand goes where it wants in these visual journals. After I fill each one, I reconnoiter, selecting and tearing out what might be used for inspiration.
Last summer, after completing two long narrative works, I found that I was drawing heads and faces in my notebooks. I wondered how far the features could be distorted or moved around and still read as a face.
Before that, I had been mixing recognizable faces with imagined forms and questioning my need to do this.
Was the realism a crutch to impress the viewer that I could do it? Was it a way of enticing the viewer into the more difficult passages of my work? Or both?
Of course, I know that my best work is not so carefully considered. It’s what emerges when faced with an empty wall. But my fascination with faces was an issue I needed to explore.
I recalled that Philip Guston, at a turning point in his work, made a series of small painted sketches that he considered his “alphabet”, his vocabulary. The photograph of his efforts has always moved me because they are so direct, without sentiment and trying to hold on to what he’d done before.
Guston realized that a lifetime of devotion to art requires the occasional jolt to one’s satisfaction. Like a long relationship, it needs refreshment and redefinition, all the while staying true to the basic alphabet.
I thought back to his efforts and decided to challenge myself to create a vocabulary of heads and faces, leaving the next phase open-ended. Guston used his basic vocabulary as the inspiration for his new work – work that was not, at first, accepted by his admirers. I sensed that I was not taking as great a leap but embraced the exercise anyway.
Here’s what I did:
I culled 20 intriguing face/head sketches from my notebooks and transferred them to sheets of medium-sized Fabriano paper, using black ink and brush. Then I placed bright, colorful, geometric forms behind the faces to give a feeling of space behind them.
Part of my practice, in the last few years, has been to photograph my work with objects from the studio in the foreground. Manipulation of the light source and shadows furthers a process of refinement and integration resulting in a photograph that can be seen as the final “artifact” of the process.
One phase of the process involved masking areas of the paper to leave white paper where there was no color. I used mylar to mask the white areas – and I noticed that it looked lovely as it fell to the floor. Sprayed areas of color trailed off softly and marks made by tape were bold.
The discarded mylar, I decided,would become an integral part of my journey with these drawings, and I placed the scraps as objects in front of the original art. The conceptual kick of plowing my materials back into the work added to the visual mystery of the same color behind and on top of the black and white, partially-obscured drawings.
On the wall of my studio, I placed four or five drawings, arranging them with attention to their colored parts so that a head might be turned on its side. This was a way of keeping me from being too precious with what I’d already made, my carefully inked faces. The black inked lines became the girding – the strong base of my structure – while at the same time maintaining their identity as individual pieces of art.
Pinning and taping the colored mylar in writhing, playful interaction with the under-color and ink drawings, I made a collage on the wall. The mylar encircled, caressed, obscured and opened up to let the drawings show through, giving life to the big form emerging as a unified, amorphous piece of work. This was the pure joy of creation. I didn’t worry about tape or pins showing. I’d pushed through the step-by-step process – the plodding and earnest studying – to using the results of my work in ways I hadn’t intended.
And I had my own alphabet.
The photos of the entire collage (I made several) seem like documentation of an ephemeral site-specific installation, one that could be repeated in different locations. The close ups of different parts of the overall collage are exciting new photographs.
Afterward, I returned to the horizontal format with new interest in color and ideas of how to use the heads. Inspired by a recently recovered Degas (“The Chorus Singers” had been stolen in 2009 and found this winter at a bus station near Paris), I borrowed the composition of singers shown in perspective. Instead of figures, I “plugged in” my heads and painted them in colors I’d been using. It came out quite well but seemed a bit decorative and tasteful until I added the realistic head and face of a somewhat cranky child.
After an earlier 25 year career as a textile artist, selling nationally a line of one-of-a-kind jackets and doing commissioned wall work, I returned to school to get a masters in public policy and started working full-time at the Muskie School at USM. My studio, on the second floor of the barn attached to our house in Portland, was no longer where I went to work. Although there was always something on the loom, I no longer “lived” there.
Even when I worked in planning and development, I still thought of myself as a weaver. I considered my job to use the same sensibilities, same end result: weaving together multiple ideas, people and circumstances to move an institution (or an idea) forward to fruition. But after 20 years in university administration, I am thrilled to now be back in my studio weaving full–time. And weaving has been augmented and informed by painting and drawing.
I began painting while I still had a full-time job. I wanted something more immediate and transportable than weaving. Inspired by my love of casein paint and a class at Haystack with Alan Bray, I have continued painting from nature as an antidote, an opposite starting point from weaving – although I seem to often end up in the same place. When I find a view – through the woods, over the water, or out my window – there is invariably some indiscernible pattern, some underlying structure that I can’t see, but want to find. That is what drives the painting. I try to replicate what I see, but at some point, it becomes about the pattern. And I can layer and evolve a painting in a very different way from weaving.
The loom requires an end vision, and then multiple decisions, all of which have a consequence. So it’s an ongoing process of trying to stay true, decision upon decision, about color and thread and pattern. I get glimpses along the way, but truly don’t know what I have until it is finished and off the loom. I love the constraints of the loom – that both inspire and limit me. I like to work at the edge of possibilities – to see how far I can push the loom in the way it orders and structures the threads. I’ve been exploring pleating, layering and tension changes in making a surface. My husband, Jamie Johnston, has a wood studio below me in our barn, and the dialogue between us continues to play a role in my creative process.
I bought my first loom in 1974, when I moved to the Maine woods, and built a home without power or running water. I still use the same loom. When I recently did a weaving on a new loom, only then did I realize how well I know my loom, and what a relationship we have. We are good friends.
Returning to my studio two and a half years ago, I had only begun to find my weaving rhythm when I became ill with a virus that lasted four months and left me with no energy for the physical work of weaving. While recovering, I began a drawing series “Stilled Life”, as an exploration of a grid structure that has long occupied my mind. I continue to love this simple process of making lines, the sense of hand, and the absolute attention it requires.
After drawing for six months, I began to see the relation between the drawings and weaving and how I could move from lines to threads. Now that I am healthy, I’ve shifted my weaving focus to take what I learned from the drawing process and translate that into weavings, where the loom places its own parameters and opportunities.
In these recent weavings, as in the drawings, each square in the grid is made up of four colors. Two colors alternate changing right to left across the grid, while the other two colors alternate changing top to bottom. The result is that every square is one color different from the squares surrounding it. In a block of 9 squares there is a complete change of colors from the top left, to the bottom right, repeated multiple times. Each weaving/drawing uses 20 – 40 different colors.
I’m consistently awed (infatuated) by how much energy and light is captured in a process that requires such calm concentration. And how the difference between individual threads used as lines and the same threads in a weave can look so completely different.
My practice is in simply working – everyday. I’m acutely aware of the cost of not weaving consistently for so many years. Although I have no regrets, I do feel committed to regaining the mental flexibility and comfort I had during my earlier career as a weaver, hopefully bringing a little more wisdom and ease to the process.
I am totally immersed in this journey at this point – grateful that I have the privilege of time and energy to go wherever this exploration takes me.
The crossroads where you make the turn towards Port Clyde is landmarked by the General Henry Knox Museum, a 1929 re-creation of the original 1794 Federal mansion. Its monumental façade comes into view almost simultaneously with the Dragon Cement Company, a large construction of chutes and appendages of the last functioning cement manufacturer in New England. The historic and the industrial languages blend to form an architectural hybrid landscape, suggestive of a Hieronymus Bosch painting or an assemblage constructed of disparate parts. What brought me to this juncture, and through the coastal villages past Tenants Harbor, to Port Clyde, was an invitation from Ron Crusan to visit his studio.
Upon my arrival we began by looking at a stack of paintings on heavily- textured watercolor paper that at first glance resembled etchings. The paintings are built up layers of dark washes with specks of brilliant color revealed in the intertwined black and gray marks. Ron is reading about Richard Serra’s drawing process and thinking about the marks as language. Perhaps it is Crusan’s experience as a museum director that also has him thinking about how to display the paintings. He considers hanging them low and paired towards each other in a corner. He hopes this will encourage an interaction with the viewer, questioning the placement, creating a dialogue, getting people thinking about how an object occupies space. He is thinking about how a work of art becomes a part of the architecture and defines the space around it.
Crusan has more time now to devote to making, thinking and talking about his artwork. For more than 25 years he was director at several regional museums, most recently the Ogunquit Museum. His move to Port Clyde from Southern Maine last year coincided with his current position as director of Linda Bean’s Maine Wyeth Gallery and collections.
Inside his home, Crusan’s sculptures and assemblages line the walls of the living room and dining room. He makes freestanding sculpture, and shadow box assemblages from old wood, rough wood, and driftwood, some from old furniture, some painted, and some cut and reassembled. The associations that come to mind are some of the familiar names of 20thcentury modernism. But those are not the first associations that Crusan wants you to have.
In 1953—the year that Ron Crusan was born—Joseph Cornell made a series of shadow boxes in homage to a collage work, “The Man at the Café,” by the cubist master, Juan Gris. A recent show at the Metropolitan Museum united those works. A pair of west Coast artists, Wallace Berman and George Herms, both contemporaries of Joseph Cornell, worked in a similar vein, as assemblage artists. Cornell feels like a figure from history, his work evokes an earlier era, but he traversed the 20thcentury, spanning the years from 1903-1972, he is on a continuum with George Herms, born in 1935, and who still lives and works in Los Angeles.
One of Crusan’s wall assemblages includes a door handle, another a rusty hinge, a key is inserted into one, while another has a small tin box inset into the wood. They evoke a sense of place. We talk a bit about realism, and what does it actually mean. Crusan pulls a book on Andrew Wyeth off his shelf. He flips through to the painting “Brown Swiss” and talks about the composition. A barn is on the left side with a partial reflection in a pond below, and the sloping horizontal lines of fields intersect in a myriad of textures in grays and browns. There are concentrated areas of activity that balance the space. There were windows in the original structure, Crusan said, but Wyeth left them out and so the wall becomes a slab of white. The painting is as much an observational assemblage with an underpinning of abstraction composed by Wyeth, as Crusan’s pieces are abstractions made of actual elements salvaged from a real place and composed in the studio.
Leaving the more formal rooms in Crusan’s home we enter into his workshop, which resembles a raw materials library. Piles of scrap wood are neatly organized, some are textured, or some with carving and joinery betray a previous function as chair, table, or banister. Stacks of clear storage boxes hold parts and potential projects, sorted by like items, or color. One drawer reveals stacks of old Bingo cards, another is full of Monopoly paraphernalia. One box is filled with yellow pieces of wood, another, orange. Stacks of toy blocks with cowboys, and the corresponding Indians are set up in a still life on the shelf. A ray of sun moved into the upper story window and illuminated the inside of an old doll’s head that sat with a cluster of other dolls on a high perch. “Did you catch that?” asks Ron, and I nod, holding my camera. Lids of Port Clyde sardines tins are stacked like a deck of playing cards, some rusty, some with the logo bright and fresh.
The worn blocks and iconic relics say something about the passage of cultural time: like toy diplomats they present a window into what an American childhood once was.
We walk through the snow to the two storage sheds behind Crusan’s house. There is evidence of a squirrel that sees the space as a refuge. Nature is at work on the materials, even as Crusan has plans for them as well. The aura of possibilities lingers in the space, open- ended by collecting, and arrangement, bounded only by the limits of the imagination and the changes within the culture itself.
As I prepare to leave I ask Ron if he knew of the Waldo County sculptor, and welder David McLaughlin. McLaughlin bought, and moved into a defunct factory, known as “The Cannery” in Liberty Maine, in 1972. McLaughlin was an avid salvage collector of scrap materials on an industrial scale, including the eight-foot tall pressure cookers that once processed vegetables in the Cannery, 500 gallons of steel rings, and as a delicate counterpoint, shelves filled with birds’ nests.
His assemblages of rusty and rustic constructions evoke a sense of nostalgia, fabricated from articles from the recent past which have never fully become a part of our own times. His estate includes 100 tons of assorted steel, iron and other materials, and is now in the care of Waterfall Arts in Belfast and the Town of Liberty.
Ron is eager to talk about art and to delve beneath the surface. He mentions some of the artists in the area, Jamie Wyeth, Wilder Oakes, and the late Richard Hamilton. Ron talks of future ideas involving all of his Monopoly pieces, arranged, or scattered perhaps, the boards set out on a gallery floor, an invitation to play or to reflect on the game itself.
Ron sees me to the door, and then calls me back in with another book in hand to show me an artist in his neighborhood, accomplished painter, and amateur astronomer, Greg Mort. Thumbing through the book, we enter Mort’s world of exquisite still life—delicate arrangements of shells and planets—assemblages of sorts.
Driving away I feel the potential from all those raw materials, seeds of the mind that might come to grow on fertile soil. I think about Ron Crusan reading, and working from the ideas of Richard Serra, making his own response to those works, his steady and patient collecting of objects, and the absorption of culture and ideas—incorporating the past through its marks and materials.
The search for ephemera through the chance findings of flea markets perhaps now joins the realm of beat poetry, part of an America that is closer to the world of pre-Interstate highway. Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road was written in the era of the two-lane highway, and published in 1951, two years before Ron Crusan was born, and five years before the Federal Highway Act of 1956. As I drive home through the networks of coastal and back roads, I think about how this landscape still has much in common with the roads that Kerouac traveled.
The state of my studio is always in transition – seasonally packed in a suitcase and moved from one continent to another (I have three studios in all: one in Portland, one in Athens, Greece and one on the Island of Kea). I split my year in half between Portland and Greece, traveling with a suitcase full of artworks in progress. Asian paper and cloth work best, light and easily folded or rolled into a suitcase and ironed flat again on arrival. There is never room for cloth in my suitcase, and it is always opened and checked by TSI.
My studio in Athens is three blocks from the Acropolis. How does that proximity affect my work? I’m not sure. I feel the energy of The Rock, but happily don’t have a view of the Acropolis from my studio. That would be too overpowering. Instead I look out at my walled garden. When it gets too hot in Athens, I travel to my third studio on the Island of Kea, and again my works in progress travel with me.
I spend winters in Portland and love the quiet contemplative time of winter in my studio. This year my Portland studio was transformed radically as I started making sculpture again after many years. I had the honor of being granted the Maine State House copper reuse commission, to make artwork with the beautiful 100-year-old copper removed from the State House dome in reroofing. I managed to finish and install the commission in March just before packing my bags again for Greece, a good thing because 47” long copper would not have fit in my suitcase.
Judith Allen-Efstathiou, Portland Studio
Judith Allen-Efstathiou, Outside In, Acid cut copper, three sections, 47 x 15 x 2.5” each, 2018 in Portland studio
Judith Allen-Efstathiou, Athens, Greece Studio
Judith Allen-Efstathiou, Outside In, Acid cut copper, three sections, 47 x 15 x 2.5” each, 2018, installation over the Law and Legislative Reference Library, Maine State House, Augusta
Perhaps it is because I have had to empty personal possessions and histories in a few houses lately, rummaging through basements and closets. Perhaps it is because of a fascination with the shape and design of things used in a bygone era. Perhaps it is because of a concern about the rapid obsolescence of things that we now acquire as we discard sturdy old items. Perhaps any and all of these are reasons why I looked more closely at old discarded tools, deciding to make them a focus of my recent painting.
With this new focus, moving away from the bright landscapes of the region, I now use a limited palette to capture something important about forgotten times and items. I muse about whose hand held these tools, about the strength and dexterity required to use them, and how they once made tasks easier.
Pamela Grumbach “Oarlock” watercolor 11″ x 14″
Pamela Grumbach “Grant’s Hammer” watercolor 7″ x 10″
Pamela Grumbach “Drop Line” watercolor 10″ x 7″
Pamela Grumbach “Old Paintbrush” watercolor 8″ x 11″
I moved to Maine from Colorado in October. I grew up on Cape Cod so the East Coast is my home, but Maine is all new to me. Moving asks you to sacrifice a previously comfortable way of living. It requires that you be creative and adaptable to fall into a new flow of living and working.
My new studio flow includes lots of time working at home alone. I’ve always enjoyed being alone with my thoughts and imagination. I’ve also lived with anxiety and agoraphobia for years, so this extensive alone time at home feels almost indulgent. This leads me to examine my inner state frequently. I get a lot of inspiration from sitting with, and confronting my anxiety. “Sad Girl” and “Mental Health Day” are pieces I created from observing and expressing my feelings, viewing myself as not a body or a person, but as a feeling or an environment.
My small work space confines me to drawing, so I use ink, colored pencil, and oil pastel. I combine the three materials and use them a bit unconventionally. I play with traditional methods of line illustration and let my lines overlap. I am working towards more layering and depth in my pieces.
Another theme I explored this winter was partnership. Living with another person in a very small house through a particularly cold Maine winter brings that relationship into a clear view. I’m always inspired by birds, and the way that they generally choose just one mate for a long period of time, or for life. I created “Avocets”, “Grebes”, and “Egrets”, each with a distinct color palette and overlapping lines to explore different facets of partnerships.
When I’m not focusing inward, I look out to nature, and especially to birds and plants for inspiration. Being limited to working at home, I use what I see in my yard and neighborhood. “Regularly Scheduled Chaos” is inspired by a flock of starlings and a few odd grackles that inundated my yard for a month and a half, eating up all the birdseed every few days.
I listen to and read the news often while working. Sometimes the titles of my pieces reflect my fears about the state of the world. I feel selfish and privileged to be insulated in my house creating art while American leadership destroys civility, decency, the environment, healthcare, and the lives of immigrants. I’m currently exploring themes of nature and chaos, using overlapping lines and bold color to express my feelings about the current state of America.
Alanna Hernandez, “Mental Health Day” ink and colored pencil on paper, 12″ x 8.5″ 2017
Alanna Hernandez, “Sad Girl” ink and colored pencil on paper, 12″ x 9″ 2018
Alanna Hernandez, “Grebes” ink and colored pencil on paper, 14″ x 17″ 2018
Alanna Hernandez, “Regularly Scheduled Chaos” ink and colored pencil on paper, 14″ x 17″ 2018
These four graphic pieces are an exploration of photo collage and color. This is a very different process for me. I have to a large extent used wood as my primary medium in which color and form are generated. Using the wood as sketch, through process into product, the physicality of the process draws me in and out of the work.
The past 3-4 years have been an exploration. I have felt the need to say more than framing beauty from found wood. I dove into dance, performance, video, and have landed here with pixels, in the form of photos, shapes and color.
And amazingly enough it has brought me back to three-dimensional work and ideas that have been waiting for the opportunity to find expression.
These four graphic works have been part of that process.
Kenneth Kohl, “sale, HOME” Photo collage poster, 11″ x 17″
Kenneth Kohl “PLccell” Photo collage poster 11″ x 17″
Kenneth Kohl “Tipping Point” Photo Collage poster, 11″ x 17″
Kenneth Kohl “Herstory” Photo collage poster, 11″ x 17″
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 artists:
Journal Submission guidelines for Members Showcase and featured artists:
Deadline: June 1st
A) We invite UMVA members to submit up to 4 JPEG or png images, (featured artists 8-12 images). Attach to an email, (see below.) —Size of images:Images as JPEG files, (approximately 1000 pixels on short side) with total file size: 500KB- 1.2MB (No TIFF files) —Photo/image file name: your last name_number of image_title
Note:If you are submitting for a group put your own last name in first.
B) Include your statement, or essay, and an image list in Word doc. format, not a PDF.
—Document/essay file names: your last Name_title of essay—Image list file name: your last name_image list
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.
C) Submit by email to firstname.lastname@example.org put “State of the Studio” in the subject line.
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.
November UMVA Portland Minutes Scroll down for December minutes directly after
(Annotated version for the Journal)—11/20/17
Website: Janice made a UMVA website report. She discussed the challenge with having a gatekeeper structure and the difficulty keeping something current and accurate with that system. She discussed that there were multiple sites for UMVA and the Maine Arts Journal and the newsletter, etc and that it was very confusing to try to track down who does what. Matt Stacey is still the gatekeeper for the main site and Cathy Weinberg is doing the journal site and facebook updates. The group discussed other options for a new page, or something that would be easier to access month to month. It was agreed this is becoming one of the most important next steps for our chapter to increase exposure, information and memberships. (see note at bottom).
Current CTN Open Hours (Gallery is always open during these times)
Remodel Update Leslie reported that the donated carpet for the back room is here, but they are just waiting for laborers to install. There are also plans to repaint the front of the building and get new signage up with the change of CTN to the new name. The UMVA banner was praised as looking really good from the street and even had passersby taking photos of it.
It was discussed that at the December meeting we will do an overview of 2017 and also a visioning discussion for our hopes and dreams for UMVA in 2018 and beyond.
Jan– Gregg Harper/ Mixed Media Feb– Susan Smith/ sculpture- mixed media March– Berrang/ Witte April – Migration Experience/ UMVA Journal/ John Ripton May– Mark Barnette/ photography June– Art & Abstract Truth/ Jim Kelly July– UMVA Open Show (needs curator) Aug– Matt Demers /painting Sept– The Eclectic Vision/ Addison Woolley Oct– The Chair Considered / Janice Moore Nov– UMVA Open Show (needs curator) Dec– Holiday Sale
Janice reminds the group that the show she is curating in October is for Chair-themed artwork and she wanted UMVA members to consider making chair-themed work to prepare for that show.
Who does what:
—All inquiries and listings should still be sent to: email@example.com <http://firstname.lastname@example.org>
—There is is still a gatekeeper/tech head for the UMVA main site. He updates members’ images, and will help with tech problems on the site, but no longer formats listings for this site. email@example.com —There is a person currently formatting and uploading listings for the Maine Arts Journal— the current location of the online News/Events and UMVA Newsletter, the former UMVA Blog page.
UMVA Portland Meeting Notes December 2017
—Report Back by John R: Holiday Sale
—Idea presented: to create a calendar for UMVA events for print and online.
—Email from Janice was read regarding the website update and trying to make progress on having a UMVA portland site that we can manage.
—Gregg H handed out bookmarks for his show in January . He reported all the place he has put the show info and the newspapers that were running info about the show. He met with Bob Keyes/ good media timing. Gregg will be sitting for the show every Friday through Sunday for the entire month of the show.
— John R reported on the April show. Focus on immigrants. 12 artists currently in the works. Performances etc/ Building community. Titi DeBaccarrat/ Kifa Abdullah are involved in organizing the show with John. The show info will be in 5 languages and will display mixed media pieces also.
—Jess M discussed our mailing list and how to maximize our membership. Jess asked some questions about our press materials and the process we are using to market shows. A discussion followed about best practices.
—Gregg reported on the curator file for each curator. Jackie’s e-mail should be added for contact for all curators to be able to access the membership lists and mailing lists.
—Holiday Show 2018/ Next Year: Idea for a “50 for $50 idea.” Each artist makes a small piece for the show and could submit addition works. Have a donation aspect of the show to raise money for a cause. Jess proposed having a holiday show with 3 rooms each with a different price point.
—Can we increase sales in the gallery? Discussion -Make it attractive to come to the openings/-Bartending help for the opening. Gallery Hours / consistent
UMVA Visioning for 2018 and beyond:
-classes from members to share their skills/ raise money/ make money
-each member should tell people and try to help grow the umva membership this year
-UMVA marketing materials
-Another Draw-A-Thon? Political activist art. ARRT. Bring our war dollars home.
-Kids events classes. Provide to the community
-Model drawing classes?
-Set gallery intentions – How do decide how we want to give out shows/ 1 person? 2 person shows? member shows? Which is the priority?
-What is the purpose of the gallery? Can we bring in outside artists and curators? Bring in out of state shows?
-William invited the UMVA members to Hidden Ladder Art Nights that happen each Sunday night to collaborate with artists in the city. Contact him if interested.
-Funding: maybe be able to award artists grants down the road.
Thanks for a great 2017 and we discussed highlights from the last year.
The theme of this issue of The Maine Arts Journal, InnerVisions, has presented me with a quandary of sorts. It implicitly asks for the reasons and motivations behind my creative process, not something that I have spent much time thinking about.
Art has been a part of my life from birth, and for all I know, it might be fixed in my genetic identity as well. When I was a small child, I had the good fortune to spend every afternoon following school in my father’s studio at what was then Potsdam State Teachers College in upstate New York (now SUNY Potsdam) where he taught painting, sculpture and history of art to aspiring teachers.
I was set up at a table with paper, pencils, crayons, watercolors or clay and each day proceeded to create whatever came to mind. Throughout my life, even before I thought of a career of any sort, drawing and doodles filled the margins of my notebooks. When I finally decided on a direction, it was toward architecture, with its own satisfying mixture of structural discipline and artistic expression.
It was also during this time that I was more fully exposed to the human history of art and architecture, with Bernini and Anthony Caro and Jack Squire my sculptural influences. Looking at my father’s work years after his death, I have to admit that there is more than a little of him in my own work as well.
Another powerful force defining my aesthetic has been Jazz. At ten years old, I discovered Jazz…so many artists, so many different pallets. Miles, Ella, Brubeck, Adderley, Ellington, Rollins, Mingus et al; each with their own interpretation of a world seen through music. My inner vision has always been informed by the structure, counterpoint, rhythm and improvisational nature of this music. Having a framework and vocabulary is just as necessary to my work as it is in jazz.
Defining and refining this vocabulary has been an ongoing effort, as I believe it is to all artists.
A third force in developing a personal aesthetic has been my love of and awe in the power of our natural world and its landscape. I see the same kind of rhythms and counterpoint in nature’s creations as I find in jazz, from the small micro-world found in a square foot of meadow or the patterns in a Trilobite fossil to the most expansive vistas.
How does this all translate into an examination of what moves me and what motivates me to create my art? Combining the rhythms of the visual world and the discipline of design with my soundtrack is, I believe, how I produce my art.
While at times a sculpture or drawing might be drawn from a specific subject, more often it begins as an improvisation, with no conscious thought or idea of where it will go or how it will end. The forms and vocabulary have been accumulated over the years, while the composition rises out of my subconscious as each partly developed piece merges with another, often in surprising directions.
I have no sense that I am pursuing any emotional goal or that I am satisfying any deep psychological need. I make art because that’s where my creative spirit takes me. It would be interesting (to someone) to find out what is going on in my brain while I’m in the process, but I can say with absolute certainty that at least two-thirds of the process for each piece is fraught with uncertainty and a lingering frustration; much like starting a jigsaw puzzle without a guiding picture.
It isn’t until I can clearly see the rhythm of a piece that a sense of satisfaction begins to creep in, a sense that increases as the piece is refined to completion.
It is fitting, as you drive toward Albion to the town of Freedom, that you must take the slight left fork onto the North Palermo Road—part of Maine’s network of international town names—just the sort of place where an Italian-American from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, like artist Joe Ascrizzi, might settle. On one day that I visited his studios, a statue of the patron saint from and of their family’s hometown of St. Euphemia de Aspramonte in Calabria was on the workbench being restored by Joe, and will later adorn the interior of John’s Ice Cream in Liberty, Maine, owned and operated by his younger brother, John Ascrizzi.
“It’s like something out of 100 Years of Solitude,” says Joe. “My Grandfather went to visit his mother and this statue got passed along.” The statue has been a little battered and at one point repainted badly. Now Joe will to help guide it into the next millennium.
I made the trip one day in late fall to visit Joe at his home and studio. I followed the sound of hammering to the studio to where Joe was shaping a metal top for a box he was making. To call what he makes a box is to simplify his unique art pieces into their most obvious attribute. These are more than boxes, they are portable shrines or receptacles for precious objects, consummately crafted, adorned with semi-precious stones, glass melted to resemble tears, or sperm. Carved linen-fold elements are inlaid with bone and brass. These boxes are acts of poetry; some of his boxes have housed manuscripts and books of poetry.
“You both do boxes,” renowned Surrealist art dealer and collector, Julian Levy, told Joe one day, years ago, as he compared Joe’s work to Joseph Cornell. Levy was the first to show Cornell, in 1932, at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City. “His are more whimsical,” Levy continued, “and yours are more serious.” Ascrizzi met Levy while Joe was running the business of picture framing at Walter’s Gallery in Woodbury, Conn. Levy came in with a Man Ray to be framed and Joe began working for him. For more than 20 years, Levy was a collector of Joe’s art and commissioned more than a dozen of his box sculptures, some of which were featured in an article on the Levy home, published in Architectural Digest (Aug.1981). Joe’s wife Lynn was pregnant with their son Max while they were house sitting for Levy. There, several months passed in Levy’s art-filled writing studio built by a stream near his home, in Bridgewater, Conn. Levy was in southern France, and Max was named for a Max Ernst artwork that was hanging in the studio.
Joe was included in a group show at Betty Parson’s Gallery in New York City in 1974. This led to a solo show at the New York Cultural center in 1975, and another at Ellen Meyer’s Gallery in New York, in 1977. “You’re young and you think you’ve made it,” he told me, “and so you say ‘I’m going to move to Maine. And why not, it’s as good a place as any.” By the 1980’s Joe was showing in Maine, at the Farnsworth and other venues, including a 1993 solo exhibit at St.Mary’s College in Maryland. These were heady times for Joe Ascrizzi.
There is a small silence as we both think of youth and the opportunities that once seemed endless, the cold of early November, the pewter sky, both amplify the passage of seasons. Our conversation turns to physics, specifically particles, and the position of particles, how we are just an arrangement of an arrangement. “There is a word for it,” Joe says, “ ‘Wakan Tanka.’ When the Lakota speak of the Great Mystery, they speak of an abstract force of creation and spirituality, a life force and energy existing in all things.”
Joe starts things and finishes things according to an internal rhythm.
A guy came in recently and wanted a fish painted onto a basket, so Joe got out his paints and created one. “I asked him how much he had to spend, and I made him a nice fish, “ says Joe, “and now I started working on some new paintings.” He points over to his easel and paint boxes, neatly arranged, the work highly detailed and well under way. Another painting hanging on the sidewall he says has been there for many years, not yet finished. Yet another is on the workbench, Joe is unsure if it is finished or not, “Who knows where it even comes from?” asks Joe. But he is certain that the painting is a living dream, and that this particular one is one of his favorites.
Joe’s philosophical nature contains humor inside the wisdom. He once told me “You’ve got no car, you’ve got no car troubles. You have a car, you have car troubles.” It is a simple equation that shakes one’s thoughts out of garden-variety complaints. Or his phrase, “Nothing IS forever.” As he says this we laugh like a couple of kids with an inside joke.
We spent some time opening drawers, and looking at raw materials, half-finished, close to complete neatly organized box sections in a room full of drawers and shelves filled with exotic/quixotic wood sections, thorny sections of briar rose stems, deer antlers, shells, metals, semi-precious stones. The multiplicity of materials form a labyrinth. A stack of frames that Joe is working on contains fragments retrieved from the Twin Towers after September 11th. They form an art project that anther artist has envisioned and Joe is helping to bring to life, a wood tower composed of segments that are all framed collages.
There is a book on the table in Joe’s shop by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, who was the head curator of Indian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the 1920’s-40’s. He was instrumental in introducing Indian and Persian arts to the West.
“The main difficulty so far seems to have been that Indian art has been studied so far only by archaeologists. It is not archaeologists, but artists who are the best qualified to judge of the significance of works of art considered as art,” wrote Coomaraswamy. Joe has been reading his writings since he was 19 years old but is conflicted.
“His words are so well wrought, but you can’t entirely agree with him, “ says Ascrizzi. “I believe what he says, for humanities sake, but he’s wrong about some other things, or there are ideas of his that just can’t be squared with our times. So I argue with him!”
“The contentment of innumerable people can be destroyed in a generation by the withering touch of our civilization; the local market is flooded by a production in quantity with which the responsible maker of art cannot compete; the vocational structure of society, with all its guild organization and standards of workmanship, is undermined; the artist is robbed of his art and forced to find himself a “job”; until finally the ancient society is industrialized and reduced to the level of such societies as ours in which business takes precedence over life. Can one wonder that Western nations are feared and hated by other people, not alone for obvious political or economic reasons, but even more profoundly and instinctively for spiritual reasons?”
“I’m talking about something else, but along those lines,” said Joe, “The Greeks had no word for art. Everyone was an artist or called to be an artist, as in someone who tries to make the invisible visible, and bring something forth that has never existed before.” Or, he mentions the medieval society where everyone has their craft and trade. Joe prefers the idea of the guild system to our current gallery and exhibition hall gigantisms’.
Joe works on several things at once so that when the mood strikes him he can pick up or put down a project. When he gets tired of making the fine marks in his paintings, he picks up a mallet and begins to hammer out a sheet of metal into curved form. Then there are also his intricate carvings in pieces of deer antler that become centerpieces for ceremonial necklaces made of bones and stones.
We go into the house for a while and have scones with, and baked by Joe’s wife Lynn. Some friends drop by to check-in, and his sister–in-law drops by and we discuss the rising tick problem, poetry, and then ordinary matters that are also and most often a part of our daily lives. Lynn shows me their son Max’s paintings, black and white landscapes that are spare, not peopled like Joe’s work and reflect a different age, his own personal challenges and outlook. One of Max’s musical arrangements plays quietly in the background; it is also a form of a landscape, the music like a train journey taken with sound. The title of the piece, “Thank god I’m a bum,” reflects the humor and humility of his father’s philosophy.
Leaving the house, and returning to the shop Joe regrets that his shop space is not larger, it is, in fact small. But then, he puts his hand on the back door knob and opens it outwards, “Do you want to see my Garden of Entropy?” Joe asked, smiling and sighing, “I go out and save something from total disintegration and make something with it.” And like a Fairy Tale, we step through a back door, onto a porch full of odds and ends and I see that the workshop we came from is duplicated and multiplied. There, across a clearing is another workshop filled with large, woodworking shop tools and workbenches. Upstairs is LeBouton Studio, operated by Max’s partner, clothing designer, Lisa Dorr.
There are three or more sheds chock-a-block with spare parts that form a complex and compound of raw materials from floor to ceiling and spilling out into the yards around.
There is a world of parts and pieces awaiting his creative energy to bring them to life, out of their state of dormancy, and just ahead of their potential to decay. Joe awakens an inner life in dull surfaces, exposing the true colors of wood grain, stone’s inner fires, the secret dreams of metal.
The first time I visited Joe and Lynn Ascrizzi a customer came, a man who had an antique table that Joe was working on. “I have to see a man about a table,” Joe said heading to his workshop. My husband and I went with Lynn to view her gardens before settling on their side porch while Joe saw to the client. “My gardens are my art,” said Lynn, and like any true gardener went through a litany of the pests and challenges that besiege her garden world. All around I saw healthy plants and tall lilies in bloom, but like an artist, Lynn sees what more there can be even while presenting a vision of beauty.
We sat on the porch in the wicker and cushioned chairs and realized that the sidewalls of the porch were made of string trellises and the vines of scarlet runner beans. The small, bright red flowers added highlights, accents, and the long pods hung down around the heart-shaped leaves like a Tiffany design. We talked about Lynn’s writing. She wrote a weekly, syndicated, reader-response column called Dreams, which included Jungian interpretations of our collective dreaming mind. She also wrote art-related and other cultural articles, when for many years, she was lifestyle editor and feature writer for the Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal. Now, she freelances for environmental and trade publications.
We sat talking on the porch and the afternoon faded. When the customer left we said our goodbyes and reluctantly drove away. Now I sit with the November winds blowing in practice for the winter ahead.
I saw Joe last night and he was thinking that he wasn’t ready yet for the winter. We agreed that the South held a special appeal this year; perhaps a visit to a friend in Mexico was in order? Or perhaps he will dream through the winter with visions of Mexico and travel into his projects to uncharted galaxies. Joe has a box of glass beads that resembles a universe and he uses them in the background of his assembled and collaged paintings as stand-ins for the stars.
If I had a box like the boxes that Joe makes, in it I would put the seeds from Lynn’s scarlet runner beans, which are now in a bag on my bookcase. In that box would be the mothers of all of summers. Inside each seed the potential for an endless afternoon on that porch, with a book from the neat stack on the table, and the scent of Casa Blanca lilies mingling with the fading afternoon light.
As winter sets in and the days grow darker I am reminded of the time in ancient Greece when caves symbolized the entrance to the classical underworld. A person entered the cave to seek wisdom in the darkness not the light. A place where the opposites meet and where there is room to confront and make meaning of our anxieties, whether fear, shame, helplessness and now for some artists to sort out a collective angst; to peel away the veils and make meaning and form.
Many artists are attracted to the subconscious realm where one travels in the shadows, where the boundaries between reality and imagination are occluded; much as they are for children who are unabashedly drawn to the dark side through fairy tales and gothic stories.
As a child I had two made-up friends who were so real to me that that even now I can picture them. The boundary between imagination and reality was merged. As adults the daytime world makes demands that can disrupt our focus and independence. Sometimes we need a guide.
Hermes was the the guide to the underworld and also the god of the unplanned journey, taking serpentine paths where discoveries happen. This would be familiar terrain to those artists whose work changes constantly with unforeseen results. This way of working is to give yourself up to that which is not readily explainable, to try out forms and inventions and to trust the process.
Baudelaire refers to the north wrapped in mists. The Northern painters, although aware of Italian artists who idealized human forms and perfected perspective in their work, chose a different path following their gothic heritage. Durer’s use of agitated line and his momenti mori prints reference the transitory nature of life on earth. The Isenheim altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald portrays the graphic pain and suffering of Christ and the torments visited on St. Anthony. Hieronymus Bosch vividly shows us fires, demons, and horrors of all kinds.
One is reminded of the lines from Paradise Lost, “One great furnace flamed but from these flames no light but rather darkness visible.” Darkness made visible can also refer to inner psyche which can be shaped in the outer world. This tradition of the grotesque is now evident in the work of the Quay brothers. They exemplify the same dark vision in their videos of detritus and puppets, based on the work of Bruno Schulz and other eastern European writers.
For a long time I have been interested in puppets and bats. Bats which weave the night sky and shape shift the spaces between them in their chaotic flight could be seen as symbols of continuing change as in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Their flight evokes a metaphor for the process of making. In the imagination of a child, puppets can burst into life connecting reason and intuition. In my installation at UNE of hanging puppets and other sculptural elements, the puppets were mirrored in a dark pool of water below them. At first one saw figures in flight, but they were also reflected in an endless descent.
Dante’s descent to the nine circles of purgatorio, with Virgil as guide, was to seek a path (from the dark wood) and to gather wisdom. The intersection between searching and mark making can happen in the fertile terrain when we travel below the surface and come face to face with the darker sides of our nature, which is washed away in the daylight.
“Must the morning ever return?
Is the thralldom of the earth unending
Unhallowed activity swallowed up
The heavenly visitation of the night” Novalis 1800
As an art student, I concentrated on rendering what I saw before me. Making life-like work was my goal, a classic measure of talent, it demanded all my attention.
But however well I learned to render, the inner breath of life rarely moved me to fall in love with my art and have it come alive. I could strive for technique, but without finding the inner vision, the art lacked passion.
I wondered, “How do I see beyond or inside?” This seemed frustrating and unbridgeable. I couldn’t do it.
I heard Leonardo say, “Look at walls splashed with a number of stains…there you can see lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces, costumes, an infinite number of things.”
I scoffed, “But who are they and why?”
But who was I asking? I was still looking for approval that Leonardo never needed.
At a point long after my “training” was complete, and after many life crises in which I focused much too heavily on myself, I finally noticed and appreciated the lives of others.
I discovered that our lives themselves were Leonardo’s mysterious stains. Then the joy of discovery began. I started to excavate many inner visions. I scratch them out of the layers built up behind and before me.
When in the studio, and when not, it’s a constant, continuous cavalcade of mixing and mining the ins and outs; making new connections and reinforcing existing ones; building the cribwork ever higher, erecting bridges on bridges, developing the infrastructure of a messy mind.
It’s carrying as much as possible on your back at all times, yet only offering a few small findings on the table at once; kneading, forming, nurturing, pruning: turning the clippings into their own small growths, watering them, and milking them. Folding them, with or without creasing: careful, most of the time.
It’s digging deep into the couch cushions, pulling out long-lost, temporarily forgotten nuggets of past ideas, all the while shifting to get comfortable, only to shift again when the coziness fades to numbness. Shift.
It’s following something down rabbit holes and over lily pads, under trees and over moons. Hiding nests in caves in burrows in webs.
It’s hanging on to a cliff with your feet on the ground, or getting out of bed when you’re still in the clouds.
It’s making noise, making dust, making a thing, or thirteen.
It’s recalling an old flash, an old pan. Recall, recall, recall.
Forget and recall, again.
It’s balancing 16 points of contact on one fingertip, while making lunch. Sketch things out and scratch them in. Press things flat, and roll them up; sort the collection, create distance between your time and your work. Join the edges, and leave the seams.
I explore cycles of accumulation and release in our physical and emotional landscapes. My recent exhibition at SPEEDWELL projects, entitled Out of Sorts, invited viewers to consider individual and collective consumption as manifest in six bales of recyclable materials that non-profit solid waste manager, ecomaine compacted smaller than usual to fit through the gallery door.
Aided by myriad individuals whose gestures of release collectively created the readymade objects appropriated for this occasion, I pressed pause on the recycling process to allow visitors to contemplate their patterns of consumption and the personal, cultural and global implications of disposability.
To facilitate such reflections, I commissioned benches fabricated by Benjamin Spalding out of wood we salvaged from woodpiles in Yarmouth and Cape Elizabeth, and upholstered by Amy Emmons with fabric printed with photos of bales of recycling.
Visitors fulfilled my hope that they would sit on these plushly cushioned benches and register the visual, visceral, and psychological impact of simultaneously minimalist and maximalist monuments to communal efforts to keep things out of the landfill.
Printed on fabric and hung on pegs designed to force viewers to implicate themselves through handling and potentially draping around themselves, were photographs of trash being incinerated and recycling being sorted both mechanically and by hand.
I designed this series of “wearable or wall-able” prints entitled “Complicity” to humanize the process and highlight the fact that when we place something in a recycling bin we are in direct physical dialogue with workers who sort, remove contaminants from, and bale recyclable materials.
Materially manifest in the strata of these intimate yet anonymous commodities is evidence of how we eat, drink, work, play, and clean, and how much (or how little) attention we pay to discarding things responsibly.
Since the exhibition ended, the U.S. recycling industry has been drastically impacted by China halting imports of much of our castoff material due to a crackdown on pollution. While Trump dismantles environmental protections, China is imposing fines and shutting down factories violating previously unenforced environmental regulations.
A crisis point is upon us commanding that we minimize what we are using rather than continue congratulating ourselves on tossing things in blue bins.