This issue shares the response to our call for dialogue. The contributors give examples of artists engaged in a conversation with a place, with their own thoughts, through time, or in response to the work and stories of another. It was an opportunity to explore topics rather than reach conclusions.
Susan Smith works with a community to make her art. She collected the statements of a hundred women and their stories of abuse and screenprinted them on textiles.
Mary Bernstein writes about the 20 year long community art project, Mother Tongue, and its “call and response” way of working, based on physicist and philosopher David Bohm’s dialogues.
Writer Katy Kelleher contributes an essay on dialogue as touch.
Greta Banks writes about capitalism and our broken relationship with nature.
Kyle Patnaude contributes to the conversation: “We can’t engage with complex and diverse thought without the views of those who see and experience the world as different from our own.”
Abby Shahn and Mark Melnicove share three of their 31 painting/poem collaborations, in which the poems “add whole histories and layers of meaning to the pictures”.
The art collective Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman, “united in a creative dialogue,” was born in Hinckley, Maine, at the L. C. Bates Museum.
Lori Tremblay asserts that all meaningful relationships are sustained through dialogue.
Regular contributor Carl Little writes about artist Alan Gussow who ”carried on a conversation with his surroundings all his life, whether he was visiting Monhegan Island or running alongside the Hudson River” and “managed to combine his environmentalism with his art.”
Ed Beem writes about photographer Jocelyn Lee’s recent exhibition, her art, ideas and her “respectful female gaze.”
Dan Kany writes on photographer Scott Anton’s collaboration with the subject of his images, and Kany has a conversation with Charlie Hewitt.
Poems by Estha Weiner, introduced by Betsy Sholl, create a sense of dialogue “through the briefest suggestion.” And Margaret Yocom, in ALL KINDS OF FUR, asks what Cinderella would say if she could tell her own tale?
Andrea Curtis writes from her perspective as an art educator at the Farnsworth Museum, for our regular Insight/Incite column.
CMCA’s Bethany Engstrom writes on dialogue in her role as assistant curator at CMCA.
Lisa Jahn-Clough shares the art of her late mother and artist, Elena Jahn. She writes of her search for meaning and legacy, of “something that speaks to us.”
UMVA member Diane Dahlke has a dialogue with time, and for Anne Strout, art “starts with those conversations in my head.”
C.E. Morse makes images that beg the question: “What is it?” which starts a conversation/dialogue.
Gregg Harper sees dialogue as “a double use of the metaphor muscle memory.” Bruno-Torkanowsky thinks of her work as a “dance of opposites.”
ARRT! and Lumenarrt! invite us to glimpse the continuing dialogues their projects engage in with Mainers across the state.
Maine artists are participating to help get out the vote in the 2018 election and the Maine Arts Journal is featuring some of their efforts, in partnership with Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.
Genevieve (G.A.) Morgan writes an open letter to our Senators and Representatives, as a part of the national dialogue on the ACA and protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
The multiple facets of this topic give the reader many voices to consider. The final word is actually a starting point for the next chapter in an ongoing dialogue. If you turn to the last page of this issue you will find the Invitation for the Winter 2019 Issue: Sketchbook. And just like that, a new conversation begins.
And now, to the Issue! Enjoy!
MAJ Editorial Board Natasha Mayers, Dan Kany, Jessica Myer, Nora Tryon, Kathy Weinberg, and Betsy Sholl (poetry editor)
Portland UMVA has had a great summer of gallery shows including its 2018 summer members’ show in July, painter/mixed media artist Matt Demers’ fabulous exhibition of new abstract paintings titled “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me” in August, and the always engaging Addison Woolley collective of visual artists in September.
In October, artist and curator Janice L. Moore will present a juried show of various media titled “Some Reliable Truths About Chairs.” Robyn Holman, retired art curator, Atrium Art Gallery at USM’s Lewiston Campus will assist Janice as a guest juror. The exhibit promises to be a provocative encounter with “chairs” on many levels. It opens October 5th and runs through November 3rd. The artists’ reception will be Friday, October 5th, 5-8 p.m.
The “UMVA Fall Members’ Open Exhibition” opens on Friday, November 9th,with an artists’ reception at 5-7 p.m. The show runs through Friday, December 7th, with a closing artists’ reception at 5-8 p.m. All UMVA members are encouraged to participate by sending jpeg images to email@example.com by midnight October 21st. Curator Gregg Harper notes that “Artworks in most media (except performance and installation) will be accepted. Though there is room in the front window to exhibit 2 or 3-free-standing sculptures (enter early), because of Fire Code regulations at the Portland Media Center, sculpture will have to be wall-mounted or small enough to be exhibited on a plinth against the gallery wall (bring your own plinth if you can). Artists may submit one 2D piece 16”x 20” or larger or up to two 2D pieces that are each smaller than 16”x 20”.” With submissions provide Title, Date, Medium, Size and Selling Price (if applicable). Also, on the drop-off day (Saturday, November 3, Noon – 4 p.m.) bring an Artist Statement and/or Bio that includes an image of your submitted work, which will be included in the exhibition deskbook.
The UMVA 2018 Holiday Art Sale will be held 11 a.m – 5 p.m. on December 15th and 16th at the UMVA Gallery at Portland Media Center. All members are welcome to apply for participation, though there is limited space. More information will be emailed to UMVA members several weeks prior to the show. Participation will based on the order in which application requests are made and will be open until the space is filled (there is room for approximately 15 members).
UMVA Portland has already accepted several shows for the upcoming 2019 year. These include “Ours is a Life of Lights and Shadows,” organized for March by Gregg Harper and William Hessian; “Go Figure,” a group show in July with painters Jen Joaquin, Roland Salazar Rose and Jim Kelly with photographer Dave Wade; an as yet untitled show by artist Julia Durgee in August; “Visible Discourse from Maine’s Western Foothills,” a group show of artists Schneider, Arcadipone, Best and Millonzi; and “Imposition & Yielding: Travail en Cire,” a group show with artists Ann Tracy, Anne Strout and Ann Deutsch in October. The two UMVA members’ exhibitions are planned for June and November with the Holiday Art Sale in December. Applications for other months are being accepted for consideration at the October UMVA Portland meeting on October 15th. All artists are welcome to apply by visiting the UMVA Portland webpage and downloading, preparing. and returning an application form. You can also contact Gregg Harper for an application at firstname.lastname@example.org
Among other projects being considered by UMVA Portland include updating the website, possible collaboration with PMC on shows related to the gallery and painting the back wall of the gallery to bring attention to the back room.
I’ve recently been reading the book ‘A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things’ by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore (University of California Press, 2017). This is a fantastic summary of the way capitalism created the ecology that we are currently lost in. I hope you read it soon. Patel and Moore draw a map through history that articulates our broken relationship with nature, showing the steady evolution of capitalism as an ecosystem that has hypnotized the human species. Their book describes the strategies that divorce us from recognizing our participation. It’s a spiritual crisis where supremacy and domination are the expected rewards -self interest is a safety vest. The book is very very good at naming the people and species who suffer and pay for our cheap society.
“Cheap is a strategy, a practice, a violence that mobilizes all kinds of work-human and animal, botanical, and geological- with as little compensation as possible. “
– ‘A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things’
I often create art that tries to achieve the same result as Patel and Moore – visual essays that draw attention towards the toxic truths behind our distracted pleasures, I have a website (where you can see my work) but I don’t trust it’s usefulness. In the past few years I’ve become very apprehensive of the internet as a platform for dialogue. Having any contact online feels dangerous, I think this is because publishing digitally is part of the capitalist ecology. It’s feeding the systems that externalize what is truly real, it flattens the universe into single linear thinking. It creates it’s own currency by existing. On the other hand, the internet CAN be beautiful, illuminating the invisible -it can amplify a revolution.
We learn so much by sharing, but my attempt here is like touching a milkweed tussock caterpillar, giving you a mysterious weeping rash for most of July from its invisible hairs. The tussock larvae’s choice food is milkweed, which is filled with a poisonous sap containing cardiac glycosides. Eating a poison rich caterpillar causes most birds to puke violently or can even prove fatal, so don’t dialogue with these rashly caterpillars. They even possess a special organ that pulses an ultrasonic signal specifically to deter bats. They are exceptional metaphors.
Publishing online has invisible hairs that travel into vulnerable areas with painful consequences you might not see for some time. Our digital universe commodifies communication and it seems to sustain short-term satisfaction, which is the heart of capital ecology. I am so wary, and my instincts tell me that exposure as a currency is going to be a form of cheap life.
I’ve lived in Hollis, Maine for 18 years, raising a family and a menagerie of pets. There is a gorgeous meadow almost directly behind my home where all the pretty monarchs and the evil tussock caterpillars fend off the blue jays and bats, it’s tenderly maintained with groomed trails for Hollis residents by the Nestle Corporation. The Nestle Corporation includes over 2,000 brands in 189 countries. They are major players in hydrology markets.
‘Poland Spring’ leases the right to extract, bottle and ship an epic amount of water from the ancient aquifer that sleeps beneath my old rotten house. Nestle bottles water under 72 brands in 160 countries with an annual profit close to ten billion dollars. It is a perfect example of the cheapest extraction, where water and life have been shaped as capital for enormous profit. What is the carrying capacity of this exchange?
“ The idea of world ecology allows us to see how the modern world’s violent and exploitive relationships are rooted in five centuries of capitalism and also how these unequal arrangements- even those that appear timeless and necessary today – are contingent and in the midst of unprecedented crisis.”
‘A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things’
The Nestle meadow (known as California Fields) in Hollis is currently planted with pine saplings and eventually the meadow looks to be a timber wood lot. This paints the picture in which a living species was externalized into capital. Our dependence on the recovery of the pine forest atop the aquifer is the safety vest that assures our future. We are comfortable that the land is being restored. We congratulate ourselves that the land is paying us back for existing.
A few times a year ‘Poland Spring’ allows local amateur field trials, where enthusiastic hunters (and their bird dogs) release hundreds of game birds for sport hunting. These birds are raised in cages and have never experienced what we call the natural world. They have no clue how to exist independently. An afternoon is spent like a cartoonish Dick Cheney escapade, chasing and shooting these birds and then everybody leaves. What remains, the surviving cage raised Chukar or Pheasant wandering the field, lost and overwhelmed. They don’t really understand how to escape local predators, I doubt they know how to eat or find water. They are designed for our ecosystem but they cannot survive it. They are extended ‘things’ that serve as a bridge between our constructed society and our constructed nature. They are cheap lives.
Of the 2,000 brands that Nestle controls internationally, there is the world of chocolate. As Halloween rolls around we see the invisible hairs that link cheap labor (which is also titled modern slavery) with the candy supplier. Nestle has softly been rebranding their lack of an ethical supply chain regarding chocolate. But recently Australia passed a bill requiring more transparency towards trafficking, labor and supply chains. Nestle’s response was a curt warning that customers and consumers will likely be responsible for the time and cost of this global responsibility-don’t mess with the eco system. Halloween, which has mostly replaced the rituals and sympathetic magic that breached the veil to our dead ancestors, is an anxious frenzy of plastic crap and cheap candy. It is an easy distraction from Malthusian thinking which requires despair and racism to argue that population and resources are the rights of capitalism. Trick or treat.
“If capitalism is a disease, then it’s one that eats your flesh- and then profits from selling your bones for fertilizer, and then invests that profit to reap the cane harvest, and sells that harvest to tourists who pay to visit your headstone.”
– Dann and Seaton, (Slavery, Contested Heritage and Thanotourism, 2001)
I believe that artists are teachers, leaders and healers. We come from an ancient practice long before work was a useful design for capital ecology. We are here to remember.
I am currently working on new projects for 2019, including a group show at Greenhut Galleries as well as a faculty exhibition at the ICA, at Maine College of Art.
When I hear the word dialogue the first thought in my mind is that of a relationship. In a philosophic context, all meaningful relationships are sustained through dialogue: it is how we get to know someone or something by spending time and conversing. As a painter, I am constantly engaged with the work either mentally, arranging, discussing potential connections, or remaining open to various stimuli in the environment around me. Medium, process, and subject matter are the tools and mechanisms I use to express that ongoing dialogue.
It is not unusual for people to become overly focused on the subject matter of my work and miss the actual essence of the painting. My inspiration comes from the story in the stars. I plot the positions of the stars in their recognizable celestial alignments as the armature of the imagery. The color, shape, form, and the underlying tapestry of the ancient story becomes the embodiment of that relationship.
Where thousands of years have testified to the very stars we see at night, there is an undeniable chord connecting all of us within the time/space continuum. This coupled with my desire to understand as much as I possibly can of the star story told from the beginning of recorded time makes for a very deep well of inspiration and fodder for my life’s work. My intent is for viewers to look and to see the work with the eyes of their heart.
The primeval story in the stars is a picture of hope, the restored relationship of humankind with our Great Maker. It is told through the original names of the stars visible with the naked eye. Over one hundred star names are still known and used today that have endured since they were identified, somewhere in the neighborhood of 3500 to 4500 years ago. That alone is noteworthy! As the stars anchor the work’s imagery I find a deep, old connection with the stream of generations and with our Great Maker as I begin each piece of work.
This felt connection adds a level of responsibility and stewardship to the work. My paintings are not disconnected from nature. Initially, the work appears abstract. However, taking time to see them, a recognizable order and system of pattern becomes evident as it cycles through the work. We see the constellations rotating around the earth, so do they cycle through the paintings.
Notice that the constellation of Capricorn when depicted in the work carries with it the same three side piece constellations. Its shape remains constant as does its spatial relationship to Delphinus, Sagitta, and Aquila, its three decan constellations from the primeval story. These four constellations grouped together describe one facet of the narrative. Pictured here is Sphere of Paradox which features the Capricorn group and an accompanying chart with its named stars.
In the oldest star charts Capricorn is seen as a dying goat in a falling posture with its tail rising up as the tail of a vigorous fish. In this chart the star Algedi, meaning the Billy Goat or the chosen of the flock, and Dabih just under it, meaning the cut off or the sacrifice slain, can be found to the lower right. Deneb Algedi, the tail of the goat, completes the arc of Capricorn from right to left. Just to the right of Deneb Algedi is the star Nashira, meaning bearer of good news. Above and to the right is its first decan constellation, Aquila, the pierced eagle whose brightest star Altair, means “the wounded”. This “kingly” bird has taken the heavenly arrow, the second side constellation Sagitta, to willingly die as a sacrifice. The third decan constellation Delphinus symbolizes a dolphin rising out of the water; it is the picture of the tail of the goat rising to new life out of death.
Telling the story of the stars through painting creates an opportunity to balance scientific knowledge of today with the presence of the Great Knowing existing beyond the realm of space and time. In the words of T.S. Elliot, “Poetry communicates before it is understood.” The dialogue emerging from within one’s heart is where Art lives.
Art will not allow you to define it, nor will it allow you to touch it for very long. Though it seems fleeting, it is rewarding, fulfilling you while it beckons you. This is a living dialogue, it is a paradox. You will touch its being only as you yourself step aside to allow it through. We are called to become conduits, part of the grand poem, of something we cannot yet understand.
I am not doing anything new or anything never before done. I am merely allowing what is and always has been present to filter through me. I am part of it and it is part of me. It is the ultimate dialogue.
When we speak today of initiating dialogue, what we achieve more than not is diatribe. Entrenched speakers compete against another without genuine exchange of thought. Yet it’s diversity of thought that makes us human, not solipsism. Sincere communication is obtained by accepting those we perceive as the Other. We cannot engage with complex and diverse thought without the views of those who see and experience the world as different from our own. Our culture is far too engaged with apathy for that reason. For dialogue to occur, we must not shout over each other, or for that matter merely listen as we wait for rebuttal. We ought to listen and extend ourselves into the minds of difference. To do so, is empathy.
I’ve spent the entirety of my life trying to empathize with those who hate. As a thirty-three year old gay man, I grew up in the 1990s at the height of the culture wars. Life in central New York was far from the metropolitan grandeur I craved, farther still from anything hinting at queerness. My family life felt quite normal, inasmuch as most leather-clad Harley biker families are. I spent most weekends with smells of exhaust and stale beer, thundering engines and raucous tattooed men who always had time to play a game with the quiet pipsqueak running about their feet. Not surprisingly there was also a fair amount of intolerant speech growing up. These were men protecting their masculinity in ways they saw fit, ways that were counter to my own sense of masculinity. Too early in the zeitgeist to come out to family and peers in my teens, I instead learned how to listen. I learned how to comprehend complexity. For a gay kid growing up in a family that loved him, but didn’t understand the inequity of their speech, resentment grew only fruitless benefits. Throughout college, I sat silently in the company of many straight men in power who expressed severe discomfort with sexual difference. I did this not out of self-hatred, but to gain a deeper understanding of humanity, about privilege, and my role within it. While I didn’t have the privilege to speak, I could think. Thinking as Plato and Aristotle describe—being in silent dialogue between me and myself. The dialogue of utter silence.
Having empathy toward the offensive and intolerant has many attributes. I’m fully aware that while I speak of empathy and understanding through dialogue, I will never persuade the minds of demagogues like former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos or his followers. Direct activism is not my strength. I am an educator and my art practice reflects that position. My passion lies with philosophical activism: presenting ideas and challenging clichés, in order for you to determine your own mind.
We also hear a lot about safe spaces today, especially on college campuses. In 2016 after the presidential election, there were a number of attempts at liberal solidarity. One particular gesture provoked me the most, that of the safety pin. Situated as a political statement, the goal was to visibly show support towards marginalized groups by wearing the most innocuous of objects, a safety pin. The wearer in doing so proclaimed a willingness to confront injustices and not become a silent witness. While the motivations are perfectly valid, I found for the most part, they became empty gestures to assuage despondency and guilt. The following year I started the Panzi Project in conversation with this phenomenon. Making use of a previous pattern from several sculptures of manhole covers, the cross icon was cast in aluminum and transformed into a lapel pin. Referencing WWI remembrance poppies, the cross was turned on its side to form an X and summon the genocidal histories of LGBT people. The sale of each pin acts as a complete donation to the Canadian charity The Rainbow Railroad, whose mission is to liberate LGBT people from countries with state-enabled violence, murder and persecution. The alternate intention is to expose the gesture of silence as feel- good activism. The participants are presented with a choice of action or inaction, apathy or empathy. The double-edged sword of a good deed done at one point in time, and the follow through of continued action.
The most crucial question of dialogue is who speaks and who is spoken to. The privilege of speech dictates both a voice and absence of voice. While the direction of authority determines the exchange as either one or two-way communication. The difficulty of dialogue is whether we engage in cooperative or competitive arguments, where minds can come together or emotions flare. The most treacherous is the echo chamber, that cacophony of compliant speech where people form words but never speak to one another. We have shifted from exploring nuance into defending talking points and safeguarding sameness, comfortable in the fragile narcissistic tribes we have constructed for ourselves.
This type of sectarianism is quite ominous for our society. It shields us from discussions of difference, particularly when contrasting ideas occur within the same community. Inability to resonate with the echo chamber can be grounds for expulsion from the tribe. Unanimity of opinion quickly fabricates a level of fanaticism and eliminates those who dissent. While the gay community in public discourse is often seen as persecuted and oppressed, the struggle of inclusivity has many facets. I’m here to say that insularly, the community has many pitfalls with racism, exclusion, and agenda. Dissenters from the prescribed culture are not always made welcome, with some quite dangerous effects.
Researching the Panzi Project, I came across the paradoxical phenomenon of gay fascists. The Alt-Right author Jack Donovan illustrated this case in 2006 writing (under a pseudonym) his manifesto Androphilia. He writes: “Androphilia is an effort to reclaim this rich male heritage for men who love men. It dismisses those who want to confine homosexual males to a clichéd effeminate stereotype.” Far from isolated company, many other instances came to light. Milo Yiannopoulos the aforementioned Brietbart contributor, actively proclaims his associations with white supremacists, and in 2016 proudly attacked a trans student while speaking at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Yiannopoulos is also an out gay man with a black husband. Ernst Röhm, a well known homosexual, was also an early member of the Nazi Party and close friend to Adolf Hitler. Nicky Crane was a British neo-Nazi in the 1980s before he was ejected for publicly coming out as gay after he had contracted HIV. The Sun newspaper aptly printed the headline “Nazi Nick is a Panzi.”
Needless to say, I was at a loss for words. In order to grapple with this expanded view of what I perceived as incomprehensible, that of queer fascists, I let research dictate the conversation. The first to speak was Röhm. A high ranking member of the German Workers’ Party, Röhm was brazen in his homosexual posture. Opposing Paragraph 175, Röhm challenged heteronormative superiority and his prophetic words formed the foundation of my approach in the work. “All revolutions devour their own children.” Disembodied mouths, both sexual and sinister, silently quote the dire prophecy. The photographs float in a black void as a nod to the Samuel Beckett play Not I—a reminder to myself while peering into the darkness. Aluminum truncheons, the weapon of police and symbol of authority, hang underneath Röhm’s words as tokens of masculine prowess and sexual deviance.
Nicky Crane, or “Nazi Nick,” proposed a different conversation. His double life as a homosexual man frequenting gay dance clubs one night, then leading racist attacks on young black men on another, confronted me with how the marginalized find warped positions of power. Yet Jack Donovan and Nicky Crane were too extreme to work with, I needed my own manifestation. I decided on creating a caricature of the queer alt-right: a queer skin-head who could stand as counter-vanguard and antagonist for me to reconcile with. Garlanded with a black rubber harness constructed with the same pattern as the Panzi Project, the character Jacksie came alive. Towering and hateful, his image is all posturing, his harness a bit queer. The braces (British term for suspenders) attach to nothing, merely draping over his back and shoulders. The form is based on a sautoir, a long open-ended necklace intended to draw the eye to its end, hovering just above the groin. The intention was to add some semblance of sensuality to his bereft hostility, regardless of how futile that may be. I’m apprehensive of how Jacksie takes on a life in my work. He’s contentious in his creation but also in his banality.
For this reason I’ve returned to the perspectives of the twentieth century political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Her words on totalitarianism, now approaching seventy years from their original publication, are once again looming ominously over our current time. Arendt’s famed concept of the ‘banality of evil’ was in response to the trial of Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann. Though conscious of his sheer guilt, Arendt’s expression was to convey the thoughtlessness of Eichmann’s deeds, the banality of a man performing evil without evil intention. Through conformism, blind acceptance and collaboration, one surrenders the ability to think and to be human. For Arendt, that is when evil infiltrates society.
There is a subtle irony in the concepts presented by Arendt and the social tribalism of today. Arendt effectively disarmed the emotional fervor surrounding Eichmann’s trial by introducing the monster as a banal thoughtless bureaucrat. I propose that same zeal in which we comply with defending liberalism produces a tangential consequence—the Mediocrity of Tolerance.
Clearly I don’t wish to equate the horrific atrocities of Eichmann and the Third Reich with decent people attempting to better society through advocating social progress. The banality of evil stands as a warning for generations of decent people, as a constant reminder how demagogues cultivate ‘normative morality’ to suit the tribalist ego. Social morality and ethics are the pillars of democratic societies. They also require careful and constant maintenance. When we encase ourselves in tolerance without understanding, without thinking, social dialogue becomes empty words uttered without purpose. Appearances of being ‘woke’ are revealed as little more than a daydream.
Dialogue is what rouses consciousness to the lurking contradictions within tolerance. Whereas the banality of evil elicits a normative morality, the mediocrity of tolerance elicits moral urgency. With the potential of offense engendering such trepidation, content becomes paralyzed through its curtailment. This jarring realization happened for me in the recent exhibition of a new body of work, ironically titled the Redaction Series. Twenty-one photographic metal prints of gay and trans men—each with their eyes obscured by a pixelation device. Emerging from the horrific reports of abduction, torture, and execution of homosexual men in the Russian-backed Southern Republic of Chechnya, I wanted to determine whether it was possible to document the liminal boundary of empathy and apathy. Arranging itself on two fronts, the project formed a schism between production and reception. Given that I required men to photograph, I had to form a deeper relationship and engagement with my local gay community. The basis of the work generated an outpouring of support and interest to participate. My studio gradually formed a secondary site for queer interaction and community outside the familiar bar-scene. We united into a family. Reception of the work was far more shocking. Discussion rebounded from the content of the work into a battleground of political one-upmanship. Interrogations spanned the gamut of social triggering. I was misogynistic for the absence of lesbian women. I was transphobic for the lack of trans women. Flawed in the ambiguous representation of trans men, and insensitive to black trauma as a white artist depicting men of color. I see the anger, but also the blindness. The moral urgency to call out perceptions of intolerance kept them from seeing reality. My objective with the work was to delineate the threshold of empathy and apathy. What I discovered was a blockade.
We’ve detached ourselves from complex reasoning through encampment inside thinly-walled temples of tolerant simplicity. I needed to provide multiplicity. My role reversed from initiating conversation around empathy, to defusing apathetic tensions, and defending the contextual conditions for the project. The greater theme of my work focuses on the hypermasculine, and the fragility/fluidity of its construction within the hetero/homo male binary. Chechen authorities have publicly condemned all homosexuality, yet their campaign of torture and murder only targeted gay men. The absence (or redaction if I may) of lesbian and trans women’s visibility in the project, is part of the dialogue. It’s not an erasure, but a conversation surrounding the politics of sexuality and masculinity. Regarding a white artist depicting people of color, Dana Schutz’s infamous painting of Emmett Till certainly has every curator of art wringing their hands. The success surrounding Schutz’s painting was in part the constructive dialogue of racial trauma. The failure of the painting was that Schutz appropriated black trauma through the privileged reflection and re-creation of a white artist. The men in my work are a collective family. We share in collective queer trauma. While I can empathize with the inequities of my gay community, I also recognize the boundary of discrimination for others. I can however use my privilege. I can speak to the racism and transphobia within the gay community by incorporating that dialogue within the work. The revealing comments I received speak more to our current cultural preoccupations.
These tendencies of contemporary life illuminate why we need to be offended less, and shy from retreating into a world superseded by emotion, than that of logic and dialogue. Public discourse is more than capable of entreating complexity in uncomfortable viewpoints, so long as we speak with purpose and thought. Art by its nature is pressed to offend as a counterforce to mediocrity. It should not be censured out of fear of infringing sensibilities. It exposes who we are. Language is deceitful. Those gifted with a talent for words can rally the masses. My work is an act without words. It undermines the script we use to govern each other. An apparition of dialogue for us to finally listen.
This letter —a part our national dialogue— dated June 11, 2018, was signed by numerous members of the creative community and sent to our Senators and Representatives.
Dear Senators King and Collins and Representatives Pingree and Poliquin,
By now I’m no stranger to you, and you know my story. However, I’m not here today to talk about kidney disease. I’m here today to talk about one of the downstream effects of the cannibalization of the ACA and the latest assault on the protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions. I’m joined in my appeal by many of my colleagues and friends.
I am a writer and an editor. I came to Maine to raise my children and do my work because, like so many other creative people, I dreamed of having a modest life that would inspire my art. I needed to live in a place I cared deeply about; that is intensely beautiful; that has some space where one can think. In doing so, I joined a community of people that wanted the same and who have performed feats of amazing financial and artistic gymnastics to stay here. Much is being made these days of Maine’s “creative economy;” but have you stopped for a moment to think about what it takes for an artist to actually live here: the true cost of being one of those creatives in a state that offers very little in terms of grants, sponsorship, incentives, and regular work?
My definition of artists includes those of us who get up everyday to generate new and exciting ideas and projects: they are painters and poets, chefs and gardeners, writers and directors, musicians, craftspeople, actors, ceramicists, curators, publishers, designers, printmakers, playwrights, dancers, journalists, architects, and photographers We move into run-down neighborhoods (the only ones we can afford) and transform them with our ingenuity and “can-do” spirit—the same optimism that keeps us here when larger population centers offer a greater audience and more pay—and we love it, because making things is what we do. And making them in Maine is important to us. There is a long history of artistic endeavor in this state and to be a part of that continuum is an honor. As devalued as creative work often is here, especially at the emerging and mid-levels, we stay because we know what E.B. White (who suffered his whole life from Generalized
Anxiety Disorder, a pre-existing condition) says is true: “I’d rather feel bad in Maine, than feel good anywhere else.”
But staying is increasingly harder. It’s one thing to watch our project fees and book advances dwindle, to compete for fewer and fewer jobs, to watch with a stomach ache as the current administration reduces funding to the arts and letters. It’s a whole other thing to be helpless as Congress sits back and allows this current administration to gut access to affordable healthcare and challenge over and over again the protections for pre-existing conditions. Disease does not care if you are Republican or Democrat, a grandparent, parent or a child, a banker or a bread maker. It crosses all constructs and it kills. Allowing this administration to run roughshod over the people of this nation, and in particular your old, sick, opioid-addicted, depressed state, is a cynical move that will bankrupt the creative economy in Maine and its future. I, like many others with life-threatening diseases and genetic conditions, will not be able to stay. The luckier ones will take their skills and tax dollars and join the flight of our young people to states that are less punitive. The less lucky will go broke or choose to forgo treatment and suffer or die. You will end up representing a state on life-support.
Creative people rely on non-traditional career paths—the same paths that led many of us to Maine. We often do not have employer-based healthcare plans. Those of us who do have day jobs are frequently found in media and small businesses that don’t offer benefits; but more often than not, we are gig people: the freelancers, the self-employed. Maine has the highest rate of unincorporated self-employed workers in the country, at 11.2% at a median salary of $21,196 per year. And we, the gig workers, are the ones with the genius to create the spaces, the technology, the restaurants, the magazines, the festivals, the plays, the movies, the exhibits, the concerts, the books, the songs, the creative writing centers, the artisanal products, and the fine art and crafts that have historically made Maine a cultural place where people want to live and raise their families. We are what makes Maine more than lobsters and lighthouses.
If you want us to be able to live here and do our jobs, please do yours. Oppose in every way possible, every single time, the efforts of the current administration to gut the ACA and the protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
The following is a conversation between Solon-based wet-plate photographer Scott Anton and my wife, Paula Kany, who has worked with Scott for years as an art model. Paula isn’t comfortable with the term “model,” and that is probably the inspiration for this entire dialogue. She has found that for many people the word “model” implies someone who plays a passive role without artistic agency. Paula wanted me to come to her shoots with two different photographers who use the collodion process — James Wigger, a studio photographer in New York as well as Scott — so I could see what was happening for myself both in terms of the wet plate process and her “modeling.” I came to see that she was a full partner in the artistry and the ultimate content of the work. That said, I think viewers ultimately see the work differently with a shifting balance between focusing on the work of the photographer and identifying with the figures in the image. In film, most Americans identity more with the actors rather than the directors or writers; and I think this effect is echoed with photography to a certain extent. Of course, presentation matters: If you go to see a show of Joyce Tenneson’s photography, for example, it’s made clear that the photographer is the artist of note. But we aren’t always (not even usually) presented with photography as authored by an artist: In our daily lives, the main ingredient of photography is what is pictured — not who is behind the camera. This is a vast and subtle subject without a singular truth; and what we find in this dialogue is that even people who work closely together have different perspectives.
Scott uses the photographic technique known as the wet plate collodion process that was invented in 1851 and came, by the end of the 1860s, to replace the daguerreotype as the standard photographic process until it was replaced by the silver gelatin process in the 1880s. The collodion process involves coating and sensitizing a glass or metal plate (using a soluble iodide and a solution of collodion — cellulose nitrate) and then exposing and developing the plate all within about a 15 minute period. This small window necessitates either working in the studio or creating a portable darkroom. (Scott, a farmer, will even use the front of his tractor as a portable darkroom.) And it makes it a labor intensive but dynamic and immediate process.
It struck me that the technical aspects of the plate preparation, exposure and developing necessarily took place in the presence of the model at the shoot. During this entire process, Paula was fully engaged with both photographers: The dialogue was continuous. This was particularly interesting to me because I play in rock bands: Dialogue is a huge part of the group creative process, but it is not possible during performance.
The following are snippets from a conversation that took place in August, 2018.
Paula: Scott and I talk about what we’re going to do before we get together, but it’s hardly set in stone. Because we work outside with natural light, we can’t always do what we’ve been planning to do. Sometimes there is a great deal of investment in the setup; and then we couldn’t do what we wanted simply because of the light.
Scott: The planning is important. Paula shows up with props and ideas; but it is the friendship that makes it so much better. I get these moods and I always have an idea of what I want to do; but every model is different and I work off the emotions of the model – their life. Models like Paula come to me because of my talent as a wet plate artist. But I like to incorporate Paula’s feelings even more than her props. That may be what she has going on that month, that week, that day or that year. Trust matters, but it has to do with being able to mix with certain people. Sometimes you don’t have a connection, and that just doesn’t work for me.
P: We don’t necessarily talk about content when working; we are far more likely to talk about life. I am friends with Scott and his wife Gemma. And this is one of the most important things about our working relationship. We’re not only comfortable with each other, we really enjoy being together.
S: I really like it when you shoot that first plate or two and the discussion kicks in. You get that image in the water (which is what brings out the image on the plate) and that is when the feedback comes and the dialogue starts for real. I like that. When you critique the work in real time, that is when you move forward. Some models don’t even look at the image in the fix. I can’t work with them.
P: Scott is more classic than some of the other wet plate photographers with whom I work. By “classic,” I mean that he has a narrative sense that fits older themes and art forms like painting or nineteenth century photography. I tend to like darker themes than he does. And sometimes he wants to do things for which I wouldn’t be the best model. What’s awesome, though, is that we always wind up in the same working space. I think we both adjust in different ways to what the other one has in mind.
S: I like the banter that goes on with the models; there is not a lot of quiet time, and that’s really important for me. There is always a lot of joking; so every moment is open for comment, so, yeah, Paula or any of my models can give input pretty naturally. I think the ideas are mostly mine, although my ideas almost never come out how I plan. But it almost always works. If it veers off on another angle, I go with it. And I think that’s the way it should be; I might want to do something but Paula is not in the mood. That would make it change direction.
P: Over time, I have gotten more and more involved. For example, I like to go into Scott’s barn and find props – I like weird things, like the bull horn cutter. I am particularly drawn to the things I don’t recognize that have wild shapes. Some of these old farm tools are scary. They’re exciting. They fascinate me and I think that comes through in the pictures.
S: I generally have an idea I want to follow. But stories need props and sometimes the story comes together when we’re talking about props and what to do with them.
P: I think that Scott approaches the content of his work through the idea of storytelling. The stories aren’t necessarily full and complete stories, but there is the sense of narrative, the idea of motivation, that something is going on. That’s important and it’s generally where we come together. Someone looking at the pictures doesn’t need to follow the story; it’s enough to know that something is going on. And I like that sense of mystery. Especially with the old format of collodion. If you sense a story, it feels like you’re getting a fragment of something lost. And I think that’s exciting. It certainly is for me.
S: My goal is to find where the emotional state of the model lines up with the story I am trying to tell. I want the picture to feel authentic. When the feelings are real, the picture looks real. Being true to the emotional state of the model is probably more important to me than the story. But when I work with Paula, it is very much about the story; I really don’t think about the viewer, I want to tell that story. Sometimes that means I have a look I want but I can’t get it with collodion. So we work around it.
P: I think Scott doesn’t really want to show me as an older model. But I am okay being seen as an older woman, mother figure, or even someone who is sad or crazy. That elicits a different response than seeing a posed beautiful woman. I didn’t start modeling until I was about 45 and part of what inspired me was the idea of seeing older women as models. Scott and I are still trying to figure that out, which I think is good; it makes him step out of his comfort zone. I like to think that makes him go new places with his work.
S: Maybe. Every model I work with is different. It matters to me how I relate to each model as well as what kind of a mood they’re in. Because of that, my work is always different.
P: I have been struggling with the term “model.” What I do is part performance, part art-directing, part acting. I don’t know if there is a better word than “model,” but I think that to a lot of people it conveys something passive. And my role in the process is anything but passive. I really enjoy being involved in the process: applying the collodion, putting the plates in the bath and so on.
S: The technical part of the process is not something I do with the models in general. That’s just you, since we’ve worked together for a few years. And with you, that’s an important part of the whole process — when we develop the work and see what we get. But, yeah, once we get a couple of pictures, that’s when things really start happening.
P: Because the wet plate process takes so long — the shot itself usually takes between 8 and 15 seconds — you have to be able to hold the pose. That’s why I don’t smile; it’s really hard to hold. And because of that, you almost never see anyone smiling in wet plate pictures, so it would look out of place if I did it. We did one recently and it looked more crazy than pretty. Also, because you have to hold the poses longer, it takes more forethought than digital. You have to get the pose right before the shot. Sometimes that means I have to hold a pose for 5 or even 10 minutes or longer while we get the setting, lighting and props all settled.
S: Sometimes you don’t like what you see in the water (the plate as it develops in the bath) and I say I am going to scrape it off, but then, after some time — an hour, a day, a week — you wind up loving it. Expectations can be limiting. Sometimes it takes time to shake them off. Digital is so predictable, but there is nothing predictable about wet plate. That’s why I like it.
On a hot July morning, I stepped into Ace Hardware in Falmouth for some silicone rubber sealant. While I was standing in line to pay, I noticed a bunch of small works by Erin McGee Ferrell. I picked one up to take a closer look. They were small, thick panels with collaged painting, heavily glazed with polyurethane. They were on sale at the checkout counter for $40 each.
I was impressed.
I’ve met Erin, who, some years ago, moved to Falmouth from Philadelphia. She’s a strong and highly energetic painter and I like her work. I asked the man ringing up my silicon if he knew anything about the panels and so we started chatting. I noticed a pretty big guy at the next register watching this interaction closely. He looked like a typical working stiff: white hair, dark t-shirt, glasses and some pretty serious ink on his left arm. So, I said to him: “You should get one of these. They’re good and for $40 it’s a deal.”
“Oh, I have plenty,” he said.
Sure you do, I thought, doubting. “So, are you an art person?” I queried, but more as a polite conversation starter than anything else.
Turns out, he was Charlie Hewitt. And he not only owns a bunch of museum-worthy art, but his own art lives with the giants in many of America’s leading museums.
I had known Charlie’s work from a show at the Bates College Museum of Art from about 10 years ago that featured his prints. (Bates has an extensive collection.) More recently, I had become familiar with his large installation pieces in Portland and Lewiston and the work on view at Jim Kempner Fine Art, his Chelsea gallery in NYC. I was particularly interested in meeting him since I had just heard he was slated for a solo show at ICON Contemporary in Brunswick, one of the most consistently excellent galleries in the state.
We went out for a quick coffee and the conversation immediately became fascinating: Charlie came across as allergic to bullcocky and patent commercialism. I hadn’t fully responded to his work in the past, but having connected the dots between his prints and his sculptures, I had, prior to meeting him, gotten the idea that was more my own shortcoming as a viewer than his as an artist.
As the art critic for the state’s newspaper of record, I write about art rather than artists. But, considering my own personal reevaluation, he had risen to the top of the list of artists I actually wanted to meet in Maine. I would like to think of this as a chance for both of us, but, in all fairness, it was I who was rewriting his script, not Charlie. It was a work day for both of us, however, and so the coffee klatch was break-time quick.
Charlie Hewitt is a Portland-based printmaker and sculptor who grew up in Lewiston. He has major public sculptures from his Urban Rattle series installed in NYC as well as Portland and Lewiston. He recently completed a major solo exhibition at ICON. (It was an excellent exhibition; I regret not having been able to fit in a review as part of my weekly newspaper art critic gig.) Hewitt is no slouch. His work is featured in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; the Museum of Modern Art, NY; the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; the New York Public Library; the Brooklyn Museum; the Library of Congress, Washington, DC; and, among other public collections, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.
We picked the conversation back up at Hewitt’s exhibition at ICON. We were joined by gallerist Duane Paluska.
Over coffee, Charlie and I had discussed how artworld communications had changed over the years. (Charlie looks about 60, but he’s in his early ‘70s.) With the shifting roles of galleries, social media, and the way commissions now come about — we talked about how that affects the way artists like Charlie communicate with their professional contacts. And as an artist from humble Maine roots who somehow along the way found his way to success, I asked him what was the role of dialogue in his working with gallerists, curators, art dealers, the press and the public. The short answer was that styles of communication had certainly changed but were now changing at an even faster rate what with social media and changes in both how galleries operate and how the art audience interacts with art. (And yes, that starts with the internet and goes everywhere from there.)
When Duane joined us — and Duane knows me well as an art critic who regularly reviews his exhibitions — we primarily talked about Charlie’s art in the show. Ironically enough (or not?), Duane had set up “conversations” between the works in Charlie’s show, alternating prints, paintings and small sculptures so that they visually interacted and echoed each other. And to be clear, Duane is one of the most demanding and exacting exhibition installers in the state; he is one of Maine’s leading sculptors and he’s been running his gallery for well over 30 years. While this idea of “conversations” between the different media (prints, sculpture, paintings) shouldn’t surprise the reader, I have known Duane for a long time and it was the first time I recall hearing him discuss an installation in these terms.
In other words, we found ourselves dialoguing about the dialogue among Charlie’s works in a conversation curated by Duane. The shapes, forms and approaches certainly enriched each other; and, yes, I was impressed. For example, Duane’s wall on which he starts his numerical numbering system for labels (no wall labels, just number pins and a printed sheet) is tilted, and the piece on that wall is a wall sculpture with somewhat tilted planes, including neon forms. Here, again, the conversation pivoted and Charlie explained how he worked with several different “neon artists” to create the elements he asked of them. (Charlie gives such folks full credit and I admire him for that; particularly because you can imagine he treats them with complete respect as artists in their own right rather than as his “fabricators.”) These new neon pieces indeed complete the conversation among the work: The sculptural forms of metal, after all, match the physical forms of the wood and metal supports that Charlie has long used as a master printer.
Charlie’s prints reveal a fundamental quality of prints that are made with broad forms in 4, 5, 6, or 7 or so plates: They build up on each other, layer placed upon layer. For even the average viewer, this step-by-step reveals the linear logic we typically associate with narrative. Moreover, the way these tactics are revealed to the viewer echo dialogue: This form falls on top of that form, it came after; it is a response to the prior plate. In fact, this is a quality of painting that reveals the visual intelligence of the painter. But with painting, it is far harder to unpack. Yet we can often sense the stroke or the the form or the gesture that punctuated the thing, delivering it to its final sense of completion.
Not surprisingly, Charlie’s paintings go deep with this logic. The forms surge out over each other subtly, but we can feel that printmaker’s sense of gesture: in the sense that gestures comprise entire layers of the image. (Photoshop is based on this layer logic.) In the combined strength of his painted forms and his proclivity for a narrative sense, however, we can directly sense the lessons of his teacher and mentor, Phillip Guston.
While Charlie generally spoke about his art in terms of hard work and formal terms readily apparent to the viewer, I was caught off guard (I have to admit, I was “rattled” — and, yes, I think the irony is Charlie’s rather than mine… but back to that in a minute) when he told me about his longstanding fascination with the implements of the torture of Jesus on his brutal trek to Calvary. In art (and Christianity), we know these from the 14 Stations of the Cross.
Charlie grew up in Lewiston, a leading center of Maine’s Catholic communities. In his 2006 essay about Charlie, then-Bates Museum of Art director (now the director of the Portland Museum of Art), Mark Bessire wrote about Charlie’s commitment in his iconography to church, family and work.
Where I had seen swizzlesticks in Charlie’s tall rattle works in Portland, Lewiston and NYC, I suddenly saw brutal tools and crucified forms… cruciforms, if you will. Charlie never stated this directly to me, but suddenly the idea of these shapes being cut out (and then made 3D, attached, etc) with flaming torches… well, even if that wasn’t Charlie’s direct intent, the effect of his saying it was something I couldn’t shake, and it was surprisingly dark and moving.
For a diver, going deeper means holding your breath. Getting the best kernels of dialogue often means that as well: hold your breath… and listen. If hadn’t spoken up to that anonymous guy I later found out to be Charlie Hewitt, well, I might certainly be still in the dark. Moreover, I love art as much as I do in part because I let the artist’s work speak to me. Sure, I write about the work; I break the silence with my written language. But I always listen first. I even try not to read the marketing materials before I get my own take on what the work says on its own. The way of a professional art critic, in other words, is not the right way: It’s A way. I get reminded of that often. And I was particularly glad in the case of chancing into Charlie Hewitt.
There is a sense of privacy between the closed covers of a sketchbook. It can be a place of fresh discovery where something new is hatched or it can serve as an archive. There is a sense of time in a sketchbook. It is a stand in for a calendar with the whiff of the alchemical. This is a place where secrets are stored and revealed.
Is your sketchbook a place to jot things down, dash off a few lines or where you dig in and flesh something out? Is it a travelogue, an encyclopedia, visual treatise or memoir?
Share with us some pages from your current projects, your personal archives, or the mutterings, musings, and legacy from artists you know or have known.
Journal Submission guidelines for Members’ Showcase and featured artists: We invite UMVA members to submit up to 4 JPEG or png images, (No TIFF files) —Include an image list and statement or essay in Word doc. Format, not a PDF. No Dropbox.
Label each image file as follows: yourlast name_Number of Image_Title_ (if you are submitting for a group put your own last name in first.)
Label your document file names: Last Name_Title
Image list format: Artist’s Name, “Title of Work”, medium, size, date (optional), photo credit (if not included we assume it is courtesy of the artist).
—Please wait until all of your material is compiled to submit.
Size of images: Images should be JPEG files, (approximately 1000 pixels on long side, resolution 72dpi) between 500KB to 1.2MB.
Put “Sketchbook” in the subject line and submit by email email@example.com the December 1st deadline. MAJ will limit the “Members’ Showcase” section to UMVA members who have not been published in the past year.
We are no longer able to accommodate artists’ pre-formatted visual essays. Our editors will lay-out text and images submitted using the new guidelines above.
Maine artists and arts community members can become members of the Union of Maine Visual Artists by clicking HERE. Membership helps support the UMVA’s advocacy and helps make this Maine Arts Journal: UMVA Quarterly possible. Or you can provide direct support to the MAJ via the link under “Support MAJ!” For a free subscription to the MAJ, CLICK HERE or 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, and Betsy Sholl (poetry editor)
The images created by ARRTists become vibrant components of communities throughout the state and over time find many uses, often framing important messages and bringing groups together. As a project of the UMVA, ARRT! creates images for progressive non-profits throughout the state, and on occasion, for special requests for out-of-Maine organizations. ARRT! provides a visual voice for groups which need assistance getting their messages out. The photos featured below offer a glimpse into the vibrant lives the images live and what they offer to Maine citizens.
ARRT! banners, placards and props can often be found at Whitefield Maine’s Fourth of July parade.
Much of ARRT!’s work consists of large original hand-painted banners, but new media and applications are popping up all the time. All of ARRT’s work is done in collaboration, with the belief and proven practice, that our best work emerges through our shared skills, ideas and the lively process of group critique we have developed. See more at www.arrteam.org
LumenARRT! is a project of the Artists Rapid Response Team (ARRT!). Working through the Union of Maine Visual Artists (UMVA), LumenARRT! creates video projections illuminating messages, like electronic graffiti, to bring awareness to issues of social, political and environmental justice.
LumenARRT’s projection on 6/29/18 was in front of Susan Collins’ office in support of the “Keep Families Together” rally the next day.
CLICK on the animation below to see a video of the actual projection:
Our projection on Sept. 7th, Friday Art Walk in Portland, featured a Codfish Funeral with the IDEAL MAINE SOCIAL AID AND SANCTUARY BAND! We started about 7:30 PM on Congress Street, using our new MOVING projection system, in support of the global mobilization and Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice Rally the next day at Lincoln Park in Portland.
CLICK on image below to see a short video of the Codfish Funeral including dancing in the streets!
UMVA-LA has had a wonderful summer season starting with our annual exhibit “Pride: What brings pride to your life?” at Kimball Street Studio. This exhibit included works from artists who take pride in what they do.
We also enjoyed sharing works with our community, through heading up and assisting Build Maine in having Internationally-recognized artist, Arlin Graff, create an amazingly beautiful huge mural of a zebra on the side of the Centerville Parking lot. The meaning behind the Zebra is “Community”. Zebras are rarely alone and live and work in community. It represents the coming together of the growing immigrant community with a community of mostly white natives. It is the beginning of our hopes to have more large-scale displays of public art.
Our recent UMVA-LA meetings have had inspiring artist talks, Kate Katomski spoke about her current projects around historic mining, and Sheri Withers Hollenbeck about her community arts projects. Grayling Cunningham hosted the last talk with an interactive discussion about balancing art, work, home, family, and life. It was wonderful sharing with one another and all who attended benefited from the open discussion. We will be changing our meeting format to include important topics and conversation on a bi-monthly basis. Our next meeting will be held at The Studio located at 291 Lisbon street where guest speaker Alex Hood will share her journey as an artist and programming and opportunities at Bates College’s Olin Arts Center.
The Sunday Indie Market, sponsored by the Downtown Lewiston Arts District and UMVA-LA., has been gathering artists, artisans, culinarians, musicians, and vintage dealers for the only market of its kind in the Lewiston-Auburn area. On the 3rd Sunday of every month, we are outdoors in Lewiston’s Dufresne Plaza, on downtown Lisbon Street across from the courthouse. November through April, we are indoors at The Curio Art & Alehouse, 110 Lisbon Street. https://www.facebook.com/SundayindiemarketLewiston/
Upcoming Events: 3rd Annual Harvest Masquerade Ball is scheduled for Saturday October 20th 8pm-12am at the Agora Grand Event Center, formerly St. Patrick’s Church. This is our biggest fundraiser of the year that continues to grow and become something special. We have DJ Alex Merrill again playing amazing tunes and we are hoping to add some live music, Halloween inspired art, tours of the crypt, a photo booth, costume contests (costume contest details are below) and a silent horror film on the giant projection screen.
FB Event Page https://www.facebook.com/events/2221760614734719/
Maine artists are participating to help get out the vote in Maine’s 2018 election and the Maine Arts Journal is featuring their efforts here! Click on images below to see them larger.
Maine Citizens for Clean Elections (MCCE) and the League of Women Voters of Maine (LWVME) are non-partisan organizations working to engage, encourage and empower people to vote. ARRT! (Artists’ Rapid Response Team), LumenARRT!, and The Maine Arts Journal: Union of Maine Visual Artists Quarterly are partnering with them to generate a ton of interest and energy in the upcoming election.
MCCE and LWVME decided to ask Maine artists to create t-shirt designs with a motivating pro-voting theme as an awesome and effective way to stimulate interest in the critically important midterm elections. Designs that could also be suitable for printing as a bumper sticker or button were also welcome. The focus is on energizing voters to get out and make their voices heard, not on specific issues, candidates, or political parties.
From designs submitted MCCE and LWVME will select a couple to print on t-shirts for sale with artists donating the use of the designs to them.
My dialogue is with art history, thinking about how my own sensibility intersects and is influenced by paintings of the past. One of my interests is Vanitas, the idea that the brevity of life should lead us away from materiality to more spiritual concerns. Flowers are a traditional symbol of this because they have the fleeting, magnificent beauty of bloom and then fade and die.
Ars longa, vita brevis.
A Game and A Puzzle…To Start a Conversation – Gregg Harper
Recently I’ve begun to focus more intently on the power of images intertwined with words and concepts. My particular focus is the importance that we ascribe to these as we assess our present against our past and look to other means to guide us into the future in this liquid time. Concepts like “hope”, “will” and “oracle” are at the core of this exploration and The Philosopher’s Game and Elders Puzzle are two of my experiments.
Both pieces attempt to play the dual role of breaking down the perceived barrier between artwork and viewer while engaging in a conversation on the euro/anthro-centric nature of western philosophy (Philosopher’s Game) and the comparison to non-western philosophy and images (Elder’s Puzzle) where humans are generally part of, not separate from, nature. What words, images and artifacts might suggest a way to evaluate each mode of thinking to make it comprehensible to our own reality? And how do we conceive of the human place in all-encompassing life – parallel to nature, of nature, against nature? What are other “philosophical” perspectives on our existence beyond western thinking and image making? How applicable to our daily lives are the concepts that embody the thinking?
The central form of each Board is the “Quaternio”, representing the cardinal directions. Etruscan Augurs used the Quaternio to divide the sky to search for portents delivered by the flight of birds. An archaeologist uses it as the core of a site’s organizing grid system. It is also used as an evaluative graphic by mathematicians, physicists and even psycho-analyst Carl Jung.
The words on each board are attributes that western and various non-western cultures assign to their view of the cardinal directions. The words are the four Greek Elements, four Medieval Humours and Carl Jung’s four Functions in the Philosopher’s Game. In the Elder’s Puzzle the four elements – Earth, Water, Fire and Wind – are shown as well as Native American and Asian human attributes. What do these essential descriptors in both western and non-western philosophy tell us about our consciousness…our perception and interaction with our reality?
Viewers can choose four Curios or Amulets and arrange them on the respective boards. The objects could be signs of ritual, remnants of a cabinet of curiosities, alchemical substances, body ornaments…perhaps the birds that fly across the Etruscan sky. And with the formula of four artifacts hung on hooks on the four corners of the board, there are 17,160 possible “compositions” or “oracles” for each artwork.
The over-arching idea is to spark a conversation within the viewer by direct interaction with the artwork in “analog” form without the use of technology. Like a double use of the metaphor “muscle memory”: to use physical interaction with an artwork to exercise the brain muscle…and, perhaps, the heart/empathy muscle.
C E Morse: Dialogue
My images are abstract details of found objects that beg the questions: “what is it?”
which starts a conversation/dialogue. While grappling with identification one explores the subconscious emotional impact of the images as well as the relevance to previous experience. This dialogue can be between the viewer and the piece or among viewers.
I am always fascinated to hear what other people see in my work and their reaction when I identify the subject that I have photographed …. which then starts a whole new conversation.
RAGNA BRUNO-TORKANOWSKY: “DIALOGUE, A DANCE OF OPPOSITES”
SPONTANEOUS DRAWINGS IN BLACK AND YELLOW OCHRE INK, WHERE
RANDOM THOUGHTS ARE INTERTWINED WITH COUNTERPOINT RHYTHMS IN THE SEARCH FOR A FLUID STRUCTURE.
Strout — Statement/Dialogue
For me, making art is definitely about dialogue. It starts with those conversations in my head, inspired by musicians, writers, and other artists. Inclusivity is an important theme in my life and in my art. The “Song of Woody Guthrie” was inspired by Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land is Your Land,” written in 1940. I am still deeply affected by it, especially in the current political climate.
“Uncloudy Day,” a 1979 gospel song, speaks to me on several levels. I see America as a metaphor—a home “where no storm clouds rise,” depicted here with border crossings and little white crosses. Hopes and dreams, or sacrifice and despair? Let’s talk.
And what about “Together we make Stone Soup?” This is a very old folk tale about a hungry traveler with nothing but a stone in his pocket. When others contributed to the soup, they had a feast. Everyone brought something to the table—again, a metaphor for collaboration and sharing.
And “The Potluck”: who doesn’t love and appreciate a potluck? Finally, I am proud to be part of UMVA, an art organization promoting diversity, inclusivity and dialogue in a positive framework. It is a safe and welcoming place to dialogue about art and issues.
Katy Kelleher was invited to write an essay for the Maine Arts Journal, having experienced, on the front line, a Dialogue break-down on a social media forum. As a writer she has much to offer the visual arts by thinking in an original way. She has written a piece for us about “Depression, the Me Too movement, and Touch.” She mentions and channels the video series Pop Killed Culture by artist Jess Lauren Lipton and those are the images that accompany her essay. Katy has said of her own work, “If I had to identify a thread that runs through my writing, I’d say it’s that I’m obsessed with obsessions. I also really enjoy thinking and talking about the creative process and the general idea of beauty.”
It’s winter and I am suicidal. I often get this way during the winter. I like to say I’m “hazy about the eyes,” to quote Melville, that I feel a “damp, drizzly November in my soul.” His poetic account of the death drive gives me great comfort, but it’s also a way to obscure and elevate what I’m feeling. My emotions aren’t really so complex as all that; what I feel is apathy, cold and hard, an inner grayness that spreads through my mind, muting meaning, muffling joy. I become disembodied. I drift mentally from one funeral to another, replaying all the men I’ve lost to suicide, counting them. There are more than there should be.
It’s winter and I am staring at a computer screen. I’m watching an image of a woman with curly dark hair. The top of the screen reads “Pop Killed Culture.” As I watch, she takes her hands, which are smeared in paint, and begins to touch a man. He isn’t attractive, and this isn’t a porno. But he opens his mouth like he’s ready to receive something as she moves her hands down his neck. Like a supplicant washing feet, she bathes him with black pigment. In her hands, he becomes something else—a warrior, a baby, a rock star. She looks at the camera and her eyes are so white, her gaze so steady, I feel as though she’s seeing me.
It’s winter and I am walking in Portland. I am lightheaded from yesterday’s migraine. It came with an aura—such a beautiful word for such an awful symptom—and my brain has yet to fully recover. My head swirls with fog, and I imagine myself as a series of white glass spheres, stacked upon one and other, a fragile creature inhabited by miasma and mist. My friend Sophie grabs my arm and we walk into a pizzeria. “He’s here,” she whispers to me. I see him, surrounded by laughing friends, unaware that I’m here. (He’s never aware of me, because I am nothing to him, just another girl writer, just another person he could intimidate and objectify.) “Do you want to leave?” she asks, and I whisper yes. As we back out of the door and onto the cold Portland street, she holds my arm tightly against her side, as she often does, so that we escape together, moving as one. Sophie likes to touch. Whenever I see her after some time away, she grabs my hands and examines my rings, noting any changes, sliding the thin gold band on and off my ring finger. It is a gift, how well she knows me, how well she can read my long, bony hands. With her, I am solid, muscle and sinew, chapped skin and downy hair, red eyes and stiff neck. We compare stories about our childhood warts, and I remember hers too, as though they were mine: that one on her finger, that little ugly bump that makes her feel like herself.
It’s spring, and I am in Miami. I give my hands to a fortuneteller, who holds them gently in her own. I can’t stop looking at her neck, at the soft wrinkles that form in her beautiful skin. Around us, women sell painted canvases with images of parrots and palm trees, tropical sunsets and swirl-tailed lizards. She takes her thumb and strokes it across my palm, sending a shiver up my spine. “You don’t know yet what you truly want,” she tells me. “You have had many losses, maybe deaths. That is behind you.” About this, she is wrong. The dead never stop demanding my attention, particularly the newly dead. (Particularly the recently overdosed, the curly blonde head laid in the coffin, the first boy I loved, the first boy who touched me, the funny and strange boy who lives in my skin, inked there forever.) But her thumb circles my palm, tracing lines—life lines, love lines, lines that tell her the future, lines that tell her about my past—and I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe in her hands. I believe fully in her thumbs and her fingers, her wrinkled neck and her hopeful lipstick. I believe in that feeling that moves up from my gut and into my head—the peace of being touched.
It is easy to forget touch. We have prioritized our senses. We know which ones go with human interaction, and which ones can be used for communication. The most important is sight, of course, followed by hearing, then smell, then touch, and finally taste. They are ordered according to their social acceptance. One can’t simply taste another person. But you can sniff them subtly. You can listen to them. You can see them.
This is how we communicate to one another. We talk and we listen, we look at faces to gauge reactions. But the problem is, so much of my communication happens on a screen. So often, there is no face to see. There is no voice to listen to, no smells to register. There are only words, coming rapidly in a stream, angry and capitalized, raw and hurt. The hurt bleeds through, always. The hurt is so obvious. It’s the defining feature of online dialogue. Sometimes, I feel as though everyone on Facebook is just crying out, “I hurt, I hurt, I hurt.” This is the winter of Me Too, and we are all hurting, alone behind our screens. We hurt, and we can’t touch.
It is righteous and good that women have begun to speak up about the abuses they have suffered. It is important that we are no longer silent. But I can’t help my inappropriate response: I want to hold and be held. Every time I learn a new story of violence, every new wound I see, every new disclosure I welcome into my brain, every assault I bear witness to—I feel an immediate urge to wrap my long arms around someone and pull them toward me.
Sometimes, I do. Sometimes, I can. My closest friends have become used to my newfound appreciation of touch. I was once a rigid New England girl, self contained and wrapped in wool, an eye roll of a person, half sarcasm, half amusement. But somewhere along the way, I became an oozing tentacle monster, reaching out for more, more, more love.
Touch will not heal our discourse. The children in cages do not just need to be touched (though they do need human affection), they need to be free. The deported mothers and fathers do not need a fortune teller to reveal their fate, they need protection, a place of refuge.
But touch has opened a door in my heart, and I’m glad that bloody chamber is no longer locked. When I am feeling unmoored from myself, when I am feeling sick in the head, dizzy from the sparklers that flash uninvited in my vision, there are few things that calm me down like a pair of arms circling my torso. I have changed and become so much more tender, so much more raw. I don’t know if this is a good thing, but I have begun to believe that it is necessary for growth. That I must become tender and naked in order to move forward, in order to heal.
For there are no words for some forms of grief, and there is no way to debate certain evils. My life has always been words, and I committed myself to language with far more certainty than I signed my marriage certificate. But even I have to recognize when the dialog has become poisoned, when the words slip and slide around, when the facts become unstable creatures and run from their pens. Even I have to see that sometimes, words fail. Sometimes, all we can offer is a hand to hold.
Fortunately, sometimes, that is enough.
—Katy Kelleher is a freelance magazine writer and editor based in Maine. Her articles about color history were published in The Awl and The Paris Review. She has written for Art New England, and Longreads. She is the author of a book titled ”Handcrafted Maine.”
Grudge-holding ghosts have traveled great distances
to your funeral, but you were cremated years ago.
Why are they still obsessed with marking your death,
rubbing it in as if you were sand underfoot?
Have they no other grains to harvest?
They dress in red shifts to reinforce
their message that blood is meant to be drained,
and fire does not warm.
Those clothes you left behind, which they weave
in and out of like moths, contain none of your wisdom,
none of our loss.
Wall hangings are streaked
Wall hangings are streaked with spirits not stuck
to threads so much as they are threads themselves.
Immune to spot removers, the pneumas
need not be scrubbed nor feared.
Without them life would untether from earth,
become just another fallen star.
With them in the warp and woof,
quintessence is grounded, not betrayed.
See their visions in every seam;
no need to doubt if they are true—
art reveals spirits on the move.
If not for time
If not for time, everything would make sense.
We could speak into the void and not wait to hear
what we meant, nail down where we are and not be
flushed into oblivion, but fulfill our dreams and not want.
But that is not how it is.
Unfulfilled ghosts think we are lucky because we get
to experience impermanence, while they never pass away.
Dexterous inside black holes and the empty
spaces of atoms, those ghosts can never be destroyed.
They always are who they were, not knowing what it is like
to live in the present, cherish a swim, hear the call of the loon,
touch the side of a loved one as it is happening.
From their perspective, whatever was always is; they wish
it were not so; there is no relief from their suffering about this.
Not even the end of time would save them.
Statement by Abby Shahn (painter)
These 3 painting/poem collaborations come from a book of 31 paintings and poems to be published this fall in book form. The poems were written in response to the images. The word “ghost” is so loaded with multiple meanings for people. Each viewer adds his own meaning, his own ghosts. Mark’s poems add whole histories and layers of meaning to the pictures.
Statement by Mark Melnicove (poet)
When I first saw Abby Shahn’s paintings of ghosts, they seemed familiar, as if I had seen them before, or had always known them, both as images and spirits. As I sat with the paintings, words and narratives began forming in my mind, not through having to think them, but through the act of listening and recording. While the poems gestated, I happened to visit Native American pictograph sites and saw ghosts emerge from the eroded shapes in rock walls that bore uncanny resemblances to Abby’s paintings. No doubt ghosts are what they are without interpretation needed, but they also carry many meanings, some inherent, some that we project onto them. Ultimately, these meanings resolve themselves into contradictions, for as Whitman wrote of his poems, they contain multitudes.
Abby Shahn — Thoughts on Dialogue
I wonder if there is a common language among artists. I don’t mean a spoken or verbal language, but a purely visual one.
If I look at a painting and know that there is need for a certain mark, in a certain place, in a certain color, will another visual artist know just why I feel that need? For me, the impulse to collaborate is partly born of the desire to find a way to converse in that nonverbal realm and to see if we do indeed have a common visual language.
Sitting in my studio thinking of all the collaborations in which I’ve partaken. A long time ago…The Ping Pong … show. Lots of UMVA folks. I remember David Brooks and I were finding masks and sending them to each other. A couple are still attached to my studio walls. Fang and I were working on one of my folding books. It was all about cowboys and Indians as seen in the movies. I think Natasha and Mark did a funny serious dialogue which ended with Natasha sending some of her father’s ashes.
That was just one of many collaborative ventures.
The bed was a vintage wrought iron frame. The trailer was for sale on Craigslist. Hundreds of second-hand shoes. These have become the materials of my art practice. In an age where people more and more talk past one another, living in the echo chamber of their own views, staring into the mirror of their phone’s screen, I have tried to foster socially engaged dialogue in my work. A bed where women created a quilt out of their experiences with sexual violence. A museum where the attendees brought the exhibits and could exchange theirs for those someone previously left. Dragging a net of shoes to the state capitol building.
My work depends not simply on the dialogue viewers might be engaged in with a piece. The pieces themselves emerge from the conversation I have with people before starting the work. Actually, the work begins with dialogue. For the bed project, I collected the statements of a hundred women survivors of gender-based abuse and screenprinted them on textiles, and then gathered with a group of women who also experienced these issues, and created a quilt. The quilt was then just one of the exhibits in which female-identifying artists created pieces that fell under the title #safetywork, a term coined from those activities females engage in everyday to navigate safely in the world. The bed with its quilt sat outside at the University of Maine throughout the winter, and I and student volunteers shoveled the snow from it after each storm. Although there were actual objects of art that were exhibited, what was important was the dialogue that was created throughout the process of the installation. Performances were held at the site of the bed, area advocacy organizations collaborated with artists, and eighty middle school girls created a wall piece for the exhibit.This exchange of information, the gatherings of women and their shared experiences and support, like the exchange of stories, was vital to the piece’s actualization.
In The Museum of What’s Left, a mobile museum created in a refurbished 1985 camper, the local community was asked to submit and curate the collection, bringing things “left behind.” There could be no actual art work without the direct participation of myriad individuals. Participants left their objects, but also told the story of how those pieces came to to be left behind: one was an unopened final letter from a former lover, another a pin for thirty-five years of service given to someone who had her position eliminated and was now unemployed. They then could exchange their left-behind burden for something someone else had left. In this way, the museum was constantly “in the make,” a continual process where the engagement was not solely with the objects, but directly with the lives of other people, creating a museum of open dialogue. The space became a place of shared narratives, people stopping by to check “what was new”, read and record stories, and share in real time. The museum became a meeting place.
A young refugee boy had drowned on a beach. The shoes—hundreds of them—were donated by Lamey Wellehan. A Turkish colleague and filmmaker suggested we do a collaboration on the crisis that haunted the news, and a group of artists created #nothere: no place to land, where the public participated in dragging a fishing net of 500 pairs of shoes to the Maine State House. These shoes were then part of a multimedia exhibit, including voice recordings of refugees traveling across Europe, in their original languages, hoping to extend the dialogue about the crisis as far as possible. Social media was an integral tool in this, as it is in all of these projects, as well as a letter campaign where participants at the exhibitions created letters that were sent to our collaborating refugee camps in Europe.
The ideas come out of dialogue with others, the process itself is socially engaged, and the final exhibit is a documentation of the event, not only so that viewers can see what was accomplished, but also to offer the opportunity for them to see art as a mode of dialogue in which they can participate.
The sharing of meaning can be as simple as taking some sourdough starter and creating a hundred little containers to disseminate, knowing that those starters can then be shared and spread in a dialogue without words. A dialogue can be beyond our own times, or with the land itself: I created a series of vestiges, prints taken directly from the fallow fields of an abandoned Maine farm and a series of paintings, after following immigrant farm laborers through the blueberry barrens. In another venue, the mobile unit traveled to Black Mountain College, transformed into a mobile print lab, where the participants produced plates for printing with a DIY hack on a printing press, a water-filled lawn roller. The plates were reprinted later in the studio and became a book for the museum in Asheville. Many times my work as an artist, or an educator is not as the central figure, but as just one of the many people who are bringing the art into the light. Dialogue is that act of bringing to light shared meanings.
Art, for me, needs to be something beyond a piece that hangs in a gallery or museum and which people move past so the next person can have a glimpse. In a world such as ours, that often seems on the brink of not being a world at all, more is needed, and it has brought a sense of urgency to the way I work. Art needs to be removed from its climate-controlled case and handed around. It needs to be something that is carried amidst the people who make and who need the art. It needs to be a dialogue where the piece itself is only as good as the community it creates, not the community that has access to it.
One of the clichés of art appreciation is that a work of art must speak for itself, but that is only true to a point. The knowledge that we bring to a viewing greatly determines what the work of art says to us. The way an artist thinks about her work does not have to be controlling, but it is usually helpful and insightful. Just so a two hour conversation with Jocelyn Lee.
As a fine art photographer, art educator and proprietor of a not-for-profit gallery space, Jocelyn Lee has established herself as one of the most important photographers working in Maine in the 21st century. Though I had a chance to write about her body of work Portraits of Women and Girls briefly in Photo District News in 2014, I had been waiting for an opportunity to engage with the artist and her art in more depth and her major exhibition, The Appearance of Things, at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland (June 16-October 14) provided that opportunity for dialogue.
The Appearance of Things was a novel exhibition, or perhaps even a novel of an exhibition, featuring some 40 of Jocelyn Lee’s gorgeous chromogenic prints, saturated in color, full of images of flowers, fruit and females, all presented in constellations of prints hung against gallery walls as dark as the night sky and the unconscious mind. Though some of the images are drawn from Lee’s archive, the exhibition was not a retrospective, rather it was an edited selection of work old and new that amounted to a poetic, feminine narrative of the human life cycle, women and girls, flora and fruit in bud and bloom and decay.
“The show is not about individual identity but rather the shared material truth of all living things,” says Lee. “I tried to blend and overlap all the genres–portrait, still-life and landscape – to describe the continuum of the sensual world and our place, as human beings, in it. It’s about life cycles, the Buddhist concept of samsara: the unending cycles of birth, death and rebirth, that are almost like a dream. It is also about perception and our ability to know and make meaning of the world, based on our sensory apparatuses: eyes, skin, nose, ears, sense of touch and nervous system. We understand the world because we apprehend it through our senses. ”
The path to photography
I first saw a preview of The Appearance of Things at Speedwell Projects, Lee’s non-profit gallery in the Woodfords Corner section of Portland, and it was there that I got to sit down with her for a few hours in August.
Jocelyn Lee, 56, carries herself with the grace of an athlete though her dark-rimmed glasses can give her an academic look. Indeed, she is an artist, an athlete, an activist and an academic. Born in 1962 in Naples, Italy, where her father was employed at the time, she grew up in Larchmont, New York. She comes by her athleticism as a birthright, her father having been an All-American basketball player at Yale, one good enough to be drafted by the New York Knicks and to make the cover of Sports Illustrated. She comes by her activist streak by way of her mother, a pioneer in the hospice movement as well as in promoting the Equal Rights Amendment.
Lee came by her devotion to art, however, only by overcoming parental resistance to such an impractical calling. Though she first discovered and fell in love with photography at Mamaroneck High School, she was recruited to Colgate University as a diver. It didn’t take long, however, before Lee realized she was more interested in creating than in competing.
After dropping out of Colgate, Lee took a year off to redirect and focus on art making and dance. She took photography courses at the State University of New York in Purchase for a year before enrolling at Yale to study philosophy and studio art. As an undergraduate at Yale, she managed to sit in on graduate courses and crits, the Yale MFA program being one of the country’s premier photography programs.
“I sat in on all the graduate photography critiques, all the sculpture critiques and the painting critiques,” recalls Lee. “Yale gave me a chance to meet people who had made the decision to commit their life’s work to being an artist. I did not come from a family where this was even in our vocabulary.”
In addition to photography, Lee studied modern dance at Yale and, after graduation in 1986, she moved to New York City where she studied with pioneering choreographer Erick Hawkins, who danced with and was briefly married to Martha Graham.
“Being a dancer and a diver is about one’s body and space, and understanding living form,” says Lee. “My photography work is so sculptural and form-based that, although no one ever makes this connection, I think it is deeply rooted in my history with dance and diving.”
Lee had progressed to the point where she might have become a member of a dance company when she had an epiphany that propelled her in a different direction.
“A turning point for me was one day while I was walking the street of New York City,” she explains, “and it occurred to me that as a dancer I would be the tool for someone else’s creativity. As much as I loved the Hawkins’ technique as a dance form and practice, I didn’t love his choreography. It was a pivotal realization. I made the decision right then to go back to school for an MFA.”
Because she was working in New York as an assistant to British artist, writer and photographer John Coplans, a founding editor of Artforum, and because she had already experienced Yale, Lee enrolled in the MFA program at Hunter College, which at the time was under the influence of post-modernism groupthink, the new orthodoxy that valued ideas over images, concept over craft.
“If Hunter gave me one thing,” says Lee, “it made me clear about what I wanted to do because I had to defend myself every day. I became very strong, but it was a fight.”
Initially, Lee went down a documentary path, pursuing a self directed project on teen-age parents in Boston and Texas, which led to being invited by Harvard child psychiatrist Robert Coles to photograph teenagers for the book The Youngest Parents (1997).
“I’m really interested in people and making psychological portraits,” says Lee, “but after doing the teen parents photographs I realized I didn’t want to do documentary photography. I was more interested in the poetic than a rigorously truth-based genre. I also felt very restricted and responsible to the subjective truth of the subject – the story they wanted to tell was not the story I wanted to tell.”
The road to Maine
Having taken courses at the Maine Photographic Workshop and having been a summer visitor to Maine, Lee jumped at the chance to teach at Maine College of Art after she graduated from Hunter in 1992. What began as a one-year sabbatical replacement position turned into a nine-year stint at MECA (1993-2001) after which she taught at Princeton University (2003-2012).
In Maine, the landscapes became Lee’s studio and she made the switch from black and white to color. The colors in some of Lee’s photographs are so visceral and rich that they seem to bleed color. And in a digital age, she is still married to film. Though she owns a Leica digital camera, she primarily shoots with a medium-format Mamiya RB 67 and a Mamiya 7, creating images that she outputs on a large Epson printer at Speedwell projects.
“I don’t like the way it [the Leica] represents the world,” says Lee of her preference for film. “The world that I capture with my camera has been consistent, because the lens on the world has been consistent.”
Lee values the deliberate, laborious technology of film over the instant gratification of digital imagery.
“The thing that struck me about photography at 17 was that it was a way for me to slow the world down so I could think about the nature of the world,” she says. “The world just went too fast for my sensibility.”
When I tell Jocelyn Lee that I signed many copies of my 1990 book Maine Art Now with the words, “The work of art is the search for meaning,” she gets goosebumps. The only way I understand art is as a form of personal and philosophical inquiry, every bit as rigorous and fact-finding as science”. And that is how Lee practices her art.
“This is really about me trying to make sense of the world” Lee says. “I tell my students that art is how you make meaning in the world. It is an investigation. It’s about what matters to you, not about making pretty pictures.”
The mother of two, Lee lives in Cape Elizabeth with her husband Brian Urquhart. While she is privileged to show and sell her photographs at Pace/McGill Gallery in New York City and Flatland Gallery in Amsterdam, she is well aware that the vast majority of fine artists struggle to find a venue and an audience. It was for that reason that she and her husband purchased the large building at 630 Forest Avenue in Portland which had previously housed a stained glass studio and turned it into Speedwell projects.
Since Speedwell projects opened in 2016, the gallery has presented exhibitions and events related to such challenging topics as mental illness, gay love, our throw-away society, empowering women, the abstract interface of music and art, and a cadre of poets speaking and reading in response to the 2017 presidential inaugural.
“We created Speedwell Projects so we could show the work of artists who are under-represented,” Lee explains. “First we thought we would focus on later career artists, but now we feature emerging artists as well as mature artists and artists who have experimental bodies of work. We want to do whatever we can to help artists get to the next step.”
The Appearance of Things
Jocelyn Lee’s The Appearance of Things was exhibited at Huxley-Parlour Gallery in London in April and May and was previewed at Speedwell projects before its four-month run at CMCA. A catalogue with an essay by Bill Roorbach is in the works.
The preponderance of female figures young and old and the sumptuousness of the floral still-life photographs, some created by Lee floating her wedding bouquets in a tub of water, make it easy to overlook the fact that there are no male figures in the exhibition. When men do appear in Lee’s photographs they tend to be older males, often pot-bellied and bearded, men of an age to have dropped the macho armor to allow themselves to be sensitive and vulnerable. Lee’s penchant for older men may owe a bit of a debt to John Coplans, who is famous for photographing his own body as a study in aging.
Jocelyn Lee belongs to a new wave of photographers, in particular women artists, who are redefining and challenging cultural norms about the lives of women. Her images of women and girls are part of a contemporary photo-dialogue that includes the work of artists such as Sally Mann, Katy Grannan, Justine Kurland and Catherine Opie. Lee’s photographs of Rubenesque women and older women subvert conventional notions of female beauty.
“I think they are beautiful in the deepest sense,” says Lee of the women she chooses to photograph. “If there is anything political in my work it is showing all body types, people who are at peace with their bodies and who have a real connection to the earth. It’s a radical acceptance of the human condition, a radical empathy.”
The male gaze is lustful, seeing the female body as a thing of sexual pleasure. The female gaze is more respectful, able to see the female body as sensual without reducing it to a sexual object.
The Appearance of Things then was a sensory experience of the feminine imagination, images untitled and unnumbered free floating in the dark space of Jocelyn Lee’s subconscious. Though she prescribed no sequence to the images, now one way of seeing, Lee herself knew where the exhibition beings and ends.
“It ends with an image of my mother with her eyes closed,” she says, referring to a photograph of her late mother sitting, eyes closed, against a simple landscape horizon, her body against the green earth, her head in the milky white sky, “almost as though she has dreamt this world.”
No, exactly as if she had dreamt this world.
(Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer in Brunswick. He has been writing about the Maine art scene since 1978.)
Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman discuss the beginnings of their collaboration and their dialogue with the history of museums
One of us was born in Buenos Aires, the other in Detroit, but the art collective now known by the name of Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman, which unites both of us in a creative dialogue, was born in Hinckley, Maine, at the L. C. Bates Museum.
This is the story of how that collaborative relationship came about.
The actors in the story: two professors of Art History. One of us (Véronique Plesch, the one from Buenos Aires) teaches at Colby College, the other (Louis Alexander Waldman) at the University of Texas in Austin. Both of them, before becoming art historians, had studied drawing, painting, sculpture, and printmaking. Some of the many artworks on display in Véronique’s office at Colby attest to her early efforts, and Louis has continued to draw over the years with varying degrees of quirky commitment.
The story unfolds in a remarkable place: the L. C. Bates Museum, dating from 1903, part of the campus of Good Will-Hinckley, a charitable organization founded in 1889. Over a century after its founding, the L. C. Bates Museum is still housed in an imposing red-brick Victorian Romanesque pile overlooking Route 201 in Hinckley. It takes about two hours to hike there from our house in North Fairfield, through cow pastures, following woodland paths, passing by ponds, little swamps, and tree-lined cliffs. It is our favorite walk in the entire world.
The L. C. Bates Museum is the type of highly eclectic museum that was once quite common, though few examples survive today. It is a teaching collection that combines beautiful dioramas and displays of natural history specimens—everything from seashells to bears—along with man-made, cultural artifacts. Modern visitors may be surprised to see a plaster bust of President Grant, cases of Chinese porcelain and pre-Columbian figurines displayed right around the corner from insects, fossils, geological specimens, and a trophy marlin caught by Ernest Hemingway.
But heterogenous as this collection of diverse objects may seem, it is rooted in a tradition with a very long history. The L. C. Bates is, in fact, the early-twentieth-century descendant of the Renaissance Wunderkammer—a cabinet of curiosities, which would bring together artifacts of nature, science, and art.
These collections, which unlike today’s museums were private and not open to the public, functioned as tools for understanding the world and, in the process, inspiring curiosity. Like those early cabinets of curiosities, the L. C. Bates Museum represents and models the epistemic values of its own time: an inquiring, positivistic age that valued the encyclopedic amassing and classification of knowledge.
Since 2010 Véronique Plesch has supervised a program that trains Colby College students in museum skills by allowing them to curate the L. C. Bates Museum’s summer art exhibition. Working over several months, the students get to experience every aspect of the process of curating an exhibition: selecting the artists and contacting them, choosing the works and finally installing the artworks, along with a myriad of other tasks, such as filling out insurance forms, printing and mounting labels, writing press releases, and organizing workshops with featured artists. Each exhibition focuses on an aspect of the natural world of Maine, dovetailing with the museum’s collections and teaching mission. Recent shows have explored the Maine landscape through the seasons or considered the debt this land owes to the glaciers that have shaped it; others have looked up to the sky or contemplated humanity’s place in the natural environment. The show two years ago was entitled Open Spaces: Reimagining Pastoral Maine; last year’s exhibition, Maine Wood(s), moved from those wide-open fields to the inner reaches of the forests, and also shed light on how Maine’s arboreal environment provides a material—wood—that is important for the actual making of art. Whatever the theme, all these shows share a remarkable feature: the works by contemporary artists are interspersed throughout the galleries containing the L. C. Bates’s permanent collections, creating a dialogue with the museum’s historic core holdings.
In May 2018, the opening of a new summer show, On and Off the Wire: Birds in Urban and Natural Landscapes, was fast approaching, Véronique enlisted Louis to help her and her students with the installation. The exhibition was already coming together: most of the art was hung, everyone was editing and printing labels, but in the midst of all our momentum we suddenly realized that we had a bit of a situation—literally right at our doorstep.
Upon entering the galleries, the first sight that greeted the visitor’s eye was a painting—part of the temporary exhibition—hanging above a large oak display case filled with poisonous Amazonian toads and toxic arrows dipped in venom. Even though the summer show is installed amidst the museum’s permanent collections, that particular vitrine struck everyone as a confusing distraction right there at the entrance to the galleries. It was too big to ignore and it was guaranteed to set visitors up with the wrong expectations. Birds were the theme of this year’s show. And poisonous toads are not birds.
What were we to do?
Exhibition Design to the Rescue
It was time to put our heads together and think like exhibition designers. With the blessing of museum director Deborah Staber, we came up with a simple, straightforward solution in order to bring the incongruous vitrine in line with the exhibition’s ornithological theme. Our idea was to replace the vitrine’s contents—and the threat of cognitive dissonance they posed—with a small collection of taxidermied birds drawn from the museum’s collection. Lining the case’s glass shelves with some natural materials would provide these specimens with a natural environment resembling the dioramas of the L. C. Bates Museum.
To realize this initial plan, everything needed was available at our home in North Fairfield. Some birds’ nests—random finds while walking around—gave a sense of the birds’ lives in nature, but also served as examples of their own patient, brittle artistry. During the preceding winter, snow had broken a limb of a centuries-old pine tree beside our house. That loss provided materials—boughs, needles, and pinecones—to suggest a native habitat for our birds. Moss and rocks from the garden would help us set the stage with realistic detail and texture.
However, as we were busy collecting these natural materials, we kept thinking…
Nothing exists without a context, and inevitably we mulled the question of how our installation would enter into a dialogue both with the contemporary works from the summer show and with the permanent collections of the L. C. Bates. Instead of merely displaying a few random birds, we asked ourselves, how could we create something that would actually engage in a dialogue with the exhibition and the museum itself? We came to realize that, rather than limiting ourselves to trying to mimic the L.C. Bates’s natural history dioramas and display cases, it would be exciting to include other types of objects that might provoke reflections about the very history of the museum and the intellectual genealogy that had shaped its heterogeneous, encyclopedic character.
The idea of adding other objects, and specifically man-made ones, was inspired by the concept of the Wunderkammer. We already had naturalia—natural history specimens—and it was in keeping with historical tradition for us to think of adding artificialia—the products of human creativity, artistic and scientific. Our display case was itself becoming a museum in microcosm, and one that reflected the early cabinets of curiosity that had led to the development of the modern museum.
From Wunderkammer to Vanitas: Evolution of an Idea
Soon enough, a second guiding concept emerged. As we moved ahead with our plan to amass a miniature collection of natural and artificial objects, the individual items we were choosing began to resonate with us. We are scholars of Renaissance art, after all, and people in that period were accustomed to assigning symbolic meanings and allusions—often multiple, sometimes even contradictory ones—to more or less everything in their world. These hidden messages were meant to be more or less transparent to anybody with the cultural preparation to interpret them. In literature, in sermons, and in art, even the humblest objects of the everyday environment became laden with meaning. The meanings of these symbols could be profane, related to the vagaries of everyday life, but often they carried a moralizing, philosophical, or theological significance.
What brought these reflections to our minds was an object that would have been powerfully symbolic to a Renaissance viewer. It was a skull.
The skull of a beaver, to be precise.
The beaver it belonged to must have spent its working life in Martin Stream right behind our house. But for us, art historians, a skull is never just a skull: we realized that the object we had casually thrown into our baskets of materials for our installation was an age-old symbol that echoes throughout the history of art. A human skull, in particular, is often found at the center of Renaissance and Baroque paintings devoted to the theme of Vanitas (the vanity of worldly things), where it stands for impermanence and mortality.
Images of Vanitas comment upon the transitory nature of earthly life by juxtaposing the skull with objects that people value, things that symbolize human desires and aspirations (such as wealth, fame, knowledge, power, etc.). The presence of the skull affirms how vain and unwise it is to be attached to worldly things when faced with the inevitability of death.
The beaver skull proved to be a pivotal element for us, because it reoriented our thinking about the meaning of our assemblage of found objects. When we came to think of it not merely as a natural artifact but as a symbol, a link in a historical chain of signification, the aims of our project shifted. We moved beyond the literal imitation of historic natural history museum displays (themselves imitating nature), to a type of installation that is by definition anti-naturalistic. We would include things never actually found in nature, since our goal now was to marry or to warp together (in dialogue) two opposing representational systems.
To the beaver skull we added other objects that admonished about the passage of time. Out of our kitchen cabinets and bureau drawers came an hourglass (formerly a mere adjunct to the cooking of soft-boiled eggs) and a pocket watch (long since stopped) on a rusty chain. Also in keeping with the traditional repertory of items included in Vanitas iconography, we added objects of human desire (such as a string of pearls) and the paraphernalia of human endeavors (tools and scholarly books). In the new context created by our modern interpretation of the Vanitas theme, the abandoned nests and stuffed birds also came to refer to the unavoidable demise of all things and the futility of all worldly pursuits.
We also included peacock feathers—at first glance a not very surprising choice for a display centered on birds—but a detail whose polyvalent symbolism we found particularly compelling. Although the contemporary viewer might be tempted to interpret the peacock feathers as symbols of worldly vanity, in Early Christian times the bird, whose flesh was thought not to decay after death, came to represent the opposite of Vanitas: eternal life.
We sat down and cogitated many of these deep thoughts at the Flatlanda Diner, just about four miles south of the L. C. Bates Museum on Route 201. Waldman-Plesch had the fried haddock special ($9.95) while Plesch-Waldman, in more of a breakfast mood, opted for a Mexican omelet with a side of baked beans and Texas toast ($6.95). At a table near a window, we set to work writing our piece’s explanatory exhibition label. By now it was clear, after all, that our vitrine was no longer a decorative accessory to the show, but had become an artwork in its own right.
The writing of the label forced us to confront the issue of the piece’s title. Plesch-Waldman, who took Latin in college (a long time ago), muttered an old saying about the vanity of worldly things: “Sic transit gloria mundi…” (“Thus, worldly glory passes away”). She looked up at Waldman-Plesch, who also took Latin in college (a long time ago), and said: “How about that, but with birds?”
And thus, the title for our installation was hatched: Sic Transeunt Aves Mundi. Which one could translate in a variety of slightly different ways, due to the polyvalence of the Latin language: “Thus, the birds of the world pass away.” Or even: “This way, the worldly birds pass.”
With the writing of the label text and the naming of the piece, our thought process and intentions came into focus. We discovered that something we had done rather playfully and spontaneously had a much deeper resonance than we initially bargained for. In hindsight, it hardly seems surprising that, as scholars of Renaissance art history, we would gravitate towards the idea of the Wunderkammer and consider its dialogue with the tradition of Vanitas images.
To celebrate this intersection between our art historical research and neonate artistic practice, we decided that alongside our collection of objects symbolizing the transience of worldly endeavor we would represent the ‘vanity’ of our scholarly practice by including pages from two of our own (individual) publications. One of us chose the first page of an article on Maine artist Maggie Libby, whose work was included in the L. C. Bates exhibition. The other chose an article on Italian Renaissance wood sculpture, and suggestively placed it next to our stuffed woodpecker.
Since we were now turning the theme of the vanity of all human endeavor backwards, like a mirror, upon ourselves, we realized that these scholarly works needed to show the ineluctable passage of time—after all, will our work still be remembered after our demise? So, before we inserted our scholarly essays in the case as part of our installation, we burned the edges of the pages, soiled them, folded, spindled, and mutilated them—replicating time’s unavoidable assault on all that is created by man.
To reflect our burgeoning sense that the two of us had merged into a creative unit, we decided to exhibit our work under a collective name: Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman. For a long time before working on this installation, we had already taken to calling each other “Plesch-Waldman” and “Waldman-Plesch” for the simple reason that, even though we may argue a lot, we also tend to agree even more, and we generally do things and think so much alike that we often feel like halves of the same person. The order of names was a bit of mischievous fun: once we discovered the central, tongue-twisting alliteration of “Plesch-plus-Plesch,” we couldn’t resist using it.
Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman: Dialogue as Working Method
What had started as a spur-of-the-moment lighthearted desire to fill a vitrine opened up unexpected dialogues. Dialogue, as our collaboration on Sic Transeunt Aves Mundi highlighted for us, inevitably generates ideas and linkages. Our ongoing, part serious/part playful collaborative modus operandi led us from a place where we thought we were finished to another place where we realized we were only beginning.
Just as the writing of the descriptive label text gave us the occasion to reflect upon and articulate our message, the invitation to write this article has offered us a chance to further think about the nature of our collaboration. Dialogue, the topic of this special issue of the Maine Arts Journal, turned out to be a felicitous concept for us to think about further, because, as our story shows, it drove the thought process behind Sic Transeunt Aves Mundi. The dialogue by which we developed the concept, gathered the items, arranged them, and wrote about them, is only one of many dialogues at play in this installation.
Something that we were repeatedly made aware of during our work is the way the meaning of an individual object is transformed whenever it is juxtaposed with another: a dialogue results. Because our installation reflects the traditions of the Wunderkammer, the dialogue between objects could be thought of as multi-lingual, since it bridges the two realms of the natural (naturalia) and the man-made (artificialia). In a similar fashion, we experienced how words (like a gallery label) can inflect objects. And likewise, how coming up with a title for an artwork may lead to certain decisions and alter your thinking about it: once you settle on a title, the words of the title are constantly there, talking back to you.
In our play upon the conventions of the Wunderkammer, there is also a dialogue with the past. And that temporal conversation can be followed even in the very origins of the objects included in our installation: some found, others borrowed from the L. C. Bates, some owned by us, and some collected especially for the display.
As we realized at the outset, our work was going to create a dialogue with the L. C. Bates Museum’s summer exhibition—engaging with its ornithological theme—and also with the museum’s eclectic permanent collections. By appropriating a preexisting vitrine, borrowing specimens from the collection, and challenging visitors to think about the history of museum displays (while also tipping our hats to the history of the Wunderkammer and its role in the formation of modern museums), we became parties to a conversation that was already playing out on many simultaneous levels when we joined in.
Our serendipitous collaboration at the L. C. Bates turned out to be so fulfilling that we have continued to make art together as Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman. The staccato rhythms of that chiastic name would barely lead one to suspect the multi-dimensionality of dialogue involved in our working practice. Instead of merely connecting two individuals, a dialogue also connects our individual identities as art historians to our joint identity as the art collective Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman. Somewhere in the interstices, a new dialogue is beginning to unfold between the studying and the making of art, in which the practice of art underpins a meditation on the practice of art history, and the practice of art history provokes a critical reflection on the practice of art.
On and Off the Wire: Birds in Urban and Natural Landscapes opened on May 11 and runs through October 15, 2018 at the L. C. Bates Museum, Good Will-Hinckley, Rt. 201.
The artist-activist Alan Gussow (1931-1997) carried on a conversation with his surroundings all his life, whether he was visiting Monhegan Island or running alongside the Hudson River. He managed to combine his environmentalism with his art. And he often turned to watercolor to convey his interactions with his surroundings.
Gussow discovered the medium as an undergraduate at Middlebury College in the early 1950s, training with Arthur K. D. Healy (1902-1978), professor of art and art history and an accomplished landscape painter and illustrator.
“As a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, I learned at least two things about art,” Gussow once recalled. “First, that art was magical. How I or any person could mix a little water with some paint and then make marks and shapes which look like parts of the world still remains a source of wonder.”
The other thing Gussow learned was that in order to make art, he had a wonderful excuse “to be out of doors and not at my desk.”
Able to draw from an early age, Gussow embraced the medium that requires great discipline yet, paradoxically, must not seem over controlled. Watercolor offered avenues of improvisation and lyric invention. The medium became an essential outlet for his artistic vision even as it served as the foundation for his work in oil and pastel, lending energy to each.
Watercolor’s portability would prove to be a plus for a painter who was constantly going out into nature. Gussow would employ it as a means to render place and elements of nature. His wife Joan Gussow noted: “The thing about watercolors that was different from anything else: Alan did not do any other work out of doors. He did not do pastels out of doors or oil out of doors…. The watercolors were really the only thing he did en plein air.”
To fully appreciate Gussow’s watercolors, one must know something about the artist’s life in art. His early exposure to the dynamics of Abstract Expressionism was especially significant. The sense of action that he encountered in the work of Pollock, Kline, de Kooning and company while a student in New York City in the 1950s never left him. “At Cooper Union where I studied for one year after Middlebury,” Gussow recalled, “I learned that art was a form of energy.” However nature-centered his art became, he consistently practiced a highly expressive approach to subjects, often entering realms of abstraction.
At the same time, the painter became an environmental activist, driven by intense personal passion for nature and by witnessing firsthand the degradation of the world around him. He fought against power plants and highways, and led people across the country and around the world in activities that highlighted the need for preservation, empathy and peace.
In many instances, such as his book A Sense of Place: The Artist and the American Land, 1971, Gussow connected art to the environment, underscoring that special relationship that exists between the individual and his or her surroundings. Among his own treasured places was Monhegan, “a Maine island,” he once wrote, “that rides on the ocean like a hulking, hump-backed whale.” He first stayed there in 1949; he went on to spend part of nearly every summer on this remote and remarkable island surrounded by a host of fellow artists, among them, Reuben Tam, Hans Moller, Elena Jahn, Frances Kornbluth, Michael Loew and Lawrence Goldsmith, all of whom shared his passion for the place.
The painter once noted that over time his interest in Monhegan subject matter evolved from the picturesque to more elemental things: “Now the place the tides own fascinates me,” he wrote in A Sense of Place. A number of watercolors offer close-ups of the natural world discovered in explorations of the island. He made studies of a crab shell and a skate egg. Joan Gussow recalls her husband returning from his annual sojourns to Monhegan with watercolor sketchbooks filled with island studies. “He felt very attached to [Monhegan] and it’s a visual place, a place people consume with their eyes.”
Gussow’s watercolors often have an experiential quality, as if he were channeling the energy of a phenomenon. A series titled “Sundrying” exemplifies this approach. Essentially abstract, these paintings nonetheless are responses to what is happening in front of the artist: sun appearing after rain, perhaps, turning the world into dazzling emanations of light, renewing the land, air, eye and spirit.
In this regard Gussow’s work has ties to Karl Schrag, Arthur Dove and other artists who were able to represent nature’s energy, re-creating air and sky, trees and sun, as currents and vortices. In Nature in Abstraction (1958), John I.H. Baur described how such artists sought “a distillation of the character, mood or spirit of nature’s aspects.” Bauer linked this mission to a desire to intensify experience, both for the artist and the viewer. These artists produced visual excitement, he wrote, thanks to “an exceptional sensitivity to nature’s colors, forms and shifting patterns of motion.”
September Sun, dated 9/3/76, captures the particular radiance of early autumn sunlight. With its lively patterning, this watercolor might be a piece of aboriginal textile, an impression one comes away with after viewing a number of Gussow’s pure pattern paintings.
Gussow often turned to watercolor to record his responses to working in the gardens that he and his wife tended in their homes in Congers and later Piermont, both towns close by the Hudson River north of New York City. The organic shapes in many of these paintings reflect his passion for the bounty and beauty of the harvest, of fresh vegetables and flowers leaning into the light. He even painted mulch, mesmerized by the intricate patterns of the ground cover that enriched the soil.
Many watercolors have a radiating structure, sometimes blossom-like, other times like a sunburst, waves and irregular rings of color divided by the white of the paper. One recalls Arthur Dove’s paintings of plant forms and phenomena of light. Dove always insisted he was extracting, not abstracting, from nature, a perspective Gussow embraced in his own celebratory way. What Gussow wrote about Dove in A Sense of Place might apply to his own work: “He painted intriguing and inventive works inspired by natural forms, works that revealed an authentic response to observed phenomena and a profound understanding of earth rhythms.”
Gussow was a serious runner, and a favorite route in Congers took him around nearby Rockland Lake, about a five-mile circuit. While running, he observed the life of the lake, including the mallard ducks paddling along the shores or sleeping with their heads turned around. From those impressions he started a series he called “The Mallard’s Dream,” which he produced in watercolor as well as in silkscreen prints and pastels.
These paintings are among Gussow’s most brilliant watercolors, each a richly colored composition featuring broadly abstract interlocking shapes. The first of the series The Mallard’s Dream, dated 12/29/76, conjures a flurry of wings and water. The paintings in a related series, “Mallards Splashing,” also from 1977, are equally luminous and spirited.
These paintings extended Gussow’s connection to nature into new realms. As he told art historian Martica Sawin during a studio visit in 1977, “Prior to 1972 I was looking at scenery. Now I am in the environment, part of it…. I have stepped through the scene to go inside it and that has made all the difference.” Painter Ibram Lassaw expressed a similar perspective in Baur’s Nature in Abstraction: “Man is part and parcel of the total ecology of the universe and fulfills his function…along with plants, animals, stars and galaxies. I am nature.”
One also thinks of Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), whose watercolors of Horn Island, one of a group of barrier islands off the coast of Mississippi, represented a similar immersion in the natural world. As Gussow wrote in the introduction to A Sense of Place, “The artists who paint nature today are also moved, as were their predecessors, by the sheer physical delight of being outdoors.”
In all his watercolors Gussow allows the paper to show through the pigment, which lends an underlying luminosity to the colors. “[Alan] knew how to hold out the whites; I mean it was really fun to watch him,” Joan Gussow recounted. “He really knew what he was doing. And watercolor is such a spontaneous painting. You can’t rethink it.”
In some cases the white of the paper appears as pinpricks of light. In one of a handful of city-inspired pieces, Berkeley/Light and Rooftops, 1980, the watercolor paper that has been left unpainted serves to demark the geometric shapes of buildings.
At the same time Gussow understood how colors could evoke moods and emotions even as they often served as a direct means to express his intimate vision of his surroundings. His most abstract compositions are like jazz, the notes of color in sync with one another yet tuned to the rhythms of the outer world.
Gussow’s watercolors also manifest his unfaltering environmental ethic borne of a deep respect for nature—the same abiding concern that led him to fight industrial blight and send personal letters on noticeably recycled paper. His watercolors are political in that respect: As he wrote in the introduction to his second book, The Artist as Native: Reinventing Regionalism (1992),
“The only weapon artists possess to express rage against environmental destruction is their ability to make visible what they experience and what they value.”
Through his watercolors, Gussow identified himself with the natural world, from rocky outcroppings on Monhegan to the dreams of a wild creature with which he felt a special affinity. In many ways, these paintings represent his truest self, a fact Gussow underscored in A Sense of Place: “Any artist,…no matter how objectively he may try to delineate his subject, always paints himself as well.”
Carl Little’s most recent books are Philip Frey: Here and Now, Nature Observed: The Landscapes of Joseph Fiore and Paintings of Portland, co-written with David Little.
Sources: Martica Sawin, Alan Gussow: A Painter’s Nature, Hudson Hills Press, 2009; Joan Gussow; Alan Gussow, “Moving Toward the Center of Life,” In Context: A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture, Spring 1984.
‘Real dialogue is where two or more people become willing to suspend their certainty in each other’s presence.’ David Bohm
Mother Tongue is a community visual Dialogue which I started with a partner Terry Rumble in the early nineties. This visual dialogue was inspired and based on the work of physicist and philosopher David Bohm. Bohm’s work on Dialogue grew out of conversations with Krishnamurti who was a spiritual leader deeply knowledgeable in Eastern philosophy. Bohm went on to develop and implement experiments in verbal dialogue groups that were replicated all over the world, many of which continue to this day. I was inspired by David Bohm’s work and wanted to try applying some of his dialogue ideas in a visual way. In the 1990’s I started to work with an artist friend to experiment with the technique, working in relationship together, to apply some of Bohm’s ideas to the visual realm.
“We are all linked by a fabric of unseen connections. This fabric is constantly changing and evolving. “
As Terry and I continued to meet on a regular basis, we developed a “call and response” way of reacting to each other’s creations. Realizing that we needed consistent structure, we decided to limit ourselves to a single format. In referencing Bohm’s verbal dialogue process, we chose a long narrow shape which alluded to the imagery of Persian manuscripts and implied the structure of word, sentence, paragraph.
After a year of working together in this way, we began to invite others to join the conversation. This invitation required each prospective participant to first observe and consider the existing images before creating their own response to the ongoing conversation. Over time an inventory of images emerged and the imagery and subject matter began to branch into many directions
“Consider, for example, the work of an artist. Can it properly be said that the artist is expressing himself, i.e., literally “pushing outward” something that is already formed inside of him? Such a description is not in fact generally accurate or adequate. Rather, what usually happens is that the first thing the artist does is only similar in certain ways to what he may have in mind. As in a conversation between two people, he sees the similarity and the difference, and from this perception something further emerges in his next action. Thus, something new is continually created that is common to the artist and the material on which he is working.”
“In nature nothing remains constant. Everything is in a perpetual state of transformation, motion, and change. However, we discover that nothing simply surges up out of nothing without having antecedents that existed before. Likewise, nothing ever disappears without a trace, in the sense that it gives rise to absolutely nothing existing in later times.” David Bohm
The Mother Tongue project went on to travel to many sites and eventually grew to more than 250 panels created by various groups of artists, students and community members. Over the 20 years that the project was active the visual conversation was in constant flux. It reflected the many interpretations creative impulses and individual skills and interests of the participants as well the concerns of the communities it visited. In turn the accumulation of images added to the richness and variety of the dialogue. The Mother Tongue dynamic web page can be viewed at <mothertongue.co>
“One prerequisite for originality is clearly that a person shall not be inclined to impose his preconceptions on the fact as he sees it. Rather, he must be able to learn something new, even if this means that the ideas and notions that are comfortable or dear to him may be overturned. No really creative transformation can possibly be effected by human beings, either in nature or in society, unless they are in the creative state of mind that is generally sensitive to the differences that always exist between the observed fact and any preconceived ideas, however noble, beautiful, and magnificent they may seem to be.”
In these poems, Margaret Yocom offers a new vision of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s controversial “Allerleirauh” (“All Kinds Of Fur”), a lesser-known version of “Cinderella” that opens with incest. Erasing the Grimms’ words to reveal a young woman’s story of her journey to a new, full life, Yocom asks, What would All Kinds Of Fur say if she could tell her own tale? In ALL KINDS OF FUR, the heroine’s words rise. This book is published by Deerbrook Editions.
ALL KINDS OF FUR
Erasure Poems & New Translation of a tale from the Brothers Grimm
About the Author
Margaret Yocom grew up in the Pennsylvania German farmland listen- ing to her grandparents’ stories. Her poetry has appeared in the Beloit Poetry Journal, the anthology The Folklore Muse: Poetry, Fiction, and Other Reflections by Folklorists, and elsewhere. She founded the Folklore Studies Program of George Mason University where she taught for 36 years; among her many courses, she offered “Living Words: Folklore and Creative Writing.” She has published on the Brothers Grimm, on the folk arts of political protest, on Inuit storytelling in northwest Alaska,on family folklore, and on the folk arts of Maine logging communities. Co-founder of the American Folklore Society’s Creative Writing and Storytelling Section, she holds a Ph.D. in English and folklore from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. A founding member of Western Maine Storytelling, she tells legendary tales of the seen—and the unseen. Co-organizer of the Hugh Ogden Memorial Evening of Poetry, she makes her home with her geologist husband, John Slack, in the western mountains of Maine. http://margaretyocom.com
Life is a composite of many things—people, friends and family, pets and homes, music and food, sea and sky, ideas and art. Elena Jahn, my mother, had an overflowing abundance of all of these. She made herself a good life; a life that was full of art to the core. She died November, 2014 from the autoimmune disease Scleroderma. She was 76. She should have gone on making more art, becoming more eccentric, driving her children crazy, for another twenty years. Still, there is no one who knew her who can deny that Elena Jahn lived life with a fierce passion that took her along intriguing paths (often the more complicated path, but always the more interesting). She managed to live as well as she possibly could despite her illness and her last difficult years in and out of hospitals, in and out of crisis, in constant pain and anxiety. Her disease had aged her—when I was a teenager she was so youthful everyone mistook us for sisters. She traveled back and forth between her two island homes—Monhegan in the summer and Culebra, PR in the winter.
An unexpected phenomenon of death is that you don’t only remember the last few years of a person—you begin to recall all the years and places and events in which you knew them—and you begin to uncover things you never knew and people whom that person affected. You string these things together and the person’s life takes the shape of an amazing narrative. In death, a life becomes whole, with meaning and connections. And an artist leaves so much more—she leaves her vision in which the rest of us can continue to engage in dialogue.
I hear and speak to my mother every time I see her work.
Elena was born in Moscow Idaho, moved to Syracuse, NY. She knew she wanted to be an artist as a child even before her first trip to Monhegan, which was the summer of 1948 when she was 10. Her parents, Edwin and Helen Jahn, bought a house the next year and her fate as an artist was sealed. During those early years summering on Monhegan she was immersed in an atmosphere of creative energy that had a profound and lasting effect on her. Elena carried this energy with her during the winters in upstate New York and on to getting her BFA in art at Syracuse University and MFA in painting at Univ of Wisconsin, Madison. Then a Fulbright Scholarship took her to Paris and Italy and developed another ongoing love of hers—traveling.
Elena knew Monhegan Island and its artists from the 50’s right through her last summer there in 2014. Some of the artists she knew in the early days I’ve heard about all of my life: Rockwell Kent, Bill Hekking, Jim Fitzgerald, Murray Hautman, Mike Lowe, Sarah MacPherson, Alice Stoddard. Some in the later years I got to know myself: Herby and Henry Kallem, Hans Moller, Glenn Krause, Ted Davis, Reuben and Gerry Tam, Bill and Jan McCartin, Charlie and Florence Martin, Allan Gussow, Zero Mostel, Larry Goldsmith, Lynne Drexler, Yolanda Fusco, Don Stone, Arline Simon, Sylvia Alberts, Frances Kornbluth. They all helped shape my mother throughout her life as neighbors, friends, artists and role models.
Elena married my father, Garrett Clough a zoologist who studied animal behavior in 1963. They lived in Norway, then Nova Scotia, where she started teaching. Finally they moved to a farm in RI where they raised goats and chickens and two children. She painted in all these places. She was an active feminist in the 70s and co-founded Hera Gallery, a women’s cooperative in Wakefield RI, still going strong today. Then a move to Brunswick, Maine, a divorce, and teaching at USM. All this time she summered on Monhegan—in fact she stretched out her summers there longer and longer—from May into October. I think she missed maybe four years in the past sixty-five, even with all her traveling.
All the while she painted steadily, her work constantly evolving. Her art went from realism, to abstraction and back, to black and white and massive color, from large scale to tiny, in all media. She started going to Puerto Rico in the late 80’s after my father died and her kids were grown, because poor circulation made it hard to stand the Maine winters. Her work shifted again as she fell in love with a new culture—one about as different from Monhegan as you can get. If her palette for Monhegan was primarily steel gray and sap green, then for Puerto Rico it was fluorescent orange and turquoise. Eventually the two cultures began to merge together in her art. For the past twenty-five years she lived on these two islands, Monhegan and Culebra, surrounded by water, sky and light.
Not only did my mother have a creative and eclectic life but she gave my brother, Eric, and me one as well. For example: We lived in Lapland when we were toddlers in a hut with no running water, while my dad studied lemmings and my mother sketched and painted. She had us make potato prints, vegetable prints, monoprints and etchings in her studio. She played the guitar and sang the songs of Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger and random ditties about people being turned into sausages in meat grinders. After getting divorced she took us to Mexico for two weeks where we hitchhiked around the ruins of Palenque before they were uncovered–encountering rattlesnakes and cotomundis, and where we stayed in youth hostels, and snuck into resorts to swim in their luxury pools. One time I came home from school to find a Buddhist monk staying with us. He walked on our backs. In junior high my sandwiches consisted of things like peanut butter and alfalfa sprouts on waffles left over from Sunday’s champagne brunch/wood-stacking party. Our door was always open. She rented out rooms to college students and odd people who became our close friends. She had wild parties and rolled back the rugs to dance. She taught me how to disco with the Bee-Gees blaring on the stereo.
There were times when I loved having such a wack-a-doo mom, and there were times I was thoroughly embarrassed and couldn’t wait to get away, but ultimately I am grateful for the life she gave me. I am who I am because of her. I am, by the way, a children’s book author and illustrator and professor of creative writing.
Elena probably developed her wretched illness much earlier than anyone knew, even her. I found some letters I wrote to her from college in the 80’s and almost all of them end with: “Sorry to hear you’re not feeling well,” or “I hope you get over that infection soon.” Interestingly the late 80’s – mid 90’s were very prolific years when her art became more wild and personal, deeper and darker than I’d ever seen before. Her work from the 70’s when I was young and she was a young mother and wife is much “happier” in color and subject.
Along with constantly recording her life in sketchbooks, my mother also wrote lists and thoughts and doodles as part of her on-going search for meaning. In her Monhegan studio she wrote down random quotes she heard over the years on one of the walls. These quotes give a glimpse into Elena’s life and psyche so I thought I’d share a few (some were credited, others not):
Where there is no vision people perish. – James Baldwin The personal and the planetary are connected.
Art is the reason to get out of bed!
Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. – Samuel Johnson.
Fan the flame of attention!
You’ll never go broke underestimating the taste of the American public. – H.L. Menken
One must attempt to do all things at all times.
Never count on your art to make your living. – Reuben Tam
There are only so many windows of opportunity.
It is fitting and delicious to lose everything. – Donald Hall, on aging.
Art is long and critics are the insects of the day. – Randall Jarrell
Art is a wound turned to light. – George Braque
One of the last quotes written in her scratchy, barely legible handwriting that she developed last summer reads: “Is this all there is?” signed E. Jahn. This, along with a note to herself I found in her purse while in the hospital that read, “Peace of mind,” and “Now is time to let go,” makes me think she knew. She was done suffering.
People are one way on the surface, but they are often another way on the inside that no one else can ever tap into or truly know. But I think my mother managed to get some of that inside self out, onto her canvases, and in other ways. I think that’s why people were drawn to her and remember her. She made connections. The way she looked at things, the way she held a paintbrush and moved with her whole self expressing—stuff just poured out of her. I remember when she was painting her large paneled six foot tall screens, she stood on a stool with a fat oil stick in her hand and scribbled fast, long strokes, then blended it with turpentine, then scribbled more, and repeated until there were layers upon layers of color and marks that made something out of nothing. She managed to capture the essence of a figure in a quick 60 second pose, with such movement and expression. I think she was one of those rare people that managed to get some of that inside stuff out to the world. But not all of it, because she never stopped trying. She made art during her last summer on Monhegan when she could barely get out of the house. She was making collages using the inside of patterned envelopes, drawing into them a map of her life. She made her last piece, a portrait of her little dog, Cisco, in the hospital last fall.
On the wall of her hospital room there was a Grandma Moses print that she looked at every day in her final week. She gave anyone who would listen a lecture on Grandma Moses. I looked at the print every day myself and began to appreciate it in a new way. Finally it was Elena’s time to let go and she died with Grandma Moses at the foot of her bed, while I was in a cot next to her. This was a profound experience—we’d been so close when I was little, we used to share so much, so it was a gift to be able to care for her at the end. And Eric cared for her these last years, making it possible for her to live in her two homes. I am grateful to him for that. We are a small family, and with that comes a unique closeness of love, annoyance, and acceptance. Both Eric and I admired her and the way in which she, and my father, lived.
Elena affected and influenced everyone who knew her. And all of her energy, her spirit, curiosity, restlessness, pain, endurance, strength, love, anger, fear, laughter, stubbornness, confusion, suffering, and joy is visible in her lifetime of art.
I miss her, but I see her in all of her work and all over her island homes. I see her in myself. I see her in my own work. I see her in my brother. I see her in her dog. I see her in my dogs, both of whom she found for me as strays in Puerto Rico. I see her when I sit in her Monhegan studio, now mine (thanks to my wonderful grandfather who bought that home in a time when a college professor could afford such a thing!), and her art along with my art and my husband’s art hangs on the walls open to visitors. Not only do I see this art of hers that I have been going through for the past four years, but sometimes when I am in there all alone looking and looking I begin to hear it—some of her art screams to me, some of it whispers softly, At times some of it comforts me and other times some of it angers me. My mother always had a lot to say and she said it all with great passion. It is said that a person never really dies if they leave behind something that the world can love—something that speaks to us…
Ideas are not real estate. In collaboration one can accept the fact that someone else can be so sympathetic and in tune with what you’re doing, that through this they move into depths that might not be obvious if that person had been working alone in a studio with the door shut.
We are influenced by everything and everyone around us, nothing happens in a vacuum. In my creative practice as an artist and work as a curator, I truly embrace those influences and welcome the dialogues that result from them. I have been working collaboratively for almost ten years while maintaining my individual practice as an artist. I first worked with a group of artists during a collaborative practices class while completing my MFA in Intermedia at the University of Maine, which then led me to pursue an interdisciplinary PhD in Intermedial Collaborative Practices with two of my collaborators. We refer to ourselves as the Core 5 Incident. We collaborated on all of the course work, the dissertation, and the creative work that resulted from our research. The constant conversation influenced my individual work, primarily installation, which I see as collaborative in nature, interactive with the audience. I seek out other artists and makers to collaborate with as well, to make work with different perspectives.
As a true introvert, I never believed I would embrace collaboration, but l saw what could be accomplished and actualized when everyone had a voice.
I see curatorial work as a creative collaborative practice as well. As associate curator at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA), I am fortunate to interact directly with artists every day. CMCA was formed as a collective of artists coming together to show their work and in keeping with that, we emphasize the role the artist plays in what we do. There is constant dialogue with the artists in the development of our exhibitions and programming. For me, the exciting part of working on a show is when the artist takes an active role and the work and exhibition evolve out of our conversations. As an example, this is how last fall’s exhibition, Materiality: The Matter of Matter, developed and formed.
Through studio visits and conversations, I saw artists who were exploring their materials in ways that gave them agency, finding a balance between the idea and what it is made of and communicating through the materials themselves. This led to the making of new work for the exhibition, and exploring existing works that related to these ideas. Such discussions are always inspiring and I love doing studio visits because of that. At CMCA, it is fundamental for us to have these ongoing dialogues with artists, whether they are with artists we know or are meeting for the first time, to be able to have these conversations and see what work is being done now.
Another exciting aspect of Materiality were the dialogues that formed between the artists themselves. A number of the artists had not previously met and were able to connect through being a part of the exhibition. These connections are core to what we do at CMCA, engaging and facilitating the dialogue of contemporary artists in Maine.
Here are two poems by Estha Weiner, who grew up in Portland and Falmouth and now lives in New York City. Her sense of irony and of how to create characters and a sense of dialogue through the briefest suggestion come in part from her training in the theater. Estha loves Maine and returns whenever possible. Betsy Sholl
“Lying about Sex” was first published in J Journal. Both of these poems will be in her forthcoming book from Salmon Press, titled “at the last minute. ”
This fall, the Farnsworth Art Museum will begin its eighth year of the Stories of the Land and Its People program, a yearlong in-depth project-based learning experience that connects art and student curiosity to curricular learning in the classroom.
Since the program’s inception, we have had a variety of partners with whom we are in constant dialogue: funders, teachers, students, teaching artists, administrators, other non-profits, community members, museum staff, docents, and parents/families. As the program continues to grow, I am often asked by other non-profits and teaching artists, many of whom juggle a variety of residencies throughout the year, “How have you been able to build and sustain long-term relationships with public schools?” Funding issues and time constraints are usually cited first as obstacles, but even once those challenges are met, hopeful collaborators struggle to engage and sustain partnerships.
Based on my work and research over the years, I can share the following tips and best practices for creating, sustaining, and growing these relationships.
Tip 1: Listen
As we know, public school educators face many challenges, including time constraints, testing schedules, increased demands and expectations, and low resources. My first tip is to simply listen. One of the best things I did in formulating this program was to interview local educators to learn more about their challenges and aspirations. After speaking to over 100 teachers and administrators, I learned that there was not a lack of well-wishing programs offering to engage schools, rather a lack of understanding for the support teachers needed to implement the learning they wished to do in the classroom. These conversations helped me tailor our program to the specific needs and interests of our partners.
Tip 2: Be an Ambassador
As a museum employee, it is often odd for people to hear that I view myself as an advocate for teachers. As someone who cares deeply about the benefits of arts-integration not only for the betterment of public school education, but also for humanity across the board, I have discovered that educators are my primary audience for growth in this philosophy. If educators feel supported and inspired, then their students will be, and shortly after, I see more engagement with parents and the community. If in the listening phase, a teacher identifies a struggle with school structure, I will speak to the administration to potentially re-structure. Flexibility and accommodations are often made when someone else is the advocate. Or when the museum has strict requirements and policies, I find ways to ease schools into the experience or provide additional support. Let teachers know you are aware of what they are facing and that you will do your best across the board to support and advocate for them.
Tip 3: Listen, again
Inevitably as your program begins to steam along, you will encounter new (and old) challenges. To not spiral too far down the wrong track, it is important to build in points of dialogue and accountability (for all partners). In addition to program evaluations, each year we conduct a focus group with our educators to talk “freely” about what worked and what didn’t. This dialogue provides rich feedback for how best to move forward and grow. It keeps our program relevant in the real-world issues of public school education.
Tip 4: Quality
At the end of the day, everyone wants a quality experience. Our data-driven society expects this accountability in the form of facts and figures. If you lack the data team needed to code student outcomes, I recommend other forms of documentation. A portfolio of student work remains the greatest asset to sharing and promoting student growth in our programs. Our exhibitions document and honor process work alongside final works of art to help demonstrate to the visitor the levels of growth our students have achieved throughout the process. For guidance, I reference the 2009, Harvard’s Project Zero publication The Qualities of Quality: Understanding Excellence in Arts Education, a report commissioned by The Wallace Foundation. This resource is a helpful tool in guiding a quality arts-learning experience.
Tip 5: Make it visible
Communicate your successes! In addition to making student learning visible through public exhibitions and presentations, it is equally important to honor your partners, funders, and collaborators. It takes a village to guide a rich and in-depth learning experience. Acknowledge everyone (educators, administrators, community partners, staff assistants, etc.) visibly and publicly. For an additional touch, include personalized and private notes of gratitude, as well. Everyone works hard. Acknowledgement goes a long way to sustaining relationships with your team.
My concluding piece of advice is perhaps obvious, but it’s worth stating. Have respect for public school educators and the members of your team.
Each person contributes to the process and provides valuable expertise that will enrich the overall collaboration. Tapping into each other’s skills will enhance student outcomes and it is essential to developing long-term and in-depth partnerships.
Andrea L. Curtis
Andrea L. Curtis is the Education Program Manager and founder of the Arts in Education program at the Farnsworth Art Museum, a program dedicated to in-depth multi-visit learning experiences that connect inquiry-based visual learning to classroom education. Curtis holds graduate degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Arts in Education and the University of Maine in Communication with a focus on visual representation, critique, museum studies, informal learning, and children’s literature. She has lectured and instructed at Bates College and the University of Maine in rhetoric and communication and has received specialty training from Lincoln Center and Project Zero educators and artists. Curtis, a writer and dancer, is also a published reviewer of children’s books and young adult novels.