The theme of this issue of The Maine Arts Journal, InnerVisions, has presented me with a quandary of sorts. It implicitly asks for the reasons and motivations behind my creative process, not something that I have spent much time thinking about.
Art has been a part of my life from birth, and for all I know, it might be fixed in my genetic identity as well. When I was a small child, I had the good fortune to spend every afternoon following school in my father’s studio at what was then Potsdam State Teachers College in upstate New York (now SUNY Potsdam) where he taught painting, sculpture and history of art to aspiring teachers.
I was set up at a table with paper, pencils, crayons, watercolors or clay and each day proceeded to create whatever came to mind. Throughout my life, even before I thought of a career of any sort, drawing and doodles filled the margins of my notebooks. When I finally decided on a direction, it was toward architecture, with its own satisfying mixture of structural discipline and artistic expression.
It was also during this time that I was more fully exposed to the human history of art and architecture, with Bernini and Anthony Caro and Jack Squire my sculptural influences. Looking at my father’s work years after his death, I have to admit that there is more than a little of him in my own work as well.
Another powerful force defining my aesthetic has been Jazz. At ten years old, I discovered Jazz…so many artists, so many different pallets. Miles, Ella, Brubeck, Adderley, Ellington, Rollins, Mingus et al; each with their own interpretation of a world seen through music. My inner vision has always been informed by the structure, counterpoint, rhythm and improvisational nature of this music. Having a framework and vocabulary is just as necessary to my work as it is in jazz.
Defining and refining this vocabulary has been an ongoing effort, as I believe it is to all artists.
A third force in developing a personal aesthetic has been my love of and awe in the power of our natural world and its landscape. I see the same kind of rhythms and counterpoint in nature’s creations as I find in jazz, from the small micro-world found in a square foot of meadow or the patterns in a Trilobite fossil to the most expansive vistas.
How does this all translate into an examination of what moves me and what motivates me to create my art? Combining the rhythms of the visual world and the discipline of design with my soundtrack is, I believe, how I produce my art.
While at times a sculpture or drawing might be drawn from a specific subject, more often it begins as an improvisation, with no conscious thought or idea of where it will go or how it will end. The forms and vocabulary have been accumulated over the years, while the composition rises out of my subconscious as each partly developed piece merges with another, often in surprising directions.
I have no sense that I am pursuing any emotional goal or that I am satisfying any deep psychological need. I make art because that’s where my creative spirit takes me. It would be interesting (to someone) to find out what is going on in my brain while I’m in the process, but I can say with absolute certainty that at least two-thirds of the process for each piece is fraught with uncertainty and a lingering frustration; much like starting a jigsaw puzzle without a guiding picture.
It isn’t until I can clearly see the rhythm of a piece that a sense of satisfaction begins to creep in, a sense that increases as the piece is refined to completion.
It is fitting, as you drive toward Albion to the town of Freedom, that you must take the slight left fork onto the North Palermo Road—part of Maine’s network of international town names—just the sort of place where an Italian-American from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, like artist Joe Ascrizzi, might settle. On one day that I visited his studios, a statue of the patron saint from and of their family’s hometown of St. Euphemia de Aspramonte in Calabria was on the workbench being restored by Joe, and will later adorn the interior of John’s Ice Cream in Liberty, Maine, owned and operated by his younger brother, John Ascrizzi.
“It’s like something out of 100 Years of Solitude,” says Joe. “My Grandfather went to visit his mother and this statue got passed along.” The statue has been a little battered and at one point repainted badly. Now Joe will to help guide it into the next millennium.
I made the trip one day in late fall to visit Joe at his home and studio. I followed the sound of hammering to the studio to where Joe was shaping a metal top for a box he was making. To call what he makes a box is to simplify his unique art pieces into their most obvious attribute. These are more than boxes, they are portable shrines or receptacles for precious objects, consummately crafted, adorned with semi-precious stones, glass melted to resemble tears, or sperm. Carved linen-fold elements are inlaid with bone and brass. These boxes are acts of poetry; some of his boxes have housed manuscripts and books of poetry.
“You both do boxes,” renowned Surrealist art dealer and collector, Julian Levy, told Joe one day, years ago, as he compared Joe’s work to Joseph Cornell. Levy was the first to show Cornell, in 1932, at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City. “His are more whimsical,” Levy continued, “and yours are more serious.” Ascrizzi met Levy while Joe was running the business of picture framing at Walter’s Gallery in Woodbury, Conn. Levy came in with a Man Ray to be framed and Joe began working for him. For more than 20 years, Levy was a collector of Joe’s art and commissioned more than a dozen of his box sculptures, some of which were featured in an article on the Levy home, published in Architectural Digest (Aug.1981). Joe’s wife Lynn was pregnant with their son Max while they were house sitting for Levy. There, several months passed in Levy’s art-filled writing studio built by a stream near his home, in Bridgewater, Conn. Levy was in southern France, and Max was named for a Max Ernst artwork that was hanging in the studio.
Joe was included in a group show at Betty Parson’s Gallery in New York City in 1974. This led to a solo show at the New York Cultural center in 1975, and another at Ellen Meyer’s Gallery in New York, in 1977. “You’re young and you think you’ve made it,” he told me, “and so you say ‘I’m going to move to Maine. And why not, it’s as good a place as any.” By the 1980’s Joe was showing in Maine, at the Farnsworth and other venues, including a 1993 solo exhibit at St.Mary’s College in Maryland. These were heady times for Joe Ascrizzi.
There is a small silence as we both think of youth and the opportunities that once seemed endless, the cold of early November, the pewter sky, both amplify the passage of seasons. Our conversation turns to physics, specifically particles, and the position of particles, how we are just an arrangement of an arrangement. “There is a word for it,” Joe says, “ ‘Wakan Tanka.’ When the Lakota speak of the Great Mystery, they speak of an abstract force of creation and spirituality, a life force and energy existing in all things.”
Joe starts things and finishes things according to an internal rhythm.
A guy came in recently and wanted a fish painted onto a basket, so Joe got out his paints and created one. “I asked him how much he had to spend, and I made him a nice fish, “ says Joe, “and now I started working on some new paintings.” He points over to his easel and paint boxes, neatly arranged, the work highly detailed and well under way. Another painting hanging on the sidewall he says has been there for many years, not yet finished. Yet another is on the workbench, Joe is unsure if it is finished or not, “Who knows where it even comes from?” asks Joe. But he is certain that the painting is a living dream, and that this particular one is one of his favorites.
Joe’s philosophical nature contains humor inside the wisdom. He once told me “You’ve got no car, you’ve got no car troubles. You have a car, you have car troubles.” It is a simple equation that shakes one’s thoughts out of garden-variety complaints. Or his phrase, “Nothing IS forever.” As he says this we laugh like a couple of kids with an inside joke.
We spent some time opening drawers, and looking at raw materials, half-finished, close to complete neatly organized box sections in a room full of drawers and shelves filled with exotic/quixotic wood sections, thorny sections of briar rose stems, deer antlers, shells, metals, semi-precious stones. The multiplicity of materials form a labyrinth. A stack of frames that Joe is working on contains fragments retrieved from the Twin Towers after September 11th. They form an art project that anther artist has envisioned and Joe is helping to bring to life, a wood tower composed of segments that are all framed collages.
There is a book on the table in Joe’s shop by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, who was the head curator of Indian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the 1920’s-40’s. He was instrumental in introducing Indian and Persian arts to the West.
“The main difficulty so far seems to have been that Indian art has been studied so far only by archaeologists. It is not archaeologists, but artists who are the best qualified to judge of the significance of works of art considered as art,” wrote Coomaraswamy. Joe has been reading his writings since he was 19 years old but is conflicted.
“His words are so well wrought, but you can’t entirely agree with him, “ says Ascrizzi. “I believe what he says, for humanities sake, but he’s wrong about some other things, or there are ideas of his that just can’t be squared with our times. So I argue with him!”
“The contentment of innumerable people can be destroyed in a generation by the withering touch of our civilization; the local market is flooded by a production in quantity with which the responsible maker of art cannot compete; the vocational structure of society, with all its guild organization and standards of workmanship, is undermined; the artist is robbed of his art and forced to find himself a “job”; until finally the ancient society is industrialized and reduced to the level of such societies as ours in which business takes precedence over life. Can one wonder that Western nations are feared and hated by other people, not alone for obvious political or economic reasons, but even more profoundly and instinctively for spiritual reasons?”
“I’m talking about something else, but along those lines,” said Joe, “The Greeks had no word for art. Everyone was an artist or called to be an artist, as in someone who tries to make the invisible visible, and bring something forth that has never existed before.” Or, he mentions the medieval society where everyone has their craft and trade. Joe prefers the idea of the guild system to our current gallery and exhibition hall gigantisms’.
Joe works on several things at once so that when the mood strikes him he can pick up or put down a project. When he gets tired of making the fine marks in his paintings, he picks up a mallet and begins to hammer out a sheet of metal into curved form. Then there are also his intricate carvings in pieces of deer antler that become centerpieces for ceremonial necklaces made of bones and stones.
We go into the house for a while and have scones with, and baked by Joe’s wife Lynn. Some friends drop by to check-in, and his sister–in-law drops by and we discuss the rising tick problem, poetry, and then ordinary matters that are also and most often a part of our daily lives. Lynn shows me their son Max’s paintings, black and white landscapes that are spare, not peopled like Joe’s work and reflect a different age, his own personal challenges and outlook. One of Max’s musical arrangements plays quietly in the background; it is also a form of a landscape, the music like a train journey taken with sound. The title of the piece, “Thank god I’m a bum,” reflects the humor and humility of his father’s philosophy.
Leaving the house, and returning to the shop Joe regrets that his shop space is not larger, it is, in fact small. But then, he puts his hand on the back door knob and opens it outwards, “Do you want to see my Garden of Entropy?” Joe asked, smiling and sighing, “I go out and save something from total disintegration and make something with it.” And like a Fairy Tale, we step through a back door, onto a porch full of odds and ends and I see that the workshop we came from is duplicated and multiplied. There, across a clearing is another workshop filled with large, woodworking shop tools and workbenches. Upstairs is LeBouton Studio, operated by Max’s partner, clothing designer, Lisa Dorr.
There are three or more sheds chock-a-block with spare parts that form a complex and compound of raw materials from floor to ceiling and spilling out into the yards around.
There is a world of parts and pieces awaiting his creative energy to bring them to life, out of their state of dormancy, and just ahead of their potential to decay. Joe awakens an inner life in dull surfaces, exposing the true colors of wood grain, stone’s inner fires, the secret dreams of metal.
The first time I visited Joe and Lynn Ascrizzi a customer came, a man who had an antique table that Joe was working on. “I have to see a man about a table,” Joe said heading to his workshop. My husband and I went with Lynn to view her gardens before settling on their side porch while Joe saw to the client. “My gardens are my art,” said Lynn, and like any true gardener went through a litany of the pests and challenges that besiege her garden world. All around I saw healthy plants and tall lilies in bloom, but like an artist, Lynn sees what more there can be even while presenting a vision of beauty.
We sat on the porch in the wicker and cushioned chairs and realized that the sidewalls of the porch were made of string trellises and the vines of scarlet runner beans. The small, bright red flowers added highlights, accents, and the long pods hung down around the heart-shaped leaves like a Tiffany design. We talked about Lynn’s writing. She wrote a weekly, syndicated, reader-response column called Dreams, which included Jungian interpretations of our collective dreaming mind. She also wrote art-related and other cultural articles, when for many years, she was lifestyle editor and feature writer for the Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal. Now, she freelances for environmental and trade publications.
We sat talking on the porch and the afternoon faded. When the customer left we said our goodbyes and reluctantly drove away. Now I sit with the November winds blowing in practice for the winter ahead.
I saw Joe last night and he was thinking that he wasn’t ready yet for the winter. We agreed that the South held a special appeal this year; perhaps a visit to a friend in Mexico was in order? Or perhaps he will dream through the winter with visions of Mexico and travel into his projects to uncharted galaxies. Joe has a box of glass beads that resembles a universe and he uses them in the background of his assembled and collaged paintings as stand-ins for the stars.
If I had a box like the boxes that Joe makes, in it I would put the seeds from Lynn’s scarlet runner beans, which are now in a bag on my bookcase. In that box would be the mothers of all of summers. Inside each seed the potential for an endless afternoon on that porch, with a book from the neat stack on the table, and the scent of Casa Blanca lilies mingling with the fading afternoon light.
As winter sets in and the days grow darker I am reminded of the time in ancient Greece when caves symbolized the entrance to the classical underworld. A person entered the cave to seek wisdom in the darkness not the light. A place where the opposites meet and where there is room to confront and make meaning of our anxieties, whether fear, shame, helplessness and now for some artists to sort out a collective angst; to peel away the veils and make meaning and form.
Many artists are attracted to the subconscious realm where one travels in the shadows, where the boundaries between reality and imagination are occluded; much as they are for children who are unabashedly drawn to the dark side through fairy tales and gothic stories.
As a child I had two made-up friends who were so real to me that that even now I can picture them. The boundary between imagination and reality was merged. As adults the daytime world makes demands that can disrupt our focus and independence. Sometimes we need a guide.
Hermes was the the guide to the underworld and also the god of the unplanned journey, taking serpentine paths where discoveries happen. This would be familiar terrain to those artists whose work changes constantly with unforeseen results. This way of working is to give yourself up to that which is not readily explainable, to try out forms and inventions and to trust the process.
Baudelaire refers to the north wrapped in mists. The Northern painters, although aware of Italian artists who idealized human forms and perfected perspective in their work, chose a different path following their gothic heritage. Durer’s use of agitated line and his momenti mori prints reference the transitory nature of life on earth. The Isenheim altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald portrays the graphic pain and suffering of Christ and the torments visited on St. Anthony. Hieronymus Bosch vividly shows us fires, demons, and horrors of all kinds.
One is reminded of the lines from Paradise Lost, “One great furnace flamed but from these flames no light but rather darkness visible.” Darkness made visible can also refer to inner psyche which can be shaped in the outer world. This tradition of the grotesque is now evident in the work of the Quay brothers. They exemplify the same dark vision in their videos of detritus and puppets, based on the work of Bruno Schulz and other eastern European writers.
For a long time I have been interested in puppets and bats. Bats which weave the night sky and shape shift the spaces between them in their chaotic flight could be seen as symbols of continuing change as in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Their flight evokes a metaphor for the process of making. In the imagination of a child, puppets can burst into life connecting reason and intuition. In my installation at UNE of hanging puppets and other sculptural elements, the puppets were mirrored in a dark pool of water below them. At first one saw figures in flight, but they were also reflected in an endless descent.
Dante’s descent to the nine circles of purgatorio, with Virgil as guide, was to seek a path (from the dark wood) and to gather wisdom. The intersection between searching and mark making can happen in the fertile terrain when we travel below the surface and come face to face with the darker sides of our nature, which is washed away in the daylight.
“Must the morning ever return?
Is the thralldom of the earth unending
Unhallowed activity swallowed up
The heavenly visitation of the night” Novalis 1800
As an art student, I concentrated on rendering what I saw before me. Making life-like work was my goal, a classic measure of talent, it demanded all my attention.
But however well I learned to render, the inner breath of life rarely moved me to fall in love with my art and have it come alive. I could strive for technique, but without finding the inner vision, the art lacked passion.
I wondered, “How do I see beyond or inside?” This seemed frustrating and unbridgeable. I couldn’t do it.
I heard Leonardo say, “Look at walls splashed with a number of stains…there you can see lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces, costumes, an infinite number of things.”
I scoffed, “But who are they and why?”
But who was I asking? I was still looking for approval that Leonardo never needed.
At a point long after my “training” was complete, and after many life crises in which I focused much too heavily on myself, I finally noticed and appreciated the lives of others.
I discovered that our lives themselves were Leonardo’s mysterious stains. Then the joy of discovery began. I started to excavate many inner visions. I scratch them out of the layers built up behind and before me.
When in the studio, and when not, it’s a constant, continuous cavalcade of mixing and mining the ins and outs; making new connections and reinforcing existing ones; building the cribwork ever higher, erecting bridges on bridges, developing the infrastructure of a messy mind.
It’s carrying as much as possible on your back at all times, yet only offering a few small findings on the table at once; kneading, forming, nurturing, pruning: turning the clippings into their own small growths, watering them, and milking them. Folding them, with or without creasing: careful, most of the time.
It’s digging deep into the couch cushions, pulling out long-lost, temporarily forgotten nuggets of past ideas, all the while shifting to get comfortable, only to shift again when the coziness fades to numbness. Shift.
It’s following something down rabbit holes and over lily pads, under trees and over moons. Hiding nests in caves in burrows in webs.
It’s hanging on to a cliff with your feet on the ground, or getting out of bed when you’re still in the clouds.
It’s making noise, making dust, making a thing, or thirteen.
It’s recalling an old flash, an old pan. Recall, recall, recall.
Forget and recall, again.
It’s balancing 16 points of contact on one fingertip, while making lunch. Sketch things out and scratch them in. Press things flat, and roll them up; sort the collection, create distance between your time and your work. Join the edges, and leave the seams.
I explore cycles of accumulation and release in our physical and emotional landscapes. My recent exhibition at SPEEDWELL projects, entitled Out of Sorts, invited viewers to consider individual and collective consumption as manifest in six bales of recyclable materials that non-profit solid waste manager, ecomaine compacted smaller than usual to fit through the gallery door.
Aided by myriad individuals whose gestures of release collectively created the readymade objects appropriated for this occasion, I pressed pause on the recycling process to allow visitors to contemplate their patterns of consumption and the personal, cultural and global implications of disposability.
To facilitate such reflections, I commissioned benches fabricated by Benjamin Spalding out of wood we salvaged from woodpiles in Yarmouth and Cape Elizabeth, and upholstered by Amy Emmons with fabric printed with photos of bales of recycling.
Visitors fulfilled my hope that they would sit on these plushly cushioned benches and register the visual, visceral, and psychological impact of simultaneously minimalist and maximalist monuments to communal efforts to keep things out of the landfill.
Printed on fabric and hung on pegs designed to force viewers to implicate themselves through handling and potentially draping around themselves, were photographs of trash being incinerated and recycling being sorted both mechanically and by hand.
I designed this series of “wearable or wall-able” prints entitled “Complicity” to humanize the process and highlight the fact that when we place something in a recycling bin we are in direct physical dialogue with workers who sort, remove contaminants from, and bale recyclable materials.
Materially manifest in the strata of these intimate yet anonymous commodities is evidence of how we eat, drink, work, play, and clean, and how much (or how little) attention we pay to discarding things responsibly.
Since the exhibition ended, the U.S. recycling industry has been drastically impacted by China halting imports of much of our castoff material due to a crackdown on pollution. While Trump dismantles environmental protections, China is imposing fines and shutting down factories violating previously unenforced environmental regulations.
A crisis point is upon us commanding that we minimize what we are using rather than continue congratulating ourselves on tossing things in blue bins.
At 39 a friend introduced me to Munch’s work. I had been an artist for 20 plus years. That day I woke up. My drawings and painting of my inner world were not just psychological doodling – but actually legitimate subject matter.
I began with pictures and sculptures about the experiences of childhood and how the trauma and pain got played out in later life. Losses of love and and the joys and pain of being a physician and a parent in adult life.
In recent decades horses and maternal figures have intruded into my work.
I am not clear what this is about-my own yearning for my actual mother and my love for my daughter and for the majestic animals who symbolize compassionate power and freedom. And the cosmic need our predatory culture has for mare power, compassion and feminine wisdom before we totally deplete the earth and annihilate ourselves as well as our animal companions on the planet.
A colleague noticed some small elements in a painting which didn’t seem to fit.
“Who’s that?” they inquired.
Without hesitation, I replied “It’s Bones.”
On reflection this is Bones: —Daddy who promised me a pony and never showed up for our visit. —The agony of witnessing pain in animals and humans and being unable to help. —A boy who said my vagina smelled bad. —My best friend’s Harvard brother who raped me. —Nazis who turned my ancestors into skeletons and lampshades and their successors who continue to practice genocide and brutality. —Mrs. Lyons who threatened me at 5 with castor oil. —Boys who tormented me with bad names —A beloved man who spurned me for someone more sexy —My trusted mama who left me at 4 at a boarding school —The senators and representatives who vote themselves good health insurance while people have to choose between food and medicine. —Big companies and governments who thrive on killing by war and cheap labor —The selfishness of all of us who won’t share our comfortable lives with refugees from genocide and disasters
Bones lives in me and in the culture. I don’t like knowing he exists in me too. I ask myself what does he have to teach me.
He teaches me to shout “Back up bones!”
He says, “Find your backbone. Fight like a powerful mare! Don’t let fear stop you. Stand up for yourself and your values. Hold your ground. Be sturdy and lively. Love and play harder”
Wishing all of our readers a good start to this New Year and glad to have you as a part of our ever-evolving arts community in Maine.
For our Winter 2018 issue the theme InnerVisions has been interpreted in a wide variety of ways through the eyes of many artists. Meant to be an exploration of concepts ranging from Jungian insights to a general state of mental and physical/material health as translated through the vast territories of the imagination.
This issue contains Essays and visual essays from the colorful animal world of Eva Goetz, the ethereal, hyperborean map world of Alison Hildreth, and explore the mind and art of Alan Crichton. Take a voyage with Carl Little who writes on Robert Neuman’s “Ship to Paradise”, a series which depicts a ‘Ship of Fools’ on a fraught journey, as a metaphor for the human condition. Join Ethan Hayes-Chute as he goes “deep into the couch cushions, pulling out long-lost, temporarily forgotten nuggets of past ideas.”
We encounter Joseph Ascrizzi in his “Garden of Entropy,“ combining exquisite craftsmanship with a deep philosophy, Sarah Hewitt brings us her serious play with vibrant weavings, and Vic Goldsmith tries “not to think about anything” while working on his jazz-inspired improvisations. Included is an insightful essay by Dr. Nancy Coyne, the“Insight/incite” column by Portland Culture Exchange, and many of our regular features, such as ARRT!’s latest banners and poetry selected by Betsy Sholl.
The Maine Arts Journal was honored in December by a merit grant from the Rabkin Foundation for Art Writing. The grant has been partially put towards upgrading the Maine Arts Journal’s tech security structure, allowing us to reinstate our comments feature. The grant also allows us to improve and maintain the site in general. One new feature is a request to “Support MAJ!” While the subscription is still free, support is welcome.
Many artists were drawn to Maine for a more rural, small town/small city experience, space to work, and time in their studios. Those very features, while alluring, can also breed isolation and disconnection. The Union of Maine Visual Artists works to build a network and provide a forum for artists that supplements the different interests and functions of the galleries and larger institutions across the State. The Maine Arts Journal, as a key component of the Union, acts as a voice and a visual library for the Arts in Maine. Supporting the Maine Arts Journal is like giving a micro grant to a large, diverse group of artists throughout the state. Much of the work is done on a voluntary basis, or for nominal pay. Your support will help us afford the technical and material help we need to ensure that we can maintain what we have built so far and continue to develop.
And now to the Winter 2018 issue, please enjoy!
from the editors Natasha Mayers, Nora Tryon, Daniel Kany, Jessica McCarthy, Kathy Weinberg
Consider a community in which everyone is proud of their identity and humbled by the vastness of cultural identities. Consider an event that transverses ownership from language to language, cultures, creeds, and personalities; interwoven and respected. The Portland Culture Exchange is a movement building connections across communities in the Greater Portland area. We offer platforms for different groups of Portland residents to create friendships and learn about each other through shared interests. We deeply believe that every individual has something to teach or share, and something to learn. Over the two years that the Portland Culture Exchange (or PCE) has existed, we have hosted events, meetings, and parties, working to build this community and vision of which we dream, and have built deep cross-cultural connections in our city.
These events include:
First Friday Music & Dance Jams.
We Sing for Peace.
We’ve been fortunate to meet the people of AART! and work with them on our beautiful new banner. Thanks, ARRT!
There is room for every [Greater] Portlander to come learn and share, give and take. Coming up, we have more We Sing for Peace events (January 1st), Open Mics (the next one on February 9th), and other exciting events planned. Join us and learn more at: www.facebook.com/portlandculture.