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.
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.
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.
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.”
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…
Henry Isaacs’ Portland studio is an open and airy place filled with tiny painted sketches, canvases, piles of tubes of Gamblin oil paints and tin after tin crammed with hundreds of paintbrushes. The walls of the studio’s front room are filled with colorful and affably optimistic framed landscapes painted in Isaacs’ easily-recognizable style. The walls of his studio are covered with about a dozen paintings in process and scores of studies ranging from full size canvases to tiny squares dolloped thick with oil paint.
This is the story of why Isaacs has hundreds of uncleaned brushes sticking out of tins in his studio. It’s a cautionary tale.
Having travelled and taught around the world, It might not be surprising that a Maine artist like Henry Isaacs would have partied on a bus in Cuba with Jacques Derrida (well, sort of: the French philosophe was stiff and grumpy in the midst of the joy of others) or sat in a meeting with a brain like Jeremy Bentham’s. Bentham, after all, founded the University College of London, and Isaacs taught at the Slade School of Fine Art, the art school of the university spiritually founded by Bentham.
During the last decade, you would most likely have spotted Bentham in the halls of UCL. But Bentham, the spearhead of philosophical utilitarianism, is now visiting the United States and he is featured in “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body, 1300-now,” a show at the Met Breuer (through July 22, 2018).
On June 6, 1832, the day Bentham died, the terms of his will established a continued “life” for him as an “auto-icon.”
And when I say Isaacs sat in a faculty meeting with Bentham’s brain, I literally mean Betham’s brain — chemically preserved in a large jar.
However wacky this may sound, the comparison between Bentham and Isaacs is anything but. While teaching at Mass Art in 1988, Isaacs rushed to help two men who accidentally spilled a pair of 50 gallon drums of Butanone during a delivery.
Butanone is also known as methyl ethyl ketone or MEK, a widely used industrial solvent that smells like a combination of butterscotch and acetone.
One of the men immediately left the scene. Isaacs helped the other. For this helpful gesture, Isaacs was rewarded with chemical narcosis, meaning he was poisoned to the point of passing out.
Another token of his helpfulness was a lesion on the top of his brain, which was pickled, to a certain extent, like Bentham’s. This condition took years to discover and then years to find a treatment which finally took place in Sweden. (Saab Aeronautics recognized and treated what they call “painters’ disease.”) Isaacs has had to absolutely minimize petro chemicals from his life.
For a while, Isaacs worked in acrylics, but the quick-drying plasticky paints didn’t allow for him to push the paint around on the canvas, to paint the way he preferred to paint, with thick strokes pulled through wet paint already on the surface. He tried pastels as well, but found them too dusty,
Isaacs had met Bob Gamblin while teaching at the Slade. Gamblin, whose company was based in Portland, Oregon, was trying to market his new paints and no one at the English school even wanted to talk to him, so they sent the junior American professor to meet with him. Gamblin and Isaacs hit it off from the start. In 1991, Gamblin created a new paint recipe using pure poppy seed oil and sent samples to Isaacs. (Isaacs has found that paints even by the leading brands contain solvents even when they are not listed; such exposure is dangerous for him.) “Bob rescued my studio,” explains Isaacs. “From that point, I have used Gamblin paints. And now, his pure poppy seed recipe is the stuff that’s in the marketplace.”
Isaacs paints with vegetable oil from the grocery store and never washes the Winsor & Newton brushes he buys in bulk for the less than $2 each. Ultimately, he breaks them up and recycles what parts of them he can. “I use brushes by the bushel. I have to.” With this, Isaacs pulls a brush dripping with oil out of a tin and wipes the thick dollop of grayish blue goo from its bristles. Without hesitating, he pushes it through the thick paint piled on his palette and begins to rework a small picture of the underside of a bridge. The wet paint is buttery and Isaacs moves the brush about the surface with wizened confidence.
Because painting with pure oil can make the works take weeks to dry (“Alone, Bob’s paints take three to five weeks to dry,” he comments), Isaacs uses tiny amounts of Galkyd. He cannot use turpentine, Turpenoid or driers.
“I am compulsive about painting every day,” he notes. Pointing to a wall filled with 150 tiny, loosely painted canvases, he continues, “For every project I do, I make 50-100 of these little guys – hundreds of these ‘notes.’ These are for a project for a hotel in Marrakech, Morocco. These are beautiful schools, madrasas. I am working on making a huge painting that captures this kind of interior space made 2D. As far as my studio practice goes, I work from these ‘notes.’ I take no pictures. I rely on them even from years ago. These (he points with his brush) were painted on site four years ago.”
On another wall hang 75 of Isaacs’ “notes” he made in Guatemala in May. He muses: “These are little pieces of memory. My job, here in the studio, is to put them together.”
Last winter I found myself in a bit of an artistic slump. The flow of energy and ideas that had moved through me freely and guided my work for years seemed to have dried up. As winter gave way to spring, I reached beyond my studio walls to other artists in my orbit curious about what they were working on. How had they ridden the wave of creativity over the long haul? What did their daily studio practices look like? I wanted their insights. Ultimately their answers cast my experiences as part of a larger and ongoing conversation. As painter Gail Spaien notes, “painting is a physical manifestation of life…it brings us in closer contact with what it means to be alive and heightens our awareness about that which is not visible.”
Henry Wolyniec is involved with three distinct bodies of work at the moment. The first, which he has been working on for the last decade, consists of paper collage and relief printing. The second is a series of painted wire and paper sculptures started in the summer of 2017. The third is photography, which he has been doing for about three years. Henry says of his work that it is not concept driven or grounded in ideas; rather he continues at a piece until a series of visual decisions seem to come together.
Photography started as a fast and easy way for Wolyniec to capture an image. After a while, he noticed that certain kinds of images, specifically densely-packed compositions that included some form of overlapping shadow or reflection, kept showing up. Around the same time, he saw that his collages, in comparison, had gone flat and lacked composition. Recognizing he had worked himself into an aesthetic corner, Wolyniec realized photography would help him find his way out.
For Henry, navigating his need to have the time, energy, and focus his work requires has meant letting go of certain personal relationships not in sync with art making, as well as making specific choices around work and living situations that are affordable and studio friendly. Keeping life simple and uncluttered works, he notes, if money is not a motivation or within realistic reach.
Currently at work on a series that explores different color combinations, Ingrid Ellison’s paintings are an effort to balance pressure with open space. Her ideas come in the form of visual cues from nearly everywhere–the foggy harbor, a solitary mountain path, cracked and peeling paint, the shadow on a wall, a new tube of paint, passages from books and phrases from poems or songs, as well as time spent alone, out of doors, moving through space, woods, or water. There her mind empties and her thoughts are clearest.
Lately she has begun to explore writing as an extension of her creative practice. She keeps a visual journal that she takes everywhere, in which she writes, draws, paints, and collages.
Frequently she experiences a period in which she feels as though she has explored all her options in a particular body of work and were she to continue, she would begin repeating herself. This is usually followed by a series of unsuccessful paintings that she keeps making until something new reveals itself, and then she is off following that tangent. It’s a very experimental phase, she says, and one of her tricks to moving through it is to force herself to start differently.
Kim Bernard has been working with a quarter round shape that forms a particular mark. It took her weeks of focusing exclusively on this flow-like element to get the mark right. This was followed by several more weeks of figuring out what materials to work with and how to apply the mark. She says this period was characterized by quite a bit of dissatisfaction, but she dealt with it, because “the older I get, the less I am willing to accept something that’s not just right in my work.”
Movement has been a consistent theme in Bernard’s oeuvre, which ranges from kinetic sculpture and gestural painting, to painting with a pendulum, sculpture racing contraptions, spring shoes, and finger painting.
Recently, Bernard experienced a bout of creative block. She had finished her Amphibious Tiny House project, which consumed her for 2017. She felt a bit lost and spent the next few months fighting going to her studio because it was painful to be in there. To ease back in, she gave herself permission to do whatever she wanted, as long as she was in the studio. She messed around with paints, drew, took photographs. Most of the work she produced was not good, but she persevered , telling herself that nothing was guaranteed to happen if she didn’t try. And eventually something sparked.
During this period, Bernard read books about the creative process and listened to podcasts on creativity, all the while observing herself and taking notes. She developed a workshop called “Cultivating Creativity,” in which she guides students through playful exercises that inspire, build creative confidence, and generate ideas, leaving them with an arsenal of go-to strategies they can revisit for inspiration.
Bernard just turned 53 and she feels a sense of time passing. She has become increasingly selective about the kind of work she does and where she exhibits. “I don’t want to waste time and energy spinning my wheels on what’s not meaningful.”
Throughout her career, Gail Spaien has explored the question of how to bring the natural world into a static gallery setting. Her paintings translate the sensations around her with concentrated detail, depicting an idealized view of nature and a denial of unpleasant things. She paints the world as she would like it to be and invites the viewer to experience a painting as an object that holds an opportunity for contemplation, physical intimacy and affective power.
A painter of ‘weather and seasons,’ Spaien feeds her studio practice by working in her garden. She says that she has come to appreciate the symmetry of landscape design through hours spent composing an image and arranging her garden to create a form of balance that is both stable and active.
And Spaien admits that she is lost a lot. Her strategy, like that of Wolyniec, Ellison, and Bernard, is simply to keep working. That is followed by taking walks in all kinds of weather, as well as looking at art in person and in books.
At this time in her career, Spaien refuses to worry about whether she is doing it right anymore. This has, at times in the past, hindered her ability to have a particular kind of freedom in the studio. When stuck, she returns to pragmatic, technically-based core questions. Throughout all of her work is the thread of her core inquiry. How, she wonders, can she give form to life’s paradox and poignancy?
Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape opened at the University of Southern Maine – Lewiston/Auburn Atrium Gallery on March 12, 2018. The exhibition included 70 works of art from 27 artists from across the State of Maine working in a broad range of media. The exhibition was authorized by USM-LA Dean Joyce Gibson. Robyn Holman, the former curator of the Atrium Gallery, was instrumental in helping me create and stage the exhibition. Randy Estes, the facilities manager at USM-LA, oversaw installation. I was responsible for the concept and served as guest curator.
After initial promotion of the exhibition and the opening, during the last weekend of March, I was informed that the University had removed 3 paintings by Maine artist Bruce Habowski from the exhibition. Bruce’s paintings have appeared in a number of respected galleries and museums, including the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and the Portland Museum of Art. The paintings by Bruce submitted and selected for the Industrial Maine exhibition were Maine “urbanscapes”. The paintings were selected because of their strength and appropriateness to the theme.
I was not informed in advance or included in a dialogue about the decision to remove the art before the University took action. In the days and weeks that followed, I learned that the paintings were removed at the direction of University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings. My understanding is that President Cummings chose to remove the paintings based upon a complaint from a member of the community arising out of unlawful sexual contact for which the artist was convicted in 1999 and served a jail sentence. I do not know the specific nature of the complaint to the University, the relationship of the complaining party to the incident or the University, or what steps the University took to investigate and explore alternative courses of action before removing the art.
After speaking with President Cummings and communicating with Robyn Holman, the artist, members of the Union of Maine Visual Artists, and artists participating in the exhibition, I elected not to rehang the exhibit or try to fill the empty spaces where the paintings had hung. I understood that President Cummings had faced a really difficult decision, but felt that rehanging the exhibition would erase the University’s action. Instead, I installed a 3×5 placard in the empty spaces. The placard read:
This painting has been removed by order of the USM President.
-Janice L. Moore, Guest Curator, Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape
On Sunday, May 6, 2018, the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald ran a positive review of the exhibition by Maine art critic Dan Kany, with a companion article on the removal of the art by reporter Bob Keyes. I gave interviews for both the Kany review and the Keyes article, but declined to identify the artist out of respect for his privacy and concern for the victims. My understanding is that the paper identified and disclosed the name of the artist and the nature of the offense because the artist was easily identified from promotional materials for the exhibition and the criminal history was a matter of public record. My understanding is that President Cummings declined to give an interview for the Keyes article, but the University gave a brief statement explaining its action. The Keyes article appeared with a photo of the placard.
Almost immediately after the Kany review and Keyes article appeared in the Portland paper, I began receiving calls and emails from advocacy groups, reporters, attorneys and a number of others defying categorization. The National Coalition against Censorship released a statement opposing the University’s action as censorship. Trolls posted on my social media accounts. In the week that followed, President Cummings gave a number of media interviews defending his decision. He emphasized the nature of the artist’s offense and the University’s obligation to create a safe space for University students passing through the Atrium.
I declined all media requests after the interviews I gave to Dan Kany and Bob Keyes. In my view, the Keyes article had accurately reported the story and any further statements or interviews would only contribute to prolonging a news cycle that might be hurtful to victims, the artist, or the students.
I was unaware that, during this time, in the week following the publication of the Kany review and Keyes article in the Portland paper, the University removed the placards.
Throughout this entire episode, I have struggled with the appropriate, ethical response. While I strongly oppose the University’s unilateral decision to remove the paintings and subsequent removal of the placards without first engaging in any meaningful dialogue around alternatives, I am also very sensitive to the interests of victims, the artists, and the community. I have struggled with a number of questions. Was the victim ever consulted? What was the complaining party hoping to accomplish? What was the actual threat to student well-being? There was nothing on the face of the art that presented a “trigger.” Was the University concerned that a protest by the complaining parties might pose a threat to the emotional safety of University students? If so, was it possible to contain a protest or take other action to address the concerns of the complaining party? Didn’t the public controversy caused by the University’s unilateral removal of the art actually amplify the issue, putting the “triggering” conversation not just in front of all University students, but in front of an even wider audience? Was there a way the interests of the complaining party, the victim, the artist, and the University could be reconciled short of removing the art? Was removing art from a standing exhibition based upon a complaint arising out of the past conduct of the artist actually the best option?
I was confronted, too, with the issue of denying access to the art based on the past behavior of the artist. I wondered about the appropriateness of removing art due to an offense committed by the artist nearly 20 years ago. I am acutely aware of the interests of victims, but how as a society do we ask artists to engage with their communities after they have been convicted and served a sentence? Is it meaningful to talk about rehabilitation? Should artists require the permission and consent of victims to present their art? What about the art itself? Should the community be denied access to art based on the past behavior of artists?
This entire experience raised these and a host of other highly complex issues that extend well beyond this single art exhibition. What are the responsibilities of museums, galleries, and curators with regard to artists who may have engaged in misconduct? What are the responsibilities of critics and teachers? Should curators and gallery owners conduct criminal record checks? Should artists be asked to sign statements attesting to a “clean” history? What counts as an offense that warrants rejection or removal of art? Should we ban the movies of Woody Allen? Take down the Picassos?
I set out as a guest curator to create an exhibit that presented the works of artists who – like me—are making art inspired by Maine’s industrial landscape. In that I think I was successful. Ultimately, I was able to execute an idea and create an exhibition which presented a different view of Maine. Some artists created new work for the exhibition, which was immensely satisfying. I was able to meet and visit some of the artists I knew only by reputation and connect with them. I learned their processes and motivations. I met faculty, staff and students and was immensely grateful for their overwhelmingly positive support. Contemporary Maine art got to exist in a place of learning in a city where industry has been hugely significant for over a century. That was positive.
Over the course of the exhibition, I was able to communicate with many of the artists and get their feedback. There was no consensus on the best course of action, but I was able to hear them and to listen. I was also able to turn to the Union of Maine Visual Artists as a valuable resource for advice, opinions, and ideas on individual and collective responses. Our Portland chapter met as a community and discussed many of the potential implications. We were able to do this with care and consideration from multiple perspectives. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t always agree on what an appropriate response should look like, but we were able to talk and explore ideas in real time sitting together around a table. When events seemed overwhelming and I needed help, the UMVA showed up both individually and collectively. This community supported me. I was profoundly moved by this and I am incredibly grateful for it. To be part of a community with a shared passion and to connect and support each other even when our opinions differed is a deeply important and meaningful thing.
In the course of creating an exhibition focused primarily on artistic merit and my own vision around a single theme, I found myself operating in unplanned and seemingly uncharted waters, far from what I wanted or ever set out to do.
I know I have learned from the experience. I hope we all have. I find myself, though, with many more questions than answers. The questions, I think, are ones we are confronting collectively. I’m optimistic, if we approach our challenges as opportunities for meaningful engagement and dialogue, we can work out better answers.
Not all artists can afford a traditional, daily studio practice. For some, the studio is a state of mind entered into on the drive home after a long day packed with professional obligations. These artists make exceptional work while maintaining an alternate identity – be it teacher, parent, janitor, or doctor. For Michael Mansfield, that identity is Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art.
Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to view Mansfield’s personal artwork – a series of small, intricate video pieces cleanly framed in white and hung on the wall. At first glance, one of the pieces appears to be looped, hand-drawn footage of a hummingbird, its underside exposed to the camera. In another work, a flock of birds fly in and out of a cluster of reeds. Their movement is hypnotic.
I sat down with Mansfield to discuss his work, his remarkable career history (which includes rebuilding Nam June Paik robots and hacking theme park software to run the technology behind the Smithsonian Museum of American Art), as well as his vision for the Ogunquit Museum. This is an excerpt from that interview, focused on Mansfield’s work as an artist. The full interview will appear in the July issue of The Bollard.
Were there any pivotal moments that pointed you toward the arts as a potential career path or passion?
I studied architecture and art history in my first year as an undergrad and quickly realized that the engineering side of architecture was less interesting to me. I was more interested in its visual presentation, mostly through photography, so I chose to study photography. Prior to that, I really didn’t have any exposure to art. I grew up in East Texas. Other than looking at occasional magazines with black-and-white photographs, I didn’t have any access to visual storytelling.
Did travel inform your way of being?
Yes. There is a great tradition in Texas of environmental photography and street photography, Gary Winogrand and George Krause. I was encouraged by the professors I had at the University of Houston to go out in the world with a camera, make images and bring them back to see if they worked. I received grants to travel domestically and abroad to make photographs. I also had a number of paying jobs to do editorial work, which made me better at composing an image. I was working in color photography and black-and-white photography and digital photography and then eventually in video and filmmaking all at once, so I made a pretty wide mess of work.
Were you showing that work?
I was. I had a number of little published projects. I was showing the work in galleries, little student-run spaces, and small community spaces.
Primarily that was street photography and landscape photography?
Yes. I was really focused on the changing nature of street photography, and just having a camera and being a part of something.
How did you move from street photography to your most recent body of work?
The program I was in for undergrad was photography and digital media. It was the first program of its kind, in the ‘90s, at the college level, that combined traditional photography and digital media. Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom, who ran it, were a collaborative called MANUAL. They produced a lot of work that married traditional and digital media and, as students, we had access to some pretty high-tech equipment. I began looking at digital images and how they were composed for computers using Photoshop and layers, and when I left college, that didn’t leave me. I kept working with it. I began working with desktop-publishing video programs. I was making films and then scanning them in and editing them digitally and I was also taking photographs and animating them through the same editing process.
I realize you can’t break apart the technical from the conceptual, but that all sounds very technical.
It was more about trying to find a way to extend an image in time. The photograph was a finite moment. Working photographically, I was often looking at contact sheets. I would shoot 50 rolls of film and produce 50 contact sheets and then see those images in sequence and see how an event unfolded over time. I realized that there were really beautiful limitations to that single image I was trying to create, and once I arrived at that composition, I wanted to expand the image into time. It was a single photograph, but I wanted it to exist for a bit longer. I was really into the persistence of an image, or how one thing stays in your mind for a period of time, and how that informs your association with that object or that event, even though it’s only recognized as 1/25th of a second, or less. Taking that single instance, and then blowing it up and being able to examine it from multiple angles, seeing how I might elaborate on my understanding of what that image was. The work that I produce now is often created from parts of smaller images. It is very technical but my reasoning behind it is much more conceptual. The technology allows me to make the work. It enables me to extend that moment of a single image into something much longer.
Were there any specific concepts or questions you were pursuing that have found their way into your curatorial efforts?
Yes. I’ve always been interested in the artist’s relationship to their material and how that material provides both insight into the contemporary moment, and is also a testament to human ingenuity and creativity, that we can receive a bit of technology that was created for one purpose and then imagine something new from it. Artists have always engaged the latest technologies that are available to them – as painters and sculptors and artists working with more traditional media as equally as artists working with more contemporary media. The role that industry and technology and commerce played in early American modernism can be easily identified in the work you see from that period just by the composition. It is enlightening about what the moment really meant, both to them, then, and to us, now. In the work I’m making, I am seeing the same approach to technology resulting in works that open our eyes to something new, just as was happening 150 years ago.
You’re primarily using technology to focus, visually, on nature, which is interesting.
It’s true. I was working in an urban environment a lot, and I always found inspiration in the landscape. I suppose it’s not unlike artists who left the cities and urban areas in the 1880’s. I was encountering the wilderness in a different way and trying to find what that meant. I would take a single image of a rare bird in New Zealand, or in Utah, and then create a world around that single image so I could expand my one experience with that bird. I have a photograph of a North American Red-Headed Blackbird that I took just outside of Ogden, Utah, with a field of reeds in the background. I had a single instance of that bird, but it was not complete, he was hidden behind the reeds. I couldn’t really see him, so I did quite a bit of research into Red-Headed Blackbirds and images of Red-Headed Blackbirds. Then, I constructed him from information I was able to find online, digitally, and embedded him into an image that I could then expand in time into a virtual world. I could recreate his existence and allow him to live a fuller life, something more meaningful that would last longer and be more consequential than just a single photograph.
Does your experience as an artist impact your work as a curator and museum director?
I hope it does. I like to think that my experience as an artist makes me more sensitive to the struggles artists go through, especially when I’m in a position to support their work. I know how hard it is to carve out a living as an artist and how much sacrifice and determination and willpower and luck it requires. I hope this informs my conversations with artists. I hope it makes me a better listener and a better champion for the work they’re doing.
What about exhibition design?
I rely quite a bit on my experience as an artist. Helping an artist realize their vision in space within the confines of the gallery is not an easy task and the work that an artist is doing in the studio doesn’t always translate to a gallery space very simply.
You stopped showing your work in 2009 to avoid conflicts within your professional career. To me, that carries a hint of tragedy, but I can see the upside if this decision resulted in a kind of openness to explore concepts and make work without the pressure of the public eye.
It’s true. I have to admit that in one sense, it’s a huge relief that I’m not under the same scrutiny as an artist, that I’m not at risk in the same way as an artist. I’m able to let go of that work, and I don’t have to take the risk of putting it in front of people. I like the privacy this affords me. I get to work out of the spotlight without any of the competition or conflicts or consequence of rejection. But, what I miss the most is the feedback … making work and having a conversation about it. The discourse around what’s important, what’s meaningful, and relevant.
Perhaps Maine artists want to look back to Hope’s time when viewing art in a gallery was sometimes more of an ‘event’, like going to a theater. Linking studio practice and tourism is very much what we do here during Maine summers.
Jane Bianco, Curator at the Farnsworth
James Hope (1818/19-1892) was a respected contemporary of painters Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), and others who aggrandized expansive vistas of the American landscape. From 1852, Hope was established as a portraitist and landscape painter with studios in New York City and Castleton, Vermont. Twenty years later he relocated to Watkins Glen, New York, after completing a lucrative painting commission at the popular tourist destination. Its central appeal, a shalestone and sandstone canyon featuring stepped waterfalls and pothole pools was a geologic wonder carved from the wilderness. It drew thousands of visitors after opening as a public attraction in 1863, and also became the inspiration for many of Hope’s paintings during the last two decades of his career.
This natural spectacle was described exuberantly as a place “in whose marvelous gorges and splendid cliffs man may read, as scarce anywhere else, the world’s age…pages of history-in-rock, clothed in rare and exquisite ferns and orchids….” In 1872 Hope strategically located his gallery near the entrance to the glen and charged visitors a fee to view his gallery, which he also stocked with souvenirs and stereoptic cards of scenes from the glen made by his photographer son. His account of the gallery included encouragement to linger, as noted in the Descriptive Guide Book of the Watkins Glen:
HOPE’S ART GALLERY
This gallery, built by Captain J. Hope, late of 82 Fifth Avenue, New York, is beautifully lighted and contains a superb collection of more than one hundred of his finest paintings. Here can be seen the leading scenes in Watkins Glen, and its surroundings; also scenes in New England, Virginia, California, Europe, Sic., chief among which are, his celebrated picture of
also his great historical painting of the
ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
and many others well known in former New York exhibitions.
Guests can spend many a pleasant hour here, and no visitor to the Glen should fail to see this splendid collection. There is an admission fee of 25 cents to this gallery, as it does not belong to the Glen. A short distance beyond the Gallery is a convenient platform, erected for the use of picnic parties.
By 1882 Hope was supplementing his studio practice, managing “seasonal repairs and ornamental structures of the Glen,” and capitalizing further on this attraction by collaborating with the souvenir business operated by the Glen Mountain House hotel, perched above one of the ravines.
The Hope gallery of idyllic landscape paintings, as introduction to the splendid glen with its steep pathways along and across deep pools and gorges, drew many visitors. They came on foot to experience the slightly dangerous, sublime beauty of the Glen, but unexpectedly would have confronted drama of a different sort upon entering the gallery. Hope’s other spectacle was his series of six-by-twelve-foot panoramas depicting the September 17, 1862 Civil War battles of Antietam. Painted in Hope’s last decade, these sweeping, large-scale views depict with immediacy some of the bloodiest Civil War battles between Union and Confederate forces, showing troop movement and death. His firsthand observations of the battles as a member of the 2nd Vermont Regiment were the essence of a number of smaller paintings as well, including one in the Farnsworth Museum collection, currently on exhibit in Rockland, Maine. It is a reduced-scale version of his panorama aptly named Wasted Gallantry, and depicts the 7th Maine Infantry charging into the line of fire in a futile attempt to eliminate Confederate sharp-shooters. It has been noted that certain of the painter’s graphic details seen in the foreground in this and others of the series correlate with Alexander Gardner’s Civil War photographs documenting combat’s horrific aftermath, namely, the shocking display of soldiers’ mangled corpses.
The incongruous display of death and beauty within the gallery would have intensified the visitor experience. Twelve years after Hope’s death, a 1904 auction catalogue listing eighty-three of his paintings quoted artists Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, and Civil War veterans, all who attested to the sensitivity and veracity of Hope’s compositions and their ability to transport:
Hope’s example of making his studio gallery part of an expanded sensation, in particular by way of his commemorative, even confrontational, exhibit, would have incited reaction—provoking, it might be argued, transference of heightened awareness to the landscape on an even grander scale, to be experienced just outside the studio.
The Famous Hope Canvases, Fifth Avenue Art Galleries, preface to auction catalogue, January 22-23, 1904, unpaginated. The catalogue lists 83 canvases, including Hope’s six panoramas (at5 ½ x 12 feet) focusing upon the September 1862 Civil War battles of Antietam.
 Elizabeth Theriault Strum, James Hope: Nineteenth Century American Painter, Masters Thesis, Syracuse University, 1984, (courtesy National Park Service, Antietam National Battlefield), 15-23. The Glen Mountain House, a resort replete with paths along the gorge and bridges spanning its rivers, with vista of cascades, had been opened to upwards of 10,000 tourists during the summer and autumn of 1863 by local newspaper owner Morvalden Ells and landowner, George Freer.
 The panoramas have been conserved by the National Park Service, and are on view at Antietam National Battlefield headquarters’ James Hope Gallery, in Sharpsburg, Maryland.
 Dates of the smaller paintings of battle scenes have not been fixed; Hope may have produced these prior to his large-scale panoramas.
 See Philip Whitman, Long After Battle: James Hope’s ‘Authentic’ Commemoration of Antietam’s Bloody Lane, Masters Thesis, Skidmore College, 2017.
For 40 years now (1978-2018), I have been writing about art in Maine. Over that time I have been privileged to visit several hundred artists in their studios. Not only did I learn most of what I know about contemporary art from studio visits, but I have come to regard an artist’s studio as a special kind of space, a place of creation, reflection, learning, expression, contemplation and spiritual renewal.
Artists’ studios are among the most human of places I know. I find myself feeling safe and relaxed in these industrious spaces the same way I do in churches, cemeteries, libraries, bookstores and museums. In all these places, one is in touch with generations of living. In a studio, one is also in touch with the immediate, the moment, even the moment before creation.
In the following paragraphs, I propose to reflect on a few of the artist studios that have made an impression on me and to consider some of the things I have learned there.
Studio as time travel
The first studio I visited regularly was Alfred “Chip” Chadbourn’s sky-lit and woodstove-heated space above his garage in Yarmouth. Up the wooden stairs and under the eaves was a little world away from suburbia, a cheerfully cluttered atelier where Chip painted and taught, read, smoked, dreamed and thought. In his “blue de travail” French worker’s jacket, Chip cut a rakish figure as he stood working at his easel, brushing buckets of color and Mediterranean light onto otherwise Maine landscapes.
With his handlebar mustache and European mien, Chip was Central Castings’ vision of an artist. His absorption of the history of art was such that I understood that when he was in his studio he was as much in the company of Bonnard and Vuillard as he was of the occasional visitor from the present.
That was the 1970s. I got this same sense of time travel in 1985 when I visited portrait painters Claude Montgomery and Gardner Cox in their respective studios. Portraiture was a conservative genre even then, so the sense of stepping into the past seemed fitting.
Claude Montgomery’s Georgetown studio was a rustic, smoky space. “Ash and burnt logs spill from the great stone hearth,” I wrote in a Maine Times group portrait of portrait painters. “The walls are cluttered with portraits of friends and family. Books mount to the ceiling a dizzying height away. North light skylight, ocean view picture window. A grand piano and a grand array of artistic impediments – a bouquet of brushes here, Winslow Homer’s old easel there – command the floor.” I’m sure I must have meant “implements” rather than “impediments.”
Gardner Cox was “a portrait artist’s dream.”
“Wavy white hair beneath a blue wool slouch hat, wild, bushy eyebrows above gold-rimmed glasses. Jaunty green bowtie, fire-engine red suspenders, yellow and black checked sports jacket with a red bandanna stuffed casually in the breast pocket. Brooks Brothers bohemian, Boston Brahmin deshabille, an artist and gentleman.”
The colorful Mr. Cox, a North Haven summer resident, painted in a line of descent from John Singer Sargent. His studio was a dingy, cluttered space in Boston’s Fenway Studios, a brick block of 48 studios that is “the oldest continuous artist building in the nation.”
“Thin, gray light streams through the towering windows that overlook the expressway. At either end of the big room stand commissions in progress – a portrait of Tufts University president Jean Mayer and a portrait of Harvard Law School professor Louis Loss. The portraits seem less in the Sargent society tradition than in the more expressionistic vein of Graham Sutherland, one of the last of the great English portraitists.”
Studio as real estate
Fenway Studios was built in 1905 to house artists displaced when another studio building burned. The venerable Copley Society and St. Botolph Club contributed to the civic effort to aid Boston artists. It is rare to find purpose-built art studios these days.
Artists are ever in need of ample and affordable space in which to work. I have often said, only half facetiously, that art in Maine is all about real estate. The first artists came looking for landscapes to paint. Subsequent generations came to escape the city summers and to find cheap places to live and work. As such, all manner of warehouse, office, factory, farm and educational buildings have been repurposed as studio space.
One of the most industrious studio buildings in Portland began life as the Calderwood Bakery on Pleasant St. First, Maine College of Art converted it to a printmaking studio and then artists Alison Hildreth and Katarina Weslien purchased it in 1996. Today, the Bakery Studios house the studios not only of Wooly Hildreth and Katarina Weslien, but also those of the Peregrine Press, White Dog Arts and Wolfe Editions, as well an individual artists such as Richard Wilson and Charlie Hewitt.
At one time it seemed to me that Charlie Hewitt had studios up and down the Eastern Seabord from Vinalhaven to Maryland. These days his primary work spaces are in the Bakery Studios in Portland and in a converted garage in Jersey City, New Jersey. Charlie, the most productive artist I know, creates paintings, prints, ceramics and sculpture, all featuring his distinctive expressionist vocabulary inspired by French-Canadian Catholic roots.
One of the things that amazes me about Charlie’s productivity is that he manages to create a large body of work while also managing his real estate holdings in New Jersey. When I first met Charlie in the 1980s, he was living and working in a third-floor loft on the Bowery in New York, derelicts asleep in the doorway, addicts shooting up in the park out back. By the time he left the city some 20 years later, his building housed rock stars and movie directors, and hipster moms had commandeered the park.
That’s the power artists have to transform undesirable neighborhoods, make them desirable and, thus, price themselves out of the market. As Soho became too expensive for all but blue chip artists, working artists like Charlie moved on to Chelsea, Brooklyn and Jersey City. Charlie’s investment in Jersey real estate not only provides some income, it also plays a strategic role in his art career.
“The work gets made in different places and assembles itself here for the New York market,” Charlie said in a phone call from Jersey City. “If I had just the studio in Maine, it would be difficult.”
Studio as mirror of the soul
Over the years I have been impressed by how an artist’s studio often mirrors his/her own persona. Whether Carlo Pittore’s converted chicken barn in Bowdoinham, Richard Estes’ immaculate ballroom studio in Northeast Harbor, Robert Indiana’s Odd Fellows Hall museum of self on Vinalhaven or Neil Welliver’s great barn in Lincolnville, it’s not just the art but the studio that reflects who an artist is.
The wondrous home and studio of Wally Warren in rural Ripley, like Bernard “Blackie” Langlais’ art farm in Cushing back in the day, is a total expression of the artist. The yard of this roadside attraction is filled with whirligigs, totems, small boats, arches, and satellite dishes painted like ornamental shields, all in Warren’s palette of bright colors. Inside the home studio there is Warren’s “Cities of Dreams,” miniature urban landscape dioramas fashioned from recycled electronic parts.
Eccentric and exuberant, Wally Warren’s world is a Central Maine landmark.
“It’s kind of the folk art idea of surrounding yourself with color because of the starkness of the environment we live in,” says Wally Warren of his gaudy assemblages of debris. “It’s the joy of just doing it.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is painter Grace DeGennaro’s fastidious studio in the loft of a post-and-beam barn attached to her Yarmouth home. The divine geometry of DeGennaro’s art is all about order, as is her studio. When I stopped by recently, Grace was in the midst of a work-in-progress series inspired by Platonic solids. Her paints were all laid out in chromatic order, surf clam shells for paint containers. I told her I hoped she hadn’t bother to clean up the studio just because I was coming for a visit.
“Oh, no, it’s always like this,” Grace assured me. “I can’t work unless everything is in its place.”
Prior to moving into her barn studio five years ago, Grace worked in an even larger space in Brunswick’s Fort Andross Mill Complex on the banks of the Androscoggin River.
“I loved working there, but I don’t miss it,” she said. “Working at home, I can climb up here any time of the day or night. My work is closer to me.”
Grace said the only thing she misses about not being in the mill is the sense of community, the sharing of resources and ideas that can take place when artists are housed in the same space.
Studio as the best place to see art
Fort Andross, also known locally as the Cabot Mill, is a 495,000 square foot brick mill complex that at various times manufactured textiles, shoes and brushes. Today, it is lively warren of offices, shops, restaurants and long, sterile hallways that lead to colorful artists’ studios. Among the artists working there most recently are Nick Benfey, John Bisbee, Brad Borthwick, Jim Creighton, John Coleman, Andrew Estey, Tom Flanagan, Cassie Jones, Richard Keen, Josh Mannahan, Elijah Ober, Tessa G. O’Brien, Bronwyn Sale, Emilie Stark-Mennig, Andrea Sulzer and Ian Trask.
Cassie Jones’ studio is a long, narrow space with high windows overlooking the Androscoggin. One wall is hung with dozens of recent paintings and constructions in which color, pattern and form seem to work out their own equilibrium. As a young mother of two, Cassie finds she must husband her time in the studio more carefully these days.
“I’m so lucky to get here two and a half days a week,” said Cassie. “It’s a great balance for me. I’m amazed how efficient I can be. I now do in two and a half days what I used to do in four.”
When I tracked down sculptor John Bisbee, he and two studio assistants were busy in the riverside basement hot shop bending his signature nails into a myriad of forms and letters, working feverishly to meet the deadline for his American Steel exhibition at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland this summer. The most important thing I have learned from years of studio visits is that a studio is the best place to see art, right there where it’s created.
American Steel, Bisbee’s response to Trump’s America, was an exhibition-in-progress when I visited, some elements completed, others roughed out, the rest to come. As pieces were finished in the basement forge, they were carted in an industrial elevator to the cavernous space Bisbee maintains on an upper floor, a space he shares with several younger artists.
Bisbee’s studio is filled with the earlier work for which he is best known, elegant organic abstractions fashioned from welded nails. But American Steel is a different sort of beast, a kind of socio-political narrative of the decline of American manufacturing and the rise of a phony populism championed by a putative billionaire. The installation features realistic objects – a bathtub with oars, a pistol, a broom – combined with satirical text such as “This is such a witch hunt” and “This arrangement no longer works for us,” all made of nails.
American Steel will fill an entire gallery at CMCA. And when I asked John what having such an expansive studio space to work in meant to him, his terse answer was, “Everything.”
A few days later I got to see Kayla Mohammadi’s Caldbeck Gallery exhibition in its unedited form in the old Bristol schoolhouse where she maintains her Maine studio. Inspired by the title of the film “The Shape of Water,” the paintings take the artist’s distinctive pattern approach to bodies of water, abstracting the landscape through form and color.
Kayla Mohammadi’s Boston studio is in the famed Fenway Studios, as is that of her husband, painter John Walker. When Walker was chair of the graduate program in painting at Boston University, his studio was on the third floor of the former Fuller Cadillac building on Commonwealth Blvd. Since retiring from BU, Walker has spent more and more of his time in the couple’s South Bristol home and has acquired a collection of local buildings – a school, a store, a warehouse, and the former hall of the Improved Order of Red Men – as studio, storage and display space.
John, who was at work on paintings for exhibitions in England when I visited, is very attuned to the special power of an artist’s studio. In fact, photographs of studios figured in his decision to become an artist in the first place.
“The thing that did it for me was seeing pictures of artists’ studios, of people working, artists like Pollack and DeKooning working in their studios, all that activity,” said John. “I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”
John Walker agrees that the ideal place to see a painting is where it is created.
“I don’t like exhibitions,” he confided. “I feel sad for the pictures in those clean, neutral spaces. They look so lonely hanging there.”
John Walker’s advice to aspiring painters has always been simple and direct.
“You go away and paint some pictures no one has ever seen before,” he tells them, “and then the art world will find you.”
The studio is central to the art making experience because it is where art is born and where it is most at home. For the artist, it is simultaneously a retreat from the world and the place where he/she engages it most intensely. It is a private place, a work space, a place of research, discovery and, for some, even worship. And that is why it has always seemed to me to be such a privilege to visit one, to get a preview of art-in-progress and of the place and process of creation.
(Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance art writer and political columnist who lives in Brunswick.)
Last summer I was the recipient of a six month studio residency through the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation. I left my modest garage-studio behind my house, where I have been making paintings, drawings, prints and some sculpture over the last ten years, for a large high-ceilinged space at Lincoln Street Center in Rockland. Shifting spaces has been transformative for me.
Mostly I responded to the scale of my new space by following the impulse to work larger. I painted and collaged a series of wall-sized paper pieces that I made on the floor. I had a backlog of painting ideas that I wanted to get out of my head as a way to loosen up my other work. I found it liberating to work on a temporary, unfussy surface that I could reshape on an impulse. Not only did I find relief to my restlessness by turning my back on the loaded history of painting on stretched canvas but I also found a sense of possibility in the physical building itself. The new studio suited me in ways that I could not have predicted and so I have stayed on as tenant.
I am back to working on canvas but it is unstretched and I am still using the floor as my work surface. I’m using the same collage approach as I used with the paper pieces but the materials have slowed the mark-making down. There’s a body-intelligence in making work with the whole physical being — walking around and across the painting or on hands and knees. I trust it.
I talk a big game about being open to change in my studio but notice that I always have some hesitation or resistance to it when the crucial moment arrives. I’m interested in that conflicted moment and what it is telling me. A studio friend refers to it as threshold anxiety.
Very recently I’ve been working on small stretched oil paintings in my old studio again. I feel the same but completely different, like a tourist who has traveled and then come home. The residency and the changes it encouraged remind me to find the place where I stay both flexible and focused in the presence of my work while allowing myself to do all those underrated non-quantifiable studio acts: eat all the snacks, stare at the wall, read, and miss people.
My work has always had an organic, visceral aspect which I consider to be part of my concern with life issues, like vulnerability, passion, and the uncanny.
Drawing in notebooks is my lifeline to my work whether I am in my studio in Maine or Miami or traveling on the road between them. My hand goes where it wants in these visual journals. After I fill each one, I reconnoiter, selecting and tearing out what might be used for inspiration.
Last summer, after completing two long narrative works, I found that I was drawing heads and faces in my notebooks. I wondered how far the features could be distorted or moved around and still read as a face.
Before that, I had been mixing recognizable faces with imagined forms and questioning my need to do this.
Was the realism a crutch to impress the viewer that I could do it? Was it a way of enticing the viewer into the more difficult passages of my work? Or both?
Of course, I know that my best work is not so carefully considered. It’s what emerges when faced with an empty wall. But my fascination with faces was an issue I needed to explore.
I recalled that Philip Guston, at a turning point in his work, made a series of small painted sketches that he considered his “alphabet”, his vocabulary. The photograph of his efforts has always moved me because they are so direct, without sentiment and trying to hold on to what he’d done before.
Guston realized that a lifetime of devotion to art requires the occasional jolt to one’s satisfaction. Like a long relationship, it needs refreshment and redefinition, all the while staying true to the basic alphabet.
I thought back to his efforts and decided to challenge myself to create a vocabulary of heads and faces, leaving the next phase open-ended. Guston used his basic vocabulary as the inspiration for his new work – work that was not, at first, accepted by his admirers. I sensed that I was not taking as great a leap but embraced the exercise anyway.
Here’s what I did:
I culled 20 intriguing face/head sketches from my notebooks and transferred them to sheets of medium-sized Fabriano paper, using black ink and brush. Then I placed bright, colorful, geometric forms behind the faces to give a feeling of space behind them.
Part of my practice, in the last few years, has been to photograph my work with objects from the studio in the foreground. Manipulation of the light source and shadows furthers a process of refinement and integration resulting in a photograph that can be seen as the final “artifact” of the process.
One phase of the process involved masking areas of the paper to leave white paper where there was no color. I used mylar to mask the white areas – and I noticed that it looked lovely as it fell to the floor. Sprayed areas of color trailed off softly and marks made by tape were bold.
The discarded mylar, I decided,would become an integral part of my journey with these drawings, and I placed the scraps as objects in front of the original art. The conceptual kick of plowing my materials back into the work added to the visual mystery of the same color behind and on top of the black and white, partially-obscured drawings.
On the wall of my studio, I placed four or five drawings, arranging them with attention to their colored parts so that a head might be turned on its side. This was a way of keeping me from being too precious with what I’d already made, my carefully inked faces. The black inked lines became the girding – the strong base of my structure – while at the same time maintaining their identity as individual pieces of art.
Pinning and taping the colored mylar in writhing, playful interaction with the under-color and ink drawings, I made a collage on the wall. The mylar encircled, caressed, obscured and opened up to let the drawings show through, giving life to the big form emerging as a unified, amorphous piece of work. This was the pure joy of creation. I didn’t worry about tape or pins showing. I’d pushed through the step-by-step process – the plodding and earnest studying – to using the results of my work in ways I hadn’t intended.
And I had my own alphabet.
The photos of the entire collage (I made several) seem like documentation of an ephemeral site-specific installation, one that could be repeated in different locations. The close ups of different parts of the overall collage are exciting new photographs.
Afterward, I returned to the horizontal format with new interest in color and ideas of how to use the heads. Inspired by a recently recovered Degas (“The Chorus Singers” had been stolen in 2009 and found this winter at a bus station near Paris), I borrowed the composition of singers shown in perspective. Instead of figures, I “plugged in” my heads and painted them in colors I’d been using. It came out quite well but seemed a bit decorative and tasteful until I added the realistic head and face of a somewhat cranky child.
Christian Barter is an award-winning poet whose most recent book is Bye-Bye Land, winner of the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award. Besides being a poet and teacher, he works on a trail crew planning and overseeing construction and rehabilitation of hiking trails on Mount Desert Island. Christian combines a rich, vibrant intellectual capacity with deep knowledge and respect for physical labor and those who do it. His work comes out of deep thought rooted in land and the people who work with it. These two poems grow out of his work as Poet Laureate of Acadia National Park. “Ile des Monts Deserts” was first published on poets.org for The National Parks Project. “The Venture” was published in The Friends of Acadia Journal. There is a sense in these poems that knowing history is part of how we can continually renew our vision and our commitment to honoring the world, natural and social. Betsy Sholl
Île des Monts Déserts
It is very high, and notched in places, so that there is the appearance to one at sea, as of seven or eight mountains extending along near each other. The summit of most of them is destitute of trees… I named it Île des Monts Déserts.
—Samuel de Champlain, 1604
When Champlain sailed into Frenchman’s Bay
and saw this island’s evergreen mountains
blown clean back to ledge along their ridges,
this utterly foreign land,
an island foreign even to its coast—
it’s founded on a piece of Africa,
brought with us in the drift—
I know there were people living here but I’m thinking
of Champlain because he was coming from
a world not all that different from ours,
of crowded, elbowing streets and long-hour shifts,
a landscape cleared and plowed, and paved and built,
the power to change tight-fisted held by a few,
and grinding, messy wars that go on and on,
from which he had returned to make this voyage—
When Champlain sailed in here in one of those
square-rigged ships that can only follow the wind,
the whole crew thirsty, in clothes that must have been
putrid, having stared for months at nothing
but water, sliced at the world’s edge cleanly
and saw this place we still see from the ocean—
huge rock pushed through by a liquid fire
then sledged by mile-deep ice into a thing
of character, and then grown over
by the green that rules this world—
did he believe again, or for the first time,
in the holiness of the earth, the unassailable
authority of Earth, its calm command
beyond whatever temper tantrum Man
throws on its floor, or did he think
he’d simply entered heaven?
This isn’t exactly the question I have in mind.
Perhaps it isn’t a question.
But I like thinking about Champlain catching sight
of this humped jungle, these long heads lifted
thoughtfully, then sailing closer
until it became a world—
thinking about his era’s view of the earth,
in which, wherever you sail, it just keeps
sending up mountains and lakes and beaches and forests,
how easy and right it must have seemed
to believe in a power far beyond ourselves,
in a kind of benevolent infinity…
I guess I am looking for my own direction
in the world such as it is—
like his, but lacking that one key hope:
that when this land is ash, there will always be another—
looking for my own way to think of Acadia,
this ever-more-precious island we’ve somehow kept
wooded, and rocky, and punctured through with clear lakes—
enough like it was that if you hold
your finger across the houses at its feet
you can still, sailing into Somes Sound,
see more or less the place that Champlain saw
and, also, know the place for the first time—
which is always the feeling of powerful beauty, isn’t it?—
that something has been here the whole time
and we are just now seeing it,
and must now reconsider all our theories
that there could be such a place—
or poem, or string quartet, or person?
They come in droves now, a long string tugging them
ever across the land bridge to gaze down
from the steep western cliff of Cadillac
into the open eye of Eagle Lake,
the tree-massed mountains of Penobscot and Sargent
building up beyond it as if the land were still gaining power,
their sheer cliff walls like cities left by dreams,
and the ocean laid out flat, its moss-tuft islands’
miniatures of cliffs and beaches calm
as if you had imagined them—
Is it the kind of life you could live
that you see here? At Champlain’s request,
French Jesuits came next, to bring around
the souls of those already here; they set up camp
at Fernald Point, and I wonder, too,
if they saw where they were—the cliff
of Saint Sauveur behind their shelters
standing up, god-like, its sheer rock plunging
straight down into water, down through murk
for leagues to find its ancient footing—
or just the prospect of some better place?
on the occasion of the centennial of Acadia National Park
May I, composed…
of eros and of dust…
Show an affirming flame.
May we not trample this place.
May we be mindful—
truly mindful, like when you’re climbing something steep.
May we come here in love, the way pilgrims come
to certain tombs.
May we come here in hope, the kind of hope
that makes you courageous,
like Martin Luther King’s hope, or the first day
in a second career.
May we not bring our baggage with us.
I know we are always traveling,
but may we not bring our resentment,
or the sharp-edged pieces of our broken loves.
There is a theory that nature is perfect as it is;
may we at least look up from time to time,
as Whitman said, “in perfect wonder.”
May we wonder if what we’ve done so far is enough.
May we respect the land, which is to say, ourselves.
May we respect ourselves enough to be honest with ourselves—
to be honest about what this is, and isn’t.
It isn’t ours, for one thing.
Disneyland is ours.
Monticello is ours.
The Constitution is ours.
May we trust what we feel when we are here.
It is almost seditious, it runs so deep,
but may we trust it.
May we trust ourselves
against the common rhetoric that land is to be “used.”
That we, in the end, are primarily users.
You can’t crest Sargent from the East Cliffs’ clamor
to see that bay and islands, and Mansell Mountain
risen from its chair to face you
and think that’s what we are.
May we leave, eventually, as we all must—
after a long weekend
or a brief fifty years—
with this place inside us—
or rather, with this place firmly inside itself.
I know we are always traveling.
May we remember, today,
and also the today of tomorrow,
what it took to keep this place for us:
an athlete’s single-minded concentration
sustained for decades;
a number of fortunes;
that what had been done so far—
and in 1916 it must have seemed like a lot
had been done: the war to restore the Union,
the railroads, Yellowstone, Yosemite—
was not enough,
that “enough” is a misnomer,
the kind of white lie you tell children—
and let us not forget luck—
that maybe one of a thousand of this kind of venture
in the way that the venture
of Acadia National Park
in going on being what it was;
in changing—I’m guessing nearly always for the better—
the lives of millions of people;
in showing us something that matters too deeply for words.
Which is a reminder that I have probably said enough,
except to add that the venture isn’t over—
that part really does belong to us
in the way of a family home,
or a promise made to a life-long friend,
or The Constitution.
Dawn Potter’s new book, Chestnut Ridge, traces the history of her birthplace in western Pennsylvania through three centuries and various voices. The poems change in style as the age changes, beginning with formal and moving toward free verse. These poems are a history lesson for us all, letting us overhear many voices from early missionaries when the area was the western front of the country, through the civil war and into the 21st century when men and women begin to shift roles. Like Maine, areas of rural Pennsylvania have a distinct character that is slowly being eroded by mass culture. These poems remind us to look and honor the roots of where we come from. It is a feat of skill to move through so many shifts in form and voice. Betsy Sholl
Dawn Potter is a poet, writer, blogger and teacher who recently moved from rural Maine to Portland.
In this year
two men were lost in the caverns for three days.
they were locked in each other’s arms
waiting for the end—
two travelers, eyes wide in the blackness,
ears pinned to the whisper of wings,
the seep of water.
When found, they were locked in each other’s arms.
Breath by shallow breath,
they had fabricated life.
Blind touch bound them.
They stole heat from the brush of a cheek,
the cup of a calloused hand.
And so they survived the ordeal
of never embracing again.
Standards of the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors
“Nothing is censored in Pennsylvania but the poor mans amusement, Why?” —Anti-censorship banner, Pittsburgh Screen Club
The Board will condemn
any motion picture portraying
prostitutes, houses of ill-fame
a girl’s seduction, her confinement
for immoral purposes, or assaults upon women,
with lewd intent. Refrain from showing
childbed scenes and subtitles that describe them.
Pictures revealing the modus operandi of criminals
are suggestive and incite the weak to evil action.
We disapprove all murder, poisoning,
house-breaking, safe-robbery, pocket-picking,
the lighting and throwing of bombs,
the use of chloroform to render men
and women unconscious, also binding and gagging.
Do not illustrate the traffic in cocaine.
Gruesome and distressing scenes
are likewise forbidden. These include shootings,
stabbings, profuse bleeding, prolonged views
of corpses, lashings and whippings,
lynchings, electrocutions, surgical operations,
and views of persons in delirium.
Avoid scenes in which the human form
is shown in the nude. Do not undertake
the topics of abortion or malpractice,
eugenics, birth control, or race suicide.
The materialization of the figure of Christ
may be disapproved. We forbid
the brutal treatment of animals,
and objectionable language in subtitles.
Depictions of burning and wrecking
may degrade the morals of the young.
Gross and offensive drunkenness,
will never be tolerated
if women are present.
Do not exhibit pictures which deal at length
with gun play, and the use of knives,
and are set in the underworld.
Vulgarities of a gross kind,
such as often appear in slapstick
and may burlesque morgues, funerals,
hospitals, or insane asylums,
are disapproved, as are sensual kissing
and other indelicate situations.
Bathing scenes may pass the limits of propriety.
Avoid immodest dancing
and the needless exhibition
of women in their night dresses.
Do not show women in suggestive positions
while smoking. The argument that your story
is adapted from the finest literature or art
is not a sufficient reason for approval.
The Miner Who Loved Dante
But after I had reached a mountain’s foot,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,
Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders,
Vested already with that planet’s rays
Which leadeth others right by every road. –Dante, the inferno, translated by H. W. Longfellow
I haven’t wandered your way lately, Nell,
not since the police clapped me up
and I lost my shift at Number 2.
But I remember the porch of our borrowed house
and the pigeons that fluttered up from the roof
when the old lady banged her pail.
And Sue . . . remember Sue, who sang alto to your mezzo?
In those ragged evenings, how stillness would sift
over the men, old and young, listening from their steps
or squatting outside the canteen, half-full bottles of wine
balanced on the ground between their knees.
Night opened her arms to us like a favorite aunt,
like Lena—plump, smiling, one hand at rest on my damp hair
as a hundred pigeons dipped over the river.
And all the while, Nell, you and Sue sang
of hearts, of summer, of fleeting secrets,
and we listeners believed that the songs were ours.
For no one, no one in the world, was as alive then as we were.
Their work boots were filmed with grease,
and their faces were weary.
They never showed up till the fourth inning.
Knees spread, they let themselves rest
on chairs beside the gravel-pocked ball field;
and when the women hollered, “Good eye, honey!”
at a tearful, trembling batter,
the men smiled like gentle but distracted strangers.
In their houses, a drawer slammed,
a kettle boiled, a hound twitched on the mat.
and the husbands pined for a secret world.
One drove six hours in dense fog
to a motel in Mississauga
instead of sitting down to supper.
Another stayed up till dawn
picking out “Night of the Johnstown Flood”
on his mother-in-law’s old guitar.
They fumbled with their sadness,
but nothing changed.
Women still clustered along the ball field
sharing packs of licorice, cat-calling the ump,
cheering at bloop singles and horrible throws to first.
The women behaved as if they had front-row tickets
to something magnificent and vital,
but the husbands couldn’t see, couldn’t quite see.
They raised their eyes toward the blackening sky
where swallows wheeled among the mosquitoes.
A child hacked at a pitch,
and the men’s thoughts clung to emptiness.
No one cried, “Cross out this life
that batters you down, and down, and down!”
Like chairs left in the rain for twenty years,
Then one day their knees snapped
and they toppled into the flood.
After an earlier 25 year career as a textile artist, selling nationally a line of one-of-a-kind jackets and doing commissioned wall work, I returned to school to get a masters in public policy and started working full-time at the Muskie School at USM. My studio, on the second floor of the barn attached to our house in Portland, was no longer where I went to work. Although there was always something on the loom, I no longer “lived” there.
Even when I worked in planning and development, I still thought of myself as a weaver. I considered my job to use the same sensibilities, same end result: weaving together multiple ideas, people and circumstances to move an institution (or an idea) forward to fruition. But after 20 years in university administration, I am thrilled to now be back in my studio weaving full–time. And weaving has been augmented and informed by painting and drawing.
I began painting while I still had a full-time job. I wanted something more immediate and transportable than weaving. Inspired by my love of casein paint and a class at Haystack with Alan Bray, I have continued painting from nature as an antidote, an opposite starting point from weaving – although I seem to often end up in the same place. When I find a view – through the woods, over the water, or out my window – there is invariably some indiscernible pattern, some underlying structure that I can’t see, but want to find. That is what drives the painting. I try to replicate what I see, but at some point, it becomes about the pattern. And I can layer and evolve a painting in a very different way from weaving.
The loom requires an end vision, and then multiple decisions, all of which have a consequence. So it’s an ongoing process of trying to stay true, decision upon decision, about color and thread and pattern. I get glimpses along the way, but truly don’t know what I have until it is finished and off the loom. I love the constraints of the loom – that both inspire and limit me. I like to work at the edge of possibilities – to see how far I can push the loom in the way it orders and structures the threads. I’ve been exploring pleating, layering and tension changes in making a surface. My husband, Jamie Johnston, has a wood studio below me in our barn, and the dialogue between us continues to play a role in my creative process.
I bought my first loom in 1974, when I moved to the Maine woods, and built a home without power or running water. I still use the same loom. When I recently did a weaving on a new loom, only then did I realize how well I know my loom, and what a relationship we have. We are good friends.
Returning to my studio two and a half years ago, I had only begun to find my weaving rhythm when I became ill with a virus that lasted four months and left me with no energy for the physical work of weaving. While recovering, I began a drawing series “Stilled Life”, as an exploration of a grid structure that has long occupied my mind. I continue to love this simple process of making lines, the sense of hand, and the absolute attention it requires.
After drawing for six months, I began to see the relation between the drawings and weaving and how I could move from lines to threads. Now that I am healthy, I’ve shifted my weaving focus to take what I learned from the drawing process and translate that into weavings, where the loom places its own parameters and opportunities.
In these recent weavings, as in the drawings, each square in the grid is made up of four colors. Two colors alternate changing right to left across the grid, while the other two colors alternate changing top to bottom. The result is that every square is one color different from the squares surrounding it. In a block of 9 squares there is a complete change of colors from the top left, to the bottom right, repeated multiple times. Each weaving/drawing uses 20 – 40 different colors.
I’m consistently awed (infatuated) by how much energy and light is captured in a process that requires such calm concentration. And how the difference between individual threads used as lines and the same threads in a weave can look so completely different.
My practice is in simply working – everyday. I’m acutely aware of the cost of not weaving consistently for so many years. Although I have no regrets, I do feel committed to regaining the mental flexibility and comfort I had during my earlier career as a weaver, hopefully bringing a little more wisdom and ease to the process.
I am totally immersed in this journey at this point – grateful that I have the privilege of time and energy to go wherever this exploration takes me.