Jeff Woodbury has a shelf in his studio stuffed tightly with 117 sketchbooks (at least, as I write this). I’ve published columns, catalogs and articles about more than 1000 Maine artists over the years, but I don’t know of another artist whose sketchbooks contain more visual ideas than Woodbury’s. His current sketchbook is always with him, and he doesn’t shelve it until every page is stuffed completely with images and ideas. No blank pages. Idea after idea. Image after image. Note after note. Nothing wasted. No leaf unturned.
For Woodbury, a sketch is “getting an idea down to physical form.” Drawing and painting have been part of his artistic practice for 45 years, but at its core, his work is launched by concepts — visual, strategic practice, hypothetical or otherwise. Phrases and notes are part of his process, but the critical kernel is visual thinking. There is a critical difference in contemporary art between “conceptualism” and “concept-driven work,” and this is apparent in every branch of Woodbury’s art.
Woodbury’s sketchbook work comprises an unwieldy blend of physically present ideas with a range of brain pings that reaches to the irrationally other-worldly. He might shift a bean pod to 2D swirl. He might note a red-headed airline attendant as a potential crisis-moment superhero. He might gush over the swollen magenta pinks of a Texas berry pressed into inky service. In a bored moment on board a work-related flight, he might transmutate a pencil into a jet engine… and let it take off on its own path.
From the surface to the deepest depths of Woodbury’s quick-sketched images, we feel the heady brew of his love for historical visual culture as it (generally) dominates and devours imagery of the past as a percolator engulfs coffee grounds. Yet just as often we see the almost meditative pulse of systems art in his sketchbooks: symmetrical drawings made with both of his hands at once, a page filled with lines pulled and limited by the space and time of the process-driven work.
Woodbury is almost bizarrely caught between his reverence for the visual art pioneers before him and the inclination towards individual creativity. He knows them. He learns their lessons. And yet his own path is fundamentally forced by his own integrity-driven inclinations to shift away from where they have trod… onto new ground which he seems to find everywhere, well-seeded and fertile. The easy-ready reading is to see Woodbury as an iconoclast. But considering his consistently productive practice, it’s clear that Woodbury is far more geared towards finding and producing visual ideas than anything else. His personal practice is often ironical and sometimes salty, but through it we see Woodbury as an artist floating up on a sea of ideas – that rare person who can continually churn concepts into robust visual reality.
Below are additional images and comments by the artist. All of the images within this article are culled from Woodbury’s sketchbooks. –Daniel Kany
“I almost always have my sketchbook with me. A friend gave me a leather cover more than 30 years ago, and it’s been with me ever since – my most cherished possession. I’ve filled more than 117 sketchbooks since then, all the same small size that fit inside the cover, which also provides pockets to hold random maps, brochures, stamps, and notes. I rarely remove pages, unless they are finished works, and when I do, I mark the removal, because that’s part of the history, too.
My mind is always churning with ideas, and I need to write them down or I’ll lose them. My sketchbooks are filled with drawings, notes, diagrams, lists, names, plans, dates, collaged pictures, kids’ drawings, and more. The first page is always for names, numbers, and important information, and the last page is reserved for testing pens. It’s been that way for years. It’s a good system for me.
I see my row of sketchbooks as my extrasomatic memory bank, and each book is part of what Zappa called his “conceptual continuity”: ideas come and go, and are not bound by time, but become part of the overall matrix, and an idea written 20 years ago might influence or become part of the current work. Sometimes I’ll look into an old sketchbook to discover a forgotten note, and that might trigger a new arm of work. Other times ideas are written down only to be fulfilled years later – I drew the logo for “CRUD” in 1986, and it wasn’t until 2014 that circumstances came together to stamp that logo into bricks I made with local clay.
I don’t keep a journal or diary, but my sketchbooks serve as a record of my life. And that includes a record of unfinished works and unrealized ideas, and mistakes and poor choices and people lost to time and distance, and some pages are painful to see. But some pages shine with sketches or ideas that caught there first, and grew into decent works. My sketchbook is the garden where I plant those seeds.”
“Wanderer—there is no path…the path is made by walking…” Luigi Nono
Introduced By Kathy Weinberg
I recently took a ramble through Richard Iammarino’s selection of his works from his 60 years of making art, featuring sculpture, drawing, painting, woodcarving, travel journal writing, and a trove of sketchbooks.
I also saw a rendering of a room interior. It is a watercolor and pencil from 1990, just 16” x 20”, which shows an interior, elegant and atmospheric while being precise and fully realized. I saw delicate depictions of wood graining that mirror Iammarino’s own line drawings. Then an entry titled Unfinished Comic 1995-7 “Lots of unfinished projects…most of my time taken up with painting.”
Iammarino is present in every line, present in all of his work. His art is grounded in elements of the world, so we begin from a known place before heading out into unfamiliar territories. A journey narrated by Richard Iammarino while looking through his sketchbooks sounds like this:
“Spanish Sahara…now Morocco Western Sahara. 1963…The journey that set me off…just follow your nose…see where it takes you…covered a lot of ground…few regrets. (Picture a 1962 Land Rover 109.)”
“Cefalu, Sicily 1999…A wonderful spot on planet earth.”
“Entering Bangladesh (Why we travel, 2006) Eight weeks passing through this alone…just taking it in…again too many stories.”
“Sunderbons…out with the honey gatherers…most incredible people…a unique experience…a world cut off from our world…TIGERS…they deal with tigers…to gather honey…I went out with them…smoking the hives…the outsider…keep your head down…get out there guys…It’s a most amazing game world.”
The thing about Tourette syndrome that many people don’t know is
that it hardly ever presents itself as uncontrollable loud swearing. I wish I
knew this because I was especially well-read, and not as a result of nearly
three decades of first-hand experience, but that’s my reality. My Tourette’s
mostly presents itself as facial and finger tics, throat clearing, and
sniffing. While I’ve experimented with different prescribed medications,
nothing has helped control my tics as much as sketching. Drawing in my sketchbook
is the most therapeutic, or remedial, thing that I do in my studio practice.
My tics are cyclical, and can get really severe and
debilitating, especially when I feel anxious. It feels like there’s all kinds
of pressure built up inside of me, and the tics are my body’s natural way
of releasing the pressure. I’ve discovered that while I’m drawing, it’s as if
the pressure is being released through my pen instead of my face, and it’s such
a relief. My tics are embarrassing, and make me feel very self-conscious.
During periods of severe cycles I don’t even like leaving the house because I
know it’s only a matter of time before I see a small child in a store copying
my tics, until their parent catches them and tells them to knock it off. Kids
don’t know that pointing or mimicking is rude, but the fact that they notice my
tics assures me that everyone else is noticing too.
I am so thankful that through my sketchbook practice I have
managed to train my body to release pressure in a much less embarrassing
manner, and even though as soon as I stop sketching my tics come right back, I
am grateful for the short relief that drawing gives me each day. For this
reason I am constantly sketching, and have filled over 1,000 sketchbook pages
in the last 12 months alone.
Last month I released a
book called “Remedial Sketches” that is filled with some of my favorite pages
from the past year. This book is very personal because of how important
sketching has become to me. It’s also like revealing a part of myself that I’ve
never had a comfortable way of revealing before. The work within the book is
actually a pretty accurate artistic representation of Tourette syndrome. It
explores the boundaries between creative expression and an uncured neurological
condition. The jagged lines and sporadic marks embody my twitches, tics and
vocalizations perfectly. To me, these sketches seem as awkward and
self-conscious as I feel when my tics act up in public. If you were seeing my
work for the first time at an exhibit and the curator walked up to you and said
“this artist has Tourette syndrome,” you would think, “that makes total sense.”
In fact, I think the next time I have to write an artist statement to accompany
my exhibited work I may just simply quote this hypothetical curator and leave
it at that.
I know that if they come out with a cure for Tourette’s tomorrow
I’ll still draw, but I do wonder if it will affect my work. Will my lines
tighten? Will my marks become more constrained? Without the relief, will I
enjoy drawing as much? Will I even be the same artist, and if not should I even
bother with the cure?
North Yarmouth artist Michael Boardman grew up in Blue Hill. He graduated from the University of Maine at Orono with a degree in studio art in 1986. Since then, drawing and sketching have been critical to his art practice. And Boardman has only ever made his living working in the arts. Over the past decade or so, his art and naturalist inclinations have led him to lean more and more on his sketchbook practice. Currently, Boardman is working with the Maine Master Naturalist Program, a year long course that trains individuals to be able to speak and present about Maine’s flora, fauna and geological features. Boardman’s goal is to ultimately be able to lead sketching workshops to help fulfill the volunteer requirement of the class.
Boardman’s art practice has long focused on landscapes and wildlife that he paints in watercolor and shows throughout the state and region. As he has matured as a painter and attended residencies dedicated to education and environmental awareness, Boardman has come to see himself not only an artist, but a naturalist. During this time, his image-making has become less about executing an appealing painting than about collecting and learning from his experiences. His sketchbooks look more and more like the notes of a biologist or botanist than a landscape painter. But this fits what always drove his interest in the natural world: Boardman’s new sketches and drawings, labeled with notes and observations, are flowing towards a mode that his painting and graphic design experience seem to have made practically inevitable.
“For me,” he explains, “it’s about telling stories. A story could be why did that spruce tree’s trunk and bark turn and twist in that bizarre and aesthetically pleasing way? Or how that glacier carved a path through the mountains and left its remains piled at the edge. Or the story could be the vernal pool behind my house and the myriad forms of life that used it during the spring – that prolific spasm of life that blooms until it dries up and everything is then dead or gone.”
Boardman’s older sketchbooks contain mostly landscape images he came upon during his hikes and travels throughout Maine. While he long worked professionally as a designer and draftsman of images of animals, his painting leaned towards the approach to plein air watercolor long championed by the masters of Maine landscape painting like Church, Homer and Sargent. Sketching and his sketchbook practice now play a much larger role in his artistic activity. Boardman’s more recent sketchbooks are loaded with images of wildlife rendered with an artist’s eye but laid out with a biologist’s precision. Using art as a way to advocate for natural science has shifted his personal connection to his work, which now exudes a sense of ethical urgency.
“I feel a certain responsibility to advocate for the creatures that I draw,” he notes. “Over 50% of animal populations have been wiped out in the past three decades. Recently, for example, the snowy owl has been added to the IUCN red list of species of concern, and it’s a bird I often sketch in the Portland area. One of my sketches of a Portland snowy owl is with a show about urban wildlife that originated at the Rhode Island School of Design that is now traveling around the country. It’s a bird that brings a piece of the arctic to us every winter, and the arctic is already being brutally affected by climate change.”
Boardman has filled many sketchbooks and he is attached to each of them for various reasons. Many, after all, are the travelogues of residencies that have taken him from the islands and remote corners of Maine to the glaciers of Alaska. They aren’t just compilations of images, but entire chapters of his experiences distilled in drawings and notes.
Indicating a page from a sketchbook on which are three images — a foggy tree-lined shore scene, a bird in flight (a marbled murrelet) and a pair of humpback whales — Boardman recalls the trip: “This is from a residency in Glacier Bay, Alaska I did in 2015. It is a place where the glaciers melt into the bay. The fresh water in combination with the tides supports a huge array of life. It’s one of the most dramatic and exciting places within the entire national park system in terms of biodiversity.”
Boardman then presents a page from one of his Maine Master Naturalist sketchbooks. The first difference is obvious: Whereas the Alaska images were simply titled with the name of the animal or place, these watercolor and pencil sketches of lichen are accompanied by copious notes and comments including measurements, identifying features and taxonomic references. “I had always thought lichen were interesting, but when I had to get down and study them closely, it was an amazing experience – lichens are these weird and intense Lilliputian worlds of three or even four symbiotic organisms.”
“Tomorrow,” explains Boardman, “I am heading to Deering Oaks Park in Portland to field sketch a great black hawk that has been hanging out for the past few days. This non-migratory bird is native to Central and South America and has only been seen the U.S. — for the first time ever — this year in April of 2018 in Texas. This same individual bird was then sighted in Biddeford Pool in August. It disappeared for several months and then it just showed up a few days ago in Deering Oaks, where it is no doubt enjoying the abundant squirrel population. (Well, maybe a bit less abundant now.) That is definitely an animal with a story to tell.”
Michael will be exhibiting work at a group show opening in April 2019 at the Portland Public Library, ‘A Critical Balance’ on endangered species throughout the world. For more information about Michael Boardman, visit: www.mboardman.com
Pat and I have been pouring over early (very early) UMVA newsletters. This ephemera goes back to 1975 and UMVA’s first issue. What struck us was, not how much has changed, but how much has stayed the same. The struggle goes on. Artists continue to look for recognition, believing their work is of personal and or social importance. Bureaucracies control not only the purse strings, but how the artists must represent themselves in order to be taken seriously. Nothing much has changed.
Pat and I moved from Maine to the west of Ireland 12 years ago. We made the decision to shake our lives up, to turn things upside down, to get out of the comfort zone. We knew Ireland to be a country rich in artistic legacy, a country that supports the arts and its artists. The move turned out to be challenging, but it was the challenge we ultimately sought, a new horizon, but the closer you to get to that line, the more familiar things become.
For the past 4 years now we have curated exhibitions for a May Day festival here in Dingle (Feile na Bealtaine). Last year’s show was titled ‘AGE+less’. It was in response to the concept of ageism. We chose artists using a wide spectrum of age, from 10 years to approximately 80 years. We hoped those viewing the exhibition would find the art more important than the age of those who created it. We are currently looking to this year’s festival and incorporating an issue affecting Ireland today: homelessness. It is hoped that we, as artists can add our voices to a growing public outcry. But can art fix the problem? Can art change things socially for the better, or will it all remain the same?
In January 1990, 28 years ago,the UMVA mounted an exhibition in Portland entitled ‘Artists for the Homeless’ organized by Natasha Mayers. We vividly remember the exhibition, not so much because of our participation (we had a piece on Congress Street) but because of the controversy that followed. A few landlords whose buildings housed some of the art, removed the work that they deemed inappropriate, vulgar or distasteful. Because the artists were not told in advance of this action, the ‘shit’ hit the proverbial fan! The outcry rang across the pages of the Casco Bay Weekly and the Portland Press Herald…Censorship! Natasha Mayers believed that the topic of homelessness was a ‘non-controversial’ issue, the public thought otherwise. It ended with four of the artists’ works being removed. Today in America the word censorship is masked in new terminology: ‘Fake News’.
At present here in Ireland, there are roughly 4000 people homeless. Lots of talk and protest from arts groups, but the problem still looms large. Will art change it? Can art be the great influencer?
Back in July of this year we attended the opening of an exhibition in Galway, ‘The Art of Protest’. It showed works by artists who were influenced by political and or societal problems in Ireland. The works were graphic and in-your-face acts of passive protest. On one wall was a large color photograph of an older woman of indeterminate age. She was depicted in an orange prison jumpsuit. She sat in a comfortable looking chair in a room filled with books. The juxtaposition of the prison jumpsuit and the dignified room she sat in was striking. A little later during drinks at the reception, there she was… the woman in the orange prison suit! We discovered that she protested the refueling of American war planes at Shannon Airport. She did this by gaining access to the runway and throwing a brick at a US military transport plane. This got her 3 months and a new orange prison jumpsuit, compliments of the Irish Government. This was her drama, this was her art of protest. The military still refuels at Shannon Airport on their way to the Middle East, and the woman in the picture holds dear her orange prison jumpsuit. It is her personal talisman.
Will art ever be able to change societies’ problems? Can art influence those who refuse to look or be influenced? As artists we work for the most part in isolation. Those of us that create socio/political works, do so in the hopes that change will come about in some small way because of what we make, because of what we put forward. We hope that the art will express more than the sum of our parts and not become that jumpsuit, a personal orange talisman. We hope that what we create as artists will nudge us all forward, just a little, to a horizon. If that comes about, we might just drag along a few disbelievers.
Post script; In March of 1990 the UMVA issued a special news letter. It dealt solely with censorship and the NEA. The National Endowment for the Arts was being attacked by forces on the right for granting monies to arts organizations that purportedly were organizing pornographic exhibitions. They demanded the NEA be shut down and or suppressed. At stake was freedom of expression in general, whether it be the visual arts, or printed material. The NEA was seen as a threat to the American way of life. Arts organizations across America fought back. We continue to do so.
Tony and Pat Owen Live and Create in Co. Kerry, Ireland. Still Mainers in Our Soul.
Relentless flooding is the new normal. Hurricanes ravage the land, and rivers overflow, destroying property and infrastructure, killing people, wild animals, and livestock. Our government’s response through FEMA is a reactive one. We spend billions of dollars after the fact, but very little on preparation and prevention. The reality is, our climate has changed. Indeed, Hurricane Florence is the most recent devastating storm to hit the southern states, bringing winds and unprecedented quantities of water—in some places over 40 inches of rain. The floodwaters rise and rivers pour out, turning hundreds of square miles of America into a flood plain.
After the 2016 election, in “This Post-Election Pain Is Good, At Least for Art” (New York, November 14, 2016), Jerry Saltz wrote, “Trump’s victory is a crucible of possibility for a new generation, who will do what artists have always done in times like these: go back to work.” In Saltz’s imaginings of what might manifest from this “crucible of possibility,” he opines, “I can imagine the typical arty gestures of sparseness art giving way to another kind of organization, marked by extremes of gesture, things more homemade,unpredictable, vulnerable, bizarre.” This brings us to Tom Burckhardt’s Studio Flood, most recently on view at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, Maine.
Studio Flood, comprised of brown corrugated cardboard and black paint, was a walk-in re-creation of a dimly lit studio, roughly 18’ x 24’, positioned at an angle in a large, rectangular exhibition space at CMCA. Ominous black shapes, like sharks’ fins, protruded from cardboard overhead, painted with black swirls, indicating water. The open windows revealed inverted buildings, trees,and upturned light sources.
Viewers entered a space that was literally and figuratively upside down. We walked on the “ceiling” and saw the corners of black canvases above our heads floating on a plane referencing the indifferent floodwater’s invasion. Black canvases filled upside down racks. The surface beneath our feet looked like the 19th century tin ceilings embossed with squares, so common in New York artists’ lofts. Tools and paint cans, postcards and brushes, books and a human skull, all deftly made of cardboard, sat on shelves or hung on the walls, upside down.
Studio Flood was disorienting. It was like walking into a cartoon or a fun house. Because we human beings are accustomed to viewing the world by standing on a ground plane and noticing spaces and objects converging away from us, Studio Flood’s inverted artist’s studio was confusing. Our brains wanted to get it right, according to all of our experiences, but the existential reality did not permit it. Here we have the crux of Burckhardt’s work—just as Studio Flood is upside down, so is the world. We expected everything to be familiar, the way it used to be, but it wasn’t.
The meanings of Burckhardt’s Studio Flood arise in its “crucible of possibilities,” its capacity to function as a complex metaphor. Studio Flood is at once personal and universal, humorous, and visually surprising; it is created with low-tech materials found in the unglamorous shipping world—cardboard, utility knives, hot glue, and black paint. It is a comment on the importance and value of labor and skill in an art world that favors deskilling. At the same time, Burckhardt’s project seems absurd, and as Saltz says about imagined art after Trump, “homemade, unpredictable, vulnerable, bizarre.”
Burckhardt’s installation is also a reflection on and about the origins and meanings of art and artists. When all the canvases are black as in Studio Flood, references to Art about Art, Ad Reinhardt, Malevich, Stella, and even Goya’s black paintings come to mind. “Is Painting Dead?” is also at issue. The black rectangles, in their horizontal and vertical, geometric grid-based form, may represent culture in collision with the fluid, organic, impersonal, floodwaters of nature. There is also a sense in which the black canvases signify, not only the flooded circumstance, but also the increasing threat of the death of painting and by extension, the death of art.
Burckhardt witnessed the flooded studios and damaged artwork in New York City during Hurricane Sandy, and knew many artists and galleries that lost valuable work. He became increasingly concerned about the planet’s ecological disasters. In response, he turned to personal experiences rather than attempt to express his concern in some obvious political critique. Nevertheless, Studio Floodis a political critique, its content prima facie evidence of our planet’s dire condition.
We bear witness to terrifying evidence of global warming in Burckhardt’s installation. Any of the natural elements—floods, fires, tornadoes, or mudslides—have the potential to destroy the evidence of an artist’s life. In our historical moment, the precarious status of our planet’s environment and upside down world are real and present dangers. The planet is getting warmer and with it comes all the hazards of an environment gone wacky. Everything is upside down, from politics to climate change.
According to an article in the Washington Post, on Wednesday, June 20,2018, President Trump ended an eight-year-old policy to protect the oceans. The policy, established under President Obama, responded to BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a vivid reminder of the planet’s vulnerable marine environment. Plastic waste is piling up after China made a decision to stop accepting it from other nations. The ice in the Antarctic region is melting faster than scientists predicted.
Burckhardt’s Studio Flood resides at the nexus of the deadly serious and the strange. He willfully undermines his substantial skill, invites the dangerous and the destructive into the conversation, and pulls apart the Art question. His work challenges our perceptions and assumptions about art and the world. Is this project a painting, sculpture, installation, performance, or are we witnessing absurd theatricality? Is it a joke, subversive or serious? Perhaps, all of the above.
Although the ultimate meaning of Studio Flood and its black canvases is up to the viewer, Burckhardt has said, “If the floating canvases symbolize the endlessly advertised ‘end of painting,’ the flood seems to answer, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’”
By creatively confronting the monsters that artists face, and making his own fear and anxiety his subject matter, he consumed the energy of the “enemy” and used it for his own creative purpose. In Studio Flood, Burckhardt also addressed pressing and timely political and global crises—universal monsters that all humans on our planet earth are facing. Burckhardt’s Studio Flood is prophetic and could not be timelier.
Tom Burckhardt’s Studio Flood was on view at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Rockland, Maine, from June 9 to October 7, 2018. Both Pierogi Gallery in New York in fall 2017 and The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Kochi, Kerala, India, in 2016 exhibited iterations of Studio Flood.
About the Author:
I am a painter, printmaker, and writer, Professor Emeritus of Purchase College, State University New York, where I taught painting/drawing in the School of Art+Design. In 2015, I moved to Maine where I maintain a studio and live in Westbrook. I am currently writing a book about painting, drawing, and perception.
For quite a few years, I’ve been teaching a class called “Sketchbooks: Cultivating a Daily Practice”. The students who take this class are invariably interesting people. Each one has a particular reason for signing up, often including a desire to start drawing, or to get back to it, to make a daily practice, to find community. The class is a great place to share strategies. Some people are lucky to draw the way children do: naturally, uncritically, and all the time. The rest of us need strategies to get started and to keep going.
The thing that helps me most is to have my sketchbook handy: to keep it out where I’ll see it, and to have one in my bag or my pocket. Also, it helps to keep the tools simple: a pen or pencil and a small box with four watercolors. I use cyan, lemon yellow, a pinkish red, and ultramarine. From those, I can mix most colors, and I use a brush with water in the handle.
I’ve used sketchbooks as a journal, a place to take notes, a place to plan things, for lists, a place to work out design problems, and to help me figure out what I think, but the most important function for me is to experience something by drawing it.
When I was asked to write something for this issue, I looked at all of the sketchbooks in my studio. The earliest ones are from the 1980’s. That was when I lived in Portland on the end of the Western Promenade that overlooks the Fore River. I was amazed by the sunsets I saw there, so I did a series of paintings in my sketchbook, trying to capture the colors and cloud shapes as they changed. The view changed so fast that I had to find ways to simplify what I noticed, just so I could get something down. That was when I started to think about how different types of noticing require different tools and different kinds of drawings are suited to different kinds of noticing. For instance, if I have a pencil, I look for the kinds of things a pencil can do, and I look at the subject as if it were already a pencil drawing. If I’m using color, rather than looking at things as I know they are, I try to see areas of flat color, as if they were already in a painting.
Those sunset drawings are mixed in with figure drawings and studies of all kinds of things: our dog, the garden, bottle caps, people and birds on the beach, cloud shapes, geometric patterns and designs for things I wanted to make. Every thing is mixed up. The books are not strictly chronological. Sometimes I stopped in the middle of something and the next page is from years later. Still, looking at them reminds me of what it was like when I was drawing and concerned with those things. Actually, I’ve changed, but not that much, I think I’ll go back to some of the projects that stalled.
Most of the figure drawings in those years were done with a group at USM. Edie Tucker organized it and kept it going over many years. One time, when the model didn’t show up, she stepped in to pose for us in her street clothes. The drawings from that day are some of my favorites.
My husband, Jeff Kellar, and I moved to Falmouth just before my daughter, Anna, was born. We moved to a house where we each could have a studio. Our system was that the one who had the less pressing deadline got to play with Anna.
Making art with her affected my own drawings. Sometimes, when she was little, she drew along side me. One time, I asked her why she’d made our driveway look blue. She answered that it was blue. I looked again, and it did look bluish. I’d made it gray because I knew it was asphalt. When she was very young, one and two, she liked drawing in my sketchbook. I found some of my drawings followed by several of her colorful scribbles. When she began to talk, she’d tell me what to caption the drawings. Those are a lot of fun to read now.
She’s all grown up and doesn’t draw all the time anymore, but she still keeps a travel sketchbook, because she likes the kind of slow noticing that doing a drawing allows. She’s had some interesting interactions with people who want to know, for instance, why she’s spending the time to draw something they pass everyday and have never thought of stopping to look at… until they see her drawing of it.
I have older sketchbooks somewhere, probably in a box labeled “older sketchbooks”. I remember doing a drawing from my art school dorm room window of the view looking over the Philadelphia roof tops toward the giant electrified Schmidt’s Beer sign. I loved the shapes of the wooden water tanks silhouetted again the night sky. And I also remember, years later, tearing it out of the book because it didn’t capture the scene the way I still remembered it. I’m sorry for the streak of perfectionism that caused me to do it, because now both the scene and the drawing of it are vague memories.
My most recent sketchbooks include the assignments I give to my students. One of my favorites to do is a sound map. The prompt is to listen for one minute with eyes closed to everything that you can hear. Then to make a diagram of the sounds with yourself in the center. Another assignment is to pick a favorite object to draw all week. Each week has a different focus, a material to experiment with, a subject, or a point of view. I use the same exercises and assignments every semester because, although the questions are always the same, the answers are always different.
Highlighting the creative processes by exhibiting artists’ first drafts, thoughts, and inspirations, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) presented an exhibition of sketchbooks titled First Traces, curated by Britta Konau from October 31 – December 20, 2008. The term “sketchbook” remained loosely defined, as these initial expressions can take the form of maquettes, sketches, digital files, set-ups, etc., and may not even be visual at all. Work did not have to be in book format, and selected artists were invited to also exhibit completed artwork alongside their “sketches.”
“This exhibition presents a unique opportunity to learn about artists’ creative processes. It illuminates the journey many artists make from first observations and initial ideas to finished artworks. The focus is not on material process, but rather on mental process as it can be traced visually and verbally. When artists first explore ideas for future projects or quickly record a scene they encounter, some of the freshest, most uncensored work evolves. This exhibition of first conceptions represents 86 visual artists, craft artists, furniture and jewelry makers, and other creative people working in a wide range of media from traditional sketchbooks to digital drawings. The artists have generously agreed to allow visitors to glimpse these first traces of inspiration; in fact, many sketchbooks may be handled and perused by visitors.” (Britta Konau)
Artists included: Susan Amons, Josefina Auslender, Dyan Berk, Nina Bohlen, Rush Brown, Sam Cady, Cole Caswell, Peter Chamberlain, Kate Cheney Chappell, Megan Chase, Avy Claire, Kenny Cole, Maury Colton, Stoney Conley, Alan Crichton, Rebecca Daugherty, Cynthia Davis, Scott Davis, Lois Dodd, Charles DuBack, Evelyn Dunphy, Ingrid Ellison, David Estey, Joshua Ferry, Blair Folts, Nancy Freeman, Samuel Gelber, Shelia Geoffrion, Jessica George, Gregory Miguel Gomez, Susan Groce, Naushon Hale, Katherine Harman Harding, Connie Hayes, Jennifer Hodges, Frances Hodsdon, Gail Hollenbeck, Emily Hopkins, Matt Hutton, Phyllis Janto, Pamela Johnson, Marcy Kagan, Jeff Kellar, Mark Kelly, Sarah Knock, Anne Krinsky, Judith Krischik, Nick Lamia, Frederick Lynch, Alan Magee, William B. Martin, Phil McBride, Ed Nadeau, Tim Nihoff, Clyde Paton, Kit Pike, Victoria Pittman, Carlo Pittore, Amy Pollien, Jill Poyourow, Peter Precourt, Svetlana Prudovskaya, Abbie Read, Beverly Rhoads, Marguerite Robichaux, Bill Ronalds, Björn Runquist, Abby Sadauckas, Kris Sader, Lee Silverton, Owen F. Smith, Mara Sprafkin, Mike Stiler, Cheryle St Onge, Barbara Sullivan, Gwendolyn Tatro, Walter Tisdale,Lynn Travis, Jacques Vesery, Patricia Wheeler, Lucy White, Deborah Winship, Nancy Wissemann-Widrig, Henry Wolyniec, Victoria Woollen-Danner, and SharonYates.
There are no exceptions: without independence there can be no art.
The history of art tells us that all powerful artists broke with the past, and with their contemporaries, and created independently. Giotto broke with Cimabue and the Byzantine tradition and developed space. Michelangelo broke with classical norms, and created the anxiety forehead of a troubled David, in an otherwise ideal form. Caravaggio forsook the ideal of light, and worked his honest realism in the shadowy world of darks.
Cezanne said it: ‘If you admire me, do not imitate me’.
It is 1984 and I cannot pretend that I understand the contemporary art, in a world that is so diverse, so multifaceted, so large; one must make pronouncements with trepidation, and humility, and the knowledge that sloganeering is not adequate to art, nor are definitions that were useful previously. And then, who can really care about the opinions of a relatively undistinguished and youthful painter? Can my opinions really be pertinent, or provocative to the art minds of our day?
When I think of independence in art, I have several responses. Firstly, for me, independence is the pursuit of every artist. It is not a static concept, but a movement, like the verb of a painting. Independence is the process of becoming free of illusions, clichés, habits, routines, mundanities, formulas, gimmicks; of becoming free of history, the present and the future; of developing the courage and the conviction to advance in art areas that have been forsaken, overlooked, or neglected.
You may have heard a little song I composed a few years ago called” ‘There are only two seasons in Maine, Winter and the Fourth of July’, this sums up my view on independence (July 4th) in that everything that is NOT a celebration of freedom, of independence, is boring, snowbound, frigid, cold, unmovable, dead – like freezing grey skies of winter in Maine.
Secondly, for me, Painting is my art of independence. Although Painting is a long-standing and universal cultural tradition, it is still original and fresh – or can be. It is not the dead or outmoded art form that one hears about in our Post Modern Age, although a lot of painting today is dead or outmoded. For those who say that the tradition is antiquated, or used up, that the system of painting is irrelevant to our age, I can only respond with the example of my life, where I pursue painting not unaware of its limitations – it has always had limitations – but in hopes of my achieving a breakthrough, that will allow me to experience, exuberantly, my own independence, and afford me the opportunity of revitalizing, and enhancing this existence.
For me Painting is making love. It is not like making love, but it is making love.
Painting is emotional, instinctive, inspiring, and life enhancing. It is my raison d’etre, my backbone, and it provides me with the courage, and the will, to pursue forcefully. However slim the ‘hope’ of making eternal love to the universe.
Painting has strengthened my eyes, my mind, my coordination, my resolution for living and although I am already at an age when it would have been to my advantage to have achieved some forceful original vision, that I have not, has not overwhelmed me with discouragement.
Thirdly, painting is painting, and I am now independent in terms of pursuing painting for itself. There is no carrot outstretched in front of me. I am not seeking approval, fame, or fortune. I am pursuing powerful painting for its own sake.
My reward in painting is painting. I am, I can say, blessed, in that I have found what best motivates me. I am happily wedded to painting, in sickness and in health, in poverty and in wealth, and this UNION and this satisfaction provides me with the sustaining faith – of my eventual triumph, or, to carry the metaphor to its conclusion, that this UNION will produce, will give birth, will create.
Fourthly, I am able to sustain this tenuous hope, this belief in true creativity, because I am independent from reality and accountability. The belief in the realization of the impossible dream is difficult to relate, as any unrequited lover can tell you; but does any unrequited lover cease to love the loved one, even when spurned? Love is made of the finest stuff and is not based on preconceptions of reward, the convictions of success, or making this dead art of painting come alive, it is based on independence from experience, and on the transcending power of dream. It is the source of all art.
The external facts of encouragement are really non-existent. The world we live in is almost wholly commercial and run by philistine bourgeois interests, for profit. One sustains the writing of poetry, or pursues a disavowing lover because one hopes and believes against all odds, because the pursuit of this impossibility defies all sadness, and all the loneliness that is forever threatening to engulf all. The independent act of pursuing love must be the most beautiful, most sublime activity known to human kind. The joy of this pursuit, the very joy of life. Of course it is much easier to follow an action when guaranteed of success. How functional! How business-like! But this is not the situation in art.
Art is that game where there is no winning/losing, no profit no loss. Art is its own reward, it is a pursuit, and it is the sustenance of dream and the faith of achievement. Art is the independent religion; each artist the Independent Priest of Independence.The true believer is rewarded with the possibility of wholeness, health, happiness, and eternal life.
In an age when fashion and commercial interests have so overwhelmed the art world, the example of Michelangelo is still instructive.The great Michelangelo was not motivated by money or fame, but by the greatest motivating factor, in art, the quest to become free, and independent from loneliness and solitude. It is an ironic situation for one who labors long hours alone. When Michelangelo took his chisel and threw it at his marble sculpture of MOSES, he did so because Moses would not respond to him. Indeed, he had failed. Moses did not speak. And yet, didn’t God create the world because he was alone? If the art of poetry, sculpture, and painting cannot free one from solitude, the suggestion that it can and will, remain as the promise. And what one surely achieves from art and in the pursuit of art, is independence.
And so, in this spirit of independence, I salute my comrades-in-arms, and I look forward to the day in the future, when we will be united and in celebration on Mount Parnassus.
The entirety of Carlo’s estate is now being cared for by International Artists Manifest (IAM), a non-profit organization founded with the mission to ‘Remember the Artist.’ IAM takes on the collections of under-represented artists to ensure their work is cared for, preserved and made relevant for future generations. http://www.iammanifest.org. IAM encourages anyone who is interested in keeping current on happenings with the organization, or specifically with Carlo’s work to sign up for our mailing list.
The first snow of the season fell on a Saturday evening, December 10th, 2017. The weather was mild, and it was an easy and eagerly awaited start to the coming winter.
That night, I received images of SELF TCELFER (pronounced “self self-er”), an outdoor sculpture I had created that summer for a seaside installation at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. The piece was now situated amongst trees in a land-trust managed forest as part of an alternative arts event in rural Maine. Although the event had taken place in the fall, the work had remained installed so images could be taken after the first snow.
Our family had just finished a celebratory meal of vegetarian meatballs and pasta with garlic bread (heavy on the garlic) to mark what would have been my father’s 67th birthday. The snowfall felt like an acknowledgment of his passing. The images of my work, situated within woods my father would have walked during his time at college, in the small town where he and my mother fell in love, felt like the completion of yet another circle. Life expanding outward and then circling back to pull us in under the same sky.
Two days earlier, I had met with the director of a small museum to discuss placing SELF TCELFER on their grounds for a two-year period. It would be my first long-term placement of a work at a museum, and my first significant commitment outside the state of Maine.
In order to feel confident about situating the work outdoors for a full two-year period, I needed to transport the piece back to my home studio, to study it through the winter and make any necessary alterations before its journey to the museum in August of 2018.
On December 11th, the day after the first snowfall, I made arrangements to move the work, scheduling a 26-foot truck, and coordinating with the curator to wrangle interns to assist with takedown. SELF TCELFER was a large work, comprised of seven 7’ x 7’ modular panels that could be joined together to form an open-ended octagon. I hired an engineer to help design the work so that two people could easily transport it without compromising the presence of the fully-installed piece. The surface was sculpted from mirrored Mylar, bent and formed to create psychedelic reflections that moved and breathed with the wind.
There is no simple way to describe the work and investment that went into creating the piece. Anyone who makes anything as part of a core practice will understand. I can rattle off the numbers – the monetary cost of making the work, and talk about the grants I wrote (and won) to help fund the piece. I can tally up the hours spent envisioning the piece, researching, sketching, creating mock-ups, and then designing and constructing the work.
What are more difficult to quantify are the moments and expanses of time that imbued the work with deeper meaning and greater significance. Watching my daughter walk across sheets of mirrored Mylar outdoors on our deck on a gorgeous summer day, looking down into the Mylar to see a crystal clear reflection of the sky, and then seeing herself bending that perfect reflection into fractal-like manipulations of sky, trees, cloud and flesh. That is harder to account for.
Or the time my daughter, my mother and I spent crouched around panel after panel, hammering hundreds of tiny nails into the surface, working together to ensure the aluminum sheeting wouldn’t buckle, cut anyone, or shift out of alignment with the frame. A multi-generational investment peppered with laughter, frustration and sore muscles in the strangest places. Or the effort my best friend of 30 years expended, driving eight hours to help with the installation, arriving to find me in those final hours of working 18+ hour days for weeks with no clear idea of how the hell we were actually going to transport the piece without damaging it. How she figured it out. A crazy, impossible scenario that worked. Brilliantly.
The path of creation and those unquantifiable moments give the work a meaning and value beyond any number on a sheet of paper. The knowledge that the work would travel, as originally intended, actually finding a new home and marking my first significant placement in a museum. The physical incarnation of a concept that had been slowly and carefully mined from serious, long work tuning in to that quiet inner voice and coaxing it to speak louder and louder until something worth making emerged. The soul investment.
It was Saturday, December 16th when I received the phone call. I was driving to attend my daughter’s winter dance recital. A cold, wind-whipped rain was making it difficult to drive. The curator of the alternative arts event where SELF TCELFER was situated, a phenomenal friend and my first gallery mentor, was on the other end of the line. She was concerned. She had something important to tell me, and thought I should pull over. I did.
At first, I had a hard time understanding what she was saying. She couldn’t get the words out clearly without choking into a mix of speech and incomprehensible sound. SELF TCELFER had been destroyed. It was gone. I remember sitting in the car, dressed up (which annoyed me), staring out the window at a Burger King sign as the wipers continued to shift water around the windshield. I watched the lights as they played off the streaks left behind. Trails. I kind of blipped out into shock and disbelief.
“What do you mean?” I remember saying. It was clear that the curator couldn’t quite comprehend what had happened, herself. An individual who should have known better had taken it upon himself to take his tractor, attach it to SELF TCELFER, and drag the sculpture out through the woods to a clearing where he then broke it apart, took the pieces home and subsequently destroyed them, dumping all remnants at the local recycling center where they were then pulverized. The destruction began on December 11th, the day after the first snow. The curator was not notified until days later. By the time I learned of any of it, the work was literally non-existent.
In the moment, I couldn’t feel the gravity of the destruction. I was blocked. I went logical. I remember I kept asking about materials. They were valuable. Thousands of dollars. No. Nothing. Gone. “But … I can use those materials, even if they’re partially destroyed,” I kept saying. No. Nothing. Gone.
I spent much of that initial phone call wanting to comfort the curator. She was so clearly in a state of shock. She felt responsible, even though it was not her fault. This was an incomprehensible act. I remember saying I would have to press charges against the man, simply because of the cost of materials. I recall mentioning that it was supposed to go on to a museum. My first long-term placement.
I got off the phone and drove to my daughter’s concert. I sat, stunned, as girls in elf costumes danced to something. And then watched my daughter … her beautiful lines and evolving ability in dance. I watched. I did not cry. I was numb and grateful to be amidst a crowd of strangers, all focused straight ahead.
At this point, I have to be very careful of what is communicated in print. As part of the settlement I came to with the man who should have known better (TMWSHKB), I cannot reference him or the details in any way that “an intelligent person” might be able to figure out his identity. So, some details will remain tucked away.
I spoke with the curator regularly. I cancelled the truck and she notified the interns (scheduled for December 18th, two days after I received the call). And I drank. Wine. Whiskey. More wine. More whiskey. I was admittedly a wreck.
I moved through a series of motions each day. I put down the wine and whiskey, for the most part, and returned to yoga. I sought out a counselor. I called around to see if anyone could recommend a good lawyer. I spoke with a few close confidants to try to make sense of the senseless. Violence. It felt violent. And I was raw.
With the help of the curator, I filed a police report in the local town. She gave a lengthy statement. I submitted a statement. The police did no notable follow-up investigative work (the man had admitted, in print, to destroying the work), but weeks later I received a letter stating there was insufficient evidence to charge TMWSHKB with a crime.
I hired a lawyer. I remember sitting outside “the British store” in Freeport on a freezing cold bench, talking to my new lawyer via cell phone, just before Christmas, while my daughter shopped inside. I recall trying to explain what had happened. Like every other person I would tell the story to, I found myself having to reiterate that he would not be able to make sense of what had happened, that logic just didn’t apply. Don’t bother. Just accept the facts we have and help me. Please. Can you help me?
He agreed to take the case on contingency. He was an insurance lawyer (try finding a lawyer for the arts in Maine). He wanted to argue the case as if I had left my car in the woods and someone had destroyed it. He wanted to go after the insurance companies. Conceptually and emotionally, this was incredibly difficult for me to take in. I told him about the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), established in 1990, which essentially makes it a federal crime to destroy a work of art. He hadn’t heard of it. He said he would look into it. I found myself feeling further depleted.
We spent hours conversing. Going over the details. I was sensitive to the hundreds of dollars each conversation cost. He reached out to TMWSHKB to no avail. He contacted insurance companies. I waited. Stewed. I had a meeting with the director of the small museum who was anticipating receiving SELF TCELFER in August. I tried to pitch the idea of another work for their grounds. She wanted SELF TCELFER.
I figured out the finances I would need to remake the work in time to study it through the winter so I would not lose the museum opportunity. My lawyer shared that figure with TMWSHKB. Nothing.
I lost the museum opportunity.
By this time, I felt the continuous physical presence of a vast, dark emptiness growing inside me. It could have swallowed up planets. It was like an inner galaxy of pain and longing. I shit you not. And, it was swallowing me. Each day.
My lawyer was very clear that I should discuss the case with no one, not even my fiancé. So, as this galaxy attempted to absorb me, I needed to remain silent. I managed this most of the time, but found (like anything repressed) the story shoving itself out of me at inopportune times. Once the first few words were spoken, I was on an hour-long descent. Usually, the listeners were stunned. Confused. Again, I would have to explain that logic should be discarded. There simply was none. “Was the work offensive?” people would ask.
I am grateful for every person who witnessed my movement through this time without deciding to forever walk away. I was admittedly unhealthy. Emotionally rocked. Mentally rough.
I stopped making work.
Well … I did make one small 7” diameter mirrored Mylar puzzle that TMWSHKB’s lawyer attempted to cite as proof that my studio practice hadn’t suffered. I have finished no other work since the destruction. My heart constricts and it becomes hard to breathe just thinking about this.
I let my first lawyer go when the insurance path appeared fruitless and found another, a woman with experience in copyright law and a basic familiarity with VARA. I went through the story again. And again. We embarked on a legal process that felt disgusting. Difficult. I wanted to take the case to federal court. To set a precedent for other artists. I wanted to win, on principle. Every other person wanted me to focus on finances.
The gallery season began. As the co-director and curator of the Corey Daniels Gallery, I am enmeshed in the business of art, regardless of my own productivity. Once the season began, my inability to produce new work became even more painful. My winter (usually intense studio time) had passed without a single new work. Now, summer arrived with nothing of my own to show or sell. The previous year, half of my income came from the sale of my own work. Not this year.
In August of 2018, I agreed to a mediation session with TMWSHKB, his lawyer, his lawyer’s assistant and three insurance company representatives. It seemed TMWSHKB’s lawyer liked the idea of going after the insurance companies, as well. We convened in a tiny conference room that barely fit the table we were seated around, let alone seven or eight additional bodies. One insurance representative was projected on a large screen at the end of the table, joining us via Skype.
TMWSHKB’s lawyer was slick. Measured. Sharp. My lawyer was comparatively not. A bit scattered. She had made it clear she was not a litigator. I wish I had understood the implications of what that meant at the time. In her opening remarks, she read from a series of notes she had taken while we chatted, ten minutes earlier. As I sat beside her, in a room with TMWSHKB for the first time, surrounded by people in pressed suits with shuttered souls, I felt mortified by how my voice was represented.
I had fucked up. I should have sat down with my lawyer, in person, before this moment. (We had never met face-to-face.) I should have listened to myself every time a tiny red flag went up during our phone conversations. I should have been more strategic about vetting people, instead of just choosing the only lawyer in Maine who seemed to have any visual arts experience. I had settled. And now, I would have to settle. There was no way I could bring this to trial.
Essentially, mediation was a series of negotiations that revolved around a set of numbers written on a tiny slip of paper. These numbers shifted dramatically depending on who was suggesting them. We went back and forth, each side situated in separate rooms, with a very kind mediator moving between. The mediator opened our first private conversation by telling me how much he liked the work, and that he was sorry to hear of its destruction. I broke into tears.
After four hours, it became quite clear we were not going to reach the figure I felt comfortable walking away with. It was also clear I did not have the legal representation I would need to win my case. I had spent nine months in the throes of this experience, and it was eroding something within me. Before turning down their final offer, and steeling myself for one to two years of additional legal battles, taking the case to trial, I asked to clear the room and “phone a friend.” I called my fiancé. He had witnessed the process up close, day in and day out, whether I was openly talking about it, or not.
“Take the offer,” he said. “You need to heal. It’s time.”
I did. I thought about my daughter, with two more years of high school left before she heads off to college. Those two years would be spent with me enmeshed in a legal battle? No. I thought of my son, at home for just a short time before striking out on his own. Did I want to be caught up in this shit during the last months he’d still be living at home? No.
I took the offer.
I demanded a formal apology. I also demanded the right to write about the experience. Sadly, it did not help to see TMWSHKB stand there, with his lawyer and assistant, hands wringing, saying he wished he could turn back time. I wish it had. But, it didn’t.
Weeks would follow with more ups and downs. Problems with the settlement agreement. Bullshit loop holes and issues TMWSHKB’s lawyer needed cleared before we could proceed, including bringing in third parties and requiring releases from people who weren’t even present at the mediation.
So. Much. Bullshit.
I received a settlement check and paid my lawyers October 2018. A celebration would have seemed misplaced. I have yet to make work, but on December 11th, I intend to start.
I hold my sketchbooks near and dear as they’ve always been a safe and solitary place to play, like the swing set in a nearby park when no one else is there.
These images are from two sketchbooks filled more than thirty years apart. The black and white thumbnail sketches date back to when our three boys were very young. I had scarce time to paint or work but I would find a moment here or there to honor a little scene from family life, a small event that at the time seemed big.
I rarely did anything more with these small abbreviated sketches. Just making them felt like enough.
These days I have more time to make an observation and to freely follow wherever it leads.
I use my sketchbook to study an idea or a technique, to practice and play with it.
As an example, I’ve long admired the artistry and whimsy found in Kantha embroidery. Referring to small and indistinct images found on the web, I’ve filled pages with animals, people, flowers, and festive train cars, all the while knowing that my colored pencil stitches, however obsessive, can’t touch what had originally been stitched with endless patience in another time and place.
Similarly, while taking in the fantastical strokes and dabs of Vincent Van Gogh, I’ve practiced my own versions of similar mark making. My current sketchbooks have provided a place to explore art and artistry all around me, and then to spend time alone on the swing set.
My good friends Carl and David Little just published a handsome new book entitled Paintings of Portland (Down East Books $29.95) which details the many ways the city has been seen and painted by artists over the centuries. Here I propose a little corollary essay about paintings on Portland.
The bustle and busyness of Maine’s biggest little city can, like any lively urban environment, overwhelm the senses with stimuli, which is why every once in a while I like to slow down and have a look for the overlooked. Cheap point-and-shoot camera in hand, I make a deliberate attempt to pay attention to what’s going on in my native city.
Portland’s two best murals were erased a few years ago. The mural in Tommy’s Park at Middle and Exchange and the blueprint mural a few blocks away at 48 Free were trompe l’oeil masterpieces, products of the 1980s, which were the height of Portland’s artistic activity.
Designed by Chris Denison, C. Michael Lewis and architect Winton Scott and painted in 1985 by Denison, Lewis, Toni Wolf, Josephine Mussomeli, Matt Blackwell, Greg Chesaux, Wesley Stevens, Don Thayer, Art Cross and Donna Bachle, the Tommy’s Park mural was entitled Palazzo di Tomasino and recreated a marble façade of the 1868 post office that once occupied the Post Office Park site.
The Tommy’s Park mural had a cousin just a few blocks away at 48 Free St. that also became a local landmark. Painted in 1986 by Chris Denison, C. Michael Lewis, Toni Wolf, Josephine Mussomeli, Steven Priestly, and Bertelle Brookings and repainted in 2002 by Denison, Priestley, Wolf, Chris Hayes, Karen Sarfaty and Scott Kern, the Free St. mural pretended to be a blueprint applied to the entire side of the building, the blueprint peeling away to reveal the actual building.
The blank walls of Tommy’s Park and 48 Free St. beg to be painted again. The owners of 80 Exchange St. have, in fact, commissioned Will Sears to paint an abstract mural on the iconic space. Chris Dennison was one of the jurors. C. Michael Lewis was one of three finalists. Public art, of course, is often temporary. At least three other murals have succumbed to development and renovation in downtown Portland in recent years. The Greetings from PORTLAND postcard mural on the backside of the Asylum night club was painted by Mike Rich and a posse of other graffiti artists, but it was lost when the Asylum built a swanky new venue.
Murals often celebrate the past and the passage of time. Just so the mural Tony Taylor and Ken Tacka painted in Congress Square across from Portland Museum of Art in 1997. The mural presented a bifurcated view of how the corner of High and Congress looked in the 1920s and 1950s, but it was lost in 2013 when the Eastland Hotel was renovated. Congress Square now features a verdant floral mural by Tessa Greene O’Brien.
A mural created by taggers Koi and Turdl on the side of Joe’s Smoke Shop on Longfellow Square was an exercise in self-reference, consisting as it did along the Avon St. side of the popular convenience store, of the artists’ orange signatures over a black and white rendering of Joe’s and its immediate environs. The mural was demolished along with the iconic smoke shop in 2015 to make way for a new high-rise building.
One painted paean to Portland past that has survived is the 2008 Ocean Gateway Parking Garage mural by Elizabeth M. Burke and Rebecca Pease. Based on a c.1910 postcard view of Portland Harbor, the mural covers what would have been a huge blank wall with monotone images of sailing ships.
Public art is rarely placed in wealthy neighborhoods, so it should come as no surprise that the richest collection of murals in Portland is in one of the city’s poorest sections.
Bayside, bounded roughly by Washington Ave., Cumberland Ave., Forest Ave. and Marginal Way, is a neighborhood once dominated by junk yards and public housing. Today Bayside is in transition as artists, entrepreneurs and foodies help gentrify the once blighted area. Public art projects are everywhere in Bayside.
In 2004, the East Bayside Mural Project brought San Francisco muralist Andrew Schoultz to Portland to work with kids of the Kennedy Park public housing project to create a mural on the maintenance building at Bayside Park on Fox St. Schoultz’s own mural, which deals with logging and the destruction of the environment, is still on the wall. The World We Are From and the World We Are Making mural that Schoultz did with the local kids, many of whom were from Africa, is gone now, painted over by a Portland Mural Initiative mural, an abstract landscape schematic by Andrea Sulzer.
Portland Mural Initiative, started in 2015 by Will Sears and Tessa Greene O’Brien, has given a new generation of artists a chance to make their marks in Bayside, where there are now abstract murals by Sears, O’Brien, Sulzer and Jenny McGee Dougherty, a band playing by John Knight and a coastal landscape by Greta Van Campen. The murals enliven the dead spaces along the East Bayside Trail.
My favorite PMI mural is the ideographic abstraction by Dougherty on the side of the CrossFit Beacon gym. When I was there the other day I noticed that an anonymous street artist had added a thought to Dougherty’s imagery, “Let the world change you and you can change the world.” Not a bad way to be defaced.
Down an alley from the East Bayside Trail I also spotted a gorgeous white lily and a spotted salamander behind chain-link fences topped with barbed wire and razor-wire. I had to ask around to discover that these unexpected images were painted by designer and muralist Jared Goulette.
The crown jewel of Bayside public art is the East Bayside Community Mosaic Mural that wraps around two sides of the Coffee By Design building at the corner of Fox and Anderson.
The Bayside mosaic was created in 2016 by Muhsana Ali, a Philadelphia-born artist now based in Senegal. Ali was invited to Portland by University of Southern Maine social work professor Paula Gerstenblatt to work with local people in a project designed to foster community and celebrate cultural diversity. The intricate swirl of glass and ceramic tile expresses its theme of “voices of the community” in the objects and images contributed by more than 500 local people. Public art created by the public is a refreshing idea.
In Maine there is often a bit of tension when artists from away are awarded commissions, exhibitions and other opportunities that might benefit local artists. Perhaps the most painful missed opportunity to promote local creativity occurred in 2008 when the Maine Center for Creativity commissioned London-based Venezuelan artist Jaime Gili to paint 16 oil storage tanks in South Portland (visible from Portland so I figure they count as painting on Portland).
The Art All Around project was advertised as “the world’s largest public painting” with 260,000 square feet of surfaced covered with Gili’s abstract designs which read like Suprematism Meets Corporate America. What a shame not to have celebrated Maine talent at such a scale.
Oh well, there is plenty of public art by local artists in Portland as it is. One of my recently discovered favorites is the wall of poppies artist Patrick Corrigan painted on the outside of his Hanover St. studio. Corrigan also teamed up with Jenny Gardiner on the elegant swan and rushes mural that graces the rear of Speedwell projects out at Woodfords Corner. The swans are based on a ceramic tile design by English artist-illustrator Walter Crane (1845-1915).
Speedwell’s parking lot wall also features a floral mural by Mexican artist Pam Chevez. Both Speedwell murals are within sight of Artist and Craftsman Supply where the side street parking lot wall is emblazoned with a jazzy geometric aerosol abstraction by Ryan Adams.
When you go looking for art in the urban environment, you sensitize yourself to the hand-made and start seeing paintings everywhere, in graffiti, advertising, signs and murals.
The meaning of the imagery is not always obvious, but, like tags and tattoos, the intention of street art is clear. Whether it asserts individuality, community, identity, political concern or just decoration, the primary function of public art is to call attention to itself.
[Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978 and looking at it even longer.]
Before coming to Syracuse University for the opening of the Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait exhibit, a number of people asked me what it was going to feel like to see all the portraits at once.
In retrospect, this question seems like asking a thirteen year old how it will feel to be married, or a medical student how it will feel to save a life. Until the thing actually happens you can’t know.
There is no precise reference point for an unexperienced event. I speculated anyway and said I’m sure it will be overwhelming…. whatever that means. I assumed I would feel pride, the relief of completion, and be excited to bask in the recognition of a large visible project. To answer without having had the experience is in a way surreal, at least unreal. Turns out, to have this experience was also surreal.
When someone asks you to predict how a future event will feel, neither the person asking nor the one being questioned knows what is really being asked. In this case, I could not have imagined the cumulative effect of all the portraits. No one close to this project perceived that the collected portraits had taken on a life of their own, established relationships and aesthetics of their own, discovered a voice which was no longer mine at all, but theirs. Only they knew what kind of community and culture they were; only they knew what, together, they could say, could stand for. Realizing this reinforces something I have said all through the process of painting, that I was a medium for each portrait, another way for the subject to speak. But what I had not realized is that they have been building for seventeen years a collective voice that could never have been predicted until they were permitted to congregate in the same place at the same time.
I think of them stacked in my basement all these years. Small groups of them — tribes, hunting parties — making forays to schools, libraries, and churches — quartets, octets, choruses — not yet knowing they had been hired to form a symphony. Only they could know, as each new portrait joined their ranks, what was building.
When I first walked into the vast gallery space of Panasci Lounge at Syracuse University and saw them all, I was stunned. The sound of their chorus was deafening. I couldn’t hear it or describe it because I was not expecting a sound. I expected a sensation I could describe in words. I had expected, glibly, to be overwhelmed, but not confused, disoriented, unable to respond, unable to recognize what presence I was in. I was not expecting the roar of their silent voices, an accumulated goodness far greater than my own — in fact, incompatible with me. I thought of John Keats’ poem On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer where he describes his awe at reading Homer for the first time:
…felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific …
That awe and this awe was not I did this, it was They did this. As though I had merely cracked open a door and let all this boisterous crowd into the room, onto the stage. They had been waiting a long time.
Bill Ayers has described the portraits as paintings of citizens who inhabit a country that does not yet exist. And Bill anoints me as the cartographer of that country. His observation is flattering and maybe partly true — that country does not yet exist. But, the portraits themselves intuit a mapping wisdom far beyond mine. They have been making camp one by one in my basement as agents of a government in exile, a culture of justice in exile. They know their own geography as surely as birds in migration.
I see myself as an assembly line worker cutting out jigsaw puzzle pieces, each piece an eccentric personality, a different arrangement of male and female hollows and knobs which lock them together. But I was never privy to how they would all fit together, the mosaic they would make.
In another respect I see the entire collection as a great spreading tree. A tree of life, a tree of justice, which, strangely required 238 seeds to grow it. The first seeds to germinate were Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Chief Joseph, Sojourner Truth, Jane Addams and Harriet Tubman. Harriet continues her offer to lead us all, black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, one by one, out of our own enslavement. She’s the cartographer, not I. She knows where the borders are; she knows when to tell you you can breathe free.
But the tree! Growing there in Panasci Lounge. All upward thrust and encompassing embrace, sheltering, challenging, joyous,courageous, demanding. Climb it! Hug it! Go out on a limb. Venture out on quests. Return for sustenance.
The portrait exhibit is the epitome of the First Amendment— the right of people peaceably to assemble. Look how peaceful they are! How every face shines with integrity and determination. Consider how long they have been waiting for you to notice them, to take stock, to engage them in conversation. This congregation is not without bickering, like a flock of starlings, but they know the tree shelters them all.
Many people have supported and encouraged the long gestation of this project — with suggestions, love, money and important criticisms. All of us were blind though to what it was becoming. Maybe that’s true because what it was becoming was not an ideology but a work of art, not the art of each portrait but the combined art of the whole. Perhaps, one could say the portraits were like cicadas which spend 17 years in the dark underground as pupae, then emerge simultaneously, crawl up the tree, create the tree as they climb, flex inside their chitinous shells, step free and begin to buzz. That was the sound I heard?
I’m sure some people who see the exhibit ask, “Who did this? It’s obsessive. Over the top. Didn’t he know when to stop?” Upon walking into Panasci Lounge, those were my words too. The obsessiveness is like that of many outsider artists who are propelled not by ego or profit, but by a mysterious internal necessity. Seventeen years ago when I painted the first portrait I was 55 years old. Not the same person I am now. And at each ‘now,’ not the same person I was or was to become. So, I’m quite right in saying it was not me who painted the portraits. Someone related, certainly, but how exactly? That may sound coy, but I don’t mean it to be. I look at the portraits and feel an odd distance, as though they may have happened when I was asleep, painted by a dream self. Dream-painted while sleep-walking. Whoever did it, he’s a better person than I.
When I say, “…he’s a better person than I,” I mean that. Reminds me of a time when I was sixteen, I think, and on a beach on Nantucket in August. A business executive, a close friend of my father’s, swam out too far in the rough surf and couldn’t get back; we saw him waving for help. If he had been calling, his shouts were swallowed in the crashing of the waves. I was the only one there capable of helping. I swam out and brought him in. I remember none of the details except that, once back onshore, I wanted to be alone. I didn’t want to be thanked or praised. I walked down the beach and sat by myself. I felt, rightly, that it was not me, not my conscious self or ego, who may have saved a man’s life. Rather, a value was working through me at that moment and it was responsible.
When I began painting, I was both the boy on the beach and the drowning man, a man drowning in the dishonesty of his own country and needing to rescue himself. I played both parts in the same way a person plays both parts in a dream. The boy sets out to save the drowning man. The boy doesn’t have to swim, though, but paint like crazy. Every time he stops painting, the man slips under the waves.
The night before the opening of the exhibit, I visited the space late at night. All but a few of the portraits had been hung. A student, a senior, a young woman named Sabrina, and I talked. She was walking around reading the quotes on the portraits and told me she intended to read them all. And then she kept saying, “This is insane, this is insane, this is ….”
I thought, yes, it is. It is also the most sane thing I could think to do in an insane world. Every portrait has saved my life.
Reading a poem aloud is publication. Stapling a few drawings and poems together, and handing out the results to strangers in Tompkins Square Park is publication.
Working out the project of creation as it spreads through the pages of a sketchbook is publication.
People who’ve concluded that my apparent inactivity is evidence of a lack of ambition have sadly not had access to the great range of my publications. At some point, I may decide to swamp everyone under the table with the terrible plethora of my publishings, most of which have been announced or made manifest in sketchbooks.
For good deeds as a pre-schooler, I might be given as reward a ream of typing (drawing) paper. One of the greatest epiphanies of my childhood was the discovery of my father’s stapler. This enabled me to make and publish my first books.
By the time I was a teenager, I had found that bound books of blank paper could be bought. Intellectual problems and issues of teenagerism introduced complications.
When working in a bound book, is it desirable to maintain the illusion of bookish perfection? Is it acceptable to make revisions in a bound book? My work with my sketchbooks solved this blockage. All my life, I had thought of books as finished creations. Books had to end before they could be published or bound.
Now I knew books might be created as I “went forward.” And, sketching and the workings of my mind could be part of the subject matter of a book.
This sort of thinking quickly led to one-of-a-kind books and prototypes of wide range and variety. For instance, for years now, poet Gary Lawless has been researching Christian saints’ relics, primarily in Europe, with the idea, maybe, of making poetry. At some point, he asked me to begin assembling a book of imagined relics and reliquaries. I add pages to it whenever I get new ideas.(See sketches 5 & 6.)
My grandmother, poet Mary Billings, always inspired me with her creation of scrapbooks. Typically using advertising catalogues, she would glue in poems, pictures, and prayers. I have for years been making my own scrapbooks, painting pictures of the things I want to save. (See sketch 13)
In the Free Box of the Old Books store, I found a bound college thesis. I painted black acrylic over all the pages of text. I spent three weeks writing poetry to fit all the new black pages, and six weeks painting these new words and“illustrating” the poetry with abstract versions of Poussin’s paintings and the landscapes from Medieval religious paintings. (See sketches 9 & 12.) Sketch12 excerpts a poem in which I honor the children of local artists, as carriers-on of culture. (Painter Thomas Cornell’s son is a philosopher, named for Poussin; my own grandson is named for the Renaissance painter Raphael.)
As a lonely youth in Bowdoinham, I spent many nights in imagined conversation with artists and poets whom I admired or hoped someday to meet. In this, I thought to prepare for the life I envisioned for myself. One long night,I was visited by Henry Miller, who brought wine. (See sketch 3 — from my sketchbook “Nightingale and Gods.” When I am alone with myself, thinking about Fang, the spiritual shrine-maker, I call him “Nightingale.” He is a current nighttime conversationalist.)
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.