Our theme for the Spring 2018 Maine Arts Journal Issue is Origin Stories.
We asked you to tell us the stories you tell of yourself, to share who you are, and how you got here. The thoughtful responses have taken on those questions in varied and individual ways.
Our Feature Artists include Alice Spencer and her Katanga series, informed from the collection of patterned materials gathered from her travels, and which influence her work. Anna Mikuscova shares her black and white photographs and personal journey. Clare Morin reflects on places where she has lived and written about the arts, from England to Hong Kong and Maine. Gigi Aea starts his essay and his journey from an ancient culture and cultured family legacy. Susan Drucker’s delicate yet fully present drawings are a re-imagined family photo album, an alternate history. Included are the beautiful artbooks of Cynthia Ahlstrin, a family portrait by Juliet Karelsen, and more.
Regular contributor, Ed Beem, shares his self-portrait as an arts writer, an aesthetic journey with family and friends. Frequent contributor, and author, Carl Little writes about the extraordinary gift his Uncle William Kienbusch gave him. Contributing MAJ editor, Kathy Weinberg writes about the painter Martin Wong’s retrospective, that ties into a family history and a road trip. Dan Kany is in the Critics Corner with a story of his own vision.
In conjunction with this issue, and narrowing the lens of the topic more specifically to Immigration, Kifah Abdulla (Portland poet, artist from Iraq), Titi De Baccarat (Portland artist from Gabon) and John Ripton (writer, photographer and historian from Maine) have curated a show of the work by Portland area immigrants around the theme of “Migration Experience.”
Included also is a portfolio of images from 12 artists in the Camden Library, and Jonathan Frost Gallery Show “Migration Stories.”
Julie Poitros Santos writes about an upcoming show at ICA MECA: TRACES, TRACKS, and PATHWAYS: Making Migration Visible.
In our Members’ Showcase we welcome Maggie Muth, Lesia Sochor, and Clara Cohan who share their art and stories, and the editors share some highlights of members’ essays.
We have regular features, Insight/Incite: Jane Page-Conway on skateboards, and a poem by Craig Sipe introduced by Betsy Sholl. And a Special feature: Mirlea Saks contributes an essay on Nancy Davidson, the dynamic curator of the Maine Jewish Museum, who has helped shape the art scene in Portland.
Look to the “submit” page for our Theme and Invitation for Summer 2018: State of the Studio: Tell us what you are making and what you are doing. Follow the guidelines for submission.
And now to the issue—Enjoy!
From the editors, Dan Kany, Natasha Mayers, Jessica McCarthy, Nora Tryon, Kathy Weinberg
above: Alice Spencer, Kasaya#8, Hand printed paper/collage on board, 35×46, 2013, Jay York photo
I have always made things–paintings, drawings, things with clay. Making things as a child never seemed like something I did but something that was continuous with who I was. Looking back I think my early experience with art making was one of the reasons I grew to love ethnic textiles and to use them in my work.
Baby Carrier, Batik, Indigo dye, Miao Tribal People, Yunnan Province, China, Dimensions Variable, Bernard C. Meyers photo
In many traditional societies hand-made textiles are deeply tied to civic life. They are practical and useful but also function as a societal signal system. They create cohesion and provide a framework of shared values. In many of these communities, textiles hold an ethos, a spiritual center. They are an essential source of identity and connection.
Mirror Cover, Lakai Tribe, Afganistan, Cotton and cotton embroidery, 20th century, 18×18, Bernard C. Meyers Photo
Handmade work is not commodified, as in much Western art, but continuous with the natural and spiritual laws of the world, an agent of meaning that informs everyday life.
In traditional weaving communities girls and boys grow up in families with weaving almost written into their DNA, learning to incorporate mathematically dense and aesthetically rich patterns into warp and weft. Weavers are valued citizens and their work is vital to the well-being of the community.
I grew up in a world where, like most of us, textiles were machine made and bought already made into curtains or jackets. My mother didn’t sew, I didn’t sew, and the only weaving I did was to make potholders for Christmas presents. I attended an elite private school where Home Economics, which taught the skills of domesticity in public schools, was considered inferior to the life of the intellect. In college I took studio art, visited museums and galleries, studied art history, never doubting I would be an artist. But at times I felt like an outlier, not tuned in to the ongoing debate about the -isms of art. On visits to New York I began to seek out shows of folk art and a new genre known as “outsider art”.
Cradle Cover, Turkey, Silk embroidery on cotton, 20th century, 30×40
Headscarves, combs, Paduaung Tribal woman, Myanmar, Photo by author
About 40 years ago I went to Guatemala with my husband, Dick. We fell in love with the women’s hand woven huipile blouses and learned that each village had its own unique colors and patterns. At one point we spotted a gorgeous blouse, but someone was wearing it. The woman noticed us admiring it and disappeared behind a bush. When she emerged (wearing another) she offered it to us. A favorite first piece in our collection, it still smells faintly of smoke, sweat and goat dung.
From that time on we began to travel to countries where we could find handmade textiles. Seeking out workshops and weaving villages, often in remote places, became a way for us to experience each country at a deeper level than would otherwise have been possible. In all these years we rarely have set foot in Europe, the place of my heritage. Its textile traditions are no longer alive; textiles are dusty artifacts in museums.
Kemba, Woman’s breast cloth, Three color batik, Java, Indonesia Photo Bernard C. Meyers
We have now acquired close to 80 textiles from about 20 countries, including Bhutan, India, China and Cambodia. We bought tube skirts while visiting our Peace Corps kids in East Timor. We found the embroidered tails of a ritual dancer’s skirt in Ecuador, an Akh-nif cape with its huge woven eye in Morocco, and ikat robes lined with Russian chintz in Uzbekistan. Someone gave us a burqua. and we discovered 3 gorgeous Korean bojagis (wrapping cloths) in a flea market in Seoul. I also attended an auction of Jack Leonard Larson’s collection of ethnic textiles in New York. Surrounded by eager collectors, I finally landed a mud cloth from Mali. Most of these pieces, with the exception of those that attract moths, are piled on a high kitchen shelf. The layers of bright cloth bring me pleasure and inspiration every day.
Over the years I also had the opportunity to teach printmaking in both Mongolia and Zanzibar (Tanzania), which opened another path of connection to other traditional arts-centered cultures. Art students in Mongolia, most now living in the city in Ulaanbaatar, revere their country’s nomadic past. The iconic horse of the steppe still is an important subject in their work. In Zanzibar, the women I worked with learned henna body decoration in the traditional way: from their mothers or their aunts. While still practicing this ancient art for weddings and other celebrations, they have now learned to use their henna designs in brightly-colored acrylic paintings.
Alice Spencer, Crazy Quilt Improv#2, Hand printed paper/collage on board 16×16, 2016, Jay York photo
It was while traveling, teaching and collecting textiles abroad that the idea of re-imagining textiles in paintings emerged as a path for my work. While Matisse called his textile collection his “working library,” for me textiles offer a lexicon, not just of formal structures, but of conceptual associations that provide the content and language for my work. Fold, pleat, pattern, patch: these actions find new applications in paint or collage. Referencing the evolution of textile motifs that occur across cultures and through generations I use multiple stencils to create each pattern. Each pattern holds within itself a small sample of the sweep of history and time.
Recently, I have started making collages that are based on patchwork textiles. Combining craftsmanship with thrift, patchwork has brought vibrant beauty to clothing and other humble household necessities throughout history. The ancient tradition of recycling is now a focus in both contemporary art and daily life. In exploring this form I have been looking at quilts from the American South made from the clothing of deceased family members and at others where quilting norms are subverted and the music of the quilters’ African forbears can be tracked in the off-kilter arrangements of patched squares. I have also looked at Japanese fishermen’s coats, thickly layered with patches, and becoming increasingly warmer and more beautiful through time, as well as the kasayas of Tibetan monks who, vowing humility, follow an exacting protocol as they stitch together remnants of once fine brocades. These and other quilt traditions are the source of my recent work.
Alice Spencer, Kasaya#3, Hand printed paper/collage on board, 48×63, 2013, Jay York photo
By borrowing from an enduring cultural tradition, one in which art and daily life flow as one, I celebrate it and find a meaningful path for my work.
Alice Spencer, Kasaya#6, Hand printed paper/collage on board, 30×41, 2013, Jay York photo
above: Cynthia J. Ahlstrin, 38 Special – A Bullet Bra, Repurposed book pages, repurposed binder’s board, 6.5” x 38” x 11”
My most cohesive origin stories can be found within my artist’s books – in both the traditional book forms as well as in the altered books. My stories include lessons handed down from past generations, tales of memory, of love, of abuse, and of hope. They express views of childhood and the process of growing up and viewpoints based on life experience and maturity.
When I started making artist’s books, I found it very easy to begin by telling the stories of my forward-thinking, teetotaling English grandmother and the influence she lovingly placed on my young life. It started by growing up in a seemingly “proper” middle class home in Connecticut, the roof of which barely kept the lid on the three generations of independent individuals contained within. The youngest of the family, I found myself in need of an anchor. Fortunately, my grandmother scooped me up into her life and became my staunchest ally. Born into this world prior to 1900, she was from a distant generation that endured the many hardships of World Wars, deadly flu epidemics, and the Great Depression. But she also enjoyed women gaining the right to vote, the beginnings of women’s healthcare, and the ability of some women to start their own careers. She was always industrious with her thoughts and with her time.
Cynthia J. Ahlstrin, By the Measure of Her Hand, accordion book, Prisma Color pencil, collaged ingredient bags (paper), collaged repurposed recipe cards, 6” x 38”
One of the places she chose to teach life’s lessons was in the warmth of her kitchen where cooking was one of her grand talents. To her, food equated to love and happiness. My story starts here by investigating the age old tradition of cooks measuring out dry ingredients by their hand. Amounts were gauged and valued by how they looked and felt in the palm of the cook. Recipes were rarely written in full (if at all), adding to the mystery of cooking and to the guarding of “treasured” family recipes and secrets. To this day there are still a few recipes that even I guard, only to be passed on to those “within the family”. I collaged sugar, salt and flour sacks with recipe cards to detail the potential of sweet things to come. On the front side of my accordion book are the illustrations of the lessons of love, patience, meditation, healing remedies and self awareness – all of the life lessons passed on to me in-between the mechanics of making a great meal. Those keys to self-happiness are illuminated with colors as saturated as the memories and feelings they invoke inside of me.
Cynthia J. Ahlstrin, Oh to Bee Sew Busy, accordion book, Prisma Color, acrylic, Ball Point Pen, collaged antique pattern tissue, collaged antique sewing pattern schematics, ribbons, metal key, 5.5” x 42”
Another story I tell involves the lessons learned about sewing. A professional seamstress, my grandmother had some very concrete ideas about how things were to be done. She created clothing for her regular clients and made costumes for actors on Hartford and New York City stages. My use of color speaks to the memories of our trips to the fabric store searching amongst bolts and bolts of beautiful fabrics to find the right cloth to make a creation sing. My story tells of the lessons of patience while laying and pinning pattern pieces so accurately that the leftover scrap cloth was miniscule. “Waste not, want not” was a common refrain. My grandmother worked her magic at the sewing machine in a beelike dance, moving back and forth from machine to table and back again. Her lessons of thrift, craftsmanship, energy and individual expression have swirled into memories of admiration for her mastery of the many parts of a woman’s life.
Cynthia J. Ahlstrin, Isn’t It Fitting, artist’s star book, India Inks, Prisma Color, hand-cut Canson Mi-Teintes paper, embroidery floss, 6” x 26” x 6”
The last story of lessons learned while growing up materialized in a humorous piece titled Isn’t It Fitting? The happy recipient of lovely handmade bras, it was hard for me to wear commercially produced foundation ones, but once I decided that this was “what all the girls wear”, there was no turning back.
Cynthia J. Ahlstrin, Isn’t It Fitting, artist’s star book, India Inks, Prisma Color, hand-cut Canson Mi-Teintes paper, embroidery floss, 6” x 12” x 12” in star position
So my story here delves into the spreading of wings in an attempt to try something new, move away from an old tradition and perhaps take the first steps towards growing up. It is also a story about the ability to fail, admit a mistake and still be loved.
My story reveals that all the instructions and diagrams in the world were not going to correct the fit of ill made garments. Measurements and cups sizes were designed for the “average woman’s breast size”…and who has those? The beautiful bras I was searching for ended up being the ones made out of paper and ink. The craziness of the looping measuring tapes equates to my young self throwing up my hands in frustration and realizing that no matter how much we yank and we pull, those damn bras were just never meant to fit. And that some lessons you learn cannot be improved upon until we are ready to mature.
Cynthia J. Ahlstrin, Every Shoe Tells a Story, altered book, Repurposed National Geographic magazines, plaster, wired ribbon, 10” x 12” x 4”
My approach to creating altered books originally began as a way to solve a creative challenge. I was given a stack of National Geographic magazines. Who doesn’t have difficulty parting with these? My task was to look through all of them, find a story that resonated with me and then make a piece in response to it. My found story was one that included luscious images of shoes throughout the history of humankind and what information could be gathered from them about the person who wore them. I was inspired to make my book based on the premise that every shoe really does have a story to tell about us. My shoe story investigates the use of color and the recycling of discarded objects. Through the placement of specific words and images, my book also tells a story to the viewer asking her to consider the impact of excesses of human choices and the use of genetically modified seeds on our environment.
Cynthia J. Ahlstrin, Without Consent, artist’s star book, Repurposed book pages, acrylic, repurposed binder’s board, Canson Mi-Teintes paper, card stock, 3” x 9” x 3” (note: measurement is for shoes only)
As my experience in making altered books has grown, my approach to my story telling has changed as well. My newer work began to tell stories of a different part of my life, a crossing over from the lessons of childhood to those from a more mature perspective and garnered from some unfortunate personal experiences.
Cynthia J. Ahlstrin, Repurposed Romance, altered book, Repurposed romance novel book pages, repurposed binder’s board, 25” x 14.5” x 11.5
I need a great deal of paper for each piece. I began sourcing book pages from discarded books and romance novels I found at the library or in the book box at the transfer station. I chose my materials randomly based on the weight, color and feel of the paper. During the process of cutting the pages from the book block, I naturally began to read passages from various pages of the found books. This is where I began to notice the large amount of violence perpetrated against one or more of the female characters within each novel. Often times, the violence was not even remotely connected to the main plot – basically it was just gratuitous. My thoughts on this unnerving occurrence demanded that the individual stories needed to be identified, those of verbal and physical abuse, prostitution, murder, rape and in some cases mutilation. My own personal experience with certain types of abuse causes me to empathize with all the female victims.
Cynthia J. Ahlstrin, Silk Stockings, altered book, Repurposed book pages, acrylic, archival tracing paper, Canson Mi-Teintes paper, card stock, 7.5” x 34” x 1.5 (note: stockings only)
Cynthia J. Ahlstrin, Something Blue, altered book, Repurposed book pages, acrylic, lace paper, elastic sewing material, 7” x 9” x 2” (for larger garter), 4” x 6” x 2” (for smaller garter), Two detail (A & B) views provided
My stories have manifested themselves in the form of 1950’s women’s foundation wear and boudoir apparel. Style-wise they are beautiful as well as cage-like and constricting. This era of fashion is from a time when women in our society were dressed immaculately within the confines of society’s concept of perfection. Each piece invites the viewer to read selected sentences or word phrases which are meant to illuminate this troubling pattern of violence. My hope is that the beauty of the structures creates an interesting juxtaposition to the violence expressed in the printed words and causes the viewer to consider the stories that women continue to experience in our current society.
above: Susan Drucker, “Benjamin Wood Fairbanks and Douc Langur. China. 1880.” Pencil, eraser. 2017
Susan Drucker, “Marianne Jones Fairbanks and Marmoset. India. 1882.” Pencil, eraser, ink. 2016.
These drawings are part of an on-going book project based on reimagined family photos. A “picture book for all ages”, it will track the lineage of my family over four generations along with their imagined animal companions. The book will resemble a photo album, with each image captioned by names, dates, places, and occasional notes.
Susan Drucker, “Gladys and Gorilla. Montclair, NJ. 1901.” Pencil, eraser. 2017
The focal point of the book will be my great-grandparents, Charlotte and Frank. I imagine Charlotte’s parents (Benjamin and Marianne) traveling internationally during the 1870’s, eventually bringing back the first generation of animal companions: a gorilla, two golden tamarins, a douc langur, a spider monkey, a secretary bird, and a giraffe.
Susan Drucker, “Frank and Spider Monkey. Montclair, NJ. 1908.” Pencil, eraser. 2016
Charlotte, and later Frank, will develop unique relationships with these animals, as will their children (Gladys and Jack), and their grandchildren (Nancy and Chips).
Susan Drucker, “Jack and Secretary Bird. Montclair, NJ. 1910.” Pencil, eraser. 2016
Susan Drucker, “Pop Dutch and Nana. Casanovia. NY. 1920.” Pencil, eraser. 2016
I hope that the eventual addition of names for each animal (which I have yet to pinpoint) will help illuminate their profound “humanity”, as well as make the details and longevity of the human/animal relationships more clear. I have taken great pleasure in portraying the amazing presence of animals — both real and imagined — in our collective lives.
Susan Drucker, “Frank, Charlotte, and Tamarin. Bay Head, NJ. 1931.” Pencil, eraser. 2018
Susan Drucker, “Nancy and Giraffe. Casanovia, NY. 1934.” Pencil, eraser, ink. 2017
Please note that all images are works in progress.
In the spring of 1996, Gigi Aea designed and produced his first hand-painted jacket that was featured in the Metropolitan Museum Fashion Gala, and is still housed in its permanent collection. But the Gigi Aea story begins far away, in a land that juxtaposes European and Asian influences – Georgia, an ancient land formed in 13th century BC.
Gigi was born into a family of three generations of artists. His great-grandfather Alexander Ronishvili was the first pioneer of photography in Georgia and one of the great benefactors of his time, opening multiple schools, hospitals and universities. He photographed everyone from kings to paupers. The astonishing and distinctive life that he led ended dramatically, murdered at the age of 50, poisoned by his rival who also burned down his studio, destroying much of Ronishvilli’s work. The remaining works are housed in the Georgian National Museum and the family collection.
Gigi’s grandfather Giorgi “Gogi” Ronishvili was Gigi’s first and most important teacher and his guide into the world of art. An accomplished cubist painter and creative director of the Georgian children’s magazine “Dila”, he taught Gigi the essentials of drawing and color relationships, while also encouraging experimentation and the development of a unique style. Gigi’s memories of his grandfather are that he was very gentle but very resolute.
Gigi Aea 06-L’Ville-Butterflies, fabric design
European art training starts at the earliest age. Being an artist was never a conscious decision for Gigi, it was more like an end result to the life he led. Having no choice in the matter was like having to breathe to stay alive. There was art created everywhere he looked. Monica, Gigi’s grandmother, was a ballerina and a dance teacher at the Theatrical University. She often danced in the house. Her every act was a performance, her every step a dance. Gogi and Gigi often painted together in the loft studio and Gigi observed and learned every one of his grandfather’s masterful strokes of the brush whether in the colorful city rooftops or intricate cubist paintings unique to his style that appeared as if looking through the angled prism of glass.
Gigi Aea, Chrysanthamums, fabric design
In his grandfather’s studio Gigi learned valuable lessons in the way that perspective is built, from masters like Vermeer, and the way it is destroyed, from masters like Matisse. He studied the color palettes of the Impressionists and the colorless Zenga paintings of Japanese masters that influenced the Abstract Expressionists so much. But through all his study and all his work he approached each painting with the fresh, wondrous eyes of a marveled child experiencing the world for the first time, perhaps because becoming a painter was never a decision or a choice, but rather a condition of floating full of sensations and imagery.
Gigi Aea, Maine-in-Blue, fabric design
In 2014 Gigi’s homage to his grandfather was to organize and co-curate a posthumous show of most of his work at the Georgian National Museum of Art. It was an extremely successful, well-attended and televised event.
Gigi’s father, Nodar Gaprindashvilli was a well-respected portrait painter and a theater stage designer for a number of premier theaters in the Soviet Union. In his father’s studio Gigi learned the harshness of the life of an artist and prepared for the Academy of Arts exams. Gigi was expected to dutifully accept his student responsibilities as an apprentice in his father’s studio. His tasks ranged from cleaning the floors to repairing the skylight and cooking for his father and his friends.
In his grandfather’s studio he was a protégé. In his father’s studio he was a servant. Both lessons have served him well.
Gigi Aea, My-Garden-in-Tuscany, fabric design
Gigi was deeply influenced by American culture from his introduction to the Blues and Rock’n’Roll to Abstract Expressionism, and always dreamed of coming to New York, to experience the hub of raw creative energy.
After attending and graduating art schools in Tbilisi, Georgia and Bremen, Germany, Gigi embarked on his long-awaited journey to New York City with $500 in his pocket and his portfolio of paintings. The paintings, unfortunately, were stolen in the Berlin airport right before his flight. He arrived in New York without any English language skills, job prospects, or work visa. His $500 dollars were stolen from him by a street hustler in an apartment deal that didn’t exist.
Broke and hungry, Gigi relied on the kindness of his childhood friend from Georgia, Agassi, who lent him some money to get a basement apartment in the furthest corner of “bumfuck” Queens. Agassi had emigrated 5 years before and was employed as a fashion designer for Mary McFadden Haute Couture. Gigi’s apartment consisted of a mattress and an ugly metal filing closet. Depressed by the hideous environment, Gigi painted the filing cabinet to look like a grained walnut wood closet. His landlord made it his habit to invasively check on what Gigi was up to every day. When he saw the cabinet that Gigi had painted, he liked it so much that he confiscated it right away and took it out of the apartment. Gigi had to carry it out.
Now Gigi only had a mattress. Still without work, Gigi often went hungry for days, relying sometimes on a local pizzeria to give him scraps of unfinished crusts and an occasional lunch from his friend. He needed to find a job, any job. At the end of his options, he applied for work at Moishe’s Movers in Brooklyn, where he was an outcast and only given an opportunity to work on occasion if nobody else showed up. He had two such opportunities. And the last was pivotal.
Down to his last quarter, Gigi called Moishe’s to inquire if there was work the next day and was told to come in at 7am. He was happy to hear this news. However, not having eaten for three days, he doubted his ability to move furniture for eight hours. Gigi then went into a local Korean grocery store and stole a loaf of bread and a small ham with the full intention of repaying the store owner when he got paid. But he was caught in the act and put in the walk-in meat freezer with a 6’5” security guard. Gigi pleaded, in his broken English, with the store owner not to call police, but to no avail. The store owner went to call the police and Gigi thought that would be the end of his American adventure and he’d be deported. Twenty minutes went by and nothing happened. He was still in the meat locker, but the guard had since left. Gigi was in the locker for another twenty minutes. Unable to stand the cold and humiliation any longer he busted out and walked calmly down the aisle past the guard and the store owner onto the street, where to his surprise and delight, there was no police waiting for him. Gigi remembers that in that instant he was overfilled with a love for New York and understood that everyone there, to some degree or another, has been in the same predicament. The generosity of the Korean store owner was but a proof of this.
Now free, he no longer felt hungry but ready to face the next challenge.
Gigi Aea, Monaco, fabric design
The next day he got up early and went to work using his last subway token. It was a long ride from the end of Queens to the end of Brooklyn. He arrived there with full confidence and strength to work and make money, but alas, he was told that he was not needed after all.
Completely destitute and despondent he called his friend Agassi to help him get back home to Queens, to the basement apartment with the tyrannical landlord. What Gigi didn’t know was that fate had something else in mind for him.
Gigi Aea, Aztec-Gold, fabric design
All throughout his stay in Queens he kept working on a textile design for the new Mary McFadden collection inspired by Japan. This effort was a test run that Agassi suggested he should try. Gigi was always fascinated and influenced by Asian art, Japanese art in particular. He used Ogata Korin’s screen, The Great Waves of Matsushima, as his inspiration for the jacket he was creating. Without any prior knowledge of the particulars of textile design and Haute Couture, he simply painted as he would paint any original painting, but with restrictions on the dimensions, material’s borders, design arrangement, and location, since the most challenging and fascinating thing about textile design is its transformation of two-dimensional art into three-dimensional applied art. Every one of the waves, drops and color juxtapositions mattered in the final concept of the piece, the way it would sit on the model and appear on the runway.
Gigi was working with borrowed art materials and painting on MaryMcFadden’s luxurious silk organza, with borrowed money and on borrowed time. He gave his hand-painted textile for Mary’s review to Agassi shortly before his work day at Moishe’s in Brooklyn.
On that day while he was stranded and close to tears somewhere in Brooklyn, somewhere in Manhattan Mary wanted him as her next textile designer for the Haute Couture house. Upon returning home to Queens he found out that he was hired for the exclusive position. The next night he made his great escape from the clutches of his oppressive landlord, fitting everything he had in an old lady’s grocery cart and wheeled it down to the Jamaica Van Wyck subway station where he got on the train that took him to Manhattan’s Upper West Side where he spent most of his New York years.
Gigi Aea, Monet’s-Garden, fabric design
Gigi continued to create for Mary McFadden, finally designing the “Desert Jacket” which was her all-time best seller and featured in the Saks Fifth Avenue book “Obras de Moda.” On the side, Gigi designed for Oscar de la Renta and Donna Karan in New York until his move to London where he worked on a collection with Alexander McQueen.
Gigi Aea, Magic, fabric design
Today Gigi Aea is running his own Haute Couture textile design company where he takes great care and pride to create hand-painted designs which are printed in Como, Italy. His textiles are used for both interior décor and fashion and are known for their dramatic design and color juxtapositions. The designs are larger than what is commonly done, which creates the sense of being enveloped by the textile and by the world that particular design depicts.
Gigi Aea is represented by the design house of Studio Sofield in N.Y.C. and Leslie Curtis in Camden, Maine.
The Martin Wong retrospective “Human Instamatic” — a road trip to the Bronx, and a family story.
by Kathy Weinberg
Driving along I95 you cross a bridge to get in and out of Maine. You cross a line that separates “here” and “from away,” in a State that declares on its Welcome sign, that it is “The way life should be.” On this sign, a local artists group (ARRT!) temporarily mounted their own sign depicting lobster buoys adorned with the insignias of national flags, and stating, “Maine welcomes our new residents.” A state, a culture, and history move forward — often in increments. Just as crossing bridges takes us from one place—or state of mind—into another, a work of art, or even a simple meal can transport us into another world, or make our own new again.
On one trip, “away,” I was fortunate to see the art and legacy created by Martin Wong who was representative of, yet on the edges of his times. Wong was not a part of a mainstream culture in his day, but is now moving into a broader appreciation.
Wong worked within the European canon, did not feel he had to throw it away, but made it his own. Martin Wong continued to make paintings at a time when painting was falling out of fashion, and became overshadowed by the rise of ironic and then predominantly formalist American art. By tying his personal American scene back to a European tradition that includes and embraces Van Gogh and Goya, Wong tells us that history is alive and available for artists of all times.
It is a five-mile walk to the Bronx Museum from where my husband and I met up with an old friend for lunch before going to see the Martin Wong Retrospective: Human Instamatic. We had spicy cumin lamb burgers at Xi’an, a new chain of North Chinese noodle shops featuring hand-pulled noodles in spicy sauces. Blocks later we stopped in at Patsy’s — the original 118th Street location — for a slice. Our friend knew the history of this oldest coal fired oven pizza in New York, and pointed to where Frank Sinatra once had his own reserved table. This part of Harlem was once an Italian neighborhood, but now Patsy’s, one bakery, and a “red sauce” restaurant were all that remained as evidence. Walking straight up 1st Avenue, we made a jog to reach the Third Avenue Bridge that took us out of Manhattan, into the Bronx, past Yankee Stadium then along the Grand Concourse. The Third Avenue Bridge offers a view of the canal-like, industrial landscape of Old Dutch, upper Manhattan. It is pedestrian scale, and feels more like a continuation than a grand crossing.
Photo courtesy of the Bronx Museum
We were going on what felt like a Pilgrimage — not only to see the Martin Wong retrospective, but to see it in a neighborhood once famous for its having burned, like ancient Rome. I had often heard stories from my husband’s family about the destruction of the Bronx, the landlords burning buildings to get money from insurance. It was years before I heard the story of how their Uncle burnt down the family house, a house with three generations all living together. He carried a shovel full of coals from the basement furnace to the back yard, dropping some on his way to roast potatoes in a small fire in the backyard with his friends. They called this depression-era pastime “roasting Mickies.”
My husband’s family had moved to the Bronx at a time when Europe was burning and Jews were no longer safe — or welcome — in their home countries. His father and grandmother escaped just six months before WWII officiallybroke out, but the invasion had already begun and villages were burning as they departed in an ox cart. His mother was born in the Bronx and her parents arrived during WWI.
The paintings of Martin Wong’s life, friends and neighborhood are remarkable for the quality of the painting alone. But Wong’s body of work also chronicles both an area and era. The gentrification and expansion of the Lower East Side neighborhood began in Wong’s (too brief) lifetime, continues today, and makes his work an ever stronger, and not too distant, mirror.
Martin Wong moved from San Francisco’s Chinatown to New York in 1978 and eventually settled in the Lower East Side. He made paintings set in, and of, the urban decay in the 1980’s-90’s — after the urban decline of the 1970’s. He paints his adopted neighborhood and his times. His canvases contain detailed brick walls, graffiti, razor wire, paint-scumbled surfaces, but still offer a human tenderness. There is love among the ruins. Love between the firemen — who appear like friendly gladiators or awkward angels in Big Heat. These Romeos are seemingly oblivious to the vacant and rubble-filled lots they occupy. Love appears as a heart built out of bricks, bulletproof, and a visual pun on a heart of stone, capable of surviving in the ashes.
Photo courtesy of the Bronx Museum
A wit and poetry is written through Wong’s paintings; words make appearances as a narrator’s voice, a poet’s oration. Graffiti words cover buildings, words frame the images; words are written on the walls, appear as headlines or epithets. Words are implied in the hand signs, the alphabet, for the hearing impaired. These signs are a visual language that can be deciphered, like a metaphor for painting itself. A section of the Lower East Side is known as “Alphabet City,” due to lettered rather than numbered streets, so it is fitting that the art of that area should have a written/visual component. Wong’s hand painted sign language for the deaf form hieroglyphs out of stylized symbols; disembodied hands emerge — with pearl buttons — from cuffed sleeves. Throughout art history hands have pointed famously; God’s hand reaches out to a languid Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and the Angel points Adam and Eve out of The Garden of Eden.
Photo courtesy of the Bronx Museum
Wong’s paintings are filled with books, celestial charts, and cartoons articulated in a hyper-realistic style of trompe l’oeil. Wong’s focus on the details of his art alleviates any didactic or straight political, polemic reading. In The Flood, the hand of the Statue of Liberty, painted as if built from bricks, rises like a chimney in a vacant lot. My immediate association was of the final scene in Planet of the Apes. Actor Charlton Heston sees Liberty’s head and hand buried in the sand, realizes that the statue is beneath; Earth and America as he knows it has been destroyed. He asks of the sky, “What have they done?” That question certainly hovers in the smoky skies of Wong’s world.
The portraits and characters that appear in his paintings are mostly of men, often partially dressed. A giant “brick” phallus rises, like a statue, in a gilded frame, in My Vida Loca. Wong found in the melting pot culture of the Lower East Side, a home and a community, and he walks us through his life there; an exterior window view of his bedroom is seen, perhaps from several stories up, as if we are suspended in air looking in. In Rapture, a painting of a brick wall entirely fills three panels that are surrounded, engulfed even, by a gilded frame. The intertwining oval frames — filled with the bricks — terminate in leaf and filigree so that the rectangle pattern, the weight of the wall, is lightened and relieved. Wong’s scenes of a destroyed neighborhood are not freighted with bitterness. His love of detail and decoration bring a joy to the subject and to a sympathetic viewer. Wong’s paintings are a valentine to the citizens of urban blight.
Photo courtesy of the Bronx Museum
Wong — as a highly original artist who painted a world that he made his own — worked outside of the dominant art historical canon of his contemporaries. His style recalls other artists, now or at one time, on the borders of that canon: late Philip Guston, De Chirico’s brother Alberto Savinio, and the cartoonist R.Crumb. Wong was familiar with Renaissance art and other historic styles, which manifests in a crucifixion scene set in a basketball court, in the use of the circular or Tondo form, or in Top Cat, a portrait of a Hispanic reclining male, semi-nude in white briefs (tighty-whitey) — a nod to Goya’s clothed and unclothed Maja.
Photo courtesy of the Bronx Museum
Holland Cotter’s essay/review on Wong (New York Times, November, 2015) refers — in passing — to Wong as an “exotic outsider.” Cotter met Wong many times at the Metropolitan Museum, where Wong worked in the gift shop and looked at art. Cotter’s perception, shared by others, was partly based on Wong’s cowboy clothing — boot to hat — persona, and not having the “correct” art world credentials. Wong had studied ceramics, but was considered “self-taught” as a painter, though he started teaching himself from an early age. He was considered, by some, as a folk artist, although he had showed in East Village Galleries, including Semaphore. He had a retrospective in 1998 at the New Museum, and the director Dan Cameron said that Wong entered the broader picture of art history as: “…one of the more prominent examples of a constructed multinational cultural identity” and, was “Probably the essential painter of the American scene of the second half of the twentieth century.” Wong’s work is now included in the Whitney and Museum of Modern Art collections.
This show in its Bronx location ties in to Wong’s close association to graffiti artists in the area — artists that Wong knew personally and collected. He donated his collection to the Museum of the City of New York before his death in 1998, and it was recently on display there, in 2015. Wong’s is an unquestionable, yet still developing historic niche. Despite having lived for twenty years in New York City, this was my first visit to the Bronx Museum. Crossing bridges is slow work.
Photo courtesy of the Bronx Museum
You cross bridges to get to Manhattan, a physical construction that is also a mental obstruction. There isn’t one fixed “Real New York,” “True American,” or “Mainer,” it is as evolving and as difficult to keep up with as what is or isn’t out of fashion. It can all change in a New York minute — defined by Johnnie Carson as the interval between a Manhattan traffic light turning green and the guy behind you honking his horn. Parallel histories flourish often unnoticed inside, and outside, its own walls. Sometimes, over time, recognition, appreciation and public opinion converge.
Martin Wong-Human Instamatic Retrospective, Bronx Museum, 2015-16. photo courtesy of the author
Driving home on highway 95, I thought about the density, diversity and sheer numbers of people living in America’s largest urban area, just a day’s drive down the road. One person’s life and life’s work can reach through time and transcend our differences. I thought about Maine Governor LePage’s remarks about drug dealers from New York coming to Maine with heroin and impregnating white women before leaving . He defended his racist stereotypes by pointing to a 2010 survey that showed that the population in Maine is 95% white. This fact makes Maine the whitest state in the Union. The state is also 83% forested, making it one of the most sparsely populated states as well.
You enter the State of Maine on the Piscataqua River Bridge, high above the river, and rising into the air. Whether you have been away for a short trip, for a long time, are “from away”, or are arriving for the first time, that crossing feels symbolic; especially at the summit where all that is past can fade away, the future is open, and neither is visible for that moment.
And then, with the descent, it all comes rushing back, where we have been, as individuals, and where we — as a culture — are heading.