State of the Studio What an artist does daily matters. The continuity of a steady studio practice is a place of invention and exploration, as—or more important than—putting on a show. We asked the artists in this issue to tell us “What are you doing? What are you making?” Are you staying on a course you have long ago established or have you recently started working in a new medium? Are you suddenly working very large or getting small? Have figures emerged or has your work been consumed with geometry? Have you added color, or moved into monochromes? Does the outside world affect your studio life, or is your interior life reflected in your art? And was there a reason— or was it a whim— that brought you to your current direction? Featured artist, Meghan Brady shares her experiences in studio residencies and scale. A studio visit with Ron Crusan explores his work, neighborhood and influences. John Bisbee talks about his new politically-charged art. Beth Wittenberg shares her thoughts on consumption, throw-away people, and being without a studio. Pat Wheeler writes about how we can restore ourselves in troubled times. Sarah Stites reveals how drawing is her lifeline to her work. Sondra Bogdonoff writes about how her weaving is augmented and informed by painting and drawing. Tom Flanagan tells us that drawing connects him to the world and his sensibilities. Jim Chute shares his Conversations series and foreshadows our fall theme: Dialogue. Member contributors include Sandy Olson who gets back into her studio and finds new inspiration. And Ruth Sylmor, Ken Kohl, Pamela Grumbach,Judith Allen-Efstathiou, Michelle Leier, Amy Pollien, Alanna Hernandez all share their art, thoughts and inspirations about the State of the Studio.
Janice Moore shares an account of her experience curating what became the USM-LA Censorship story, and we include with it excerpts from letters written by John Ripton and Robert Shetterly with an essay on the topic by Dan Kany, and the National Coalition Against Censorship’s statement about the incident.
Regular contributor Edgar Beem writes about artists’ studios he has known. Dan Kany describes Henry Isaacs’ studio filled with brushes and small canvas “notes”.
Jane Bianco, Farnsworth Museum curator writes about the 19th century portraitist and landscape painter, James Hope. Sarah Bouchard joins us as a guest contributor and interviews Michael Mansfield, the new executive director and chief curator of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art about his personal artistic practice.
Dietlind Vander Schaaf contributes an essay from her place of inner contemplation and asks other artists what they are working on.
Our regular Poetry Feature introduced by Betsy Sholl presents poems by Christian Barter and Dawn Potter. Other regular features include: Insight/Incite about Krisanne Baker’s water activist residency in Malawi.
Richard Kane of Maine Masters talks about how he’d like to see those films used in the schools. ARRT! makes more banners, LumenARRT! makes more projections, Portland and Lewiston UMVA chapters present reports. The issue is full of many essays and artists to meet and explore, so find a porch, a hammock, or an armchair by a fire and curl up with the Maine Arts Journal on a fine, or foggy summer day!
From the editors,
Natasha Mayers, Dan Kany, Jessica Myer, Nora Tryon, Kathy Weinberg
“American Steel”; 4”, 6”, 8”, and 12” Bright Common Spikes, Weld; dimensions variable, 2018.
For the last year and a half, I have been obsessed with creating my upcoming show, American Steel, at CMCA. It is a true departure for me on many fronts: it’s realist, it’s text-driven, it’s political, and hopefully it’s funny. If it’s not a little bit funny something’s gone wrong, and if it doesn’t go past this charged political moment, something has also gone wrong.
I’m attempting to unpack my abstract and specific thoughts about this country of ours.
The work runs from the miniature–oyster shells–to the macro–enormous pillars and a serpent. I’m hoping the work will read like a dark allegorical fairytale with some optimistic twists. It has been an amazing work cycle. So many new discoveries of technique and form and specificity. When I’m not terrified I’m having the best time of my life.
The obvious reason for this strange new batch of work is the injection of toxins that this current administration has shot into our politics, and even more significantly, into our society. Trump has opened the door that I had hoped would remain locked at the bottom of the ocean. People just feel comfortable spitting hate without ever hearing or even wanting a cogent response. Because the dialogue seems so discordant, I felt compelled to enter it.
John Bisbee studio shot #1, photo courtesy of J. Myer
John Bisbee studio shot #2, photo courtesy of J. Myer
John Bisbee studio shot #3, photo courtesy of J. Myer
Last winter I found myself in a bit of an artistic slump. The flow of energy and ideas that had moved through me freely and guided my work for years seemed to have dried up. As winter gave way to spring, I reached beyond my studio walls to other artists in my orbit curious about what they were working on. How had they ridden the wave of creativity over the long haul? What did their daily studio practices look like? I wanted their insights. Ultimately their answers cast my experiences as part of a larger and ongoing conversation. As painter Gail Spaien notes, “painting is a physical manifestation of life…it brings us in closer contact with what it means to be alive and heightens our awareness about that which is not visible.”
Henry Wolyniec is involved with three distinct bodies of work at the moment. The first, which he has been working on for the last decade, consists of paper collage and relief printing. The second is a series of painted wire and paper sculptures started in the summer of 2017. The third is photography, which he has been doing for about three years. Henry says of his work that it is not concept driven or grounded in ideas; rather he continues at a piece until a series of visual decisions seem to come together.
Henry Wolyniec, HW 17.29, relief print and paper collage, 24” x 19”, 2017
Photography started as a fast and easy way for Wolyniec to capture an image. After a while, he noticed that certain kinds of images, specifically densely-packed compositions that included some form of overlapping shadow or reflection, kept showing up. Around the same time, he saw that his collages, in comparison, had gone flat and lacked composition. Recognizing he had worked himself into an aesthetic corner, Wolyniec realized photography would help him find his way out.
Henry Wolyniec, HW 16.3, relief print and paper collage, 17” x 16”, 2016
For Henry, navigating his need to have the time, energy, and focus his work requires has meant letting go of certain personal relationships not in sync with art making, as well as making specific choices around work and living situations that are affordable and studio friendly. Keeping life simple and uncluttered works, he notes, if money is not a motivation or within realistic reach.
Currently at work on a series that explores different color combinations, Ingrid Ellison’s paintings are an effort to balance pressure with open space. Her ideas come in the form of visual cues from nearly everywhere–the foggy harbor, a solitary mountain path, cracked and peeling paint, the shadow on a wall, a new tube of paint, passages from books and phrases from poems or songs, as well as time spent alone, out of doors, moving through space, woods, or water. There her mind empties and her thoughts are clearest.
Ingrid Ellison, Last April in Saint George, oil on panel, 12” x 12”, 2018
Ingrid Ellison, this is everything I know about Winter, 36” x 36”, oil on linen, 2018
Lately she has begun to explore writing as an extension of her creative practice. She keeps a visual journal that she takes everywhere, in which she writes, draws, paints, and collages.
Ingrid Ellison, The Grace of Summer, oil on panel, 12” x 12”, 2018
Frequently she experiences a period in which she feels as though she has explored all her options in a particular body of work and were she to continue, she would begin repeating herself. This is usually followed by a series of unsuccessful paintings that she keeps making until something new reveals itself, and then she is off following that tangent. It’s a very experimental phase, she says, and one of her tricks to moving through it is to force herself to start differently.
Kim Bernard has been working with a quarter round shape that forms a particular mark. It took her weeks of focusing exclusively on this flow-like element to get the mark right. This was followed by several more weeks of figuring out what materials to work with and how to apply the mark. She says this period was characterized by quite a bit of dissatisfaction, but she dealt with it, because “the older I get, the less I am willing to accept something that’s not just right in my work.”
Movement has been a consistent theme in Bernard’s oeuvre, which ranges from kinetic sculpture and gestural painting, to painting with a pendulum, sculpture racing contraptions, spring shoes, and finger painting.
Recently, Bernard experienced a bout of creative block. She had finished her Amphibious Tiny House project, which consumed her for 2017. She felt a bit lost and spent the next few months fighting going to her studio because it was painful to be in there. To ease back in, she gave herself permission to do whatever she wanted, as long as she was in the studio. She messed around with paints, drew, took photographs. Most of the work she produced was not good, but she persevered , telling herself that nothing was guaranteed to happen if she didn’t try. And eventually something sparked.
Kim Bernard, Go With The Flow, 16” x 24”, encaustic on panel framed with lead
During this period, Bernard read books about the creative process and listened to podcasts on creativity, all the while observing herself and taking notes. She developed a workshop called “Cultivating Creativity,” in which she guides students through playful exercises that inspire, build creative confidence, and generate ideas, leaving them with an arsenal of go-to strategies they can revisit for inspiration.
Bernard just turned 53 and she feels a sense of time passing. She has become increasingly selective about the kind of work she does and where she exhibits. “I don’t want to waste time and energy spinning my wheels on what’s not meaningful.”
Throughout her career, Gail Spaien has explored the question of how to bring the natural world into a static gallery setting. Her paintings translate the sensations around her with concentrated detail, depicting an idealized view of nature and a denial of unpleasant things. She paints the world as she would like it to be and invites the viewer to experience a painting as an object that holds an opportunity for contemplation, physical intimacy and affective power.
Gail Spaien, Serenade #10, acrylic on linen, 41” x 44”, 2017
A painter of ‘weather and seasons,’ Spaien feeds her studio practice by working in her garden. She says that she has come to appreciate the symmetry of landscape design through hours spent composing an image and arranging her garden to create a form of balance that is both stable and active.
Gail Spaien, Serenade #6, acrylic on linen, 34” x 36”, 2017
And Spaien admits that she is lost a lot. Her strategy, like that of Wolyniec, Ellison, and Bernard, is simply to keep working. That is followed by taking walks in all kinds of weather, as well as looking at art in person and in books.
At this time in her career, Spaien refuses to worry about whether she is doing it right anymore. This has, at times in the past, hindered her ability to have a particular kind of freedom in the studio. When stuck, she returns to pragmatic, technically-based core questions. Throughout all of her work is the thread of her core inquiry. How, she wonders, can she give form to life’s paradox and poignancy?
Gail Spaien, Renegade Mirage #2, acrylic on linen, 38” x 40”, 2018
Ever since I graduated with my Bachelor of FIne Arts in 1991, I have said to myself that if I am to refer to myself as an artist, then I better be doing what artists do. Artists make art. So, I make art every day.
I create. I make. I consider. I react. I respond. I collaborate. I experiment. I begin again. Everyday I try new things and new approaches and I keep making art no matter what –especially on the days I doubt myself and even when I do not have a permanent studio.
In February of 2016 I packed up my belongings and left my 15’ x 22’ studio space at Wrong Brain Headquarters (WBHQ) in Dover, New Hampshire. WBHQ served as my studio ever since Wrong Brain, a non-profit alternative arts collective, opened the space to artists. Even though I had been very involved in the organization, including the honor of being one of its original studiomates, I let my space go after one year. The problem was that I was having a difficult time being in the space. There was just too much happening. With six other artists, as well as community events like music gigs, poetry readings, and lectures, the environment wasn’t allowing me to work off my own energy.
It has been over a year now — I am back to creating art outside of a traditional studio. I live on the New Hampshire seacoast in a humble, 6 room Cape Cod I share with my wife Sheri, my 18 year old cousin, Tal, Penny my 10 pound pomapoo, and our two cats. There are some artists who are fortunate enough to have a specific place in which to create. Of the 6 rooms in my house, I create art in my kitchen, living room, office, our three- season room, the garage, and the backyard. I live with art media in every corner amidst the scraps of found objects, the canvases, the works on paper, my soft sculpture, piles of cardboard, and pages of writing.
Beth Wittenberg, (detail) “Athena was Born”, Mixed on 300# Arches, 30″ x 22″, 2018
I try to begin the day by drawing. Like a meditation, I wake up early, before anyone else, and head into my office where I have been squirreling away all the packaging materials I consume. For nearly a year and a half, I have been working on my consumerism project, “Throw Away People”. I have acquired mounds of cardboard boxes, inserts, and packaging paper which I am repurposing as art. I now have piles of different size boxes, even boxes inside boxes. When I started out, I tried to keep up with all the packaging I consumed on a daily basis. While there are now hundreds of drawings done on post consumer boxes, I still cannot keep up with the consumables.
Beth Wittenberg, “THROW AWAY PEOPLE”, (partial installation view) Assemblages and drawings, 24″ x 36″, 2018
“Throw Away People” began as a series of paper sculptures I exhibited at Wrong Brain Headquarters in the summer 2016. The sculptures were made primarily with paper but also included rubber tires, burlap, plaster, ashes, tape, string, found objects and wire. The sculptures were roughly fashioned together with basic technology. For example, if i wanted to connect one part to another part, I would simply tape it in a very haphazard way, or wrap some string around one end of a thing and then wrap the other end around whatever i wanted to fasten it to. This process was very liberating. Low-Fi Technology. The sculptures then took on a new meaning for me because I was creating figurative sculpture with tossed out items, scraps, and bits of things. The pieces were much more than their parts. I began thinking about all of the people in society that we throw away. All the mentally ill, the homeless, the single mothers, people living with AIDS or MRSA, all the marginalized populations, the Queers, Transkids, Black/Brown/Red people. All the voices … all the people that do not matter … these are the people society throws away.
The project speaks to two ideas. One: LOOK at everything I have consumed – all the food, all the paper packaging – look at what we are generating – the recyclable paper products, more and more – it is never ending. I am just one person keeping track of everything my family consumes. What about this type of consumption on a local level like my neighborhood? What about the global neighborhood? WHY DO WE NEED ALL THIS PACKAGING? It’s advertising; they are selling us pretty pictures and we eat it up. Consumption.
Beth Wittenberg, “Silence Fell”, Mixed on post consumer packaging and Post-it notes,10″ x 6″ and 4″ x 4″, 2017
The other idea I’m exploring is about the content of the drawings. So far I have well over 400 drawings on the back of cardboard boxes. I began noticing similar images appearing. I began drawing a lot of skulls, a lot of intestines, eyes, and teeth. All my figures, part beast part human, had severed appendages. Figures unable to help themselves, figures without hands. Heads without bodies. I use text as a part of my process and words were reappearing. I was creating not only poems but phrases that revealed an inner truth, leading me to the next drawing. The word “lies” was popping up very often. I use what I call “automatic writing” to discover what is going on inside me, right under the surface. I simply listen, and open my mind up to the stream of consciousness. Thoughts come into my mind, and I just put the pen to paper. I do not censor my writing. Sometimes I hear the words being spoken in my head. Sometimes as I am writing a word, my mind will skip a beat and change that thought ever so slightly. I remember specifically writing the word “tycoon” thinking about President Trump and the word changed to “typhoon”, and then I thought about this America where people are thrown away. Everything comes without planning or forethought.
Beth Wittenberg, “Beasts, Buildings, and Storms” (partial installation view), 120″ x 240″, 2015-16
I began thinking about the world where my “throw away people” exist. This world. I was feeling a sense of desperation, the zeitgeist of the times, the apathy, a doom and gloom mentality. I feel like I am speaking for those disillusioned by the status quo. I’m giving voice to the existential crisis I see happening. An entire generation disillusioned. My art is not pretty, my art is hard to look at. It’s part street art, it feels like graffitti to me. It’s subversive, confrontational, and difficult to understand because there are so many things going on in the picture plane. I leave it to the viewer to make sense of it. I love what I’m doing and occasionally I meet others who seem to jive with it, but, I”ve had people return artwork they have bought from me because they said they couldn’t live with it. Maybe the best compliment ever – “I love your work, but here, take it back please, it’s too scary”. I smiled a little before my heart sunk.
Beth Wittenberg, Installation View Courtesy of Rochester Museum of Fine Arts, Spray paint and housepaint on unstretched canvas, 72″ x 60″ each canvas, 2016
My drawings are a chaotic two-dimensional realization of a multi-layered existence between forces seen and unseen. Chaos fills the picture plane. Figures are both part of the landscape and part of other figures. The layers of reality bleed into each other. I ask enigmatic questions. I have been limiting and changing up my pallet. Sometimes I use a black, pink, and white palette (I love the softness of pink with the horrors of black/white). Other times I use red, white, and blue. I have also been drawn to yellow – a color I never favored.
The best part about having a home studio is that I can optimize my creative spaces. I use our shed to hang up large canvases where I can use spray paint and do more action painting in the nicer weather. I also use my backyard as a place to invite other artists to collaborate. Collaboration has always been a practice of mine. I find I am easily stimulated by creating work with others. Just recently I have been collaborating with Andy Heck Boyd, an artist in Exeter, NH. Andy and I have been making art together over the last few years. Just recently Andy shared his studio apartment with me because I wanted to oil paint in his company. I am very stimulated by Andy’s art and loved being in his apartment.. My whole body vibrated from just being in his space surrounded by all his art. Andy is the most prolific artist I have ever met. He makes me look lazy and I am constantly working. Our collaborations over this last month came in the way of conversations and storytelling. Lots of stories shared became the springboard from which my paintings were born. I created about 12 pieces that I call “Painting with Andy”. I have quite a collection of our collaborative work and eventually I’d love an opportunity to exhibit those works. I feel very creative when we work together.
Beth Wittenberg, “Magic Wish”, Acrylic and marker on plastic sheeting, 96″ x 60″, 2017
When I’m not making art I am regenerating my battery with stimuli to get ready to make art. As part of my daily art practice, I go on walks around the neighborhood and throughout my town. As I walk along I take pictures of things that interest me. I also pick up pieces of trash (or treasures?) along the route.
I usually begin to notice things and they start to make sense in my mind. As I’m walking I’m scanning the ground, the road, and my eye dances around to make connections. Sometimes I am drawn to colors and everything I bring home is orange. One day, I saw something half buried in the ground, I kicked it and noticed it had a pointy end. I dug it out of the ground and was thrilled by the object, an arrow-like black metal piece. I also happened to notice the smallest scrap of fabric, an embroidered eye (that’s a keeper). That day I also picked up rope and string and a blue plastic flag on the end of a rusty rod. Those pieces all came together to create a found object assemblage resembling a bird, the metal piece its beak.
Beth Wittenberg, “Untitled Assemblage #7″, found objects, glue, string, 14″ x 6.5”, 2018
When I come home from a walk I document all the old and thrown out bits I have gathered as individual items. I begin by laying out each thing I picked up. I photograph the items first, then as a group: “A walk.” My process is an intuitive one. These sculptures are part of the THROW AWAY PEOPLE series as well. The assemblages are all quite different, there are some made from organic materials like bark and fibers I find, others are rusty scraps of metal, and bits and pieces of plastic, glass, mirrors, ceramics, aluminum. Some of my favorite finds are scraps of toys.
THROW AWAY PEOPLE is what I am working on for the University of Maine Farmington Art Gallery this coming academic year. The gallery is a two story building, and I can’t wait to fill it up with drawings, paintings, and assemblages hung salon style floor to ceiling.
Beth Wittenberg, Installation view, Gallery East, Frederick, MD, 2018 (l) “Reclamation”, Mixed on Canvas, 40″ x 30″,2017 (c) “One Less Than Whole”, Mixed on Canvas, 40″ x 30″, 2017 (r) “Kissie Kiss”, Mixed on Canvas, 40″ x 30″, 2017
Part of being an artist is about finding creative solutions to problems. Being without a studio is a serious problem for any artist, but I am a studio artist who can’t afford a studio outside of my home. I would love to work large, 10 foot canvases – I would love to paint and draw, and contemplate, and hang up multiple pieces and look over my artwork. Most of my artwork is sitting in piles waiting for the space I need to hang it and see more than one piece at a time. Until then, I am tasked with one thing – make art. I am an artist. So, I create.
Beth Wittenberg, (Headshot), Courtesy of Nate Hastings Photography 4077
For 40 years now (1978-2018), I have been writing about art in Maine. Over that time I have been privileged to visit several hundred artists in their studios. Not only did I learn most of what I know about contemporary art from studio visits, but I have come to regard an artist’s studio as a special kind of space, a place of creation, reflection, learning, expression, contemplation and spiritual renewal.
Artists’ studios are among the most human of places I know. I find myself feeling safe and relaxed in these industrious spaces the same way I do in churches, cemeteries, libraries, bookstores and museums. In all these places, one is in touch with generations of living. In a studio, one is also in touch with the immediate, the moment, even the moment before creation.
In the following paragraphs, I propose to reflect on a few of the artist studios that have made an impression on me and to consider some of the things I have learned there.
Studio as time travel
Alfred Chadbourn self-portrait at the easel in his Yarmouth studio
The first studio I visited regularly was Alfred “Chip” Chadbourn’s sky-lit and woodstove-heated space above his garage in Yarmouth. Up the wooden stairs and under the eaves was a little world away from suburbia, a cheerfully cluttered atelier where Chip painted and taught, read, smoked, dreamed and thought. In his “blue de travail” French worker’s jacket, Chip cut a rakish figure as he stood working at his easel, brushing buckets of color and Mediterranean light onto otherwise Maine landscapes.
With his handlebar mustache and European mien, Chip was Central Castings’ vision of an artist. His absorption of the history of art was such that I understood that when he was in his studio he was as much in the company of Bonnard and Vuillard as he was of the occasional visitor from the present.
That was the 1970s. I got this same sense of time travel in 1985 when I visited portrait painters Claude Montgomery and Gardner Cox in their respective studios. Portraiture was a conservative genre even then, so the sense of stepping into the past seemed fitting.
Claude Montgomery’s Georgetown studio was a rustic, smoky space. “Ash and burnt logs spill from the great stone hearth,” I wrote in a Maine Times group portrait of portrait painters. “The walls are cluttered with portraits of friends and family. Books mount to the ceiling a dizzying height away. North light skylight, ocean view picture window. A grand piano and a grand array of artistic impediments – a bouquet of brushes here, Winslow Homer’s old easel there – command the floor.” I’m sure I must have meant “implements” rather than “impediments.”
Gardner Cox was “a portrait artist’s dream.”
“Wavy white hair beneath a blue wool slouch hat, wild, bushy eyebrows above gold-rimmed glasses. Jaunty green bowtie, fire-engine red suspenders, yellow and black checked sports jacket with a red bandanna stuffed casually in the breast pocket. Brooks Brothers bohemian, Boston Brahmin deshabille, an artist and gentleman.”
The colorful Mr. Cox, a North Haven summer resident, painted in a line of descent from John Singer Sargent. His studio was a dingy, cluttered space in Boston’s Fenway Studios, a brick block of 48 studios that is “the oldest continuous artist building in the nation.”
“Thin, gray light streams through the towering windows that overlook the expressway. At either end of the big room stand commissions in progress – a portrait of Tufts University president Jean Mayer and a portrait of Harvard Law School professor Louis Loss. The portraits seem less in the Sargent society tradition than in the more expressionistic vein of Graham Sutherland, one of the last of the great English portraitists.”
Studio as real estate
Fenway Studios was built in 1905 to house artists displaced when another studio building burned. The venerable Copley Society and St. Botolph Club contributed to the civic effort to aid Boston artists. It is rare to find purpose-built art studios these days.
Artists are ever in need of ample and affordable space in which to work. I have often said, only half facetiously, that art in Maine is all about real estate. The first artists came looking for landscapes to paint. Subsequent generations came to escape the city summers and to find cheap places to live and work. As such, all manner of warehouse, office, factory, farm and educational buildings have been repurposed as studio space.
Charlie Hewitt in his Portland studio in the Bakery Studio
One of the most industrious studio buildings in Portland began life as the Calderwood Bakery on Pleasant St. First, Maine College of Art converted it to a printmaking studio and then artists Alison Hildreth and Katarina Weslien purchased it in 1996. Today, the Bakery Studios house the studios not only of Wooly Hildreth and Katarina Weslien, but also those of the Peregrine Press, White Dog Arts and Wolfe Editions, as well an individual artists such as Richard Wilson and Charlie Hewitt.
At one time it seemed to me that Charlie Hewitt had studios up and down the Eastern Seabord from Vinalhaven to Maryland. These days his primary work spaces are in the Bakery Studios in Portland and in a converted garage in Jersey City, New Jersey. Charlie, the most productive artist I know, creates paintings, prints, ceramics and sculpture, all featuring his distinctive expressionist vocabulary inspired by French-Canadian Catholic roots.
One of the things that amazes me about Charlie’s productivity is that he manages to create a large body of work while also managing his real estate holdings in New Jersey. When I first met Charlie in the 1980s, he was living and working in a third-floor loft on the Bowery in New York, derelicts asleep in the doorway, addicts shooting up in the park out back. By the time he left the city some 20 years later, his building housed rock stars and movie directors, and hipster moms had commandeered the park.
That’s the power artists have to transform undesirable neighborhoods, make them desirable and, thus, price themselves out of the market. As Soho became too expensive for all but blue chip artists, working artists like Charlie moved on to Chelsea, Brooklyn and Jersey City. Charlie’s investment in Jersey real estate not only provides some income, it also plays a strategic role in his art career.
“The work gets made in different places and assembles itself here for the New York market,” Charlie said in a phone call from Jersey City. “If I had just the studio in Maine, it would be difficult.”
Studio as mirror of the soul
Over the years I have been impressed by how an artist’s studio often mirrors his/her own persona. Whether Carlo Pittore’s converted chicken barn in Bowdoinham, Richard Estes’ immaculate ballroom studio in Northeast Harbor, Robert Indiana’s Odd Fellows Hall museum of self on Vinalhaven or Neil Welliver’s great barn in Lincolnville, it’s not just the art but the studio that reflects who an artist is.
Wally Warren’s Ripley home and studio is a local landmark
The wondrous home and studio of Wally Warren in rural Ripley, like Bernard “Blackie” Langlais’ art farm in Cushing back in the day, is a total expression of the artist. The yard of this roadside attraction is filled with whirligigs, totems, small boats, arches, and satellite dishes painted like ornamental shields, all in Warren’s palette of bright colors. Inside the home studio there is Warren’s “Cities of Dreams,” miniature urban landscape dioramas fashioned from recycled electronic parts.
Eccentric and exuberant, Wally Warren’s world is a Central Maine landmark.
“It’s kind of the folk art idea of surrounding yourself with color because of the starkness of the environment we live in,” says Wally Warren of his gaudy assemblages of debris. “It’s the joy of just doing it.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is painter Grace DeGennaro’s fastidious studio in the loft of a post-and-beam barn attached to her Yarmouth home. The divine geometry of DeGennaro’s art is all about order, as is her studio. When I stopped by recently, Grace was in the midst of a work-in-progress series inspired by Platonic solids. Her paints were all laid out in chromatic order, surf clam shells for paint containers. I told her I hoped she hadn’t bother to clean up the studio just because I was coming for a visit.
Grace DeGennaro and friend in her Yarmouth studio
“Oh, no, it’s always like this,” Grace assured me. “I can’t work unless everything is in its place.”
Prior to moving into her barn studio five years ago, Grace worked in an even larger space in Brunswick’s Fort Andross Mill Complex on the banks of the Androscoggin River.
Grace DeGennaro’s art – and her studio – are all about order
“I loved working there, but I don’t miss it,” she said. “Working at home, I can climb up here any time of the day or night. My work is closer to me.”
Grace said the only thing she misses about not being in the mill is the sense of community, the sharing of resources and ideas that can take place when artists are housed in the same space.
Studio as the best place to see art
Fort Andross, also known locally as the Cabot Mill, is a 495,000 square foot brick mill complex that at various times manufactured textiles, shoes and brushes. Today, it is lively warren of offices, shops, restaurants and long, sterile hallways that lead to colorful artists’ studios. Among the artists working there most recently are Nick Benfey, John Bisbee, Brad Borthwick, Jim Creighton, John Coleman, Andrew Estey, Tom Flanagan, Cassie Jones, Richard Keen, Josh Mannahan, Elijah Ober, Tessa G. O’Brien, Bronwyn Sale, Emilie Stark-Mennig, Andrea Sulzer and Ian Trask.
Cassie Jones in her studio in the Fort Andross Mill Complex in Brunswick
Cassie Jones’ studio is a long, narrow space with high windows overlooking the Androscoggin. One wall is hung with dozens of recent paintings and constructions in which color, pattern and form seem to work out their own equilibrium. As a young mother of two, Cassie finds she must husband her time in the studio more carefully these days.
“I’m so lucky to get here two and a half days a week,” said Cassie. “It’s a great balance for me. I’m amazed how efficient I can be. I now do in two and a half days what I used to do in four.”
When I tracked down sculptor John Bisbee, he and two studio assistants were busy in the riverside basement hot shop bending his signature nails into a myriad of forms and letters, working feverishly to meet the deadline for his American Steel exhibition at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland this summer. The most important thing I have learned from years of studio visits is that a studio is the best place to see art, right there where it’s created.
John Bisbee and assistants in the hot shop of his Brunswick studio
American Steel, Bisbee’s response to Trump’s America, was an exhibition-in-progress when I visited, some elements completed, others roughed out, the rest to come. As pieces were finished in the basement forge, they were carted in an industrial elevator to the cavernous space Bisbee maintains on an upper floor, a space he shares with several younger artists.
Bisbee’s studio is filled with the earlier work for which he is best known, elegant organic abstractions fashioned from welded nails. But American Steel is a different sort of beast, a kind of socio-political narrative of the decline of American manufacturing and the rise of a phony populism championed by a putative billionaire. The installation features realistic objects – a bathtub with oars, a pistol, a broom – combined with satirical text such as “This is such a witch hunt” and “This arrangement no longer works for us,” all made of nails.
American Steel will fill an entire gallery at CMCA. And when I asked John what having such an expansive studio space to work in meant to him, his terse answer was, “Everything.”
A few days later I got to see Kayla Mohammadi’s Caldbeck Gallery exhibition in its unedited form in the old Bristol schoolhouse where she maintains her Maine studio. Inspired by the title of the film “The Shape of Water,” the paintings take the artist’s distinctive pattern approach to bodies of water, abstracting the landscape through form and color.
Kayla Mohhamadi at work in her Maine studio, a former Bristol schoolhouse
Detail of crayons in Kayla Mohammadi’s studio
Kayla Mohammadi’s Boston studio is in the famed Fenway Studios, as is that of her husband, painter John Walker. When Walker was chair of the graduate program in painting at Boston University, his studio was on the third floor of the former Fuller Cadillac building on Commonwealth Blvd. Since retiring from BU, Walker has spent more and more of his time in the couple’s South Bristol home and has acquired a collection of local buildings – a school, a store, a warehouse, and the former hall of the Improved Order of Red Men – as studio, storage and display space.
John, who was at work on paintings for exhibitions in England when I visited, is very attuned to the special power of an artist’s studio. In fact, photographs of studios figured in his decision to become an artist in the first place.
John Walker’s studio in the former Improved Order of Red Men’s Hall in Bristol
“The thing that did it for me was seeing pictures of artists’ studios, of people working, artists like Pollack and DeKooning working in their studios, all that activity,” said John. “I thought, ‘I want to do that.’”
John Walker agrees that the ideal place to see a painting is where it is created.
John Walker, former head of the painting department at Boston University) in his Maine studio
“I don’t like exhibitions,” he confided. “I feel sad for the pictures in those clean, neutral spaces. They look so lonely hanging there.”
John Walker’s advice to aspiring painters has always been simple and direct.
“You go away and paint some pictures no one has ever seen before,” he tells them, “and then the art world will find you.”
John Walker in his Maine a studio
The studio is central to the art making experience because it is where art is born and where it is most at home. For the artist, it is simultaneously a retreat from the world and the place where he/she engages it most intensely. It is a private place, a work space, a place of research, discovery and, for some, even worship. And that is why it has always seemed to me to be such a privilege to visit one, to get a preview of art-in-progress and of the place and process of creation.
(Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance art writer and political columnist who lives in Brunswick.)
Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape opened at the University of Southern Maine – Lewiston/Auburn Atrium Gallery on March 12, 2018. The exhibition included 70 works of art from 27 artists from across the State of Maine working in a broad range of media. The exhibition was authorized by USM-LA Dean Joyce Gibson. Robyn Holman, the former curator of the Atrium Gallery, was instrumental in helping me create and stage the exhibition. Randy Estes, the facilities manager at USM-LA, oversaw installation. I was responsible for the concept and served as guest curator.
After initial promotion of the exhibition and the opening, during the last weekend of March, I was informed that the University had removed 3 paintings by Maine artist Bruce Habowski from the exhibition. Bruce’s paintings have appeared in a number of respected galleries and museums, including the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and the Portland Museum of Art. The paintings by Bruce submitted and selected for the Industrial Maine exhibition were Maine “urbanscapes”. The paintings were selected because of their strength and appropriateness to the theme.
I was not informed in advance or included in a dialogue about the decision to remove the art before the University took action. In the days and weeks that followed, I learned that the paintings were removed at the direction of University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings. My understanding is that President Cummings chose to remove the paintings based upon a complaint from a member of the community arising out of unlawful sexual contact for which the artist was convicted in 1999 and served a jail sentence. I do not know the specific nature of the complaint to the University, the relationship of the complaining party to the incident or the University, or what steps the University took to investigate and explore alternative courses of action before removing the art.
After speaking with President Cummings and communicating with Robyn Holman, the artist, members of the Union of Maine Visual Artists, and artists participating in the exhibition, I elected not to rehang the exhibit or try to fill the empty spaces where the paintings had hung. I understood that President Cummings had faced a really difficult decision, but felt that rehanging the exhibition would erase the University’s action. Instead, I installed a 3×5 placard in the empty spaces. The placard read:
This painting has been removed by order of the USM President.
-Janice L. Moore, Guest Curator, Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape
On Sunday, May 6, 2018, the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald ran a positive review of the exhibition by Maine art critic Dan Kany, with a companion article on the removal of the art by reporter Bob Keyes. I gave interviews for both the Kany review and the Keyes article, but declined to identify the artist out of respect for his privacy and concern for the victims. My understanding is that the paper identified and disclosed the name of the artist and the nature of the offense because the artist was easily identified from promotional materials for the exhibition and the criminal history was a matter of public record. My understanding is that President Cummings declined to give an interview for the Keyes article, but the University gave a brief statement explaining its action. The Keyes article appeared with a photo of the placard.
Almost immediately after the Kany review and Keyes article appeared in the Portland paper, I began receiving calls and emails from advocacy groups, reporters, attorneys and a number of others defying categorization. The National Coalition against Censorship released a statement opposing the University’s action as censorship. Trolls posted on my social media accounts. In the week that followed, President Cummings gave a number of media interviews defending his decision. He emphasized the nature of the artist’s offense and the University’s obligation to create a safe space for University students passing through the Atrium.
I declined all media requests after the interviews I gave to Dan Kany and Bob Keyes. In my view, the Keyes article had accurately reported the story and any further statements or interviews would only contribute to prolonging a news cycle that might be hurtful to victims, the artist, or the students.
I was unaware that, during this time, in the week following the publication of the Kany review and Keyes article in the Portland paper, the University removed the placards.
Throughout this entire episode, I have struggled with the appropriate, ethical response. While I strongly oppose the University’s unilateral decision to remove the paintings and subsequent removal of the placards without first engaging in any meaningful dialogue around alternatives, I am also very sensitive to the interests of victims, the artists, and the community. I have struggled with a number of questions. Was the victim ever consulted? What was the complaining party hoping to accomplish? What was the actual threat to student well-being? There was nothing on the face of the art that presented a “trigger.” Was the University concerned that a protest by the complaining parties might pose a threat to the emotional safety of University students? If so, was it possible to contain a protest or take other action to address the concerns of the complaining party? Didn’t the public controversy caused by the University’s unilateral removal of the art actually amplify the issue, putting the “triggering” conversation not just in front of all University students, but in front of an even wider audience? Was there a way the interests of the complaining party, the victim, the artist, and the University could be reconciled short of removing the art? Was removing art from a standing exhibition based upon a complaint arising out of the past conduct of the artist actually the best option?
I was confronted, too, with the issue of denying access to the art based on the past behavior of the artist. I wondered about the appropriateness of removing art due to an offense committed by the artist nearly 20 years ago. I am acutely aware of the interests of victims, but how as a society do we ask artists to engage with their communities after they have been convicted and served a sentence? Is it meaningful to talk about rehabilitation? Should artists require the permission and consent of victims to present their art? What about the art itself? Should the community be denied access to art based on the past behavior of artists?
This entire experience raised these and a host of other highly complex issues that extend well beyond this single art exhibition. What are the responsibilities of museums, galleries, and curators with regard to artists who may have engaged in misconduct? What are the responsibilities of critics and teachers? Should curators and gallery owners conduct criminal record checks? Should artists be asked to sign statements attesting to a “clean” history? What counts as an offense that warrants rejection or removal of art? Should we ban the movies of Woody Allen? Take down the Picassos?
I set out as a guest curator to create an exhibit that presented the works of artists who – like me—are making art inspired by Maine’s industrial landscape. In that I think I was successful. Ultimately, I was able to execute an idea and create an exhibition which presented a different view of Maine. Some artists created new work for the exhibition, which was immensely satisfying. I was able to meet and visit some of the artists I knew only by reputation and connect with them. I learned their processes and motivations. I met faculty, staff and students and was immensely grateful for their overwhelmingly positive support. Contemporary Maine art got to exist in a place of learning in a city where industry has been hugely significant for over a century. That was positive.
Bruce Habowski, “Message”, New work in progress, oil on canvas, 30” x 40”, 2017, photo courtesy of the artist
Over the course of the exhibition, I was able to communicate with many of the artists and get their feedback. There was no consensus on the best course of action, but I was able to hear them and to listen. I was also able to turn to the Union of Maine Visual Artists as a valuable resource for advice, opinions, and ideas on individual and collective responses. Our Portland chapter met as a community and discussed many of the potential implications. We were able to do this with care and consideration from multiple perspectives. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t always agree on what an appropriate response should look like, but we were able to talk and explore ideas in real time sitting together around a table. When events seemed overwhelming and I needed help, the UMVA showed up both individually and collectively. This community supported me. I was profoundly moved by this and I am incredibly grateful for it. To be part of a community with a shared passion and to connect and support each other even when our opinions differed is a deeply important and meaningful thing.
In the course of creating an exhibition focused primarily on artistic merit and my own vision around a single theme, I found myself operating in unplanned and seemingly uncharted waters, far from what I wanted or ever set out to do.
I know I have learned from the experience. I hope we all have. I find myself, though, with many more questions than answers. The questions, I think, are ones we are confronting collectively. I’m optimistic, if we approach our challenges as opportunities for meaningful engagement and dialogue, we can work out better answers.