Véronique Plesch – Introduction
Where Are We? You Are Here/Now: with this title, we invited our members to reflect upon the present situation, of how they are taking stock of the momentous events of these past months, while continuing to create art. We also simply wanted to ask: “how are you?”
In our last issue, we heard from a record number of contributors who affirmed the role of Art in a Time of Pandemic and Quarantine. Did we suspect that, as we would be wrapping up the Fall issue, the pandemic would still be raging, with some countries facing a second wave and the death toll here in the United States continuing its dizzying ascent? The pandemic was accompanied by other calamitous events, such as an economic downturn that has been compared to the Crash of 1929 and unemployment reaching levels unseen since the Great Depression. The profound and violent unrest that followed the death of George Floyd was immediately compared to the race riots of the sixties. And of course, the pandemic itself drew comparisons to the Spanish Influenza of 1918. It seems indeed that as we try to come to terms with our present, the reference to the past is inescapable. Our title nevertheless pulls us back to the present but as we state: “You are Here/Now,” we also suggest that space and time are at the heart of our experience.
It all started with a pandemic that affected every corner of the globe but that forced us to stay put in one spot. The news that reached us came from places, often geographically distant, but that felt closer than ever (maybe because we are all threatened by the same virus, no matter where we are). We witnessed first-hand—as if we were there—the brutal killing of George Floyd and the devastating and endless fires on the West coast. In fact, the smoke was felt in our usually limpid Maine skies.
In the spring, the pandemic taught us to deal with uncertainty, but now, about six months later, the future seems more inauspicious than ever as we face a presidential election that follows years of growing polarization. Many of our contributors evoke our altered relationship to the future and, in the face of cataclysmic events, a wide range of reactions, all of them intense but also often conflicting. As a practicing psychotherapist, Linda Gerson is well placed to understand this as she evokes “the roller coaster of inner peace entwined with worry about loved ones and the world” that she faces and that informs her paintings.
Our poetry section illustrates this. In one of Estha Weiner’s poems, Betsy Sholl sees “the weight of social isolation” while in another one, opposites—the positive and the negative, the ideal beauty of Monet’s waterlilies and the squalor of Lautrec’s Montmartre—meet. Uncertainty and even anxiety are featured in Linda Aldrich’s prose poem, which contains a list of worries, a recapitulation of all we’ve lived through in the past months. Many contributors provide similar lists, for instance C E Morse, who, to accompany his photographs mentions the “turbulent” emotions of “despair, apprehension, hope, and confusion” or Mark Nelsen, who explains that his paintings address “environmental, political, social, and health systems all in crisis.” Among the emotions brought by the confinement is also a deep sense of nostalgia. Ruth Sylmor’s images of Venice take on a new meaning in a time when travel is not possible. And Laura Waller declares: “I paint what I miss”—peoples, places, and activities now out-of-reach. Amy Bellezza evokes the temptation to break the rules of social isolation and the obsession with tracking the progress of the disease with numbers—and the risks such data present.
So, how to manage? How to go through what Ann Tracy calls a “storm” and through which she hopes we can dance? The fluidity that Harold Garde imparts to his paintings could be a metaphor for the demands the situation has put on us, requiring us to go with the flow and accept uncertainty. (Harold Garde’s Maine Masters film and a few other in the series will be screened online this fall, free of charge to UMVA members; see the announcement) Art could offer “a respite,” as John Stomer puts it, who goes so far as to embrace the old-fashioned concept of “art for art’s sake”! Brita Holmquist evokes the distress brought by the news, noting how it keeps getting worse but how painting became a refuge “better … than meditation, painting focuses my brain to emptiness.” Art could even act as potent means to make sense of life. Hank Brusselback explains how his artist’s books offer a place to gather disparate fragments—life’s flotsam and jetsam—that can be transmuted into “a tidy little book.” And how, asks Sean Hasey, who reflects upon the issue of uncertainty in the face of injustice, should we fight?
Sheltering-in-place can be an opportunity for contemplation, stasis an invitation to turn inward, to seek self-awareness. For Stu Kestenbaum, it is the realization that his front porch is a place that brings solace and one in which he can trace the passing of time as he observes the position of the sun and its movement across the sky over the course of the year, noting the equinoxes and the seasons’ effect on the landscape. Kestenbaum reminds us of how fortunate we are in Maine and of the appeasing effect of living close to nature. As he meditates upon the phrase “to take your breath away,” he hints at the paradox of life’s true appreciation that lies in the awareness of our finitude.
For Leon Benn as well, as for many others in this issue, nature offers a respite in this time of turmoil. Carl Little reviews a recent exhibition of Benn’s exuberantly colored landscapes, executed by blending a variety of materials. Remarkably, these depictions, which always indicate with botanical precision the plants they feature, were made around Portland (some elements of the urban setting make cameo appearances, photo-bombing the portraits of trees and shrubs). Indeed, with their expansive extroversion the plants appear to Benn “boundless and unaware of the surrounding chaos of humanity, their political and cultural wars, yet so present at the same time.” In the end, the context colors Benn’s dynamic, expressive, and joyful pictorial practice, for it is also “a kind of call to action” in the face of climate change.
For many, lockdown meant staying at home, but for Dan Kany, it was far from home. Place is central to his piece, in which he recounts relocating to Saudi Arabia for what at first seemed like a splendid new adventure—until the pandemic hit. Just as others note in this issue, the pandemic spurred creativity and he reconnected with painting, exploring medium and style. Kany concludes: “Modernism creates a dialectic between the there-and-then and the here-and-now. And that is who we are. That is culture and how it works. That is memory, emotion, and their mediating factor: self-awareness.”
Like others, Kenny Cole found out that the virus led him to “slow down and turn inward.” Not surprisingly then, as he discusses the issue of truth in political discourse and the role of art in the face of helplessness, he structures his essay like a diary (hence his subtitle “A Chronological Self-Reflection”). Written over two successive days in July, each entry is introduced by the recurring “The virus surges”—the repetition evoking our constant checking of the figures documenting the progress of the disease. The present tense of that leitmotiv is followed by the past tense of his recollecting past events and the art created in response to them (reproduced in his essay). This retrospective look ties past and present and might even suggest forerunners for the alarming erosion of fundamental values we are experiencing.
On the occasion of her retrospective in Portland last spring, Abby Shahn talked with Véronique Plesch and looked back to her career while discussing the works in the show. In particular, when evoking her move to Maine 50 years ago, she noted the similarities with today. Similarly, Al Crichton goes back in time, as he looks at a 2010 issue of Aperture magazine, remarking that “so little has changed, and so much has worsened,” noting the attacks on such fundamental institutions as the “Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights” and, ultimately, democracy. Have we arrived nowhere as Crichton suggests? In the face of the loss of fundamental principles Crichton nevertheless affirms his belief in the “the transformative power of Art.”
James Boorstein, asks “What is real now?” and in the context of the present uncertainty, calls for being still and looking around. The body of work he shares with us consists of photos and diary entries, which document life in Manhattan in the spring and summer of 2020, and offer a meditation on the impact of the pandemic on life and also, as we can surmise from boarded up storefronts, of social unrest. Boorstein sees this meditation as a mirror of sorts, able to disrupt the distressing situation while “providing a chance to see ourselves.”
Kathy Weinberg evokes the perception of time during the quarantine and the resulting strategies to deal with the temporal disorientation we experience, for instance keeping diaries—as we saw Boorstein do. Boorstein appears in Weinberg’s essay, along with other artists (Steve Mumford, Jeffrey Ackerman, Marina Epstein, Benjamin Davis) with whom she’s in regular touch or follows on social media. She includes excerpts from their writing, which act as signposts or even anchors in her attempt at solidifying the elusive and distended time and events during quarantine and coming to terms with the traumatic disruption. For Eva Rose Goetz as well, after “the world had stopped” in March, journaling—but for her in the practice of painting—offered both a “coping mechanism” and a way to process the many emotions she experienced. The body of work Lin Lisberger created in the past months also takes the form of a diary of sorts, a collection of moments to get a hold on time. The quarantine allowed her to take long walks with her husband, photographing “lots of places,” which she painted on scraps of wood in an activity she calls “a meditation of sorts.” The small pictures were then attached together like a quilt that she draped over a chair (another series deals with the very topical issue of racial injustice).
The contemplation brought by the lockdown leads many of our contributors to look back, perhaps to further draw lessons from the past in order to handle the challenges of the present. Like others in this issue, Hank Brusselback evokes a before and an after. He explains that although a profound outrage in the face of injustice was already there, the recent events magnified such feelings (he talks about “rage, frustration, and sadness”). Brusselback wonders how one should respond to these events and deal with fear. His answer consists in a set of political posters for the collaborative project Plaster the Walls that mobilized artists from around the country.
Although Kenny Cole saw in Maine “an island of calm and measured reason,” Maggie Libby reminds us that a genealogy of strife lies under the surface, in the depths of history. Some of Libby’s recent body of work constitutes a visual “Land Acknowledgement,” recognizing that we occupy an area that was part of the Wabanaki confederacy. From this admission, Libby moves to questioning biases and blind spots to the roots of present-day inequities and suffering. She offers work in her distinctive luscious style that addresses pressing issues. Many of these pieces blend different pictorial media and disclose the pictorial process (at times including actual tools), which becomes a metaphor for the damage done to the environment. Her record of artistic activity becomes a call to action.
Lesia Sochor has been working on a series entitled Repair for a couple of years, but as the pandemic exacerbated injustice and inequalities, her art took a more urgent and political tone. Using ripped jeans, she explores the state of the country and of the world with imagery that involves fraying but also mending and stitching as a call to action. Her work also takes stock of the personal impact of the pandemic, of the sense of vulnerability, isolation, and even fear that she experienced. A further dimension is added as the individual works are assembled into a quilt of sorts, a polyphonic ensemble bearing witness to the plurality of voices and issues that have surrounded us in the past months while also suggesting the need to come together.
The sense of isolation mentioned and experienced by Sochor is at the heart of Paul Heroux’s Forlorn Figures ceramic pieces (“folded vases” and boxes). In a fascinating and original process that involves photographic decals fired into a seductively reflective metallic glaze (“I want my viewers to first be delighted”), Heroux combines silhouettes (often of friends), elements of landscape, and the coronavirus (he notes how, unlike in previous pandemics, the image of the virus is present in our consciousness—this is an enemy that has a face).
The belief that in these difficult and conflict-ridden times art has an important mission is embodied by the exhibition Feminist Art in the Trump Era. Lucy Lippard selected 26 artists, whose works were reproduced and glued to the outside of a van that traveled throughout New Mexico, thus reaching an audience well beyond the confines of the art world. That this show intends to play a role in the current political climate is made clear by the fact that the van will continue traveling until the election. A recent attack on the van is a poignant reminder of the current polarization, violence, and loss of the potential for dialogue.
But our contributors do not give up: Bridget Matros sees 2020 as “Creativity’s Big Moment.” She looks at the positive side of the pandemic and how change breeds creativity, listing examples of innovative approaches to the crisis. Creativity has affected regular folk, not just artists and for Matros, there are lessons to be learned in recognizing the qualities that adapting to the crisis has revealed, such as flexibility, capacity for vision, thinking outside of the box, problem solving, critical thinking, persistence, the willingness to seek modes of self-expression outside of our comfort zone—in other words, courage and intrepidity in the face of change.
How to negotiate contradictions, in particular when they involve bias? Jane Bianco writes about the late 18th- early 19th-century Blue Hill minister, author, and illustrator, Jonathan Fisher and his book Scripture Animals and, in particular about his assessment of the Penobscot. Bianco engages with the contradictions and the challenges such an author presents. Many of Fisher’s ideas, opinions, and beliefs are indeed groundbreaking and commendable but how to deal with his racist views affirming European superiority? Although Bianco explains that she seeks “to understand historical figures in light of their times” she nevertheless points to “a flaw in [Fisher’s] humanitarian spirit.”
The call to action present in so many of the contributions to this issue is of course central to ARRT! and LumenARRT!. In past months, both have focused their energies on the coming election and in particular “voting rights, access to voting, and safe voting by mail,” producing yard signs, posters, and projections. You can read about these initiatives and see examples of their work, and also find out about LumenARRT!’s contribution to the current debate over monuments.
Reflecting on a career: that’s what the Maine Masters documentary film series offers. In this issue, Richard Kane remembers the genesis of the project 21 years ago, and the impetus of Rob Shetterly, whose turn it is now to be celebrated in such a movie (Truth Tellers: On the Road with Rob Shetterly). Shetterly’s paintings of Americans Who Tell the Truth are more relevant than ever, as they aim at capturing “the essence and future of American democracy”—we desperately need these “Models of Courageous Citizenship.” Kane adds that “the people who inspire Rob’s portraits also inspire him to take action” and lists some of the many causes he has embraced and championed.
You can also read about the forthcoming film in the Maine Masters series, Natasha Mayers: An Un-Still Life. Watch a teaser and find out how you help filmmakers Anita Clearfield and Geoffrey Leighton as they start distributing the film.
Among our usual features, we have Pat and Tony Owen’s mining of our archives. They too take stock of the passing of time. They go back to 1975, to the founding of the UMVA 45 years ago and, as they compare then to now, write: “Now, right here in 2020, things don’t look much better” but still, they also recognize what has been accomplished, noting “how influential the Union was in getting important legislation passed.”
Despite the pandemic and while practicing safe distancing the Portland chapter of the UMVA has been active and you can read about their news. Indeed, digital media are more than ever indispensable to stay connected and to maintain a sense of community, so send in images of your work to the UMVA website (see the guidelines).
This issue shows the resiliency of our community, proving, once more, that art fulfills fundamental functions, whether we turn inwards to pause and reflect or outwards and act upon the world. In other words, it anchors us in the here and now.
At top: Cover MAJ Fall 2020. Cover art: Lesia Sochor, The World, wax sticks, watercolor, and gouache, 10 x 10 in., 2020.