One and All | Collaboration as Dialogue — Bethany Engstrom

Ideas are not real estate. In collaboration one can accept the fact that someone else can be so sympathetic and in tune with what you’re doing, that through this they move into depths that might not be obvious if that person had been working alone in a studio with the door shut. 

-Robert Rauschenberg

We are influenced by everything and everyone around us, nothing happens in a vacuum. In my creative practice as an artist and work as a curator, I truly embrace those influences and welcome the dialogues that result from them. I have been working collaboratively for almost ten years while maintaining my individual practice as an artist. I first worked with a group of artists during a collaborative practices class while completing my MFA in Intermedia at the University of Maine, which then led me to pursue an interdisciplinary PhD in Intermedial Collaborative Practices with two of my collaborators. We refer to ourselves as the Core 5 Incident. We collaborated on all of the course work, the dissertation, and the creative work that resulted from our research. The constant conversation influenced my individual work, primarily installation, which I see as collaborative in nature, interactive with the audience. I seek out other artists and makers to collaborate with as well, to make work with different perspectives.

As a true introvert, I never believed I would embrace collaboration, but l saw what could be accomplished and actualized when everyone had a voice.

Materiality: The Matter of Matter at CMCA, exhibition view, 2017

I see curatorial work as a creative collaborative practice as well. As associate curator at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA), I am fortunate to interact directly with artists every day. CMCA was formed as a collective of artists coming together to show their work and in keeping with that, we emphasize the role the artist plays in what we do. There is constant dialogue with the artists in the development of our exhibitions and programming. For me, the exciting part of working on a show is when the artist takes an active role and the work and exhibition evolve out of our conversations. As an example, this is how last fall’s exhibition, Materiality: The Matter of Matter, developed and formed.

Materiality: The Matter of Matter at CMCA, exhibition view, 2017

Through studio visits and conversations, I saw artists who were exploring their materials in ways that gave them agency, finding a balance between the idea and what it is made of and communicating through the materials themselves. This led to the making of new work for the exhibition, and  exploring existing works that related to these ideas. Such discussions are always inspiring and I love doing studio visits because of that. At CMCA, it is fundamental for us to have these ongoing dialogues with artists, whether they are with artists we know or are meeting for the first time, to be able to have these conversations and see what work is being done now.

Another exciting aspect of Materiality were the dialogues that formed between the artists themselves. A number of the artists had not previously met and were able to connect through being a part of the exhibition. These connections are core to what we do at CMCA, engaging and facilitating the dialogue of contemporary artists in Maine.

John Bisbee – State of the Studio

“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