Cannery Row—A Studio Visit with Ron Crusan by Kathy Weinberg

The crossroads where you make the turn towards Port Clyde is landmarked by the General Henry Knox Museum, a 1929 re-creation of the original 1794 Federal mansion. Its monumental façade comes into view almost simultaneously with the Dragon Cement Company, a large construction of chutes and appendages of the last functioning cement manufacturer in New England. The historic and the industrial languages blend to form an architectural hybrid landscape, suggestive of a Hieronymus Bosch painting or an assemblage constructed of disparate parts. What brought me to this juncture, and through the coastal villages past Tenants Harbor, to Port Clyde, was an invitation from Ron Crusan to visit his studio.

 

Ron Crusan, Painting 2, 30″ x 22”, 2018 Acrylic on paper. photo by the artist.

 

Upon my arrival we began by looking at a stack of paintings on heavily- textured watercolor paper that at first glance resembled etchings. The paintings are built up layers of dark washes with specks of brilliant color revealed in the intertwined black and gray marks. Ron is reading about Richard Serra’s drawing process and thinking about the marks as language. Perhaps it is Crusan’s experience as a museum director that also has him thinking about how to display the paintings. He considers hanging them low and paired towards each other in a corner. He hopes this will encourage an interaction with the viewer, questioning the placement, creating a dialogue, getting people thinking about how an object occupies space. He is thinking about how a work of art becomes a part of the architecture and defines the space around it.

 

Ron Crusan, Studio, work on easel, 2018. photo by K.Weinberg

Crusan has more time now to devote to making, thinking and talking about his artwork. For more than 25 years he was director at several regional museums, most recently the Ogunquit Museum. His move to Port Clyde from Southern Maine last year coincided with his current position as director of Linda Bean’s Maine Wyeth Gallery and collections.

Ron Crusan, Assemblage, 2017-18. photo by the artist.

Inside his home, Crusan’s sculptures and assemblages line the walls of the living room and dining room. He makes freestanding sculpture, and shadow box assemblages from old wood, rough wood, and driftwood, some from old furniture, some painted, and some cut and reassembled. The associations that come to mind are some of the familiar names of 20thcentury modernism. But those are not the first associations that Crusan wants you to have.

Ron Crusan, Assemblage, 2017-18. photo by the artist.

In 1953—the year that Ron Crusan was born—Joseph Cornell made a series of shadow boxes in homage to a collage work, “The Man at the Café,” by the cubist master, Juan Gris. A recent show at the Metropolitan Museum united those works. A pair of west Coast artists, Wallace Berman and George Herms, both contemporaries of Joseph Cornell, worked in a similar vein, as assemblage artists. Cornell feels like a figure from history, his work evokes an earlier era, but he traversed the 20thcentury, spanning the years from 1903-1972, he is on a continuum with George Herms, born in 1935, and who still lives and works in Los Angeles.

One of Crusan’s wall assemblages includes a door handle, another a rusty hinge, a key is inserted into one, while another has a small tin box inset into the wood. They evoke a sense of place. We talk a bit about realism, and what does it actually mean.  Crusan pulls a book on Andrew Wyeth off his shelf. He flips through to the painting “Brown Swiss” and talks about the composition. A barn is on the left side with a partial reflection in a pond below, and the sloping horizontal lines of fields intersect in a myriad of textures in grays and browns.  There are concentrated areas of activity that balance the space. There were windows in the original structure, Crusan said, but Wyeth left them out and so the wall becomes a slab of white. The painting is as much an observational assemblage with an underpinning of abstraction composed by Wyeth, as Crusan’s pieces are abstractions made of actual elements salvaged from a real place and composed in the studio.

Ron Crusan, Assemblage, 2017-18. photo by the artist.

Leaving the more formal rooms in Crusan’s home we enter into his workshop, which resembles a raw materials library. Piles of scrap wood are neatly organized, some are textured, or some with carving and joinery betray a previous function as chair, table, or banister. Stacks of clear storage boxes hold parts and potential projects, sorted by like items, or color. One drawer reveals stacks of old Bingo cards, another is full of Monopoly paraphernalia. One box is filled with yellow pieces of wood, another, orange. Stacks of toy blocks with cowboys, and the corresponding Indians are set up in a still life on the shelf. A ray of sun moved into the upper story window and illuminated the inside of an old doll’s head that sat with a cluster of other dolls on a high perch. “Did you catch that?” asks Ron, and I nod, holding my camera. Lids of Port Clyde sardines tins are stacked like a deck of playing cards, some rusty, some with the logo bright and fresh.

 

Ron Crusan, Studio view, 2018. photo by K.Weinberg

 

The worn blocks and iconic relics say something about the passage of cultural time: like toy diplomats they present a window into what an American childhood once was.

 

Ron Crusan, Studio view, 2018. photo by K.Weinberg

 

We walk through the snow to the two storage sheds behind Crusan’s house. There is evidence of a squirrel that sees the space as a refuge. Nature is at work on the materials, even as Crusan has plans for them as well. The aura of possibilities lingers in the space, open- ended by collecting, and arrangement, bounded only by the limits of the imagination and the changes within the culture itself.

 

David McLaughlin, The Cannery, interior view. photo by J.Ackerman

As I prepare to leave I ask Ron if he knew of the Waldo County sculptor, and welder David McLaughlin. McLaughlin bought, and moved into a defunct factory, known as “The Cannery” in Liberty Maine, in 1972. McLaughlin was an avid salvage collector of scrap materials on an industrial scale, including the eight-foot tall pressure cookers that once processed vegetables in the Cannery, 500 gallons of steel rings, and as a delicate counterpoint, shelves filled with birds’ nests.

David McLaughlin, The Cannery, interior view. photo by J.Ackerman

His assemblages of rusty and rustic constructions evoke a sense of nostalgia, fabricated from articles from the recent past which have never fully become a part of our own times. His estate includes 100 tons of assorted steel, iron and other materials, and is now in the care of Waterfall Arts in Belfast and the Town of Liberty.

 

Ron Crusan, studio view. photo by K.Weinberg

 

Ron is eager to talk about art and to delve beneath the surface. He mentions some of the artists in the area, Jamie Wyeth, Wilder Oakes, and the late Richard Hamilton. Ron talks of future ideas involving all of his Monopoly pieces, arranged, or scattered perhaps, the boards set out on a gallery floor, an invitation to play or to reflect on the game itself.

Ron Crusan, Studio materials, 2018. photo by K.Weinberg

Ron sees me to the door, and then calls me back in with another book in hand to show me an artist in his neighborhood, accomplished painter, and amateur astronomer, Greg Mort. Thumbing through the book, we enter Mort’s world of exquisite still life—delicate arrangements of shells and planets—assemblages of sorts.

Driving away I feel the potential from all those raw materials, seeds of the mind that might come to grow on fertile soil. I think about Ron Crusan reading, and working from the ideas of Richard Serra, making his own response to those works, his steady and patient collecting of objects, and the absorption of culture and ideas—incorporating the past through its marks and materials.

Ron Crusan, Painting 3, 30″ x 22”, 2018 Acrylic on paper. photo by the artist.

The search for ephemera through the chance findings of flea markets perhaps now joins the realm of beat poetry, part of an America that is closer to the world of pre-Interstate highway. Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road was written in the era of the two-lane highway, and published in 1951, two years before Ron Crusan was born, and five years before the Federal Highway Act of 1956.  As I drive home through the networks of coastal and back roads, I think about how this landscape still has much in common with the roads that Kerouac traveled.

 

Ron Crusan, Studio materials, 2018. photo by K.Weinberg

Crossing Bridges

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 officially broke 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.

 

 

Joseph Ascrizzi—In the Garden of Entropy

by Kathy Weinberg

It is fitting, as you drive toward Albion to the town of Freedom, that you must take the slight left fork onto the North Palermo Road—part of Maine’s network of international town names—just the sort of place where an Italian-American from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, like artist Joe Ascrizzi, might settle. On one day that I visited his studios, a statue of the patron saint from and of their family’s hometown of St. Euphemia de Aspramonte in Calabria was on the workbench being restored by Joe, and will later adorn the interior of John’s Ice Cream in Liberty, Maine, owned and operated by his younger brother, John Ascrizzi.

“It’s like something out of 100 Years of Solitude,” says Joe. “My Grandfather went to visit his mother and this statue got passed along.” The statue has been a little battered and at one point repainted badly. Now Joe will to help guide it into the next millennium.

I made the trip one day in late fall to visit Joe at his home and studio. I followed the sound of hammering to the studio to where Joe was shaping a metal top for a box he was making.  To call what he makes a box is to simplify his unique art pieces into their most obvious attribute. These are more  than boxes, they are portable shrines or receptacles for precious objects, consummately crafted, adorned with semi-precious stones, glass melted to resemble tears, or sperm. Carved linen-fold elements are inlaid with bone and brass. These boxes are acts of poetry; some of his boxes have housed manuscripts and books of poetry.

Joseph Ascrizzi, “Manuscript Box,” (14” x 19” x 9”) — 1993, Oak, basswood, lilac wood, granite, moose antler, mother-of-pearl, with drawer. Commissioned by Maine poet, David Walker, to hold his chapbooks and other writings.

“You both do boxes,” renowned Surrealist art dealer and collector, Julian Levy, told Joe one day, years ago, as he compared Joe’s work to Joseph Cornell. Levy was the first to show Cornell, in 1932, at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City. “His are more whimsical,” Levy continued, “and yours are more serious.” Ascrizzi met Levy while Joe was running the business of picture framing at Walter’s Gallery in Woodbury, Conn. Levy came in with a Man Ray to be framed and Joe began working for him. For more than 20 years, Levy was a collector of Joe’s art and commissioned more than a dozen of his box sculptures, some of which were featured in an article on the Levy home, published in Architectural Digest (Aug.1981). Joe’s wife Lynn was pregnant with their son Max while they were house sitting for Levy. There, several months passed in Levy’s art-filled writing studio built by a stream near his home, in Bridgewater, Conn. Levy was in southern France, and Max was named for a Max Ernst artwork that was hanging in the studio.

Joe was included in a group show at Betty Parson’s Gallery in New York City in 1974. This led to a solo show at the New York Cultural center in 1975, and another at Ellen Meyer’s Gallery in New York, in 1977.  “You’re young and you think you’ve made it,” he told me, “and so you say ‘I’m going to move to Maine. And why not, it’s as good a place as any.” By the 1980’s Joe was showing in Maine, at the Farnsworth and other venues, including a 1993 solo exhibit at St.Mary’s College in Maryland. These were heady times for Joe Ascrizzi.

There is a small silence as we both think of youth and the opportunities that once seemed endless, the cold of early November, the pewter sky, both amplify the passage of seasons.  Our conversation turns to physics, specifically particles, and the position of particles, how we are just an arrangement of an arrangement. “There is a word for it,” Joe says, “ ‘Wakan Tanka.’ When the Lakota speak of the Great Mystery, they speak of an abstract force of creation and spirituality, a life force and energy existing in all things.”

 

Joseph Ascrizzi, “Winter of Just So,” (14” x 16 1:2” x 3 3:4”) — 1995. Gouache painting on gesso panel, ebony and mother-of-pearl, shell and amethyst crystals, grapevines, glass and gesso, walnut. In the collection of Jill & Jerry Wichtel.

Joe starts things and finishes things according to an internal rhythm.

A guy came in recently and wanted a fish painted onto a basket, so Joe got out his paints and created one. “I asked him how much he had to spend, and I made him a nice fish, “ says Joe, “and now I started working on some new paintings.” He points over to his easel and paint boxes, neatly arranged, the work highly detailed and well under way. Another painting hanging on the sidewall he says has been there for many years, not yet finished. Yet another is on the workbench, Joe is unsure if it is finished or not, “Who knows where it even comes from?” asks Joe. But he is certain that the painting is a living dream, and that this particular one is one of his favorites.

Joe’s philosophical nature contains humor inside the wisdom. He once told me “You’ve got no car, you’ve got no car troubles. You have a car, you have car troubles.” It is a simple equation that shakes one’s thoughts out of garden-variety complaints. Or his phrase, “Nothing IS forever.” As he says this we laugh like a couple of kids with an inside joke.

We spent some time opening drawers, and looking at raw materials, half-finished, close to complete neatly organized box sections in a room full of drawers and shelves filled with exotic/quixotic wood sections, thorny sections of briar rose stems, deer antlers, shells, metals, semi-precious stones. The multiplicity of materials form a labyrinth. A stack of frames that Joe is working on contains fragments retrieved from the Twin Towers after September 11th. They form an art project that anther artist has envisioned and Joe is helping to bring to life, a wood tower composed of segments that are all framed collages.

Joseph Ascrizzi, “As Time Goes By,” (57” x 42”) — 2006. Large pastel on paper. In the collection of Tony & Jackie Ascrizzi.

There is a book on the table in Joe’s shop by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, who was the head curator of Indian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the 1920’s-40’s. He was instrumental in introducing Indian and Persian arts to the West.

“The main difficulty so far seems to have been that Indian art has been studied so far only by archaeologists. It is not archaeologists, but artists who are the best qualified to judge of the significance of works of art considered as art,” wrote Coomaraswamy. Joe has been reading his writings since he was 19 years old but is conflicted.

“His words are so well wrought, but you can’t entirely agree with him, “ says Ascrizzi. “I believe what he says, for humanities sake, but he’s wrong about some other things, or there are ideas of his that just can’t be squared with our times. So I argue with him!”

“The contentment of innumerable people can be destroyed in a generation by the withering touch of our civilization; the local market is flooded by a production in quantity with which the responsible maker of art cannot compete; the vocational structure of society, with all its guild organization and standards of workmanship, is undermined; the artist is robbed of his art and forced to find himself a “job”; until finally the ancient society is industrialized and reduced to the level of such societies as ours in which business takes precedence over life. Can one wonder that Western nations are feared and hated by other people, not alone for obvious political or economic reasons, but even more profoundly and instinctively for spiritual reasons?”

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art

“I’m talking about something else, but along those lines,” said Joe, “The Greeks had no word for art. Everyone was an artist or called to be an artist, as in someone who tries to make the invisible visible, and bring something forth that has never existed before.” Or, he mentions the medieval society where everyone has their craft and trade. Joe prefers the idea of the guild system to our current gallery and exhibition hall gigantisms’.

Joseph Ascrizzi “Laurel’s Dream,” (11 3-4″ x 16 1-2″ x 3 3-4″) 1993. Carved antler, mother-of-pearl, various sections of shell, crab claw, carved mahogany, walnut. In the collection of Jill & Jerry Wichtel.

Joe works on several things at once so that when the mood strikes him he can pick up or put down a project. When he gets tired of making the fine marks in his paintings, he picks up a mallet and begins to hammer out a sheet of metal into curved form. Then there are also his intricate carvings in pieces of deer antler that become centerpieces for ceremonial necklaces made of bones and stones.

We go into the house for a while and have scones with, and baked by Joe’s wife Lynn.  Some friends drop by to check-in, and his sister–in-law drops by and we discuss the rising tick problem, poetry, and then ordinary matters that are also and most often a part of our daily lives. Lynn shows me their son Max’s paintings, black and white landscapes that are spare, not peopled like Joe’s work and reflect a different age, his own personal challenges and outlook. One of Max’s musical arrangements plays quietly in the background; it is also a form of a landscape, the music like a train journey taken with sound. The title of the piece, “Thank god I’m a bum,” reflects the humor and humility of his father’s philosophy.

Joseph Ascrizzi “Voyage,” ( 14” x 18”) – 2005. Bas-relief with paintings on gesso panel, clay, gold leaf, rose canes and mahogany frame carved and given rubbed casein finish, by the artist. In the collection of the artist.

Leaving the house, and returning to the shop Joe regrets that his shop space is not larger, it is, in fact small. But then, he puts his hand on the back door knob and opens it outwards, “Do you want to see my Garden of Entropy?” Joe asked, smiling and sighing, “I go out and save something from total disintegration and make something with it.” And like a Fairy Tale, we step through a back door, onto a porch full of odds and ends and I see that the workshop we came from is duplicated and multiplied. There, across a clearing is another workshop filled with large, woodworking shop tools and workbenches. Upstairs is LeBouton Studio, operated by Max’s partner, clothing designer, Lisa Dorr.

There are three or more  sheds chock-a-block with spare parts that form a complex and compound of raw materials from floor to ceiling and spilling out into the yards around.

Joe Ascrizzi, carving a rose in the back shop

There is a world of parts and pieces awaiting his creative energy to bring them to life, out of their state of dormancy, and just ahead of their potential to decay. Joe awakens an inner life in dull surfaces, exposing the true colors of wood grain, stone’s inner fires, the secret dreams of metal.

The first time I visited Joe and Lynn Ascrizzi a customer came, a man who had an antique table that Joe was working on.
“I have to see a man about a table,” Joe said heading to his workshop.
My husband and I went with Lynn to view her gardens before settling on their side porch while Joe saw to the client.
“My gardens are my art,” said Lynn, and like any true gardener went through a litany of the pests and challenges that besiege her garden world. All around I saw healthy plants and tall lilies in bloom, but like an artist, Lynn sees what more there can be even while presenting a vision of beauty.

We sat on the porch in the wicker and cushioned chairs and realized that the sidewalls of the porch were made of string trellises and the vines of scarlet runner beans. The small, bright red flowers added highlights, accents, and the long pods hung down around the heart-shaped leaves like a Tiffany design. We talked about Lynn’s writing. She wrote a weekly, syndicated, reader-response column called Dreams, which included Jungian interpretations of our collective dreaming mind. She also wrote art-related and other cultural articles, when for many years, she was lifestyle editor and feature writer for the Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal. Now, she freelances for environmental and trade publications.

We sat talking on the porch and the afternoon faded. When the customer left we said our goodbyes and reluctantly drove away.
Now I sit with the November winds blowing in practice for the winter ahead.

I saw Joe last night and he was thinking that he wasn’t ready yet for the winter. We agreed that the South held a special appeal this year; perhaps a visit to a friend in Mexico was in order? Or perhaps he will dream through the winter with visions of Mexico and travel into his projects to uncharted galaxies. Joe has a box of glass beads that resembles a universe and he uses them in the background of his assembled and collaged paintings as stand-ins for the stars.

If I had a box like the boxes that Joe makes, in it I would put the seeds from Lynn’s scarlet runner beans, which are now in a bag on my bookcase. In that box would be the mothers of all of summers. Inside each seed the potential for an endless afternoon on that porch, with a book from the neat stack on the table, and the scent of Casa Blanca lilies mingling with the fading afternoon light.

 

“The Water Curtain Cave,” by Joseph Ascrizzi, (8 feet high x 5 feet wide) — 1991. A freestanding sculpture that hides a secretary.
Exterior view with four carved, gessoed, gold-leafed tamboured door inlaid with glass and yellow pine driftwood root that surrounds central male and female figures. Rolling open the four, carved tambour panels transforms the
sculpture into a writing center with pullout worktable and storage space.
All four doors are gessoed and details are gold leafed. Rest of surface is coated with up to 17 layers of pigmented casein and rabbit skin glue size to build up depth of color. The tambour mechanism allows each of the four doors to be rolled back independently on three tracks of black oak. Each of the door’s carved slats is attached to adjacent slats with a piano hinge, and the slat is held to the tracks, above and below, by rock maple pins. The weight of each door assembly is carried by steel bearings, which ride atop one of the tracks. Diverse woods used: spalted-maple side panels; yellow birch
frames, rear panels and shelves; native Maine cherry crown; red oak desktop and drawer sides; corner posts of white oak with zebrawood accents; drawer front of elm rimmed with hornbeam. Teak pulls are inlaid with abalone shell. Desktop has a leather
insert and pulls out to create writing surface with a bank of 10 drawers. Commissioned by Robert Jackman of NYC and featured in Fine Woodworking Magazine (“A sculpture with a secret,” Oct. 1992).
The Water Curtain Cave, by Joseph Ascrizzi, (8 feet high x 5 feet wide) — 1991. Open, interior view.

Hell’s Gate Illuminated: A Tribute to Paul Oberst by Kathy Weinberg

above: Paul Oberst, Studio shot

When people talk about tragic events they often start with where they were and what they were doing as if by introducing the mundane back-story one could perform some crude magic and reverse the outcome. What this does is illustrate how our pact with the continuity of things has been ruptured and forever altered.

We follow our trail of breadcrumb memories, back to the time before.

I was on my couch when I heard the election results. The night before I went to bed with the stock market crashing, globally, and an electoral map turning red, like a wound, across the country.

One month later I drove into Manhattan at sunset with my husband. An oppressive, solid, cloudbank was low in the sky. Stopped in a long chain of traffic, we sat while the sun edged through from under the clouds. The city was backlit, darkened, and the low angle of the orange sun made harsh silhouettes out of the rows of cars, metal shells—the shadows between objects were like chasms. Looking to our left, there on the Major Deegan Expressway, Hell’s Gate Bridge was illuminated and glowing against the grey black world around. “An Apocalyptic sunset,” we agreed.

Did I remember then how the morning began when the handle on a full cup of coffee broke just as I handed it to my husband? Or did I remember that later, when all things became signs and portents.

Paul Oberst, Installation

That same night, just before midnight, an old friend had just left after a long dinner. My husband checked his phone because a call came through during the meal. We were sleepy, happy, tipsy—in good spirits. He listened to the message. “Its Simone,” he said and we both looked puzzled, she did not usually contact us. Our relationship to her was with, and through, Paul Oberst—Simone was Paul’s former wife, current friend, partner and collaborator. “She said to call as soon as I got this message,” he said, “is it too late?”

It was too late. We have never called anyone at midnight. But sensing, already, that this was not a usual call, without hesitation, I said no, it was not too late. I never say that. We were less sleepy, less tipsy.

What follows are images, both of us pacing, my husband just holding the phone, not speaking, then sitting down on the edge of the bed, silent and listening to the voice on the other end. “What is it?” I mouthed at him. “The worst,” he mouthed back, and kept listening, his eyes had the same look as on the day he saw the World Trade Center hit by the second plane, and then both towers crumble, from our rooftop, less than a half mile away.

Even then I did not know what I believed the worst to be. A dark road, a deer leaping flashed through my mind. A state of profound ignorance enveloped me. A few moments later I mouthed, “An accident?” now wide-awake and sober. He made one gesture that said it all, a common gesture children use: an extended thumb and forefinger pointed at his temple. It was no accident, and it was irrevocable.

Did I sleep or just lie in bed drifting in fragmented thoughts? The next morning I began to look through my correspondence with Paul, wondering what our last conversations had been, what had we been saying, were there signs? Certainly signs could now be seen in retrospect, signs that were obscured by the light of reason and belief in positive solutions to everyday or unexpected problems. And always, always assuming that despair was not an option.

I began slowly at first, and then methodically, to compile my email exchanges with Paul into a document. Starting at the beginning, following many twists of threads and tangents often several threads at a time. Over the course of hours, then days, I transcribed an 800-page document that spanned four years. My husband has a similar collection. During those years we also regularly shared studio visits and meals where we talked and carried on the conversations in person. Our correspondence covered a range of topics and moods from thoughtful and philosophical to silly, from analytic to bitchy, sometimes gossip, often poetic, ending days before my friend killed himself, and just as I arrived in New York.

Paul Oberst, studio

What does this number, 800, mean to me in an age where numbers work at cross-purposes—Popular Vote vs. Electoral College? Paul had friends he had known for thirty years, or fifteen, one friend never met him but exchanged a meaningful note that moved her. And then there is his artwork, compiled and filling a measured space in the new studio he was building. His recent video had him measuring a section of beach. Numbers represent a need repeated, like three meals a day, or two aspirin.

To me the numbers meant continuity. Daily, and often several times daily, our emails exchanges became a voice narrating our lives. Paul, being a few years older, often took on a role of older brother, sage advisor and flat-out cheerleader. My correspondence with Paul continues now in my head, some days narrating events, describing an exhibit, something I read, or a fleeting thought. And times all I can say is “Dear Paul,” followed by a long silence, concluding with “Love Kathy.” Sometimes I repeat these lines, over and over, like a mantra.

Paul Oberst

We do not know what the next four years will bring. Hunter S. Thompson killed himself at the start of the second Bush term; despair set in even when his voice would have been helpful to counter what was to come. Paul’s abrupt departure took some of the light out of the room at a time when we feel dark forces gathering. Will I look back to the events of this time and read them like tea leaves, an oracle, as a prophecy? Whatever is to come, I will always look back on this moment in time as silhouetted by a late fall sunset, not shedding light, but casting darkness and deepening shadow. A time when Hell’s Gate was illuminated.

Paul Oberst, studio

 

Letters and fragments

from Paul Oberst to Kathy Weinberg

October 25, 2016

Sure is gorgeous at this moment with this sunrise. I just walked down the drive to appreciate my humongous pile of firewood. I can’t believe I have done that in such order. My peacock tail was in full display as I walked by it and picked up a stray stick to throw in the stove, which is stoked and running at this very moment. Life is good and graceful at this very moment.

Have a lovely day creating and being.

Paulo

February14, 2016

As for success, I was most successful as a child. All I really want and need to do is play like that and all is fine, and I do that at times and am going to work a lot harder at it from now on out. I think our culture is insane and at times I think somehow I am supposed to heal it. That is not possible. I can do a little counseling, I can be a shaman in the studio, and I can hang with my buds tearing it all asunder over a meal and drinks. And you know what. That is mighty fine my dear. Chin up. P

January 25, 2016

I’m caught in these streams of thought that are along the lines of, “Now why is it that this really matters?” I look around and for the most part I have rather efficiently organized my life and creations. Again the question is raised “Why?” It only matters if I am inspired. And I have been so inspired in this life. But I have learned not to avoid this current form of questioning knowing full well that such matters are best penetrated and explored fully.

L, P

May 29, 2015

Dear Kathy, You know, no matter how hard one works in an alternative way to one’s nature, the truth of one’s nature always comes through. I have always been drawn to black and to the mysterious. Death has always been fascinating to me. Even though I do banded poles of lovely colors, they suggest passage…passage to what, through what. The answer, LIFE. Back to the mystery, back to black. I take a set of dice and photograph them…dice, game! Light subject! Wrong! Luck. Death. Life.

I swear. It is insane. Kathy, when the dice are blown up…any of the out of focus images, the resulting mist of jet sprayed fine ink is so gorgeous my jaw drops…if only Seurat could have seen this printing…he would have stopped painting.

What a stunning day! Peggy Lee is in the background singing, but I can hardly hear her today.   Paulo

May 27, 2015

Art is so damned hard. It is exactly like life. And at times it is so flawlessly graceful. Remember the Barnes Collection tour. Imagine the struggles that went into the creation of all those works. Imagine the struggles to exhibit it all! Sobering. It is like walking this warrior’s path of heart. Not for the faint of heart. But, there is no choice.

Paulo

May 26 2015

There is a song by Peggy Lee that goes “Is that all there is to—“. And it goes from her childhood up to her mature years and then reflection on life at the very end. Is that all there is to a circus, is that all there is to life, etc. So, Simone and I call such days as today, “A Peggy Lee Day.” … It is irrational, art. IT defies logic. I defy logic.

December 13, 2014

Kathy my dear, one could argue that I am an arrogant son of bitch about my art….and the art of my friends. I just feel that what we are doing is sacred work, pure and simple. As long as it is sacred and speaks to the great and noble longings of humanity and creation, then the art world can kiss my scrawny ass. Their loss…surely not mine because I am making the shit no matter what. Sacred Shit. We make this shit because it brings balance to the world because creation deems it necessary to do so because it is the nature of our nature in resonance with nature.

July 9, 2013

Okay the gardens are now in peak performance…the fireworks of plant blossoms…the Day Lilies and the lavender spiked native Maine flowers and Black Eyed Susan. The Hosta is starting to bloom and so much more. The day lily are over 5 feet tall and each year get taller. The last picture is taken from the enclosed porch above the entrance door. Eventually the garden may all displace me.

Paulo

December 12, 2013– Part of a poem, in a letter

Most appreciative

I am most appreciative of the moments

(I was going to say time

but it wasn’t time.

Such events are moments

we string together like beads on a rosary.)

Such moments are prayer.

Sunset, December 2, 2016

 

Paul Oberst
January 11, 1955 – December 2, 2016