Insight/Incite — Shared Language: Art and Process (a Cony High School Art Journey) by Jason Morgan

          After 7 years at Cony High School in Augusta, Maine, I have seen many images in sketchbooks and studio projects that give unique perspectives into students’ personal lives. These images open discussions that go beyond technical skills and knowledge. It’s the humanistic side of teaching that helps to foster them and helps us to carefully listen. In the last five to six years, Middle Eastern refugee students have arrived in Augusta, which has helped globalize our classrooms and given a perspective on life beyond Maine, of students who have endured upheaval of their families’ lives beyond what we can imagine. Luckily I had two advisees who helped me navigate my understanding of Iraqi culture and customs, as well as the Muslim religion.

Fatimah Halwah, “I Am From Love”, mixed media collage, 16×20 photo: Jason Morgan

There were many opportunities to have these conversations with students whose families had to escape from war and terrorism in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, as well as families from Puerto Rico who suffered from the hands of Hurricane Maria. 

My first insight came from a Syrian refugee brother and sister who migrated from Arizona to Augusta. Their lives shaped a story of hardship and sadness. They asked for a sketchbook for their talented older sister.   Not only had the brother and sister proved themselves to be motivated and expressive art students in their own right, but it became apparent that it ran in their family.  I was excited to see their sister’s work which they shared a few days later.

“Art is the gateway to help immerse English Language Learners (ELL) into the regular classrooms”, stated Helen Renko from Cony High School Guidance Department.

I support this statement. The “gateway” is in the form of a universal, visual language, which provides opportunities to learn about refugee students and their background– from the displacement from their homeland to arrival in Augusta, Maine.  Their verbal language skills varied from limited conversation to a well-developed grasp of English.  But most of the conversations and expressions came through their artwork.


Ayat Al Jamali, “My Grandma”, colored pencil on Artagain paper, 11×17 photo: Jason Morgan

Their pride and identity with their home country came through often in student sketchbook assignments.   Iraqi and Syrian flags appeared frequently, along with drawings or symbols about their families left behind in the brutal wars and conflicts.  In “I Am From”, a poetry/collage project, the aforementioned brother and sister poured out their emotions through few English words and images of a small boy washed ashore (Aylan Kurdi). This photographic image, sketched and photocopied from his sketchbook, is burned into our global mind.

A personal connection to these horrible tragedies in the conflicts in Iraq and  Syrian Civil War becomes less about news we read or listen to in a desensitized way and more about the students in my own classroom that have been affected directly, who tell their stories of unspeakable deaths in their families and the severe beatings of  neighbors.

Momo Halwah, “I Am From Syria”, mixed media collage, 16×20 photo: Jason Morgan

The Resiliency Project is an idea that was spurred by my refugee students and students who have faced, or still face, adversity, but still arrive at school every day, participating and coping in a teenager’s daily life. 

Despite experiencing the most extreme adverse conditions, refugee students have a very respectful demeanor and exude an excitement to be in a safe and accepting place. 

The Resiliency Project’s intent is to put a face on our school community and develop sensitivity to these adverse conditions which refugee students and families have endured, and students who suffer from mental conditions that sometimes make the most mundane challenges monumental. To create a community identity for groups of people that may not have understood or heard their stories, a project was designed and developed by Susan Bickford from University of Maine and Maine College of Art, with the focus on the collaborative process between the subject, photographer, student artists, and the audience. Collaboration for the Resiliency Project began with refugee student volunteers and Doug Van Kampen, a local professional photographer from Brunswick who is “married into” our Cony community.  He volunteered his time to this project that just recently made its first gallery debut in November, in the Harlow Gallery exhibition, Immigration: Home Lost, Home Found.

ARRT! Collaboration Immigration Banner” photo: Natasha Mayers

This past November four students joined me on a project with Artists’ Rapid Response Team! (ARRT!), a non-profit organization that collaborates on social-political issues such as immigration, to create a banner for Harlow Gallery’s Immigration: Home Lost, Home Found exhibition.  The design process, led by Natasha Mayers and the team of ARRTists, explored the theme of “home lost, home found”.    Two students, Rafeef and Zeina Ahmed, told their story of displacement and travels from one temporary home to another, to their settling in their new home of Augusta, Maine.  Stories of escape from violence and oppression, and leaving family produced visual images of destruction of their homelands and the rebirth of a new life in the United States.  One question Natasha posed was, “What did you carry with you when you left your home?”  Answers ranged from the clothes on their back to a family heirloom– a teapot and cups. This process was powerful as these images appeared in their work, along with destroyed buildings, a bridge, and Maine’s Capitol.  From start to finish, Zeina held fast to the ARRT! process and finished the banner.  It hangs with pride in the Harlow Gallery.

“Zeina Ahmad: Cony/ARRT! Immigration Harlow Opening”, mixed media collage, 16×20 photo: Jason Morgan

This fall, I was able to visit an exhibition of Bassam Khabieh’s work at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.  He is a Syrian photojournalist who has captured the last 7 years of the Syrian Civil War and multiple acts of cruelty against humankind on the sensor of his camera. This exhibit brought my experience together, teaching a new course (UMA/ Cony dual-enrollment digital photography) and working with refugee students, telling stories first hand through the power of visual imagery. This re-sensitized me to situations in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Puerto Rico. I felt I needed to share Bassam’s work with the Augusta community to help visually reinforce the stories that our own community has been sharing for years.


Bassam Khabieh, A Syria Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria, January 6”, 2018 REUTERS/ 

In hindsight, I feel honored and privileged to have had the experience of working with refugee students (“New Mainers”, as the Capital Area New Mainers Project refers to our new families),  and sharing conversations through broken English and  the common language of visual art. It has helped me expand my cultural understanding of a culture so often under attack. We share many beliefs in common, and we must take care of each other with love and respect no matter our misunderstanding and construed truths. This is what art and art education continue to teach me everyday.

By Jason Morgan, Cony High School Art Department Head and ASD Art Coordinator

Abby Shahn and Mark Melnicove — Dialogue

Abby Shahn, Grudge-Holding Ghosts Have Traveled

 

Grudge-holding ghosts have traveled 

Grudge-holding ghosts have traveled great distances

to your funeral, but you were cremated years ago.

Why are they still obsessed with marking your death,

rubbing it in as if you were sand underfoot?

Have they no other grains to harvest?

They dress in red shifts to reinforce

their message that blood is meant to be drained,

and fire does not warm.

It burns.

Those clothes you left behind, which they weave

in and out of like moths, contain none of your wisdom,

none of our loss.

 

Abby Shahn, Wall Hangings Are Streaked

 

Wall hangings are streaked

 

Wall hangings are streaked with spirits not stuck

to threads so much as they are threads themselves.

Immune to spot removers, the pneumas

need not be scrubbed nor feared.

Without them life would untether from earth,

become just another fallen star.

With them in the warp and woof,

quintessence is grounded, not betrayed.

See their visions in every seam;

no need to doubt if they are true—

art reveals spirits on the move.

 

Abby Shahn, If Not For Time

 

If not for time

 

If not for time, everything would make sense.

We could speak into the void and not wait to hear

what we meant, nail down where we are and not be

flushed into oblivion, but fulfill our dreams and not want.

But that is not how it is.

Unfulfilled ghosts think we are lucky because we get

to experience impermanence, while they never pass away.

Dexterous inside black holes and the empty

spaces of atoms, those ghosts can never be destroyed.

They always are who they were, not knowing what it is like

to live in the present, cherish a swim, hear the call of the loon,

touch the side of a loved one as it is happening.

From their perspective, whatever was always is; they wish

it were not so; there is no relief from their suffering about this.

Not even the end of time would save them.

 

Statement by Abby Shahn (painter)

These 3 painting/poem collaborations come from a book of 31 paintings and poems to be published this fall in book form. The poems were written in response to the images. The word “ghost” is so loaded with multiple meanings for people. Each viewer adds his own meaning, his own ghosts. Mark’s poems add whole histories and layers of meaning to the pictures.

 

Statement by Mark Melnicove (poet)

When I first saw Abby Shahn’s paintings of ghosts, they seemed familiar, as if I had seen them before, or had always known them, both as images and spirits. As I sat with the paintings, words and narratives began forming in my mind, not through having to think them, but through the act of listening and recording. While the poems gestated, I happened to visit Native American pictograph sites and saw ghosts emerge from the eroded shapes in rock walls that bore uncanny resemblances to Abby’s paintings. No doubt ghosts are what they are without interpretation needed, but they also carry many meanings, some inherent, some that we project onto them. Ultimately, these meanings resolve themselves into contradictions, for as Whitman wrote of his poems, they contain multitudes.

 

Abby Shahn — Thoughts on Dialogue

I wonder if there is a common language among artists. I don’t mean a spoken or verbal language, but a purely visual one.

If I look at a painting and know that there is need for a certain mark, in a certain place, in a certain color, will another visual artist know just why I feel that need? For me, the impulse to collaborate is partly born of the desire to find a way to converse in that nonverbal realm and to see if we do indeed have a common visual language.

Abby Shahn and Gretchen Lucchesi, Book Collaboration

Abby Shahn, David Brooks Mask

Sitting in my studio thinking of all the collaborations in which I’ve partaken. A long time ago…The Ping Pong  … show. Lots of UMVA folks. I remember David Brooks and I were finding masks and sending them to each other. A couple are still attached to my studio walls. Fang and I were working on one of my folding books. It was all about cowboys and Indians as seen in the movies. I think Natasha and Mark did a funny serious dialogue which ended with Natasha sending some of her father’s ashes.
That was just one of many collaborative ventures.

MOTHER TONGUE — Mary Bernstein

MOTHER TONGUE

Real dialogue is where two or more people become willing to suspend their certainty in each other’s presence.’   David Bohm

Mother Tongue is a community visual Dialogue which I started with a partner Terry Rumble in the early nineties. This visual dialogue was inspired and based on the work of physicist and philosopher David Bohm.  Bohm’s work on Dialogue grew out of conversations with Krishnamurti who was a spiritual leader deeply knowledgeable in Eastern philosophy. Bohm went on to develop and implement experiments in verbal dialogue groups that were replicated all over the world, many of which continue to this day. I was inspired by David Bohm’s work and wanted to try applying some of his dialogue ideas in a visual way. In the 1990’s I started to work with an artist friend to experiment with the technique, working in relationship together, to apply some of Bohm’s ideas to the visual realm.

Terry Rumble, “In The Cupboard”, 1’x 4’
Mary Bernstein, “Myopic Wisdom”, 1’ x 4’

We are all linked by a fabric of unseen connections. This fabric is constantly changing and evolving. “

David Bohm

Mary Bernstein, “Papyrus”, 1’x4’,
Terry Rumble, “Bull with Slides”, 1’x4’

As Terry and I continued to meet on a regular basis, we developed a “call and response” way of reacting to each other’s creations. Realizing that we needed consistent structure, we decided to limit ourselves to a single format. In referencing Bohm’s verbal dialogue process, we chose a long narrow shape which alluded to the imagery of Persian manuscripts and implied the structure of word, sentence, paragraph.

After a year of working together in this way, we began to invite others to join the conversation. This invitation required each prospective participant to first observe and consider the existing images before creating their own response to the ongoing conversation. Over time an inventory of images emerged and the imagery and subject matter began to branch into many directions

Students Springfield Technical College

“Consider, for example, the work of an artist. Can it properly be said that the artist is expressing himself, i.e., literally “pushing outward” something that is already formed inside of him? Such a description is not in fact generally accurate or adequate. Rather, what usually happens is that the first thing the artist does is only similar in certain ways to what he may have in mind. As in a conversation between two people, he sees the similarity and the difference, and from this perception something further emerges in his next action. Thus, something new is continually created that is common to the artist and the material on which he is working.”

David Bohm

Sarah Pulz, “Life Is so Fragile”, 1’x4’
Erin Lonegan, “Woman With Gears”, 1x 4’
Mary Bernstein, “Modern Woman”, 1’x 4’

Tara Verheide, “Finger of Fate”, 1’X 4’
Natasha Mayers, “Pianohands”, 1’X4’

“In nature nothing remains constant. Everything is in a perpetual state of transformation, motion, and change. However, we discover that nothing simply surges up out of nothing without having antecedents that existed before. Likewise, nothing ever disappears without a trace, in the sense that it gives rise to absolutely nothing existing in later times.” David Bohm

Terry Rumble, “Woven Fishes”, 1’x 4’
Mary Bernstein, “The Long Road Home”,1’x4’

Drew Galaski, “Everything is Hopeless: Nothing Is Serious”, 1’x 4’
Tara Verheide, “Love’s Dark Faith”, 1’x 4’

The Mother Tongue project went on to travel to many sites and eventually grew to more than 250 panels created by various groups of artists, students and community members. Over the 20 years that the project was active the visual conversation was in constant flux. It reflected the many interpretations creative impulses and individual skills and interests of the participants as well the concerns of the communities it visited. In turn the accumulation of images added to the richness and variety of the dialogue. The Mother Tongue dynamic web page can be viewed at  <mothertongue.co>

Jabaouloni Thompson, “Untitled”,
Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning,
Queens, NYC

“One prerequisite for originality is clearly that a person shall not be inclined to impose his preconceptions on the fact as he sees it. Rather, he must be able to learn something new, even if this means that the ideas and notions that are comfortable or dear to him may be overturned. No really creative transformation can possibly be effected by human beings, either in nature or in society, unless they are in the creative state of mind that is generally sensitive to the differences that always exist between the observed fact and any preconceived ideas, however noble, beautiful, and magnificent they may seem to be.”

David Bohm

Sidney Feshbach, “The Anecdote of the Jar”, 1’x4’
Mary Bernstein, “When Is the landscape The Territory”, 1x 4’
Barry Steeves, “Landscape Rememberances”, 1’x4’

MAINE MASTERS REPORT — My Immigrant History

above: Jacob Kantrowitz

By Richard Kane,  Maine Masters Project Director

I think it’s important for any artist to figure out how to survive.  For my paternal grandfather Jacob Kantrowitz, a skilled tailor, he survived living in the Ukraine city of Kharkov by chopping off his large toe to avoid being sent to the front lines during the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.  The word had reached home from Jacob’s older brother in Manchuria that Tsar Nikolai II was sending Jews to the front lines only to be slaughtered.

Interestingly President Teddy Roosevelt mediated the negotiations that ended that war on September 5, 1905 in what became known as the Treaty of Portsmouth.  Sound familiar?  The talks were held at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine!  A few months later my grandfather Jacob emigrated to New York in 1906 with my grandmother Ida Wooten. They were 19.

Jacob went to work for a thriving dressmaking business on the Lower East Side  and later, in The Bronx started Mr. K’s, his own tailoring business. His son, my father Murray, was the first to attend college (NYU) in the family, and after graduating dental school in 1941 he was drafted into World War II.  Upon his return in 1945 he changed his name to Kane at a time when a great many American Jews were seeking to blend in and in a real sense hide from anti-Semitism.

Recall that President Franklin Roosevelt during WWII turned back ships filled with Jews fleeing the Nazis hoping to reach the safety of our shores.  They were all subsequently incinerated in the Holocaust.  Si Kahn memorialized that piece of history with his song Lady of the Harbor that I’ve long wanted to use in a film about those times.  The immigrant is what has made this country strong.

Jacob Kantrowitz and grandson, Richard Kane

 

When I started editing film in graduate school at Temple University in Philadelphia, I always felt I was following in my grandfather’s footsteps, cutting and trimming and sewing and creating a work of art.

 

 

So how have I learned to survive as a filmmaker in Maine while keeping all my fingers and toes?  Just as any artist, you have to get your work shown.  I learned a few years ago at the Points North Documentary Forum of the Camden International Film Festival that the key is through a publicist.  Easier said than done.  There are MANY more filmmakers than publicists.
But I did succeed in finding an extraordinary Outreach Director, Marga Varea, who has made all the difference in getting our last two films on Ashley Bryan and J. Fred Woell seen.  FYI March 29, 2018 we’re having a NYC Premiere of our latest film J. Fred Woell: An American Vision at the Museum of Arts and Design with a panel of icons of the American Crafts Movement.

Stay Tuned:

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There’s lots happening with the Maine Masters film series.  The BIG NEWS is that Geoffrey Leighton and Anita Clearfield have begun work on a docu-art film project about our own beloved Natasha Mayers: An Un-still Life.  Anita and Geoff thank the contributors to their successful Indiegogo campaign —  many of whom are UMVA members — and  hope to have the project completed by the end of the year.  Stay tuned for more Natasha magic in Maine!

Next Project:

Moving into the fundraising phase of a film Robert Shetterly: Americans Who Tell the Truth.  See the trailer:  https://vimeo.com/220552230

We are also creating a Vimeo portal to have all our Maine Masters available on Vimeo.com/ondemand  and am working with several teachers to create short versions that would be appropriate to use in schools and full length vimeos on demand for senior centers/retirement communities.