Beth Wittenberg – State of the Studio

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

Beth WIttenberg

May 2018