For this issue we invited our contributors to reflect upon the many ways in which their work engages with the notion of materiality, considering the different stages of the creative process, starting with their choice of medium and how tools and materials interact, all the way to the tangible objects they produce. The topic proved inspiring: the responses address the centrality of the choice and handling of the medium. We read about materials’ possibilities and limitations, about how one might attempt to control them or instead submit to them (some materials seem to remain indomitable while others readily—willingly?—cooperate in allowing the artist to reach their goals). Contributors discuss the importance of tools to obtain certain desired effects, while they also marvel at the resulting unexpected and welcome surprises. The process’s dynamic nature is made clear by how often notions such as fluidity, transformation, transmutation, and metamorphosis are mentioned, suggesting that materials have an agency of their own. As we read through the issue, it becomes clear that materials are more than a driving force in the creative process: they are true partners, at once inspiring and motivating, starting point and goal.
For Duncan Hewitt, whose preferred medium is wood, subtraction is essential in his quest to find what he defines as “shape/space.” Describing his tools and approach, Hewitt evokes the slow, personal, and emotional process in which he engages with his materials, which he sees as a collaboration. Hewitt confesses: “If anything, I hide my materials and hide in them.” As he strives to create objects that evoke “something familiar,” Hewitt elicits a fascinating sense of disorientation in his viewers, who are left wondering what his objects—at times recognizable, at others only reminiscent of specific things—are made of.
Carl Little interviews Nancy Andrews on the occasion of her recent show Homebodies at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (27 May–10 September). Noting the “range of materials activated by the artist,” which “include fabrics, figurines, wood, ironing boards, magazines, plates, and video,” Little asks Andrews about her relationship with them. For Andrews, as she creates works that evoke the domestic realm and conjure up family memories, materials, whose tactility is imperative, “are a driver.”
In a conversation with Véronique Plesch, Rosamond Purcell discusses her book Owls Head: On the Nature of Lost Things. She recounts how she ended up spending twenty years visiting a junkyard in Maine and how she developed a relationship with the place, the owner, and the objects she discovered there. Purcell evokes her fascination with the site and its deep layers of discarded stuff, objects transmuted by natural processes into entrancing archaeological finds, things “from different times and places.”
Edgar Allen Beem visits Wally Warren, who “turns virtually everything that comes to hand into joyful, witty works of art.” A master of the found object, Warren is famous for his City of Dreams “tabletop dioramas assembled from electronic debris,” in which, for instance, letters from keyboards become buildings. Beem reproduces some of the drawings Warren has been making since suffering a stroke in 2020 that left him partially paralyzed and reduced his speech to just a few words. These drawings, along with music, are testimonies to Warren’s unrelenting creativity.
The pull of found objects, in all their materiality, the “jolt experienced when encountering a beautiful and vital object” is also central to Jim Condron. He, too, is attracted by the “overlooked, occasionally grubby, inanimate object,” whose materiality is imbued with “meaning-making capacity.” The very materiality of these disjecta membra drives his sculptural compositions while it also “protests the limiting image of an artist.” Condron shares examples from his recent series, Collect Things. As the artist enters in conversation with “personal items and ephemeral materials that once belonged to artists, writers, and thinkers,” the resulting sculptures bear witness to relationships and assume a plethora of meanings (at times “ambiguous rebus,” at others “trophy-like object”) and functions: apotropaic, memorializing, celebratory.
Textile artist Diedrick Brackens was in residence at the Indigo Arts Alliance in Portland last July. Claire Millikin writes about how Brackens’s work “quotes West African weaving traditions” and how cotton signifies “the violence the crop . . . wreaked against African Americans in the eras of slavery and sharecropping.” The material, woven into tactile works that possess both depth and lightness, is transmuted into works pregnant with meaning. In Brackens’s textiles, as Millikin writes, “the medium matches the message.”
Just like Brackens’s cotton, Jacinda J. Martinez’s materials are plant-based—literally: her process involves “starting a plant from seed, tending it as it grows and then harvesting the edible parts.” Martinez explains how she creates wearable art, sewing, weaving, and knotting “the waste and byproducts of vegetable material,” which she then photographs. Martinez declares that “What we wear can say a lot about who we are.” We should add, to quote the proverbial phrase, that “you are what you eat.”
Jocelyn Lee also draws her materials from a garden—her husband’s. Nine years ago, she started a body of work titled My Husband’s Garden. The first photograph in the series consisted of flowers from her wedding floating on water. Her subsequent still lifes are based on the products of her husband’s gardening (at times supplemented by seaweed) and represent a declaration of love for her husband, an expression of admiration for his gardening abilities, and a celebration of the Maine environment. The materiality of the plants also serves as “a way of marking and chronicling time.”
Christopher Crosman reports on Road Line, a project commissioned by the College of the Atlantic that Andy Goldsworthy completed last August. Crosman places this new project in the context of Goldsworthy’s long career. He discusses the artist’s engagement with “nature and natural processes” and of how “his practice is grounded in subtle, albeit necessary, adjustments to new discoveries and conditions ‘on the ground.’” Godsworthy’s work, though, is not only about nature but also about the ways in which past inhabitants have marked the landscape in its very materiality. Crosman speaks to the rich array of metaphors Road Line evokes but also to the ways in which, because of its physical presence, one experiences it.
Takahiro Suzuki discusses his handling of the immaterial digital medium. We read, for instance, how for one of his films he took “clips of high-definition video and worked to write the noise back into the image.” Suzuki explains that as the image loses crispness, “layers of emotional and narrative complexities [are] infused in the original raw and blank slate of the high-definition frame.” For Suzuki “each granule of digital noise” conveys sensory perceptions: “a hint of the salt spray and the spikes of Monterey Cypress and eucalyptus.” For his most recent project in which he revisits an ancient Japanese folk tale, Suzuki chose to work with analog film; he comments on the very materiality of this medium.
In 1968, Lucy Lippard and John Chandler published an essay on “The Dematerialization of Art.” As Véronique Plesch explains, the concept’s significant impact went beyond the article’s focus on conceptual and minimalist art. Since “[o]pposite materiality in art is its negation, its ‘dematerialization,’” MAJ decided to provide our readers with a link to this paradigm-shifting article and to accompany it with Lippard’s preface and postface to a book she published in 1973 in which she reconsiders the term.
In her “Art Historical Musings” column, Véronique Plesch writes about the ways in which some artists (from Michelangelo to Jay DeFeo) have engaged with their chosen materials, at times unambiguously showcasing them and bearing witness to the making of the artwork, at others transforming them (for instance when trash is “transmuted into valuable stuff”), and even leading the viewer into “forgetting the materials that mimetically reproduce reality.”
Stuart Kestenbaum discusses the importance of the material in the creative process—and how that plays out even in what he calls “the intangible work of writing.” Perhaps because of the time he spent as director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Kestenbaum discerns materiality in his own work as he realizes that “[t]he work is always in the process of becoming itself.”
For our poetry editor Betsy Sholl, a poem by David Schwartzkopf “reminds us that it is through the material that we can approach the spiritual and can acknowledge our shared mortality with every other creature.”
Maryam Emami, graphics and social studies teacher at Rangeley Lakes Regional School, tells us about several projects in different media and on different topics in which one can witness what she calls “Materiality’s Magic”: the “key role” materiality can play “in amplifying the impact of student work and creating a more engaging and rewarding learning experience.”
In this issue’s UMVA Showcase, Nancy Wagner shares some of her paintings that acknowledge her “deep roots and love of textiles” and “unabashed love of pattern.” Elaine McMichael applies “heavy bodied paint” with a palette knife, creating “textures to express immediacy” whether she is capturing sails in the wind or a cityscape. Similarly for Jackie Walsh, who in addition to brushes and palette knives, uses “unconventional tools, such as a pool noodle knife, a squeegee, or a putty knife,” tools team up with her “intuition, emotions, message.” In creating Tilly, a sculpture that commemorates her aunt, Val Porter used an array of recycled materials. “These easy-to-come-by materials” helped the artist tell her “story metaphorically, without judgment.” Birch Mother is the result of Lesia Sochor’s fascination for birchbark with its “different surfaces, qualities, shapes and multi-colors.” Ann Tracy discusses how she engages with the “materiality of the digital work” through her experimental use of different materials and technologies. David Morgan is both a woodcut printmaker and a cabinetmaker. For him, handling the material “is a kind of alchemy: it transmutes a visual idea through crucibles of drawing, carving, inking, and printing into a finished image that holds some surprises for its maker, and hopefully some delight for its viewer.” Wood also holds a deep resonance for painter Emily Sabino, who likes using plywood as a support “because it has a smooth, hard surface and it can be cut into any shape.” Sabino has a particular affection for circles, a format she endows with many meanings. She also discusses the reasons for her use of acrylic paints. Adèle Saint-Pierre talks about watercolor, “a medium that has a life of its own.” Kimberly Crichton prints, collages, stitches, and embroiders a variety of papers, incorporating natural materials in order to “draw attention to the strength of Mother Nature in literal and figurative ways.” The prime material for Bessie Moulton’s mixed-media collages are the papers used to protect her drawing table and the floor under her easel, which bear “spills, test prints, notes, brush strokes, cuts, and bleed-through.” Moulton recycles these accidental records of artistic activity into works whose materiality celebrates imperfection while often alluding to natural processes.
In our regular quarterly dispatches, we read about the Union of Maine Visual Artists, with David Estey providing updates from the Board of Directors, mentioning an initiative aimed at helping artists in a range of ways and sharing news about changes in the board’s composition. The Portland UMVA chapter is scheduled to open the exhibition Alight on the Rocky Shores: This Is Not an Exhibition of Lighthouses on Friday 6 October 2023. In November, the Midcoast chapter is organizing an exhibition at the Blue Hill Public Library and a workshop for artists at the Camden Public Library. The Artists’ Rapid Response Team (ARRT!) shares pictures documenting recent activities such as their first retreat and their participation in the Whitefield Independence Day Parade. LumenARRT! reports on the projections that took place on 1 September 2023 in Portland on Monument Square that were organized in collaboration with the Maine Library Association (MLA) and the Portland Public Library. We also read an update on a forthcoming Maine Masters documentary: Jeffrey Carson, who writes about Richard Kane’s Saint Carlo, shares some thoughts about Carlo Pittore. Reed McLean reports on the opening of Little Sparks, a show with over 120 artists. This is the debut show of Lights Out gallery’s new home in a former snowshoe factory in Norway, Maine.
Finally, Pat and Tony Owen’s quarterly dig into the UMVA archives takes us back in time and circles back to the issue’s theme. As they revisit a UMVA newsletter from July 1978 in which the work of Dick Lee is mentioned, the Owens are reminded of Lee’s “large handmade paper pieces” in which “he incorporated sticks or fabric and writings, all of which added a new depth of personal history to the work.” While on the topic of materiality, the Owens seize the opportunity to express their concerns on the impact that AI might have on the arts.
Image at top: Maine Arts Journal Fall 2023 cover (Rosamond Purcell’s studio, Somerville, MA, with a detail of Wall, mixed-media installation, complete size is 121 x 264 x 5 in.; photo: Véronique Plesch, May 2018).