Greek philosopher Democritus declared: “Of truth we know nothing, for truth is in a well.” In a watercolor by Glasgow artist Frances Macdonald, the personification of Truth lies at the bottom of a well, her eyes closed in a gentle slumber. Will Truth wake up to come out into the light of day? In this issue of the Maine Arts Journal, contributors think about truth—and truths—and the opposite notion of lies, reflecting upon the ways in which they engage with them in their life and in their art.
Alan Magee interviews Kelly Thorndike, a veteran who tells Magee how, when he came back home to Maine with “combat-induced PTSD, a TBI (traumatic brain injury), and other injuries,” after serving in Iraq as a guard at the Abu Ghraib prison, he felt “burdened by knowledge” for which he couldn’t find words. Magee explains that painting provided Thorndike with “the language with which to tell his story,” and notes that his watercolor landscapes of the banks of the Georges River are resonant with the artist’s traumatic experiences as a soldier. In the interview that follows, Thorndike recounts how his watercolors helped him “explain the unexplainable,” find “home,” and teach combat veterans “the importance of doing the same for themselves.” Thorndike also talks about being an artist while at Abu Ghraib, a place that was “toxic . . . for our minds, bodies, and souls” and about his imagery and symbolism. He finally declares: “My artwork these days are attempts to define those truths for me now.”
Carl Little writes about “The Lies and Truths of War” and how “lies . . . form the foundation for war.” He recalls his first realizations about the horrors of war and early readings that left a mark and helped him reflect on the topic. Little evokes books, poems, movies, and songs that have affected him, along with visual works of art, which all in their own way force us to face war’s fundamental lies—or, in the words of poet Charles Simic (whose writing class at Columbia Little took), “deep-throated lies.”
For Véronique Plesch, the series Josefina Auslender created during Argentina’s “Dirty War” is an affirmation in the face of the dictatorship’s lies. In an unexpected and uncontrolled departure from her work, Auslender saw bodies emerge in her drawings. She eventually realized that these were the very bodies of the desaparecidos, those who, having criticized the regime, were “disappeared,” their bodies “sucked” (that was an expression used at the time), never to be seen again. Auslender thus offers “an assertion of truth in the face of the lies of a state that, by making bodies disappear, was denying their murders.”
Kenny Cole talks about the importance that social justice plays in his life and how “‘Truth,’ in the context of social activism, becomes a task of exposing suppressed narratives” and “upset[ting] unjust structures.” Cole talks about the meaning that “untruths” hold and how he aims at creating “an art experience of ‘seeing’ something that is structurally hidden.” The works he shares with us are language-based. He explains that “[p]resenting language as art opens up a myriad of ways to experience context and content outside of the form from which the expression originated.” This is a powerful choice, what Italian scholar Armando Petrucci termed “exposed writing” (texts displayed in a public manner for all to see). Such texts suggest authority and thus truth, and yet, can often be the conduit for spurious propagandistic or biased statements.
Claire Millikin looks at Natasha Mayers’s Old Orchard Beach series, “a haunted, disturbingly insightful, and ultimately loving work of beholding humankind.” In paintings that appear “almost comforting, evoking a day at the beach,” the artist “peels back the lie of American plenitude, revealing the truth of our present-day system of untrammeled overconsumption of resources and the violence it produces.” With the popular (and populous) Maine beach as setting, the series “unmasks . . . Maine’s own self-advertising as a space untouched by greed and need.” As the paintings in the series become more crowded, they evoke violence and piled up victims, and they “subtly, lyrically, and terrifyingly signal the underbelly of capitalism.”
Nigerian-born Sam Onche writes about his journey, coming to study at Colby College on a basketball scholarship to pursue his dream to become an artist but also what it meant to find himself “thousands of miles away from home and in a white-dominated environment.” Onche explains how he deals with the few truths and “many lies” surrounding him, how he engages with difficult topics such as “racism, inequality, and pain and suffering, which are both internal and external.” He explains how his works are the result of a process of inner exploration, which lead him to deploy as “an entry point,” “symbols, unique expressions, colors, and even elements from [his] culture.” Onche also explains the role that the concept of “afrofuturism” plays in his art and how, in response to the lies that people of color have been subjected to, he hopes to create a “space with endless possibilities” to talk “about the future for all peoples, especially those marginalized.”
Anita Clearfield asked Myronn Hardy “to add his take” to two of her paintings from her Flowers for series. Hardy’s poems accompany Clearfield’s paintings, offerings to the memories of those who have succumbed to racist hatred. Clearfield asks: “How does an artist figure out appropriate ways to address their “truths” without self-editing?” She also ponders the equation between truth and beauty and declares that “one way art represents truth is by an artist expressing their own truth while, at the same time, seeking out other truths.” In her reflection on what constitutes truth and in particular truth in painting, she attempted a remarkable experiment, asking an AI app to “make a painting of abstracted flowers as a tribute to someone killed by racist police violence in the style of Anita Clearfield.”
Bevin Engman recounts her experience in the distressingly disorienting time in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and how she eventually came to realize how incomplete was the American history that she had been taught—what lies these silences represented. The basis for the still-life paintings Engman created in 2021 are grounded in this insight. Playing cards and, later, little Monopoly houses and hotels provide metaphors for addressing race relations in contemporary America along with their roots in history. Every element carries meaning and so does their placement and lighting. Negative spaces, as well, are pregnant with signification: when she “tried to describe the force of whiteness directly, it felt elusive, formless.” The choice of elements culled from games is profound, for “[t]here are rules to games, arbitrary and written long ago by unknown authors.”
Ed Beem reports on the recent controversy over a mural on the side of the Cabot Mill in Brunswick. Meant to celebrate “the mill landscape being fashioned by hand by a diverse group of people,” the mural has been criticized in a petition as “offensive in its racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes.” Beem reviews the rather troubled history of the Cabot Mill mural and its successive revisions. A question emerges: how does one convey in a truthful and respectful manner the experience of a diverse community and, most importantly, who is able to do so?
In her Art Historical Musings column, Véronique Plesch reflects upon the fact that when artists represent reality in a truthful manner, it is an illusion and thus, one might say, a lie. What does it mean to trick the viewer into believing the reality of a depiction? In works that are an affirmation—and a celebration—of the mimetic powers of visual art, we also find trenchant comments on the act of looking and perhaps on “accessing truths and spotting lies.” Although naturalism can function as a decoy to trick the viewer into believing propagandistic lies hidden in renditions that convincingly imitate reality, some of the works included in the essay further expound on hiding and revealing—both lies and truths.
Stu Kestenbaum questions what it means to tell the truth and the limits between truth and lies, pondering that lies are “a necessary part of how we navigate the world,” perhaps “a lubricant between our psyches and the world.” He too considers how artistic fictions are lies and are “at the heart of artmaking” and how such lies beget truths.
As Robert Shetterly reflects upon truth and vengeance, he considers ambiguity and “moral complexity,” wondering if a person’s humanity can be “completely eclipsed by . . . racist actions.” How does one represent figures who are profoundly problematic? What is the “right” approach, should it be one of unflinching condemnation? With such questions in mind, Shetterly writes of two Americans Who Tell the Truth who work with death row inmates and believe that “we are all worth more than the worst thing we have ever done.” Shetterly warns us that “[r]ighteousness of judgment” can lead to a “kind of moral oblivion.” Although art can tell “the truth of injustice,” it can also incite vengeance and violence.
MAJ Poetry Editor Betsy Sholl presents a selection of poems that each in its own way responds to our theme. In a poem about loss, Susan Cook longs to be reunited with the person she’s missing and to “celebrate small truths.” In two poems and two paintings, Bill Schulz contemplates unanswered open-ended questions that test boundaries and our certainties in the face of external realities. Linda Buckmaster’s “Red Apologia” questions where truth resides as intense emotions take over the body in rapid–fire succession.
Looking at the “kind of precise abstraction” that characterize Stew Henderson’s works, Chris Crosman discerns in them the results of the artist’s intimate relationship with the artworks that he handles in his day job as a museum preparator. From this privileged proximity come some of the memories—or even secrets—that hide in Henderson’s meticulous assemblages of wood and other media, with art allowing him “to describe his personal, local experience and long-held beliefs about how art teaches him to experiment.”
In this issue’s Member Showcase, Janice Moore explains how she sees in the “act of making” “an instrument for expressing our own truths,” and that for some it may constitute “the only agency . . . for responding to abuse and oppression.” Her own response consists in creating her “own order from the disorder” surrounding her, creating images at once quiet and relatable. Photographers Morgain Bailey and Greg Burns address truthfulness through manipulations of the photographic medium. Bailey pairs her documentary landscape photos into diptychs that convey a vision at once “objective and subjective.” She affirms her belief that art making “is taking action,” for instance as “a way of working through the trauma of living in a time when reality is easily manipulated.” Greg Mason Burns, on the other hand, faces the notion “that all information is biased” doing so through different manipulations, for instance by blurring his photographs or duplicating elements. Burns reflects upon the sheer “idea that nothing is true and literally everything depends on context.” M. Annenberg borrows from Stephen Colbert the idea of “truthiness,” which she defines as “a gray zone between truth and lies.” Her current body of work incorporates front page stories and Fox News headlines to address the gaps (and perhaps even the lies) in the reporting on environmental issues. Authenticity (or, shall we say, “truthfulness”?) is at the core of André Benoit’s decision to disclose in his titles the influences of artists who have impacted him. Ann Tracy reproduces a photo of a goofy artifact that “push[es] the idea of what is actually true” and she too considers how “[r]eality seems relative to one’s perceptions and privilege.” Finally, Richard Newman’s paintings deploy “deception to tease the mind and excite the eye,” because “[a]ll is in anxious flux” and there is “no hierarchy of interest.” Perhaps then, as Newman concludes, our willingness to accept such instability could breed better tolerance.
In their Irish dispatch, Pat and Tony Owen consider how “we easily pick and choose our beliefs—what’s true, what’s false” and how we do this “based on our unconscious biases.” As do many of our contributors, they also affirm the belief that the “fundamental goal in any good piece of art [is] to find something honest, to find something true.”
In our Insight/Incite column, Lynda Leonas, President of the Maine Art Education Association and a K–6 Elementary Visual Arts Educator offers a detailed discussion of the current redefinition of the Gifted and Talented Visual Art Programs in Maine.
In a painting created by Annibale Carraci 330 years before Margaret Macdonald, the well reappears, but this time, Truth has emerged, aided by her father, Time. As Truth comes out to the light, she radiates and tramples Deceit. On each side, the personifications of Happy Ending and Good Luck (or Happiness) tell us that in the end Truth will prevail. As this issue makes clear, art is a powerful tool for revealing truths.
Image at top: Maine Arts Journal Spring 2023 cover (Sam Onche, Scream, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 36 in., 2022).