James Fields

Arts

Studio Visit with Skylar Smith: Her Story

With the launching of the American Women’s History Initiative, Because of Her Story, the Smithsonian Institution states that its intent is to: “Amplify women’s voices to honor the past, inform the present and inspire the future.” So I don’t think there could have been a more appropriate time (Women’s History Month) for me to visit with Louisville multimedia studio artist Skylar Smith, whose work graphically signifies the Smithsonian’s mission to tell stories that “deepen our understanding of women’s contributions to America and the world, showing how far women have advanced and how we as a country value equality and the contribution of all our citizens” (Smithsonian Office of Communications & External Affairs).

Given our current political climate, these words may sound vacuous, hypocritical, or downright fake. Not so, though, in the context of Smith’s work in the duo exhibit, Personal Is Still Political, at Spaulding University’s Huff Gallery in Louisville last spring where she brought into full play what she describes as “human-scale politics that influence perception.” And because Smith’s regard for intersectionality encompasses gender and race as well as the subtle and overt ways in which discrimination becomes manifest, the scope and impact of her work are considerable. 

Skylar Smith, “Personal Is Still Political”, Installation View, Spalding University’s Huff Gallery, Louisville, KY, March 2-31, 2018

Smith’s transition from her earlier 2016 pre-election abstract work was initially inspired by the Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 and the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting white women the right to vote. But she says the turning point for her was the Women’s March in 2017 because no one was expecting it to happen. It became one of the largest protests in the history of this country—a positive act stirred by negative political actions that unified women from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds worldwide.

Skylar Smith surrounded by images and research that inspire her work. Photo/Jim Fields

On Personal Is Still Political, Smith comments that the 2016 presidential election opened her eyes and that she “had to move out of the abstract into the difficult process of making work about this moment in history and be somewhat objective rather than emotional. I wanted to be very clear about what statement I was making and what I was responding to. I wanted my work to be educational and provide the potential for the viewer to think about ideas in a different way, to experience some kind of transformation or exploration of thought.” She points out that by walking around and between these banners you are participating in marches that span decades not only in protest against discrimination, misogyny and the dehumanization of women, but for human rights as well. 

Skylar Smith, “Marching Installation”, 3’ x 10’, acrylic, ink & pencil on vellum, 2018

Smith painted these banners with image overlays on both sides of large sheets of vellum and as light passes through this translucent material, the streamers not only edify but radiate a palpable spiritual tone that challenges the viewer’s sense of awareness, especially when viewed in a single space as shown in the photo above. Essential to her  point of view, Smith wanted the personal and politically charged takeaway from this show to be: “It’s not okay to say that some people can be oppressed but not you.” The same holds true for her work in other media, particularly her more abstract Suffrage paintings.

Skylar Smith, “Ladies Remember”, 28” x 40”, acrylic, ink & pencil on paper, 2018

Although she works in a variety of media, including photography, video, and installations, Smith gravitates toward the immediacy of what she loves most—drawing and the materials used to paint and draw: graphite, charcoal, colored pencils, pastels, and water-based media, such as acrylic and ink. By combining wet and dry media, as in Ladies Remember, she is able to create a dichotomy and establish a dialogue within a given piece where tension emerges between the wet marks that are erratic and fluid and the dry marks that are more precise and controlled. However, she says she often chooses a wet medium on wet paper over dry because “it creates a visual manifestation of something I cannot control or expect and for me that’s like life, one percent within our control and 99 percent out of our control.” 

The surface she works on, be it vellum, paper, or wood, is crucial since it dictates what she can and cannot do. For instance, different types of paper—cold press with a rough texture or hot press with a smooth surface—render distinct effects based on the medium she applies to it.

  

Smith creating colored pencil overlays on vellum from projected images. Photo/Jim Fields

As for me, I chose this particular photo of Smith at work in her studio because the harsh light striking her hair, shoulder and arm illustrates a salient point she emphasizes about her work from her Accumulation and Micro/Macro series. “Everything mimics and echoes something else. The only thing that is different is the scale.” Here, the light projected from behind her and onto the vellem echoes her as an integral part of her process and raises an important question in relation to a long-accepted theory of art. In this instance, is it coincidental that the nap of Smith’s sweater looks remarkably similar to the texture of her painting, Afghanistan, 1963, or is it simply art imitating life? Regardless, the palimpsest technique the artist used to create this image deepens the viewer’s connection to her work and her purpose while inviting further exploration and personal interpretation where the conscious and subconscious can be given free rein.  

Skylar Smith, “Afghanistan”, 1963, 10” x 13”, ink & pencil on paper, 2018

Afghanistan, 1963, and India, 1947 are from Smith’s Suffrage series, which includes the United States, Canada, Italy, and Saudi Arabia, where the date women gained the right to vote became the subject of each piece. These paintings require close examination and are significant because Smith intended for them to represent “both the historical assertion and the absence of female representation in the history of voting rights and political office.” They are literally figurative works that are at the same time abstract and real.

Skylar Smith, “India”, 1947, 10” x 13″, ink & pencil on paper, 2018

The palimpsest process involves painting the voting rights date on the surface of the paper, then scraping and wiping it away, and then repainting and removing it repeatedly as it builds up the canvas with a rhythmic repetition of color and form that amazes in its singularity of purpose. Smith emphasizes that history is a lot like this where we make marks in the sand and they’re gone the next day: “We still have in our own country voter disenfranchisement with people not getting to vote for any number of reasons, as in our most recent election involving particular populations and the redrawing of districts for political favor. How government is built and policy is made is at the heart of all of this.”

Skylar Smith, “Things Arise, Things Disappear”, 25” x 36”, ink, watercolor & colored pencil on paper, 2015

Things Arise, Things Disappear from Smith’s Accumulation series is also a nod to American history and the ephemeral and transitory nature of time, to the nefariousness and self-serving actions of government, and to the ability of the people (for the sake of freedom and human decency) to endure, persevere, and overcome. The fragments of the American flag I see fluttering in this piece convince me that Smith is acknowledging and drawing on the power of her earlier non-representational abstract work to help advance her goal of creating “more literal content connected to a particular concept.” 

The painting, With Her, makes a substantive statement. Smith places the familiar symbol of the Women’s Movement up front and center—an emblem that combines the astrological symbol of Venus, representing all things feminine, with that of a clenched fist from the 60s and early 70s power movements, particularly black power. The women don “pink” pussyhats with somewhat haunting and almost ghostly visages to the right of the proud nonwhite figure waving the sign. The rays of light emanating from the upper left corner of the painting seem to link the past and present, indicating an uneven and rough journey but one filled with hope. However, I think based on Smith’s broadened interest in intersectionality (a term coined by the African American civil rights advocate and scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989), the content of this painting would have benefited from including a more diverse display of disenfranchised women voters, adding to its effectiveness in communicating the significance of the Women’s March of 2017. 

 

Skylar Smith, “With Her”, 28” x 40”, acrylic, ink & pencil on paper, 2018

I bring this point up because of the far-reaching comments Smith made as we discussed her personal-is-political views and her ideas related to intersectionality that have her looking toward the future: “The message of the women’s march was intersectional in that you have women in general who faced challenges historically, politically, socially, and personally, as well as other marginalized groups. For feminism to be relevant it needs not to include just women’s rights but human rights. Immigrants, native Americans, blacks, LGBTQI, and individuals with disabilities are all discriminated against in different ways.”  Making art that narrates such a multidimensional concept of  intersectionality sounds like a monumental commitment, but no more so than the life Smith navigates in order to grow, do her art, and feed her spirit.

To say Smith is a busy woman is an understatement. She obtained her MFA in Painting and Drawing from The Art Institute of Chicago and her BFA from the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore. She is a founding member and Associate Professor at the Kentucky College of Arts + Design (KyCAD), where she teaches studio art and art history classes. KyCAD became independent from Spaulding University in May 2018 and was approved by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education to grant a BFA in Studio Art. It is now poised to become the only stand-alone, accredited four-year college of art and design in the state of Kentucky and will have its own downtown campus.

Smith, who is also a certified yoga instructor, lives in the Crescent Hill neighborhood with her husband, two daughters and three cats; and her involvement in the Louisville arts community falls right in line with the guiding principles of her teaching philosophy. So how does she manage all this? 

Skylar Smith, “Radiant, But Easy on the Eyes”, 24” x 24”, ink, acrylic, colored pencil, & crayon on wood panel, 2015

In every artist’s portfolio there is a seminal work that explains a lot and Radiant, But Easy on the Eyes, epitomizes Smith’s process and practice of art—past, present, and future. Beethoven had his Fifth Symphony that served as the bridge from his early Classical style to his later Romantic style, culminating with his Ninth Symphony—his magnum opus. Radiant bridges Smith’s earlier nonrepresentational abstract work in her Accumulation Series with her current realism and narrative approach in Personal Is Still Political and beyond.

Radiant, But Easy on the Eyes vibrates with energy. It looks like a square of irregularly shaped pixels from an enlarged computer image that teases you into thinking it will eventually assume a recognizable form. Instead, these juxtaposed blotches of glowing color seem to rearrange themselves the longer you look at it. Smith attributes the radiance of this piece to the spirituality she explores in her personal life through yoga and meditation and to her process of making art by “using deliberate, repetitive marks in ink and pencil [as she] investigates the tension between the ‘chaos’ of ‘wet’ media (ink) and the ‘order’ of ‘dry’ media (pencil).” These are the moments where she reclaims her “sense of inner peace by connecting to a larger life cycle, and consciously marking the passage of time in ink and pencil” (www.skylarsmith.com). So, for Smith, moving from women’s suffrage in 1913 to the centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment in 2020 represents more than a stitch in time. 

“Home Makers,” part of the Women’s Suffrage Parade on March 3, 1913, George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

Ann Taylor, in an article for The Atlantic (March 1, 2013) honoring the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade, recounts the abominable treatment these women received during the march from the men who had deluged Washington, D.C. for President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration to be held the following day. “Marchers were jostled and ridiculed by many in the crowd. Some were tripped, others assaulted. Policemen appeared to be either indifferent to the struggling paraders, or sympathetic to the mob. Before the day was out, one hundred marchers had been hospitalized.”

Smith with her own inventive tribute, Homemakers’ Rebellion, brings these women into the 21st century wearing pink pussyhats as they march out of and back into the picture, essentially saying, “We are here, we are making progress, and we are not going away!” 

Impressive in her resolve, Smith does not try to emulate other artists although she is notably inspired by the works of three contemporaries: Mark Bradford, an African American artist living in Los Angeles, known for his large abstract grid paintings combined with collage representing aerial views of the city’s segregated neighborhoods; Julie Mehretu, an Ethiopian-born New York City abstract artist who creates politically themed works on a monumental scale by using a variety of techniques and media to layer her canvases; and Japanese artist Yoyai Kusami, who works primarily in sculpture and installations and is currently best known for her Infinity Rooms that provide viewers an unparalleled virtual experience with art.

Smith says she never feels limited by her media or content and, even with her busy schedule, she is looking forward to pushing the art side of herself, never losing sight of her goals and purpose, “Because the narrative for me right now is important, I want my current work to be very audience focused. I’m interested in making art where I am connecting with people in  more direct ways, especially in making work that has a political bent to it or effects change so that the conversation doesn’t end right there. The message may be literal but the impact has to go beyond that.”

Smith’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and she has curated several in and out-of-state exhibitions. She has also been the recipient of grants from The Kentucky Foundation for Women, and Great Meadows Foundation Artist Professional Development Grants.

Skylar Smith, “Marching”, 3’ x 10’, acrylic, ink & pencil on vellum, 2018

Edward Hopper, the great 20th century American Realist painter said, “Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.”  Skylar Smith is committed to making more art and to additional community involvement as the centennial of the 19th Amendment approaches, reminding us that black women (and men) did not get the right to vote until 1965. Facts like this and continued voter disenfranchisement and discrimination drive her artistic narrative.


UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See other submissions related to this project: Dr. Emily Elizabeth Goodman on the work of Melissa Vandenberg, and Hunter Kissel on the work of Harry Sanchez, Jr.

The Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation whose mission is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.

Arts

Celebrating a Century of Bernstein

You may not be familiar with the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde, but I would wager that you could conjure up a quote or two from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the play that inspired composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story which catapulted him into the limelight as the music man for all seasons and confirmed his unique sensitivity toward popular culture, philosophy, literature, religion, and the politics of his times.

His 100th birthday (August 25, 1918) is currently being celebrated (until August 25, 2019) by orchestras, singers, and dancers in cities throughout the world, and Lexington, Kentucky has joined the party. In keeping with his genius, Bernstein said: “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” Tempus fugit I thought as I sat in the Singletary Center and listened to the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra’s (UKSO) April 20th Season Finale: Bernstein at 100! 

Maestro John Nardolillo presented a remarkable program showcasing some of Bernstein’s greatest achievements, sharing the stage with five conductors, four choruses, eight soloists, and the UK Jazz Ensemble. Even the audience got in on some of the action.  As Nardolillo opened the evening’s tribute with the Overture from Candide, it became clear to all present that “tonight, tonight, won’t be just any night.”

Nardolillo, Orchestra, and Choruses

The Candide Overture is the shortest sonata form (ABA) I have ever heard. It commenced (A) with a tremendous burst of frenetic energy initiated by the brass and percussion, and rapidly spread into the strings and woodwinds as if it had gone viral. Then this structured chaos transitioned into a hymn-like movement (B) introduced by the strings and passed on to the other instruments before returning to the more energetic dance-like rhythms established by the horns and timpani at the outset (A).  The piece was a single movement less than five minutes long but it packed a wallop, ending with a whimsical whimper and a bang. UKSO’s delivery helped assure its immortality.

Before the performance of the second work, Benediction from Concerto for Orchestra conducted by Sey Ahn, Nardolillo provided some context for what was not originally a part of the Concerto but later became its final movement. Benediction was written in 1986 for the grand reopening of Carnegie Hall where Bernstein had debuted 43 years earlier as a substitute conductor for the New York Philharmonic when he was asked at the last minute to step in for conductor Bruno Walter. The personal prayer he uttered to himself that night before raising his baton became Benediction.

Baritone Taeeun Moon | Benediction

The Benediction began with the brass, sounding at first like a call to arms but then a soulfulness prevailed building steam as it progressed from the oboe to the clarinet and the strings. At the conclusion, baritone Taeeun Moon’s contemplative vocalization of Bernstein’s prayer, in Hebrew, asks God to keep us safe, shower us with his grace and light, and bless us with peace. It seemed like a blessing for the evening’s program as well.

The remaining three works prior to intermission played strongly to Bernstein’s musings on philosophical and religious ideas and texts, with John Nardolillo (UKSO) conducting the Serenade and Three Meditations from Mass, and Jefferson Johnson conducting Cinchester Psalms, sung by four choruses: the UK Choristers (Elizabeth Wilson), the UK Women’s Choir (Lori Hetzel), the UK Chorale and the UK Men’s Chorus (Jefferson Johnson).

Bernstein’s philosophical Serenade, based on Plato’s Symposium, is a lively musical exchange on the subject of love. The conversation began with an eruption of discord and dissonance as all the instruments tried to speak at once. But then guest violinist Daniel Mason (Concertmaster of the Lexington Philharmonic) inserted himself into the squabble and engaged in a dueling duet with the principal cellist as both expressed their views with equal gravity.

Violinist Daniel Mason | Socrates – Alcibiades

Mason appealed to reason with his deftly rendered solo passages even though the xylophone and drums kept playfully interrupting the discourse. Near the end, however, all the instruments seemed to agree to disagree and Mason, with his virtuosic reciprocity, got the last word. So what is love?  No one knows for sure. Socrates said the beginning of wisdom comes from understanding the limits of our knowledge. This was Bernstein’s premise as well.

Before the Three Meditations from Mass, Nardolillo announced the presence of two people in the audience who knew Bernstein personally and that guest cellist Benjamin Karp (principal cellist for the Lexington Philharmonic) had played under Bernstein’s direction at Tanglewood. This knowledge intensified the presence of Bernstein’s spirit for the remainder of the program. As for the three Meditations for cello and orchestra, the third movement, Presto, best captured that spirit.

Cellist Benjamin Karp | Three Meditations

The introspective and ceremonial musical elements introduced in the first two movements of the Meditations culminated in the third and Karp unified them with great strength. His skillful phrasing, subtle dynamics and bold accents were spellbinding.  Rhythmic drums paved the way for Karp’s solo ruminations and when the gong sounded, the strings followed his lead into a shamanistic fury of dance, highly spiritual and celebratory.  Then Karp imposed a cathartic sense of calm with a wistful melody before he engaged us with amazingly intricate bowing like an oracle intermittently disseminating words of wisdom. The drum and the harp accompanied the fading tones of his good counsel and left me in reverie, wanting to hear more.

When Bernstein composed the Cinchester Psalms, he specified that the second Psalm be sung by either a boy soprano or a countertenor. The voice of a boy soprano imparts a sense of innocence and spiritual purity, and a well-trained countertenor can sing with unrestrained clarity within the vocal range of a contralto or mezzo soprano. His voice resonates a distinct timbre simply because it is a male voice singing outside the limits of its ordinary range.

Countertenor Joseph Kingsbury | II Psalm 23; Psalm 2:1-4

Although Bernstein’s Psalms are sung in Hebrew, we are all familiar with the biblical text.  Jefferson Johnson conducted this demanding choral work as the combined choruses admirably rose to the occasion.  The first Psalm calls for us to live joyfully; the third pleads for us to live in unity; the second, bridging the first and third, encourages us to travel through life with faith and courage. And countertenor Joseph Kingsbury delivered this Psalm with mesmerizing articulation, tonality, and agility: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

The second half of the program offered much lighter fare and focused on Bernstein’s compositions for theater, stage, and film which involved collaboration with with several lyricists, the two most notable being Stephen Sondheim and Stephen Schwartz. After Intermission, clarinetist Scott Wright, the UK Jazz Ensemble and conductor Miles Osland took to the stage with Bernstein’s Prelude (for the brass), Fugue (for the saxes), and Riffs (for everyone).

Clarinetist Scott Wright | Riffs

The Prelude was a jazzy, cool, and rhythmic exposition for the brass, drums, and bass. The mellow saxes teased each other unmercifully in the Fugue but were provided full support, be it point or counterpoint, in their individual and collective fugal moments. The Riffs ensued when Scott Wright (Professor of Clarinet at UK) took the lead with the big band sound as he masterfully interacted with everyone, fully engulfing the call-response format near the end that garnered the well-deserved acknowledgement he received from the ensemble and audience alike. I felt as if I had just been to church while heeding the call of the wild.

Conductor Miles Osland, Clarinetist Scott Wright, and the UK Jazz Ensemble | Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs

In the next segment, Nardolillo playfully interacted with the audience in a little practice for our participation in two numbers from the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.  Along with the chorus, and before the orchestra came back on stage (he wanted to surprise them), he had us snapping our fingers in the Prologue and yelling “Mambo” in the fourth movement by the same name.  We followed through and did no harm—Bernstein would have approved. 

Nardolillo coaches the audience on finger snapping with the chorus in Prologue.

The orchestra, of course, brought West Side Story back to life with these eleven Symphonic Dances. It made you want to sing and dance.  Fortunately, no one tried but it set the tone for What a Movie from Trouble in Tahiti with Logan Blackman conducting and mezzo soprano Audrey Adams as soloist; Three Dance Episodes from On the Town, and Glitter and be Gay from Candide with James Burton conducting, and soprano Jessica Bayne as soloist.

Audrey Adams and Jessica Bayne both were both spectacular in their respective roles.  They teased, they flirted, and cajoled with voices and drama worthy of both Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera.

Mezzo Soprano Audrey Adams | What a Movie

Maestro Nardolillo conducted the final number of the evening’s performance, the heart-rending chorale finale, Make Our Garden Grow from Candide, with soprano Jessica Bayne, tenor Michael Pandolfo and Mixed Chorus. This duet between Candide and Cunegonde (characters from Voltaire’s French satire, Candide: Or the Optimist) was Bernstein’s message to us all: And let us try, / Before we die, / To make some sense of life. / We’ll do the best we know . . . / And make our garden grow.

Tenor Michael Pandolfo and Soprano Jessica Bayne | Make Our Garden Grow

Pandolfo’s and Bayne’s voices were sublime as they shared Bernstein’s impassioned plea full of sincerity and optimism.  And as the chorus joined in, magnifying Candide’s and Cunegonde’s emotions, Bernstein’s plan to unite us and give us a glimpse of our humanity will continue long past his 100th. It doesn’t matter that the clock stops ticking, eternal truths keep on truckin’.

Curtain Call (left to right) for Maestro Nardolillo; Guest Conductors: James Burton and Jefferson Johnson; Choir Directors: Elizabeth Wilson and Lori Hetzel; and Vocalists: Joseph Kingsbury, Michael Pandolfo, Audrey Adams, and Jessica Bayne

Bernstein had a strong affinity for young people and he would not have been disappointed in the exuberance displayed by everyone involved in this community-based collaborative centennial celebration of his music.

If you missed this magnificent Season Finale, you still have an opportunity to pay homage to Bernstein this fall. The Lexington Philharmonic begins its next season Opening Night: Bernstein & Gershwin on Saturday, October 20th at the Lexington Opera House (7:30 pm).

And remember, you can always get a bang for your buck with Maestro Nardolillo and the UKSO when they launch their 2018-2019 season program.

Photos provided by Sally Horowitz Photography

Arts

The Art of Collage and Assemblage Take Wing

In his Rooftop Soliloquy, Roman Payne states that “All forms of madness, bizarre habits, awkwardness in society, general clumsiness, are justified in the person who creates good art.”  Collage and assemblage artist Carleton Wing could take umbrage to this statement but I doubt that he would. When he began making art in the early 1980s, he considered himself an introvert, a shy person with low self-esteem and his art was a safe way for him to assert himself quietly.

Wing is no stranger to the Lexington arts scene where he owned and operated Wingspan Gallery for several years on the corner of Jefferson and Second Street.  He sold the gallery six years ago after being diagnosed with leukemia and his only option for survival (20 percent) was a bone marrow transplant. Facing better odds (70 percent) in Florida than in Kentucky, he moved to Tampa where he received a stem cell transplant from a 20-year-old male donor living in Germany. Now back in Lexington, his life has undergone a transformation and his art a transfiguration.  Both speak the unspeakable. They shine.

Wing in his studio getting a big hug and kiss from Bella for being a good boy and sticking to his schedule. | Photo by Jim Fields

Wing creates his collages and assemblages by “removing familiar images and objects from their original context and rearranging them to illustrate a new notion or idea.” Although his subject matter is serious—gender, religion, war, politics, and class, he often uses satirical titles and humor to further engage his viewers, to make them think and maybe walk away with a smile on their face.

The Cownolfini Wedding, a take-off of Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding, is prime beef. George Orwell’s Animal Farm came to mind when I first saw it. The pigs, Snowball, Napoleon, and Squealer may be missing from the scene but Animalism still rules the day. The period garb of the two central figures is borrowed directly from van Eyck, and Wing’s crafty placement of the mirror on the tree not only reflects the rear-view image of the original painting but also serves as a reminder that we occasionally need to take a closer look at ourselves—even hindsight will do.

The Cownolfini wedding took place on a pleasant October day in New Hampshire. Her two children, from a previous marriage, look on as the Magistrate enjoys the sun and the Mayor sings Ave Maria

Unlike the bride in Cownolfini, Katrina is not the marrying kind. A hurricane of a woman, she is more like Brunnehilda who, in myth, could be approached only by a man able to surpass her in strength. Wing’s title provides levity and perspective to a perplexing and unsettling work because it imposes a different order on our preconceived notions of reality and sexuality. It is ambiguous and symbolic; it is the surreal inner voice of a bizarre dream.

Katrina has little use for men.

Wing has a definite kinship with artists like Salvador Dali and Renne Magritte, contending that surrealism can actually bring us closer to reality because it mimics the contradictions and absurdities of the “real” world.  And there is method to his madness. Had he given this piece a different title such as The Lady or the Tiger, it would have altered the narrative and the way we look at it.

At the outset of his career 35 years ago, Wing relied on countless images from glossy magazines such as National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Architectural Digest for his constructions.  However, the translucent multi-layering effect that characterizes his more recent work was not possible with opaque paper cut-outs. The Internet, Adobe, and archival quality digital printing now provide him with endless resources and creative possibilities, bringing his story-telling to new level.

So for Wing, making art is about making choices and then seeing where it leads.  His process begins with a single image or object that interests him and then he subconsciously adds other images until he discovers what he is trying to say or until a story emerges, at which point he consciously takes control and works with intent based on how he wants the narrative to unfold as in Jesus Wanders.

Jesus wanders the wilderness on the best he could get from Steeds-R-Us Rentals

Here, Wing brings the Temptation of Christ into the 21st century and Jesus is not exactly slouching toward Bethlehem. He sits upright on a humble beast that travels slightly faster than the speed of a turtle, so he will have plenty of time to absorb the wilderness of modern civilization.  It is a complex composition with a penetrating sense of perspective and perception.

The desert is dotted with vignettes, each with its own story.  Is that Mary Magdalene sitting there in the lower left with her greyhound?  Every line and object, particularly the road and buildings, contribute to the visual depth of the image except for the decorative figure of Christ on the rhinoceros. It is flat, non-dimensional, and stops the eye before it can wander any farther into the landscape.  He stares directly at us perhaps leaving us with that single all-important question: What will (not would) Jesus do?  I suspect he may stop in at Jax’s for a round with the locals before he heads into town.

But In the Great Hall poses a different question—one of self-examination. Evoking consternation rather than a smile, it demonstrates Wing’s power to draw in viewers with his process of digitally layering multiple images with such translucency that it is next to impossible to feel you are looking at a single work of art.  From the dogs guarding the chicken-footed framed faces that haunt the foreground and the diaphanous swooning females on each side of the background to the pair of eyes overseeing all, the artist presents an allegorical narrative on human nature—we, too, get to make choices.

In the Great Hall of Consequences, Grief and Atonement

The rather stern Miss Sturgehill, however, appears to be propelled by a lot of confidence and few regrets.  Besides never having lost a road rally, she never misses a photo op either.  Wing’s wit, sarcasm, and humor come to the fore in this collage and, being a cat lover, I like to think it began with the single image of the devoted and fearless feline, Mr. Whiskers.

Miss Sturgehill has never lost a road rally with Mr. Whiskers as her navigator.

In most of Wing’s collages, as apparent in Miss Sturgehill and Christopher’s Pastime, the heads are a bit too big for the bodies; the size of various objects are not in direct proportion to others far or near, and the perspective, in general, is a little off-kilter. No, you are not suffering from Alice in Wonderland syndrome (AiWS), but you are experiencing Wing’s playful Lewis Carroll effect where both the familiar and unfamiliar are distorted to make us rethink what we think we see or know—or to simply make up our own stories. 

Christopher’s favorite pastime is playing with his friend Randy.

Wing embarks on a similar journey with his assemblages, beginning with a single object and then improvising until it takes a form that dictates what he should do next.  His Warrior Turtle began with a turtle shell, a doll’s head mold, and a pair of bronzed baby shoes.  The rest came from whatever he had on hand that knew it belonged to the warrior.

Turtle Warrior (front view)

The codpiece is actually a corn husker; the arms, forks; the weapons, a spear and a kosh; and the headgear, mangrove seed pods. The pieces of leather overlapping the shoulders, the leopard skin fabric, the beads, and the iconic crosses strengthen the ceremonial primitive spirit of this warrior king.

Turtle Warrior (rear view)

The back of the warrior is flanked with seashells and adorned with a deer’s tail.  The anklets which look like chainmail are made from gutter guard.  I think you get the point. Question: When is a potato peeler not a potato peeler?  Answer: When it gets into the hands of Carleton Wing. 

Two years into recovery from his stem cell transplant Wing came back to his drawing board and it renewed his spirit, aided his healing, and improved his outlook on life.  His recent collages of secular mandalas, 10 of which now hang in the Markey Cancer Center, further demonstrate to us an artist who sees the infinite in the finite, who sees many worlds within the one we all share.

Bee Eater

These mandalas, geometric figures that represent the universe, also signify our search for completeness and self-unity. They have no beginning and no end. The patterns and designs are as infinite as those of the snowflake and as limitless as our imagination when we are not afraid to open our eyes. This is the perspicacity Wing shares with us through amazing works of art such as Bee Eater and Orchid.

Orchid

I had some questions for Wing:

And…

Wing has two upcoming shows. The first, Short Stories from the Near Side, at the Carnegie Center’s newly renovated Skydome – 251 West Second St. (859-254-4175), opens on Friday, March 16 with a Gallery Hop reception from 5-8 pm, and closes on May 14, 2018.

The second, Sharing Time and Space, an exhibition of his Mandalas in a duo show at M.S. Rezny Studio/Gallery – 903 Manchester St. (859-252-4647), runs from April 10 through May 26, 2018. An artist’s talk is scheduled on May 12 from 11:00 am – 12:30 pm, and a closing Gallery Hop reception 5-8 pm on May 18, 2018.

(All images courtesy of the artist)

Arts

Art in Bloom: A Marriage of Media

Every two years as October sweeps the Ohio River Valley with hues of yellows, reds, oranges and browns, the Cincinnati Art Museum springs to life with a vibrant array of floral arrangements in conjunction with a variety of works from its permanent collection.  Since 2001, Art in Bloom has been inviting virtuosic, imaginative floral designers and arrangers to participate in their biannual event depicting the “marriage of floral interpretation and fine art.”

The intricately balanced floral composition for The Sacred Hour is a superb example of this union. The intensity of the blue delphinium, the red berries and carnations, and the varying shades of green of the fugi mums, kale and thistle traverses effortlessly from the canvas to the pedestal. The ruscus leaves rhythmically intertwine the white lattice (intimating the painting’s frame) anchored in an oval vase that harmonizes with the blue fabric of the women’s dresses.

The sacred moment for the viewer is a miniature garden of earthly delight. And in the hands of such a skilled matchmaker, this “marriage of floral interpretation and fine art” has been elegantly consummated. 

The Sacred Hour – Ferdinand Hodler | Arranger: Jackie Chesher

Now, for a point of total contrast, let us contemplate this 1880s bed and its connubial floral representation. The plastic arts (functional or otherwise) were also included on the roster of museum pieces from which the participants could choose, but the interpretation of three-dimensional works in a floral arrangement presents a special challenge because of the particular attention that must be given to form.

Bedstead – Ben Pitman,Designer; Adelaide Pitman, Carver; Elizabeth Nourse, Painter | Arranger: Beverly Mussari

Bedstead demonstrates jaw-dropping ingenuity in this regard. The metal container on which the tightly-clustered, copper-colored arrangement rests with a black gauze-like fabric draped over it and falling to each side strongly suggests the arches, the carvings, and the panels in the headboard.  What impressed me most is that the arranger lightened the weightiness of the bed by softening the bedding of the container with a looser spread of foliage. A challenge well met.

Simpler, effective, yet no less challenging is Arch, acrylic with fabric dyes on canvas.  Form is obviously tantamount for a successful matrimony between these two pieces but, as with any marriage, it takes more than one thing to make it work. 

Arch – Sam Gilliam | Arranger: Wren Hanson

First, there is the tent-like structure emulated by the openly framed bamboo pyramid that encases the flowers. Then the tinted colors of the fabric are deftly repeated in a small bowl that replicates the texture and the visual feel of the cloth it represents.  Finally, the fairly sparse and spacious arrangement, if you take a closer look, is an inversion of the shape hanging on the wall. This unique interpretation demonstrates a counterpoised blend of conscious thought and intuition that go beyond the obvious.

Many of the designers (70 in this year’s event) tended to migrate toward the museum’s traditional European collection for their inspiration such as The Liberation of St. Peter.  This Ikebana presentation was perfect for articulating the mannerist style of the painting and the dramatic single source of light that emphasizes line and motion of the two figures.  And in this instance, the subject matter is equally important.

The Liberation of St. Peter – Abraham Bloemaert | Arranger: Koukichi Uchiyama

When I spoke with floral designer Koukichi Uchiyama, he explained that for him there was only one way to communicate both the visual and narrative aspect of the painting—through abstract expression.  The lilies and the baby’s breath represent the angel and her ethereal nature with one of the buds actually pointing in the direction of the angel’s finger. The s-curved mums, on the other hand, represent St. Peter’s earthbound imprisonment in cuffs and chains further symbolized by the three steel rings placed in the mums.  Uchiyama commented that the foremost ring, which has fallen forward, is indicative of St. Peter’s ultimate deliverance. And his use of s-curved strips of mizuhiki rice paper masterfully bridges the gap between the physical and celestial worlds.  The result is a fascinating Eastern take on a Western work of art.

Always popular with museum goers are the romantic/impressionist landscapes and seascapes sacrosanct to any sizable permanent collection. And two interpretations in particular caught my eye for very different reasons. 

The presentation for Valley Marsh is a suggestion and a statement arranged via simple and calculated placement of pepper bush and pepper grass, lily and lily grass, goldenrod and aster—plants that could be indigenous to the blustery, windswept marsh portrayed in the painting.

Valley Marsh – Nacisse Virgile Diaz de la Pena | Arranger: Beth Bowers-Klaine

The arrangement manifests as an interpolation, an extraction of the landscape we see beside it. It is also an interjection because it only partially occupies the basin in which it sits. The basin, too, is a strong unifying component because its color and texture direct the eye to the frame of the painting and visible patches of earth within. The fact that the arrangement is placed off center and to the left makes the basin look a bit like a fountain begging for water much like the landscape to which it belongs.

In a slightly different vein, one of the goals of the impressionist school is to capture the “fleeting moment” and so is the intent of the beautifully integrated flowers and foliage in the spray that interprets Sunset, Vevey, Switzerland. Accentuated with roses, it offers up “soft pastels, warm apricot and taupe against a charcoal gray shoreline allowing viewers to be immersed in a specific moment in time.”  But it goes beyond even that.

Sunset, Vevey, Switzerland – Gustave Courbet | Arranger: Evelyn Streeter

The elements of this display (space, color, texture, and design) are so thoroughly aligned with the elements of the scene it depicts that it could easily be lifted from the pedestal, plopped into the painting and be totally absorbed—to the farthest reach of the imagination, molecularly conjoined—the two become one.

Far from conjecture, some of the more literal interpretations interspersed throughout the museum seem to take a greater degree of risk.  For an arranger to include an object that is actually in a painting seemed to me a little like fudging but how well this strategy works depends on how well the object translates from the painting to the arrangement and the arranger’s intent.

Without actually including the object in the astounding arrangement, Vanity Case, the designers instead literally interpret the essence of a peacock etched on the front of the object itself.

Vanity Case – Tiffany & Co. Gifted by Gates T. and Margaret K. Richards | Arrangers: Susie McCormick, Tori Armongero, Kelly Cengia, Jana Monzel, and Gina Velleca

This small, exquisite Tiffany vanity case sitting under protective glass to the left of the arrangement enabled flocks of viewers to examine it before they walked around the peacock in a curious state of disbelief.  Because feathers are not permitted in any of the floral designs, the team had to rely solely on nature and a remarkable vase to conjure up the likeness of this fantastic bird. Their use of White Orchids, Blue Born Orchids, and Bells of Ireland combined with Agonis and Egyptian Papyrus allowed them to create what is, in its own right, a work of fine art, albeit an impermanent one.

I would be remiss to not comment on at least one interpretation of an abstract painting and Romanian Blouse seems to fit the bill. While some entrants for Art in Bloom may steer clear of abstract art for fear of not understanding it or misinterpreting its meaning (if it has one), others are drawn to it because of the latitude it provides for full and open expression in relation to the basic elements of art and design associated with it.

Romanian Blouse – Henri Matisse | Arrangers: Priscilla Dunn and Nan Witten

Lines, shapes, patterns, positive and negative space, and blotches of color have an equal impact on this interpretive arrangement for Romanian Blouse. Although some of the colors have been substituted, such as yellow for gold and lavender for gray, others such as the whites, reds and greens make the necessary connections for us. The overall movement and feel of the painting is well conveyed—cheerful and contemplative.  Sometimes it is enough for us to say, “It works!”

Because “the marriage of floral interpretation and fine art” is at the heart of Art in Bloom, it is impossible to not become engaged when you see one of these exhibits. Interpretation is catching.  For starters, you have the arrangers interpreting the artwork and then you yourself reactively interpret the interpretation in front of you based on how well you think it executes the ideas expressed in the arrangers’ statements of intent and the plant material they chose to use. You also get to cast a vote for the top three on your list in order of preference, the same manner in which the arrangers get to select the work of art they interpret.

During the Art in Bloom four-day event, the museum invites two or three artists to come in each day and set up their easels and paint their interpretation of the arrangements, fostering a cycle of creativity and interaction with the artwork and floral designs for the duration of the exhibit.

So keep in mind that you as a visitor in October 2019 can also become a part of this cycle and be united with the wonderful world of fine art and its marriage to floral interpretation. And admission for the last three days of the exhibit is always free.

All images provided by the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Arts

Helene Steene: An Aegean Journey

In her artist’s statement, Lexington mixed media artist Helene Steene says she is intrigued by “the tension between forms, lines, and colors that ultimately can resolve in harmony.”  She is also captivated by the resistance of the wood on which she works, to which she can apply multiple layers of glazed oils, attach strips of sanded metal, and into which she can hammer roofing nails if she pleases (and she does).  She works boldly, never from a palette, mixing her colors directly on the prepared surface to create depth and to allow her medium to take her where it will. 

Steene is tenacious and extremely sensitive in her approach to making art: “If my work can slow someone down to contemplate something within her or himself – if the work can add a moment of focus on their inner peace in this absurd world – then I have reached the viewer.  We, the viewer and the mark maker, would be connected through that ephemeral magic that is all around, as I am convinced that one’s range of intellect is so trivial in the face of greater mysteries.”

Helene Steene with Work in Progress | Photo by Jim Fields

One of these “greater mysteries” is fully embodied in her Moon Sentinel I.  I was smitten by its transcendental glow as I stood in her studio and gazed at it.  Socrates was the first to insist that the moon is made of stone, and so is Steene’s—white marble, or marble dust to be exact, which gives it its pitted luminosity, creating a tranquil tension akin to the moon’s gravitational force on the earth’s tides.

Moon Sentinel I (7’ x 4’)

The magical effect of the marble dust and the peacefulness of the blues, turquoise, and greens stand in sharp contrast to the reflective pieces of metal symmetrically placed on each side of the moon, creating a gateway into the night sky. Even though night’s guardian stands guarded, it still has the power to stir our innermost spiritual natures, to “pull” us in. 

The artist’s orbs do no less. We usually don’t think of circles and squares as being necessarily complementary, (square peg in a round hole) but because they are considered traditional forms that most artist work with, Steene challenged herself to create a structural harmonious relationship between the two. Her mission was accomplished with her orb series which include Oculus 1 & 2.

Oculus 1 (48” x 48”)

Oculus 2 (48” x 48”)

They, like the moon sentinels, are also intriguing studies in symmetry and mystery. You may see an eye when you look at them or you may see a planet at the very core suspended in a square universe.  Be what they may, the artist stays true to her philosophic intent by granting her viewer the latitude that frees the “ephemeral magic” to take precedence over “one’s range of intellect,” and to open the door to a more personal experience and connection with her art. 

Steene’s finely-tuned process figures prominently into her success as an abstract impressionist.  She applies thin layers of liquin oil, or glaze, which stay wet allowing for extended manipulation as she sprinkles on powdered pigments made from crushed minerals. The intense colors you see in Aegean Nine as well as Aegean Blue Fresco I are the result of building up the canvas with the desired mix of pigments and oil, glazing layer upon layer until the desired effect is achieved. Consequently, the word fresco appears in many of her titles.

Aegean Nine Beaufort (48”x42”)

She states, “If I go too dark, I can sand back between the layers of colors to get to the marble dust to bring out more of the luminosity. So a very blue piece may actually have 20 different layers of blues on it and because it is applied in different ways and sanded off in different ways, it glows. The light actually travels through and the translucence remains regardless of the number of layers.”  She uniquely refers to this occurrence as “the linguistics of light.”

Aegean Blue Fresco I (48”x42”)

The Aegean paintings and Antiquity Dive I & II do not possess the symmetry of the moons and orbs. But they do demonstrate an impressionable delicate balance, vertically and horizontally, created by the irregular size and placement of the metal plates and strips on the canvases as well as the irregular lines (or horizons) that establish the spatial relationship between the striking combination and mixtures of brilliant colors.

You may even reel a little as you look at the Antiquity Dives and are pulled into the depths of their raw, natural beauty. The metal at the bottom of the composition is almost like a thin barrier reef protecting the viewer from these sometimes foreboding and potentially destructive elements but without creating a sense of detachment or alienation from the scene. The effect is a bit like snorkeling—where you are still able to safely breathe as you immerse yourself and become a part of what you see.

Antiquity Dive I (7’x4’)

Antiquity Dive II (7’x4’)

If you detect a slight Rothko feel in some of Steene’s art, you would not be wrong. She says she has recently come to appreciate the simplicity of his work and employs some of his techniques.  Yet in that simplicity, there is a certain complexity that makes her work particularly expressive and engaging for her viewers. Other influences include Kenzo Okada, a Japanese/American painter who uses encaustic, a translucent wax, to lend a mysterious layering to his art.  And she admires the paintings of contemporaries such as Richard Diebenkorn and Marsha Meyers in addition to the old masters like Titian and Vermeer because of their use of color and glazing.  Her mastery, however, is guided by her intuition, training, personal life experiences, and observations of nature.

Steene was born in Sweden and lived in other parts of Europe (England, Germany, Spain, and Greece) before coming to the U.S. in 1976 where she received part of her art education at George Washington University in Washington, D. C., and then obtained her MFA from the University of Kentucky in 2004.

Although she has lived in Lexington since the early 80s and is enchanted by the beauty of the Bluegrass, Greece is her passion and has been her source of inspiration for the last thirty-two years. It’s the call of the Aegean—the wine red sea of Homer, and of Helios—the god of the sun who drives his chariot daily across the Grecian skies.  It’s the call of Asclepius—the god of healing, and the call of her summer home on the island of Paros, known for its fine-grained, semi-translucent, pure white marble.

The Wine Red Sea, Paros (12”x12”)

In a portion of her statement for her Aegean Echoes exhibit at the Headley-Whitney Museum in the fall of 2013, Steene speaks of Paros as “A place where I have experienced great passion and a place where I asked for a divorce. A place where my child learned to swim like a fish and the place of utmost sadness when the sea took my best friend’s child. A place where I skinny dip in the golden sea when the rising morning sun comes flashing over the water . . . a sea that gives and takes with equal powers.”

The scene was captured by musician-composer Rusty Crutcher in music written specifically for the Aegean Echoes exhibit.

Crutcher, it turns out, was one of several Lexington artists who gravitated to Steene’s tribute to the Aegean. She recalls how it all came together.

Steene’s triptych, Archilochus’ View crisscrosses and etches into her viewers’ hearts and minds an emotionally mixed empathic sense of place.

Archilochus’ View (78”x48”)

The following lines of this great poet who lived on the island of Paros in 7th century BCE echo and illuminate her reflections on her home away from home: “Take the joy and bear the sorrow, looking past your hopes and fears: / learn to recognize the measured dance that orders all our years” (Archilochus: To His Soul). Also, the quality of light that bathes Paros holds special interest for Steene as it spills from Helios’ chariot into the sea and is reflected back onto the landscape from the waters of the Aegean—an ever-changing horizon that appears in most of her paintings.

Steene’s art is not only concerned with the language of light, but also the language of the heart. Her Visual Poetry is a series of collages on paper—a collaboration with a friend who writes the poetry and she then chooses the words that represent the essence of what the poem means to her.  It’s a two-way street between the artist and her viewer as well: “If I gave you myself in an unguarded moment . . . would we leave our marks on one another’s hearts?   I think we know the answer to this question.

If I Gave You Myself (34”x30”)

Steene has participated in over 200 exhibitions worldwide in the last thirty-five years and has exhibited her work in most of the major galleries in the Lexington area and throughout the state. She is gaining more national and international attention as well. With her concentration on nature and the healing effect of art, private collectors, corporations, and medical institutions are beginning to show an increased interest in purchasing and installing her work. They, along with Steene, recognize the truth in Aristotle’s words that “In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous.” Visit her website (www.helenesteene.com) to see her CV and portfolios.

Currently, Steene is an award-winning participant in this year’s Art Santa Fe Expo (A Spectrum Art Show—July 13-17) which will include some of her new work as well as pieces from Aegean Echoes. She also received the honor of having her painting, Mesimeri, selected for the event’s full-page ad running in the July issue of American Art Collector.

Mesimeri (29”x25”)

This fall in Lexington, Steene will be exhibiting new work, such as Oculus 3, in a duo show with sculptor Julie Warren-Conn at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center at 141 East Main Street. The opening reception for the show, Complex Simplicities, will be on October 6th from 5-8:00 p.m. with a Gallery Hop reception on November 17th from 5-8:00 p.m. The exhibit runs through December 3rd and the hours for the City Gallery are as follows: Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.  You may contact the gallery by phone (859-425-2562) or email (clewis2@lexingtonky.gov).  The eye of the universe is upon you. Catch the glow—go see the show.

Oculus 3 (oil, marble dust, and metal on wood 48”x48”)

(Images of all artwork are courtesy of the artist.)

Arts

Patrick Adams: Light’s Mystery

Art, poetry, and music are basically cut from the same cloth—a fabric of the imagination inspired by the “real,” a concept as impalpable as any of the artistic processes that strive to represent it (reality). Goethe wrote that “Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.” While this expression may make our wheels of cognition wobble a little, it is comprehensible, it is imaginable, and it is poetic. If you listen to Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral, or if you look at any of Monet’s several paintings of Rouen Cathedral, the beauty, the emotion, and the lyricism that Goethe’s words and these great works of art share become magically palpable. So the formidable and rewarding task of any successful artist, regardless of the discipline, is to internalize his or her perception of the world and deliver it to us in a way that helps deepen our own experience and understanding of our place in it, of what it means to be human. 

Lexington artist Patrick Adams has stood on the cliffs of his imagination and stepped up to this easel many times. He lives and breathes his art as he continuously endeavors to explore the parameters of possibility and to realize the full extent of his creative potential.

30" x 22" acrylic on paper, 2013

Etude No. 206 – 30″ x 22″ acrylic on paper, 2013

Adams grew up in the rural farming community of Worthington, Minnesota, a landscape that ignited his spirit and became the dominate subject matter of his work with its “tall-grass prairies, vast horizons, dramatic light and thousands of natural lakes.” Since moving to Lexington over two decades ago to obtain his MFA at the University of Kentucky, he has come to recognize and acknowledge an equal love for the Kentucky landscape as well.

In a recent article published in The American Scholar (March 20, 2017), Adams says of his work and process that, “When people ask me, ‘Are these real places?’ I say, well, yes and no. They begin there, but where they end is somewhere else . . . The memory is part of my process. I like what the memory does to the image. I want the details to slip away . . . I like how the memory distills or exaggerates things, or remembers in the landscape something really essential, just the dominant essence of the scene.”  

Hilltop and Lavender Sky is an awe-inspiring example of what Adams is aiming for. And it hits the mark. Everything about this composition epitomizes the “essence of the scene” from the soft shapes and ethereal hues of lavender, yellow, and green to the sparse, deeper terrestrial tinges of white, red, and blue. Its subtle power and strong spirit make it an extremely important work of art because each time we look at it, it speaks to us in a different way, deepening our appreciation of it and strengthening our connection to it. It speaks of something beyond the physical world, of something eternal within nature and hence within ourselves. It enables the soul to take flight. For me, it brings to mind the countless times I climbed the hilltops near my childhood home looking at the layers of mountain ranges stretched out before me and standing in awe of the infinite space above me thinking this is probably as close to heaven as I will ever get.

60" x 40" oil on two canvases, 2016

Hilltop and Lavender Sky, 60″ x 40″ oil on two canvases, 2016

This piece was a part of Adams’ diptych series, In Two Worlds, exhibited at the Ann Tower Gallery, January – March (2016), a body of work that probably best represents his poetic and abstract concept of art as metaphor. Each diptych incorporates two canvases of equal size placed flush one above the other, doubling the surface space of the painting. But Adams explained in his artist statement for this show that the idea behind the diptychs goes far beyond the materiality of the canvases: “I have divided the landscape image along the horizon into two physically separate paintings: the lower half (earth), representing the physical realm, and the upper half (sky, the ‘heavens’) representing the metaphysical, or spiritual realm. These two parts, seen separately, appear flat and incomprehensible, but once brought together, they form an image that acquires an unexpected unity of light, depth and meaning . . . the physical and spiritual worlds are brought together as one, each illuminating and clarifying the other.” 

Meadow Stream succinctly illustrates this point. The individual sections are completely abstract but as with all the paintings in this series, when combined, they are like the yin and yang of art—complementary elements coming together to create a harmonious whole.

Meadow Stream, 24" x 36" oil on two canvases, 2015

Meadow Stream, 24″ x 36″ oil on two canvases, 2015

My first encounter with Adams’ artwork was at an earlier exhibit, Real Presence, at the Ann Tower Gallery in 2004. From that point on, I was sold although I couldn’t really afford to buy. A couple of years later, though, I lucked out and was able to purchase a small matted and framed oil on paper, Prelude 23, at a silent auction for the annual Art in Bloom event at the University of Kentucky Art Museum. Then, as either serendipity or synchronicity would have it, about a month ago I managed to meet with him in his studio for an interview and to learn more about what lies behind his prolific and successful career as an artist and the philosophy and influences that govern his approach and style, a little of which we have already touched on.

Patrick Adams with Work in Progress | Photo by Jim Fields

Patrick Adams with Work in Progress | Photo by Jim Fields

Adams went to school at the height of post-modernism, but said it did not have a big impact on his painting because he felt it would not sustain him for very long. It appears he took the high road—and the open road—by absorbing specific concepts, subject matter, and technical nuances of some of the greats: “The kind of artists I’ve been responding to over the last 20 years have been somewhere between late romanticism and impressionism all the way up to contemporary artists. Corot (French) and Kensett (American) paid a lot of attention to light and atmosphere and even though they were romantics (mid-19th century), that’s where the seeds of impressionism and expressionism were sewn.” While both these artists still have a strong influence, Adams says, “Abstract expressionism (abex) pretty much describes my work. If you put those two ideas together, that’s really what my work is. If you took these two words [abstract and expressionism] and put them in a bag and shook it, my work would come out.” He admits a partiality to Van Gogh because his own markings, which he characterizes as jittery or fragmented surfaces are sometimes quite similar. This can easily be seen in his diptych, Pleasant Hill. Yet it is distinctly his own.

Pleasant Hill, 40" x 40" oil on two panels, 2015

Pleasant Hill, 40″ x 40″ oil on two panels, 2015

Here Adams draws on the tremendous energy generated from the good earth and the big sky. The scene vibrates with motion and color and the elements are bold, and the gestures grand and striking. The luminosity and atmosphere that emanate from this painting can only be revealed by natural light, or the memory of it, regardless of where it was painted—in the studio or outdoors (plein air). The reality of this landscape has been deeply internalized, merged with the artist’s inner self, and he has allowed this integration to charge his imagination and guide his brush and his palette knife over the canvas time and again, layering the scene into existence. It is abstract expressionism simultaneously contained and gone wild. It is a landscape that refuses to stand still.

Besides giving a lot of credit to his former professors for helping him see and be, Adams did not ignore the influence of Monet’s later, more abstract and heavily textured works with which few of us are familiar, the ones we don’t see in art history books. He also paid homage to the late modernist Richard Diebenkorn (American colorist and structuralist) as well as the images of the contemporary Danish geologist, artist, poet and filmmaker, Per Kirkeby. One of Adams’ most abstract and most recent small pieces, Break, speaks volumes as an amalgamation of these influences and his own experience—a synthesis where the conscious and subconscious work in tandem to create a presence that is one thing when seen up close, but quite another when viewed from a distance. A genuine mark of artistic vitality.

Break, 10” x 10” oil on canvas, 2017

Break, 10” x 10” oil on canvas, 2017

Adams explains, “I use a ton of paint and paint over a lot of other good paintings that I’m not satisfied with to create this effect.  I lose a lot of good paintings to get to the one I eventually keep but I think this approach is pretty indigenous to the abex genre.”  And he remarks that regardless of the canvas size, “the landscape for me is an arena to address other things such as light, space, movement, color, and even smells and feelings.”

The sentiment he expresses in his artist statement is congruent in all his work and he challenges anyone who looks at his paintings to see the poetry too: “I want people to see the natural world not as a backdrop to their lives, but as the very heart of their lives. The beauty of these forms is not just to delight us (though it does), but also to give us life. Beauty is not simply an ornament, a surface phenomenon, but the essence and power of being. And, if beauty is accompanied at all times, as many great thinkers both ancient and modern have asserted, by goodness and truth, then we ignore it to our peril.”  Then let us not ignore the beauty, goodness, and truth of Ascent of Light.

Ascent of Light, 48” x 48” oil on canvas, 2013

Ascent of Light, 48” x 48” oil on canvas, 2013

Light is a crucial element in all of Adams’ work, as many of  his other titles suggest: Light Under Pressure, Light and Fog, Shaker Light, Veil of Light, Where Light Dwells, First Light, Uplight, and most important—Goethe’s Light. His philosophy that inquisitiveness is vital to being a creative person led him to the German poet and artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s treatise on Theory of Color published in 1810, in which he (Goethe) hypothesizes on color as an interaction between light and darkness, why we see color, how we experience it, and how it affects us psychologically and emotionally.

Maria Popova in Goethe on the Psychology of Color and Emotion, observes that “One of Goethe’s most radical points was a refutation of Newton’s ideas about the color spectrum, suggesting instead that darkness is an active ingredient rather than the mere passive absence of light.”

“Light and darkness, brightness and obscurity, or if a more general expression is preferred, light and its absence, are necessary to the production of color,” noted Goethe. “Color itself is a degree of darkness.” Goethe’s Light may not contain the stirring brilliance you see in Ascent of Light, but it faithfully renders the more obscure “active ingredient” of color not uncommon in abex art.

Goethe's Light 30" x 30" oil on canvas, 2016

Goethe’s Light 30″ x 30″ oil on canvas, 2016

When he was working on Goethe’s Light, Adams said he saw a different kind of light, a luminescence emerging from darkness:

For Adams, these forces also include music – he plays a number of instruments and composes as well.  While Pythagoras’ theory on harmonics is more exact than Goethe’s on light and color, the effect that music has on us is just as powerful. So I asked Adams to elaborate a bit on the connection between his art and music, and he jumped right in.

He has been painting (and selling them) since he was ten years old, and his interest in music at this young age was also well beyond that of a neophyte. He was awarded both an art and music scholarship (trumpet performance) his first year in college at Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota. But because of an injury he received while playing in college marching band, he had to quit playing for a while.  He says that hiatus was actually fortuitous because it he made him focus more on his art, eventually allowing him to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts degree at the University of Kentucky where he was awarded a full scholarship and a teaching assistantship. And he hasn’t looked back.

In considering his love for making music and its connection to his art and creative process, it’s easy to see how one inherently feeds the other, even though he has chosen painting and teaching as a profession.  He emphatically states, “If I had another career, I would like to write film scores because there’s a direct link between the music and the image.”  As for his painting, he muses, “The ideal show for me would be where I would write a soundtrack for it that would be atmospheric and simple and spacious, similar to a landscape where you are the thing in the space.” I say go for it!  It may not be a new concept, but it is most definitely a rare experience for gallery goers to be engulfed visually and aurally by the work of a single artist.

As we listened to some of his compositions in his studio, Adams pointed out that both his paintings and his music “are the result of a very intuitive and improvisational process where an idea begins to assert itself and is then embellished and refined, yet neither is without structure. Just as paintings derive from the landscape, the songs are structured in a traditional jazz format . . . The intended result is simplicity.” Because he plays each of the instruments himself, he records his music in layers (or tracks) similar to the way he constructs a painting: “Same process. I am building different layers and colors and textures, and the way they interact lets you ultimately see a single image or hear a single piece of music.” Take a listen to the title cut from his album, Solipsis, while viewing his Etudes (201 – 206) and experience it for yourself.  Before you start, though, keep in mind that the titles have a bearing on the processes involved as the work was created.

Solipsis relates to the inner mind, thought, voice, feeling, and wanderings, in this case, as expressed through Adams’ individual and yet integrated performance on the electric piano, organ, drums, acoustic bass, and trumpet. Etude, a term mostly applied to a short musical composition that helps a player become more proficient on a given instrument, also refers to small studies that artists create as they formulate ideas for a larger work. Adams, again, hits the mark on all counts and here is a rare opportunity for you to get inside his head and bask in the reverie.

View Patrick’s work and listen to his composition, “Solipsis.”

From having worked on this piece for the last several weeks, the association of music with Adams’s painting has become fully ingrained in my psyche. With Harbor, for instance, I can see the interconnected layering and I can hear the music—music that I am creating in my own head as I stare at the essence of what a harbor looks like under particular circumstances or with its reality broken down into its basic components that become abstract, unrecognizable to my cranial dictates in relation to what I think a harbor should be or how I think a piece of music should sound simply based on its title. This is the beauty of the challenge in all of Adams’ work. It requires that you be with it, allowing it to permeate your senses. 

In his words:

Harbor 36" x 84" acrylic on canvas, 2016

Harbor 36″ x 84″ acrylic on canvas, 2016

Despite his musical accomplishments, painting comes to the fore as Adams’ first love and he is very forthright with what sustains his creative spirit: “I love to paint. I like the physicality of it combined with the images I create. I’ll never get it perfect and that’s what keeps me going. There’s also something about the struggle and not knowing where you are headed.  When I start painting [or composing], it’s like bumbling around in the dark and the more I can stay in the dark and stay lost, the more I like it in the painting [and the music]. Within certain boundaries, it’s exciting and to be lost in a work is good. The poetry of the creative act is in the struggle. The struggle makes art and art redeems the struggle.” Sounds a little like life, doesn’t it?

And then, there is the matter of the medium:

Through the on-going cycles of redemptive struggle necessary to the creative process, Adams has built up an impressive CV and portfolio.  He has been a professional artist for over 25 years and is currently an Adjunct Professor of Art at the University of Kentucky, Asbury University, and Eastern Kentucky University teaching courses in drawing, painting, art appreciation, art theory and criticism, and others as his schedule permits.  He is a two-time recipient of the prestigious Al Smith Fellowship in the Visual Arts awarded by the Kentucky Arts Council, and his past is awash with major exhibits (solo, two-person, and group), all over the country dating as far back as 1999. You can check out the details and his spectacular portfolios on his website, patrickadamsart.com.

His most recent exhibit of New Work was at Aberson Exhibits in Tulsa, OK last month, and he is participating in an upcoming group show (May 4-19), Dirty Pictures, at the Atrium Gallery – Studios on the Park in Paso Robles, CA.  I bet that got your attention, didn’t it?  Chill.  It’s all about landscapes—the good earth! We wouldn’t expect anything less from Patrick Adams since many of his paintings can be found in a number of private and corporate collections, such as the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (Columbus, OH), Mayo Clinic (Jacksonville, FL), Hilliard Lyons (Louisville, KY), and Gaylord International Convention Center (Washington, DC).

I don’t think we have to worry that these successes will prompt Adams to stop painting and composing. He couldn’t if he wanted to because he seems to subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea in T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men that “Between the conception / And the creation / Between the emotion / And the response / Falls the shadow.”  Without both darkness and light, between which that shadow lies, there can be no color, no landscapes. Adams’ knowledge of this means he can look forward to a great future—struggle and all! He himself declares, “My plan is to keep throwing paint at my canvases until something sticks that I can call good. I will likely die trying.”

Solipsis_Cover_Exterior_LINES

(All images and music courtesy of the artist)


Related in UnderMain: Other Lexington artists who mix mediums

Ron Isaacs: Shelf Life (Painting, sculpture)

Patrick McNeese (Painting, music)

Arts

The Chrysalis

Chrysalis House in Lexington, Kentucky is a non-profit organization that “specializes in treating substance dependent expecting mothers, allowing them to keep their newborns and toddlers with them while in treatment.” The organization chose the name, Chrysalis, because it “represents the protected stage of growth the caterpillar must enter before emerging as a butterfly.” This designation, though, goes far beyond metaphor and into the realm of hope because Chrysalis House “provides a safe, nurturing environment where recovering women may reside while undergoing a similar life-changing process” (chrysalishouse.org).

Chrysalis is not a word we hear very often, yet it exemplifies one of nature’s most incredible metamorphoses. Let’s consider the Monarch, which lays its eggs on the underside of a milkweed leaf. Feeding voraciously on the leaf that protected it before it hatched, the caterpillar sheds its skin five times, growing a new and bigger exoskeleton or instar each time. On the fifth turn, it morphs into a chrysalis—a hard jade-like protective shell that virtually disappears as it slowly gives birth to another life form—the butterfly, a magical transmutation and universal symbol of hope.  Hope with wings.

1-Chrysalis 014 (5323)

Chrysalis 014

To say that the Monarch’s stages of development, patterns of migration, survival instincts, and self-destructive reproduction propensities are mysterious and perplexing is an understatement. The above photo is one of 18 images that comprise photographer John Stephen Hockensmith’s The Chrysalis Project, a magnanimous undertaking that artistically depicts the remarkable phenomena of the Monarch butterfly’s life cycle and the ramifications it has for us in the modern world, both social and natural.

Hockensmith’s project was born in September, 2016 when a client gifted him a chrysalis in a small terrarium and asked him to watch the miracle that was about to happen. While he did not actually witness the emergence of the butterfly, it inspired him to pursue and document the wonders of this transformation as an art project. He started by going to an arborist who had a garden in his backyard that served as a way station for Monarchs.  There he obtained some milkweed and an additional caterpillar to add to his terrarium.  He closely observed the caterpillar as it munched on the milkweed, growing quite large in a relatively short amount of time.  It then found a twig, formed a silk connection and went into the hooking stage and molded itself into a chrysalis, the emerald green casing you see on the left—Chrysalis 013. This is when Hockensmith pulled his camera out of the bag and went to work.  In its own good time, the chrysalis turned to gossamer as a Monarch butterfly wiggled its way into existence and posed with its ancestor, the caterpillar, in the image on the right—Chrysalis 016.

2-Chrysalis 013

Chrysalis 013

3-Chrysalis 016 (14-52-52)

Chrysalis 016

As he began photographing this transformation in his studio, Hockensmith employed a digital-imaging technique known as photo stacking where multiple images are taken at varying focal lengths at very close range. Then using special software, these images are compilated into a single photograph that results in a particular desired depth of field. In Chrysalis 013, for example, all the key elements—the milkweed leaves, the caterpillar, the chrysalis, and the floating silver strands from the milkweed seed—are in sharp focus despite the distance between them. And Chrysalis 016 exhibits the same compilated depth-of-field qualities as well.  These are extraordinary works of art not just for the miracle of nature they so exquisitely portray, but because of the experience, knowledge, and technical skills required to create them.

You may not know that it takes a village to create a work of art, particularly a body of work such as The Chrysalis Project, but it does. On discovering that some Girl Scout groups had created five Monarch gardens in Georgetown within the vicinity of his studio, Hockensmith was able to obtain more caterpillars, harvest more milkweed, and build a larger terrarium so that by the end of the season he had witnessed ten caterpillars become butterflies. He was then inspired to take his camera into these gardens and those at Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary near Frankfort to observe and capture Monarchs in various stages of flight, landing on milkweed, and interacting with each other and other insects. He said, “It was an alien world that emerged in front of me that was magical, mystical, and scientific as well as undefinable, really.”

4-Chrysalis 002 (5534)

Chrysalis 002

5-Chrysalis 003 (5529)

Chrysalis 003

As you gaze on Chrysalis 002 and 003, the brilliant ethereal glow and translucent fluidity of these images make you think these dainty nectarines could easily flit out of sight at the blink of an eye. Seizing moments like this is more than just a matter of determination.  It requires instinct and passion, a lot of patience, and a willingness to explore and seek out the feeding and breeding grounds of these transitory spirits of nature.

It’s always advantageous to be in the right place at the right time, but that’s not the whole of it.  Hockensmith used the latest mirrorless technology and long, light-weight lenses in learning to track and capture the butterfly and other insects in flight. The photographer’s intuition and ability to anticipate motion, however, are elemental factors that cannot be mathematically or logically determined. It’s a matter of prescience. In Chrysalis 017, the Monarch has landed on a Zinnia and waits its turn to partake of the sweet nectar. This is obviously a stop-action shot, but the essence of what you see continues long after the shutter has been released.  These co-existing partners of pollination commune, feed, and then move on to continue to fulfill the purpose of their short lives.

6-Chrysalis 017 (DSF1187)

Chrysalis 017

When the Monarchs in his terrarium matured, Hockensmith released them one by one out the back door of his studio saying to each as it took flight, “I’ll see you in Mexico.”  His experimentation and intense interest in these delicate-winged creatures led him to study their migration habits from the Northeastern United States and Canada to eight different sanctuaries in the Sierra Madre Mountain Range of Central Mexico where they gather in ornamental fir trees, the oyamel, on the top of these mountains.  He chose the sanctuary of Cerro Pelon in Mancheros and planned his own migration southward for mid-January. He could not be fully prepared for what lay ahead of him and he could only dream that one of these bronze angels had once inhabited his studio.

7-Chrysalis 010 (24564)

Chrysalis 010

After his arrival in Cerro Pelon, Hockensmith rode up into one of the sanctuaries on a small Spanish Mustang known for its sure-footedness on the mountainside. Waiting for him at the top of the mountain was the third generation of Monarchs that had completed the relay of the migration north the year before.  They dangled in the fir trees in such great numbers that the limbs sagged downward with their weight. Pretty amazing when you consider that the average adult Monarch weighs only half a gram. These trees are critical to their survival, sheltering them from inclement weather and sudden drops in temperatures.  The ability of the Monarchs to even move is slowed down considerably at 55 degrees or below.  But as the temperature rises, they too rise like small kites that have been freed from entanglement and begin their migration northward for another season.

Hockensmith commented that “It appeared as a fantasy to be there with a camera and to be able to record this phenomenal event.  It made me want to incorporate it somehow into the seasons of my own life, to photograph and punctuate the existence of the Monarch in its Kentucky environment, to create my own butterfly gardens, and to have my own communion with these kings and queens of the insect world.” The citizens of the region celebrate the annual return of the Monarchs on “The Day of the Dead” and make offerings to the souls of their departed ancestors who have come back to commune with them.  This is oneness with nature at its best.

8-Chrysalis 005 (9335)

Chrysalis 005

9-Chrysalis 001

Chrysalis 001

Each generation of Monarchs that migrates back to North America and Canada in the spring lives only a couple of months at most. Once the female lays her eggs on the milkweed leaf, she dies and her offspring continue the journey. The third generation, however, that returns to Mexico in the fall may live as long as seven to eight months, providing they survive the 2,000 to 3,000-mile flight in order to begin the cycle all over again.

Monarchs have few natural enemies other than the elements.  Their biggest threat is humankind.  Although the sanctuaries in Mexico are protected by the government, illegal logging is quickly destroying large portions of their habitat.  Also, the use of herbicides, such as Roundup, is decimating milkweed, the only plant on which the Monarch lays its eggs and on which the caterpillars feed.  Then there is climate change.  The Natural History Wanderings blog site recently posted (February 10, 2017) a release from The Center for Biological Diversity declaring that the Monarch population has dropped off by one-third in 2016 alone, and decreased by 80 percent over the last few decades (naturalhistorywanderings.com). It’s probably safe to say the Monarch butterfly is an endangered species.

The prophetic words of the Romantic poet, William Wordsworth, written over 200 years ago still ring true:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”

So what Hockensmith demonstrates through his art and his first-hand experience is that we can perhaps regain our hearts—that the story of the Monarch’s migration is indeed one of beauty, wonder, endurance, and, yes, sadness. But above all, it is one of hope—the same hope that Chrysalis House has for the disenfranchised mothers and children who are in its care.  In the spirit of rebirth and renewal, Hockensmith has made a commitment to donate a portion of the proceeds from The Chrysalis Project to Chrysalis House. He stated that the integral philanthropic component of his project “metaphorically illustrates the transformational nature of how humans can escape some of the difficult positions we find ourselves in as life changes and insists that we become something other than what we are.”

John Stephen Hockensmith – Fine Art Editions Gallery and Press – Georgetown, Kentucky

John Stephen Hockensmith – Fine Art Editions Gallery and Press – Georgetown, Kentucky

Although the venues are yet to be determined, The Chrysalis Project will be travelling beyond the gallery walls to foster awareness throughout the state regarding the important role these cross pollinators (butterflies and honeybees) play in our lives.  The official launch party is on April 6th from 5:30-8:30 p.m. at Fine Art Editions, 146 East Main Street in Georgetown, Kentucky.

May the great spirit of the Monarch move you to come see this astonishing art work while indulging yourself in some wine and light hors d’oeuvres. And trouble yourself to memorize this line from another great Romantic poet, John Keats: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever!” After seeing this show, which runs through June, you are not likely to forget it.

The museum-quality, limited edition prints of the 18 images included in this exhibit are available framed (31 x 41½ inches) or unframed (19½ x 30 inches), and you can sneak a peek at finearteditions.net

11-Chrysalis_009

Chrysalis 009

(All images courtesy of Fine Art Editions)

Arts

Review: Old Music in the New World

In Truman Capote’s short story, “A Christmas Memory,” the young narrator brings to life the true spirit of giving.  As he speaks of an elderly distant cousin with whom he lives, he says, “It’s always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of the year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart announces: ‘It’s fruitcake weather!’ ” Each year in a four-day period, she bakes “Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey” to give to friends. “Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all . . . these strangers, and merest acquaintances seem to us our truest friends.”

And so it is with The Center for Old Music in the New World when it offers up each year its own seasonal fruitcake, “A Handful of Christmas Delights,” at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Lexington, Kentucky.  In this modern structure, reminiscent of a small European-style abbey, the acoustics beautifully enhance a remarkable world celebration of traditional and sometimes not-so-traditional tunes, depending on your frame of reference.  But there is always a key ingredient or tasty morsel that is sure to sate every holiday appetite.  

St. Michael's Episcopal Church - Photo by J.P. Fields

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church – Photo by J.P. Fields

This season’s selections spanned several hundred years, from the early 13th to late 20th century, and represented seven countries. The strength of this type of programming stems from the fact that it reveals more similarities than differences among peoples throughout the world when it comes to celebrating Christmas.  Our connectedness, our oneness. The diverse languages and the musical manners of the day from these various cultures further enriched our appreciation and understanding of these carols that have become an integral part of our lives at this time of year. 

Music Director Joanna Manring’s traditional organization of the evening’s program also met seasonal expectations:  Exultation—praise to the Virgin Mary; Birth—adoration of the Christ Child; and News, Feasting, and Dancing—joy in the redemption of humankind. Although these program segments are obviously chronological, the music was not, nor did it need to be.

As a tidbit, the audience was first treated to three 13th century instrumental pieces played on rarely-heard period instruments: the krumhorn, the viola da gamba, the lute, the portative organ, the tabor, and recorders.  Skillfully performed by Malissa Sullivan (Director of Instrumental), Katherine Bihl, Pat Arnold, John Hedger, Dwight Newton, and Jenny Brock, these works from England, France, and Galicia, respectively, provided a stirring sampler of medieval secular and sacred tunes.  A friend in attendance with me commented that these instruments sounded oddly contemporary to her.  That perception, however, is not as odd as it may seem if you really think about how many modern-day composers draw on early music such as this for inspiration.

                  

Musicians playing period instruments - Photo by J. P. Fields

Musicians playing period instruments – Photo by J. P. Fields

The Exultation, commenced with an affecting choral procession as eighteen acapella voices resounded throughout the ethereal vaults of the sanctuary with a modern arrangement (1990) of a traditional English melody, “Rorate Coeli” (Drop down ye heav’ns from above), sung in Latin but not unfamiliar in English:  “For us a child is born / Sing glory be to God.” 

Probably the most moving piece of this segment, though, was from 13th century England (anonymous) sung in Middle English, “Edi be thu, heven-quene” (Blessed be you, heaven’s queen), a polyphonic medieval chant showcasing the women’s chorus in praise of the Virgin Mary.  This consummately delivered, other-worldly incantation smoothly transported us to the Birth portion of the program where two better-known Christmas favorites, one instrumental and one choral, were in store.

As John Hedger began playing his arrangement of “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” for solo lute, a stillness blanketed the air to the point that you could almost hear the angels breathe.  We know this haunting melody (and song) from 16th-century Germany as “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming.” And even though there was no vocal component, I was all the more moved as I heard in my mind’s ear the words being articulated by this 13-stringed Renaissance instrument—a clue that it was most assuredly in the hands of a true artist.

   

John Hedger on the lute - Photo by J. P. Fields

John Hedger on the lute – Photo by J. P. Fields

Next, the chorus and five soloists graced us with a 1983 arrangement of the ubiquitous English ballad, “The Cherry Tree Carol.” I say ballad because the verse is presented in rhymed couplets which tell the story of Mary announcing to Joseph that she is with child. As the narrative unfolds, Joseph is angered, knowing that the baby is not his, and he refuses to gather the cherries she has asked of him.  He realizes his mistake when, at the bidding of the unborn Baby Jesus, the cherry tree bows to the ground so Mary can gather them for herself.  Joseph then pleads for forgiveness and asks the baby when its birthday will be.  And Jesus replies, “The sixth day of Januar’ My birthday will be, / When the stars in the elements Shall tremble with glee.”

This carol is a yuletide staple for at least three good reasons: First, it is a straight-forward tale that is nothing short of the miracle of the virgin birth itself, the idea of the Holy Child speaking from its mother’s womb. Second, it is a reminder that before we adopted the Gregorian calendar, Jesus’ birthday was celebrated on January 6th, what we now refer to as Old Christmas.  Third, it brings to our awareness the idea of celebrating the twelve days of Christmas as a way of slowing down the pace and savoring the quintessential spirit of the season that, as Capote’s narrator suggests, will “exhilarate [our] imaginations and fuel the blaze of [our] hearts.” This is the message, the good news, The Center for Old Music in the New World imparted throughout its program in general and with the last part of the program in particular: News, Feasting, and Dancing.

Following intermission, soloist Camilla Roberson and chorus joined forces in “Noe, Noe! Pastores, Cantate Domino” by French Baroque composer, Guillaume Bouzignac. The piece begins with a quickened tempo in a staccato-like fashion, punctuating the good news, “Noel, noel!” As the voices slowly soften (pianissimo) into incredible resonating harmonies, Roberson bursts forth (sforzando) with her “Gloria” followed by her alternating (and sometime simultaneous) responses to questions posed by the chorus, such as: “Why did God become man? (So that man may see God).” This vocally effective call-and-response type of exchange melded at the end into a single yet harmonious rendering of praise.

The audience was then spirited into an instrumental set of dances from “Terpsichore” by Michael Praetorius (Germany, 1612) that established the tone for the remainder of the performance.

And by way of continuing the transition from sacred to secular, Jenny Brock and Loren Tice invited us, via a well-balanced duet, to “Make we joye nowe in this fest / In quo Christus natus est.”—to be joyful on this festive occasion in which Christ was born.

Ending not only on a high note (figuratively speaking), but also on a highly personalized note (literally speaking), the singers indulged the audience in an all-time holiday favorite, “Wassail Song,” with its sweet refrain: “Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too, / And God bless you, and send you a happy new year.”  Then Manring stepped down from the podium and joined the troupe for the final treat that took the cake, “Lexington Wassail,” a customized version of the traditional English “Apple Tree Wassail.”

When I asked one of the singers how Lexington became a part of the title of this song, he replied rather jokingly, “We call it the ‘Lexington Wassail’ because we’ve been singing it in Lexington, Kentucky longer than any musicologist can prove it was ever sung in jolly old England!”  As individual singers contributed a customized verse, the audience was invited to join in on the familiar refrain. And the verse that wrapped up the evening went something like this: “Here’s a toast to our neighbors and long may you live / since you’ve been so kind and so willing to give / We’re glad you’re not selfish, pernicious or mean / so live to the fullest in Two Thousand Seventeen!”

In the manner of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” this was an invitation to friendship with “strangers, and merest acquaintances,” or perhaps persons we have never met. After all, “It’s fruitcake weather!” And the amount of time that it takes a fruitcake, “dampened with whiskey” nonetheless, to ripen or mellow so that it melts in your mouth is equally true of the joyous music presented to us at Christmas time. Hence, the baking and rehearsing must always begin in November, if not sooner. The Center for Old Music in the New World’s “A Handful of Christmas Delights” was delicious!

So if you missed this season’s performance, then you have next Christmas to look forward to.  And although the program has not yet been determined, Director Joanna Manring indicated that the Company’s spring concert will be of equal delight, addressing themes of rebirth, awakening, and renewal as the cycle of life continues. 

All performances are free (donations suggested). What a gift! For announcements and updates, keep a lookout at http://www.centerforoldmusic.org. And happy New Year good friends, known and unknown!

Note: Video clips courtesy of The Center for Old Music in the New World and Steve Davis

Arts

Review: East Meets West in Coalfields of Eastern Kentucky

The coal mine, itself a central character in Emile Zola’s late nineteenth-century novel, Germinal, is described as “evil-looking, a hungry beast crouched and ready to devour the world.” When one of the miners spits out a black blob, another asks him if it’s blood. He declares, “It’s coal. I’ve got enough in my guts to heat me till the day I die. I guess I stored it up without even knowing about it. Well, it keeps your insides from spoiling.”

A recent exhibit at the Lexington Public Library, East Meets West, bestows this kind of dubitably dignified human face on coal which seems to exemplify the pride miners take in making an honest living, and the role they play in supplying their nation with energy and power. Paradoxically, though, black dust mingles with their blood and flows through their veins much like the seams of coal that run between the overlying and underlying strata of rock within the mine.

The two Chinese artists who created these works have a particular interest in this subject matter. Xiaoan Li is the Dean of the College of Fine Art at Shaanxi Normal University in China, and Dongfeng Li is an Associate Professor in the College of Arts and Design at Morehead State University. Although they share the same last name and a similar vision, they are not related. So to avoid confusion, I will refer to them by their first names.

In 2010, Dongfeng was awarded a four-year grant from MSU to compare coal mining methods and practices between China and the US. He selected two mines in Martin County, Kentucky (Inez) for his study and formed a collaboration with Xiaoan, whose university is located in Province of Shaanxi, the largest coal mining district in China. His initiative was to address the differences in mining facilities, working conditions, safety standards, rates of pay, benefits, and more important, the human factor, which the two men have dutifully and creatively expressed through their art.

Xiaoan is on leave from Normal University this semester to work with Dongfeng at MSU where their collaborative efforts culminated in this important body of work.  They spent many hours visiting and talking with miners (and their families) employed at two separate mines in Inez. It is from these repeated encounters and numerous sketches that they gained the soulful perspectives reflected in their paintings. Equally important, both artists’ medium and style are representative of the culture in which each is deeply rooted, the East and the West.

Dongfeng paints with watercolor (and occasionally pastels) on watercolor paper and yupo paper, a tree-free, synthetic, multimedia, recyclable paper that is gaining greater appeal with Western artists and graphic designers. Xiaoan, on the other hand, paints with brush ink on rice paper, more common to the Eastern tradition of artistic expression. In both instances, however, the message is powerfully embedded in their respective mediums.

In Dongfeng’s “Coalminer,” the transparency of the watercolors seem to make the spirit of the inner man transparent as well. The miner is reticent and pensive as he stares almost blankly into the space before him. He looks sad and lonely, yet determined. He knows his headlamp with its battery strapped at his waist will light his way into the darkness and out again after a long day (or night) of hard labor. 

Coalminer - Photo by J. P. Fields

Coalminer – Photo by J. P. Fields

The gloomy and muted monochromatic shadows in the background of this painting are juxtaposed by the sharp contrast of lighter tones on the figure itself and appear to offer some sort of salvation. Although we see a face filled with resignation, it also radiates kindness and hope, apparent mostly in the eyes which are said to be the window to the soul. It would not have been possible for the artist to evoke this kind of empathy without understanding his subject and the hardships involved in living the life of a coal miner.

Dongfeng’s “Deep Down Under” has a Duchamp-like feel as if this is the repeated movement of a single figure descending into the pit of the mine. Unquestionably, there are four miners here, but as the eye moves from the clearly-focused miner in the foreground to the fourth miner in the background, that individual takes on the appearance of an apparition or a ghost. The painting simultaneously projects a heavy, yet ethereal air as the artist deftly employs space and varying hues of color to create a sense of depth, both literally and figuratively.                            

Deep Down Under - Photo by J. P. Fields

Deep Down Under – Photo by J. P. Fields

The orange strips on the miner’s hard hats remind me of a sticker that my father (who was a mine superintendent) wore on his hat which said, “Be careful buddy.”  He had all his men wear them as well, cautioning them to be ever vigilant of the dangers that lurked inside the mine. Also, the protective eyewear calls to mind another slogan that was worn on the other side of their hats, “Safety first.”

I can almost smell the coal dust on this miner’s face and clothes in Xiaoan’s “Kentucky Coalminer VII.” It is a portrait of another type of black pride, that honest day’s work I mentioned earlier. This brush ink on rice paper captures the very essence of the coal miner. Cezanne would have called it “coalminerness.”                    

Kentucky Coalminer VII - Photo by J. P. Fields

Kentucky Coalminer VII – Photo by J. P. Fields

Realistic, representational, and symbolic, Xiaoan’s rendering is stark and simple. The ink brush strokes are definitive and opaque, portraying this miner as a staunch loyalist, a company man, someone totally committed to his work without fear or trepidation. The bold lines that define his figure, the partially blackened face, the loose-fitting clothing, and the twisted belt outlines a man whose clothes may not exactly fit him, but he fits the job. And as a fellow coal miner, he’s got your back, and you can trust his courage and resolve.

However, Xiaoan’s “Kentucky Coalminer VIII” presents a slightly different take, one of weariness and fatigue. This older miner is either taking a break or is on a mantrip, the coal cars that take the miners into the hillside at the beginning of the work day and brings them back out when the day is done. This is the only horizontal piece in the coal mining series, and it speaks of a desire for repose not yet to be found. The thin brushstrokes delineating the form in a seated position and the flesh tones ascribed to the miner’s face and clutched hands help humanize and emphasize the quandary he seems to be experiencing that is his life. Again, without the artist’s insight into the travails of coal mining, a message such as this could not be so effectively and artistically communicated. 

Kentucky Coalminer VIII - Photo by J. P. Fields

Kentucky Coalminer VIII – Photo by J. P. Fields

The coal mining industry can never be glorified. It is the usurper of the workers’ bodies and souls. For most of us, the life cycle is from the cradle to the grave. Growing up in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields, I came to understand that it was from the mine to the grave, and in many instances, the mine became the grave. Too many times after a rockfall from a poorly supported roof, miners died. Too many times after a methane or rock dust explosion that ripped through the tunnels, miners died. Too many times rescuers could not safely retrieve the charred and crushed bodies from these disasters, so they were sealed up inside the mine. It became their tomb, their eternal resting place with roof rock for a headstone. 

Well over a hundred years ago, Zola’s personification of the coal mine as a “hungry beast crouched and ready to devour the world” was prophetic. Today’s climate change and global warming, not to mention mountaintop removal, bears this out. And his character who proclaimed that coal “keeps your insides from spoiling” was kidding himself. I watched my father die of black lung disease. He was only 62. 

There were 33 pieces in this exhibit, and the subject of coal mining comprised about half of the show. This stands to reason since the project evolved as a result of a major grant, and from Professors Li and Li’s strong collaboration to produce an invaluable statement about coal mining in Eastern Kentucky. At the same time, they are endeavoring to make Morehead State University and Shaanxi Normal University sister schools by establishing a student-exchange program. So there is light at the end of the mine tunnel, and it’s not an on-coming coal tram or an explosion. It’s enlightenment.

The remaining works of both artists are high-spirited, soothing, and optimistic. To see what I mean, take a good look and Xiaoan’s paintings of Thanksgiving, a squirrel, an orchestra conductor, a reader, or one called “Triple Happiness.”  Likewise, Dongfeng’s “Pikeville’s Tranquility,” “Healing Rain,” and “Augusta Ferry” provide a respite from the intensity of the subject of coal. All of these paintings are matted, or deckled, and framed.

Pikeville's Tranquility - Photo by J. P. Fields

Pikeville’s Tranquility – Photo by J. P. Fields

Photos were taken and used with permission of the artists.

Arts

REVIEW: LND&SEA

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard contends that “the secret of seeing . . . comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise.”  No one knows this better than Louisville photo artist Chip Dumstorf, whose debut solo exhibit, LND&SEA, at the Fine Art Editions Gallery in Georgetown, KY presents a unique challenge to the mind’s eye of anyone who encounters this work.

The challenge commences with the missing “A” in the show’s title.  Although it’s not there, your mind still sees it simply because of visual expectation. And so it is with the 16 images presented in this show.  The pieces are numbered rather than titled, not an uncommon practice for many artists.  Dumstorf stated that he did this for “practical” reasons because of the incredible number of images he generates in a single shoot, sometimes as many as three per minute.  He then further explained that by not using titles, viewers are likelier to respond more spontaneously and personally to the work because they are forced to be with it in the moment, just as he was when he captured it and then later when he meticulously processed it.

LND&SEA #1 is a good case in point.  When I first saw it, I immediately thought of Lina Wertmuller’s film, Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August.  But that was an initial response.  On gazing at it from a distance and up close, I think I went where Dumstorf intended, which was, in part, definitely an unusual destiny. 

LND&SEA #1 (Canvas 92¼” x 39½”) Courtesy of Fine Art Editions Gallery

LND&SEA #1 (Canvas 92¼” x 39½”) Courtesy of Fine Art Editions Gallery

I became the particles of everything I saw, as real of an illusion as I have ever experienced.  I say this because of Dumstorf’s process.   Out of deconstruction emerges a reconstruction of some of the most pristine scenes you will ever witness: nature as it was intended to be rather than what the human race has made of it.  Here, the motion of the wind, which we cannot consciously see, is as much a factor as the dispersion of light from the setting (or rising) sun, the rhythmic undulation of the waves, the gentle wafting of the clouds over the water, and the fascinating spectrum of color these interdependent elements reflect.  Shades of gray, hues of green, blue, pink, white, yellow and black.  Through these trails of light, nothing is as it seems.  Digital manipulation?  Yes indeed.  To the point of high art.

In the age of electronic and digital media, everybody has a camera and everybody takes pictures, but not everybody can create art.  And not everybody is willing to travel up and down the east and west coasts of the U.S. and Central America, as Dumstorf has, to be in the moment, to capture that moment and convey its spirit through digital processing, as is adroitly and spectacularly demonstrated in LND&SEA #3.

LND&SEA #3 (Canvas 92¼” x 39½”) Courtesy of Fine Art Editions Gallery

LND&SEA #3 (Canvas 92¼” x 39½”) Courtesy of Fine Art Editions Gallery

Mellifluous best describes this image because the scene is so soothing, rich and harmonious.  Dumstorf is very much in step and in tune with his approach and like any good photographer, he must first be in the right place at the right time, realizing that he has an incredibly short time frame to make the catch. Then using the tools of his trade, he sculpts what nature has given him.  The sea seems to have dropped out of the sky and as it reaches the shore, the gentle curves of the water’s edge are striated into the sand. The land has been rendered with a similar fluidity that could itself ebb and flow with the tide, or settle into its own windswept gradations of light.

Dumstorf’s technique of digitally adding by subtracting is probably best exemplified by the central piece of the exhibit, LND&SEA #12.  In the style of a minimalist, he clearly shows that less is more.  And using the backdrop that nature provides, sometimes with varying degrees of clutter and visual white noise, Dumstorf painstakingly removes what he considers distractions, which may be anything from a person, to sail boat, to a bird, to a sea shell, or even an oil rig.  Criticize as you may, it’s almost like a baptism when his fastidious cleansing and enhancement of nature’s palette creates such breathtaking, mesmerizing vista of absolute serenity—a place we would all love to be.

LND&SEA #12 (Canvas 92¼” x 39½”) Courtesy of Fine Art Editions Gallery

LND&SEA #12 (Canvas 92¼” x 39½”) Courtesy of Fine Art Editions Gallery

Not all of his work, however, exudes this same aesthetic quality.  Yet it is just as interesting and valid as anything that can be pulled out of thin air.  In fact, it’s stunning.  Undoubtedly the most intense and abstract piece in the show is LND&SEA #5, shot in early afternoon light, one of the least popular times of day for most photographers.

LND&SEA #5 (Canvas 92¼” x 39½”) Courtesy of Fine Art Editions Gallery

LND&SEA #5 (Canvas 92¼” x 39½”) Courtesy of Fine Art Editions Gallery

Light is energy and energy generates heat.  Dumstorf said he was curious as to whether or not he could reduce the harshness of this particular landscape to its most basic components and still impart its true nature.  Well, he did.  And if you look at it long enough, you may begin to perspire.  The heat rises from the bottom of the canvas, starting with fiery red, as strips of alternating color waver outward and upward in luminous tones of yellows, whites, and oranges into the blinding white that dominates the middle of the composition in the way that the sun dominates the middle of the day.  The only respite is the cool blue that bathes the lingering wisps of clouds.

LND&SEA #5 represents the epitome of Dumstorf’s ability to see, and his willingness to be totally present when he photographs.  It also underscores his technical ability to visually communicate an abstraction that is difficult to put into words except for, “Man, it’s hot outside.”  Annie Dillard speaks directly to his presence and his gift when she says, “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind.  Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail. . .”  This is Dumstorf’s destiny.

LND&SEA runs through November 6th at Fine Art Editions Gallery in Georgetown, Kentucky. The exhibit includes matted and framed prints, as well as images on canvas. 

LND&SEA #16 (40 ¾” x 23 ½”) Courtesy of Fine Art Editions Gallery

LND&SEA #16 (40 ¾” x 23 ½”) Courtesy of Fine Art Editions Gallery

Arts

Review: American Horse and Hound

In William Shakespeare’s play, King Richard III cries out, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!”  His horse has been killed in battle and without it, he faces utter defeat and the loss of his throne.   Demonstrating the human race’s essential dependence on another quadruped, Emily Dickinson declares that “Dogs are better than human beings because they know and do not tell.” 

Pair the two, and what do you get?  A brilliant and intelligent solo exhibit, American Horse and Hound, currently on display at John Hockensmith’s Fine Art Edition’s Gallery at 146 East Main Street in Georgetown, Kentucky.  Although Monica Pipia, the artist, is considered a contemporary primitive painter, her work defies a singular classification because she has so fervently internalized and extemporized the two loves of her life, dogs and horses.

It is clear that her subject matter and her medium, acrylic on canvas (with some mixed media), determine how each piece evolves into a final work of art.  Pipia says that “If I try to manipulate the brush, it’s always disastrous.  I have to listen to my inner voice.  Yes, as with most artists, I cogitate and calculate but I can’t make a painting be what it doesn’t want to be.”  This may sound trite, but what results is a technique and style uniquely and unmistakably Pipia.

The anchor piece of the exhibit, by the same title, depicts a static, statuesque checkerboard horse wearing a checkerboard blanket against a checkerboard background.  Despite the stasis of the scene, this quilting technique makes the piece pulsate with color. Small, black irregular squares dominate the canvas contrasted with interwoven hues and values of red, brown, and gold.  From all of this emerges a horse of a different color, suggesting overtones typical of American folk art.

American Horse and Hound (72” x 48”) Courtesy of Hockensmith’s Fine Art Editions

American Horse and Hound (72” x 48”)
Courtesy of Hockensmith’s Fine Art Editions

Pipia demonstrates in this work her ability to subtly infuse a strong sense of perspective and movement with the curved lines of the spotted yet motionless hound that dominates the foreground beneath the horse.  But the real energy comes from what is actually not on the canvas: the rider.  It is easy to become so entangled in the horse and hound’s mutually intense anticipation that our mind’s eye can’t help but see the person these animals see in the distance, headed toward them.

But never fear.  Out of the 23 works in this exhibit, there are horses with riders present as in “The Turn-around.”  Here, the artist broadens the space and creates a wave-like movement from left to right, curling back again and cresting with the horse’s head.  Through this imposed motion and fluidity, the focus then becomes the hound and the rider in the background. 

The Turn-around (24” x24”) Courtesy of Hockensmith’s Fine Art Editions

The Turn-around (24” x24”)
Courtesy of Hockensmith’s Fine Art Editions

And in a more contemporary vein, Pipia employs a type of painterly synecdoche, where a part represents the whole.  We do not see all of the horse nor do we need to. This, in turn, allows us to not only focus on the curvature of the animal itself, but to also enjoy the splashes of color and contemplate the positive and negative spaces created by the overall composition.  It exudes a warm and exquisite beauty and the use of white in the saddle blanket, the rider’s pants and collar, the hound, and the sun lends a solid unifying element.

The real American spirit in this exhibit is at its best with some of the mixed media pieces where the artist has cleverly incorporated the American flag either literally or figuratively into work itself.  For instance, in “American Horse Portrait” and “Pony Express” the flag symbolizes American progress that has been achieved through the power and strength of the horse.  However, this utilitarian representation does not diminish Pipia’s presentation of the beauty, grace, and necessity of an animal that we still romanticize through our sports, leisure, and entertainment activities.

America Moving Forward (72” x 48”) Courtesy of Hockensmith’s Fine Art Editions

American Horse Portrait (72” x 48”)
Courtesy of Hockensmith’s Fine Art Editions

“American Horse Portrait” serves as an excellent example of the artist’s contemporary primitive inclinations.  One unique thread that runs throughout her work is in the way she places the bridle and reins on the horse.  They are always angular and geometric and presented as an integral part of the horse without restraint.  Another consistency is how she builds texture and layers the paint, using more colors than appear obvious at a glance, such as the brown, white and black seen here. This portrait, painted over a flag that has been attached to the canvas, is both beautiful and moving in its seeming simplicity.  Yet the connotations of its conceptual complexity are vast, depending on what we, as viewers, bring to it based on our own knowledge and experience.

Pipia’s paintings also display a lot of joy and playfulness as “Balancing Act” confirms, where a canine is balancing a doggie treat on its nose.  Hunter, companion, friend, and confidant. The message is clear in this profile that the slightest movement may result in the subject’s disappointment and displeasure with its failure to sit and stay still as it performs this feat.  All the while we, too, are waiting for the command for it to toss its head in the air and make the bone disappear down the hatch.  Such is the power of Pipa’s art to stimulate the imagination.  Note the dog’s collar simulating a red stripe of the American flag with stars.

Balancing Act (20” x20”) Courtesy of Hockensmith’s Fine Art Editions

Balancing Act (20” x20”)
Courtesy of Hockensmith’s Fine Art Editions

The American Horse and Hound exhibit is joyfully positive and thought-provoking.  Pipia’s work could easily fit into a number of categories but it is, first and foremost, original and representational as it strives to convey the essence of what it portrays. And it will allow you to easily tap into your own inner Shakespeare or Dickinson.  After all, where would we be without horses and dogs, and who would want to live in a world without them? 

The artist’s reception is on Thursday, June 30th, 6-8 pm. The exhibit runs through Saturday, July 30th.