The Art House Press website will be taking on a new look in the upcoming weeks. AHP will be switching website platforms as well and we don’t want to lose anybody! To make sure you stay current with all AHP news please subscribe here:
The Art House Press website will be taking on a new look in the upcoming weeks. AHP will be switching website platforms as well and we don’t want to lose anybody! To make sure you stay current with all AHP news please subscribe here:
Bathed in tangerine light, I sit across from Rochester, NY based artist Kelly Clancy. Her light brown hair falls to the left- opposite of her mirror image twin sister, whose hair naturally parts on the right. Tousled pieces gently rest on her shoulder, catching on the flannel fibers of her button down shirt. A ceramic coffee mug is cradled in the hammock of her woven fingertips. The cup’s shape fits so perfectly with the contour of her grasp, you can almost picture it unfinished on the wheel.
“I love making pottery,” she tells me, “but I enjoy carving because of the amount of commitment and concentration that is involved.”
Kelly is a relief linoleum printmaker who can easily be compared to an Olympic athlete; putting the highest level of commitment into everything that she does. Not for recognition or for glory, but because she cares about the quality of her work like she cares about the quality of her life. To her, they are one in the same. For those of you who are unfamiliar with printmaking, relief printmaking is when the raised or protruding part of, in this case, linoleum, is inked while the recessed areas (i.e. the carved areas) are not inked, and will show up as white space on the print. Sheets of linoleum are hand carved, inked and then printed using a high-pressure press. Clancy described it to me in layman’s terms like “making a giant rubber stamp”.
“When I’m painting, I can paint over it. When I’m working on the wheel, I can squash it and start over,” she says with a confidence that feels unrehearsed. “If I carve a line incorrectly, I need to come up with a solution.”
When she sent her most recent piece to be displayed in North Dakota at Minot University, she made over forty prints before she had one she was satisfied with. Print making is notoriously tedious, every line must be carved properly and with intention. Pressure to this degree might turn some off, while Clancy feeds off of it, harnessing it to push herself further. In high school, she focused on painting and drawing. The first artwork she ever sold was a commissioned portrait of a family friend’s children.
“I started with painting because I was comfortable with it,” she explains, “but I think the second you stop putting yourself in uncomfortable situations creatively, you’re no longer being an artist”.
It’s safe to say she’s still an artist. Now, she puts her efforts into making linoleum prints that focus on the human form, expressing both her concern and fascination with the fate of the human body. Surprisingly, Clancy admits she had a hard time considering herself a true print maker until October of 2013, when she was accepted into the Boston Print Makers Biennial. Sighting this as one of her biggest accomplishments, it was only natural to hear her say that her next long-term goal is to be on the judging panel one day. But before her works make it to the gallery, it all starts with a feeling. That feeling then becomes a concept, which will then become a sketch- or numerous sketches.
“It’s always a challenge to see how many ways I can communicate an idea visually” she tells me.
When I think about the fate of the human body, I think of death and dying. When Clancy thinks about the fate of the human body, she thinks of cyborgs. No, not the kind portrayed in sci-fi flicks or Marvel fan-fiction, the kind that start with you and I – that will start with our children and their children, too.
“I grew up with technology,” Clancy insists, “I’m not afraid of it, but it’s definitely scary thinking about where it could go.”
Many of her current works beg the question: What makes a person and what will the definition of a person become? Clancy uses metaphysical concepts that are relevant to everyone, not just her. In fact, she wants you to be able to see yourself in her work. More often than not, her figures are faceless or portrayed as skeletons. Gears grind inside of skulls, wires clench tightly around wrists, holding down bodies or tangling them in a web of artificial intelligence. It makes you think; those bodies may be ours someday.
“I refer a lot to singularity, or when robots and humans become one” She explains, harping on the concept of downloadable consciousness. No one is blowing smoke on the topic. Recent research conducted by Henry Markram has led scientists to claim that an artificial brain could be constructed in as little as ten years. To put this timeline into perspective, this research was conducted in 2009, proving Clancy’s work to be relevant- and profoundly so.
When she isn’t carving at home or making prints at the Nazareth College studio, she’s teaching art to grades pre K – 6th at Aquinas Institute of Rochester. It is important to her to pass on the power of art and to demonstrate how art encourages youth to “stretch and explore”. Professionally, she says she will continuously advocate for art programs and wants her students work to be seen out in the community. When asked what she would tell herself if she were her student’s age, she responded, “It’s not a waste of time to pursue a career as an artist. Behind everything in life, there is an artist.”
Kelly Clancy’s work can be seen at:
Americas: 2016 Paperworks, Minot University, January 12th-February 19th 2016
Nazareth Graduate Art Show, Nazareth College, March 29th-April 17th 2016
Visit her website at Kclancy3.wix.com/artteacher
Going into my meeting with Shylamar “Shy” Andrews I had nothing to go on. No website full of his artwork to reference, no Facebook page to lend insight into his personality, and really not much of any idea of his style of work (provided by Cordell). In fact, the only reason Shy is a part of this issue at all is the chance encounter he had with Cordell at the Cornhill Arts Festival. All I knew was that Shy was an intriguing young man who made an impression.
I try not to script my interviews, but I like having an idea of what the artist is about and then let the artist steer the direction of the conversation. In that regard, I guess I was somewhat prepared to meet Shy.
Sitting in Spot Coffee, seventeen-year-old Shy shared his sketchbook with me. Since he’s still in high school, at the School of the Arts, this was the only body of work we had to go on. He has not yet been part of any exhibits or festivals. Shy’s artwork is a mixture of adult cartoons and Dali-esque surrealism inspired in part by comic books, anime and his own extremely vivid dreams. If you’re my age you may remember an early John Cusack movie “One Crazy Summer” in which his caricatures come to life, leaping off of the page. Shy’s drawings have a similar feel to them, but the tone of the pieces lean towards an experienced, more polished approach. Most of Shy’s drawings are done in ballpoint pen ink and explore themes of demons, violence, sex, and chaos, but also of peace, or more accurately, spirituality. The cartoonish styling recedes to display strong artistry and amazing creativity. As I kept retracing the lines of the drawings with my eyes, I would notice another element within the piece. His art keeps your eye moving and is unlike most anything else I’ve seen locally.
As we continued our conversation, Shy abruptly switched topics to music. He deftly handed me a cd that he made for me to take home. I was taken a bit by surprise for two reasons, first, I had no way of knowing he made music, and two, that he had prepared this cd for me. His gift made a real impression on me, and I think my reaction may have affected him as well. Although I’m not a huge hip hop listener, I do have an appreciation for it. After all, I did grow up during the explosion of Wu Tang, Dre, Snoop, Tribe, Pharcyde, etc. and basically everyone I knew was listening to one of these. Upon hearing this, Shy grinned and told me “I think you have soul, I think you’re gonna like my cd.” My curiosity grew by the second.
Shy spoke of his desire to be multi-dimensional – drawing, rapping, and making movies. Each medium provides a different outlook into who he is as an artist, but also serve as outlets for his various creative ideas. I asked Shy what art meant to him, if he could compact all his energies into a single idea, and to my surprise, he did (kind of)! Shy stated that art is its own energy that can change environments by spreading different views. “Art has deep roots as it is the basis for all other fields. If you think about it, everything is a form of art, every object was created by someone; it doesn’t matter what it is or when it was made. Art has the spiritual energy to enlighten, to heal the mind so that the body may heal.” Shy likened the power of art to that of a shaman – the ability to access spirits to do good or evil. When I asked Shy what he wanted people to take away from his spot in Art House Press, he told me “That’s up to you – I want you to do your thing, to use your artistic sense to portray your impression of me.” He wanted me to take the wheel and he was truly willing to leave it all up to me. I’d say that’s a pretty ballsy approach for such a young dude, but that’s part of the enigma of Shy, who appears to be an old soul in a young man’s body.
Shy started to fidget a bit and said, “Let’s walk.” Um, ok, another abrupt switch. We started on a walk to Manhattan Square Park. Here I felt like I learned the most about Shy. He seemed a little constrained or uncomfortable in the coffee house and seemed totally at ease as we walked in the perfect summer evening.
He told me a bit more about some of his life experiences: like getting hit by cars (yes, plural, as in more than once) and living in the various parts of the city. Shy said he’s from all over the place – that he’s lived in just about any section of Rochester you can think of. I wondered how that could be for a seventeen-year-old, but I figured that would be too personal for him to share. Shy related his story of being chased through a neighborhood by a group of dudes as he walked a girl home. “Into the hood again, dodgin’ hooligans…” He mentioned that eerie feeling you get when you walk into an area that you know is bad just by the way it makes you feel.
We talked about injuries and how people react to them, both mentally and physically. Much of this talk revolved around staying positive and not letting the demons win. Shy’s perspective comes down to spirituality, and advancing in the face of negativity. “I circ’ round the block just to humble the conscience, exhale the bullshit to rid the air of nonsense…” The theme of “earth, wind, and fire” was a recurring one. Shy had mentioned it a couple of times over coffee, and then again while we walked to the park. I think for Shy “earth, wind, and fire” represents the strength of the spirit to overcome the elements of life. To be one with nature and not try to stand in the way of its progress, even when that progress is at your expense. Stay positive. I can’t think of a more important lesson for any age – life happens, and sometimes that hurts. It’s how we react and learn that dictates the future outcome, not the fact that we got knocked down.
To be at Manhattan Square Park near dusk with only a handful of people dispersed throughout, the park felt simultaneously peaceful and admittedly a touch foreboding, but Shy seemed as happy as could be.
As we sat on a bench our conversation changed course to kung fu. That may sound silly considering this is supposed to be about Shy and his art, but kung fu is a martial art. Going back to Shy’s spiritual outlook, kung fu actually makes a lot of sense. Martial arts are practiced to unite one’s mind, body, and spirit. It is through discipline and practice that one may elevate as high as desire and intention may lead, and also to learn patience. The main components of kung fu philosophy are breathing, relaxing, and focusing. In those terms, kung fu is very much an art form – ways to connect to your emotions and understand them, so as to live your passion. There are many excerpts attributed to kung fu such as “be like water, and like wind, and flame, and earth, and stone” , and “the internal reflects the external” that recall Shy’s earth, wind, and fire references.
Dusk faded into the summer night’s signaling the end of our interview. I asked Shy if there was anyplace I could drive him – I felt weird leaving him at the park by himself. From his place of elevated consciousness he thought about the offer for a moment and then said plainly, “Thanks but I think I’ll just chill here for a bit.” I asked again just to be sure he really wanted me to leave him sitting on a bench in a nearly deserted city park, but he said, “Nah, I’m just gonna stay here and practice some kung fu.”
So, I took the short walk back to the car and started home. Listening to Shy’s cd I was really impressed with how skillful the arrangements are for a young person working on his own. I would liken Shy’s delivery to a combination of Guru’s narrative style (from the old Gang Starr records) and Q Tip’s (from Tribe) positivity. “My kinetic charge moves nations, building many positive relations…”
As I listened to Shy’s lyrics, I harkened back to our earlier discussions. Unbeknownst to me, Shy had managed to work most of his songs into our conversation in an easy, unforced manner. I simply started laughing to myself as I drove home, not knowing if I just got played, or if the consistency of Shy’s stories to his songs made them more believable. Though the stories and songs were relayed slightly differently, the main details were solidly aligned. The fact that this young man can express himself so effectively in two very different mediums, with little or no training is simply amazing. I think Shy’s potential is infinite. As long as he is able to focus his energies in a positive direction Shy can achieve anything. Many times we only hear negativity regarding our city’s young people – violence, drugs, drop-out rates, etc. The success stories seem to get passed over and as a result they become the exceptions. It was my pleasure to meet with Shy and share a bit of his story so that a positive light may be shed on a talented young man living in “Roc City – not known to give pity.” I can’t wait to go to an art opening featuring Shy’s artwork, buy his music or watch his movie so I can say, “I met that dude and we talked about kung fu.”
It’s early summer. Flowers are in bloom. It’s peaceful. It’s beautiful. My drive from Rochester to Penn Yan passes through pastoral landscapes of scripted fields burgeoning with crops, fenced pastures wafting with rural scents, and tree-lined hamlets announcing church dinners and lemonade stands. My destination is Hawk Ridge, Sheldon Berlyn’s home and art studio. I have a lunch date with him and his wife Diane.
As I’m driving east on Rt. 5, I think about an article I read in which the author heralds Berlyn as “an archetype of contemporary art culture.” A coveted title to be sure and duly appropriated. His credentials are imposing: a career spanning five decades; fellowships, awards, and exhibitions far too numerous to list in this short space; a forty-year member of “Who’s Who in American Art”; and most impressive, a mainstay in nearly fifty private, public, and corporate collections.
Sheldon Berlyn is an abstract expressionist. In other words, he creates nonrepresentational art; his art is not mimetic of nature: you can’t see figures; you can’t see landscapes, albeit their influence is ultimately presented in some form. Berlin’s interest is to create form and shape and not least to extrapolate an aesthetic response from his beholder. His work is characterized by the interplay of sweeping graceful arcs and semi-transparent layers of color that travel in horizontal and vertical motion. He accomplishes this by what is referred to as gestural painting, that is to say, expressive paint strokes that deliberately emphasize the movement of his hand or the sweep of his arm. The aim is to reflect personality and mood much like my or your gestures reflect our personality and mood. But here’s the thing that trips me up: Berlyn cues from the great masters—Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Pontormo, and the later works of Cezanne, Manet, and Monet, among others—as models for his abstractions. I’m admittedly confounded. The contrast between the nondescript elements of Berlyn’s abstract art and the realistic representations of Baroque and Impressionist art is striking. Where does he see the connection?
“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful – as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth harmony.”
– James McNeill Whistler
I’m beginning to think I’m in over my head. In an effort to push down my angst, I let my mind finger through the Rolodex of literary movements and theories I studied as a graduate student, trying to determine which label would best identify what I know so far of Berlyn’s work. Literary theory is born from many of the same cultural fluctuations that informed the tenets of the shifting art movements, so there’s not much stretch between the two. And in this case the mental exercise is helpful before meeting with an “archetype of contemporary art” who self-reportedly “intellectualizes his work.” I’m hoping the afternoon with Berlyn will give me a perspective broader than, or at least different from, the delineated genres in which I’ve been taught to identify art, and my hope is fulfilled.
He greets me from an outdoor balcony and directs me to the stairway leading to where he and his aging Labrador wait. Berlyn lives in a post-and-beam home of his own design that recalls Buddhist minimalism and Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. Whatever angst I had is immediately disarmed by his congeniality. After a hearty handshake, he escorts me into his cool, naturally-lit house, which sits on a densely treed hillside flanking Keuka Lake. I am introduced to his wife Diane who is an established artist in her own right, and the three of us gather at the dining table for lunch and conversation, which eventually leads to a discussion of a large painting situated above the Kawai grand piano in the adjoining living space.
I study the painting for some time while Berlyn patiently waits. The very act of searching for an interpretation in Berlyn’s work is pleasurable and I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde’s observation that “there are works which wait, and which one does not understand for a long time; the reason is that they bring answers to questions which have not yet been raised.”
Finally, I tell him I see dancers, elegant and sure—perhaps a waltz, a sweeping ballet—and indeed, he tells me this was his intention when he created the painting. He is pleased at my recognition—an affirmation of a master’s work. “Human kinetic movement is what I’m after,” he explains. I tell him that the iridescent delicacy of the white paint pulled by his homemade squeegee adds a lyrical, linear direction suggestive of a musical score. “That was not intended,” he says, “I remember doing this painting and I remember how excited I was that I could control it all the way through to its end while maintaining a certain tension and that the whole thing came together as a unified structure.” Berlyn is acutely conscious of his placement of form and of visual balance. He aptly controls the beholder’s eye so that it never goes totally off the page. Calm. Grace. Beauty.
He then shows me to his studio on the lower-level, also paneled with floor-to-ceiling windows. He pulls a large canvas from an upright bin. “I reference Caravaggio in this painting,” he says as he places it on the tabletop, “This is the ‘Martyrdom of St. Matthew.’” I don’t get it and I tell him so. He explains:
“What I did was draw a grid over [Caravaggio’s] work and also a series of concentric circles and diagonals to show what his compositional reference is. Diagonals and horizontals determine where the figures line up and the concentric circles have to do with the receding and advancing quality of the imagery,” he says. “You see, I’m not trying to be totally literal, but I am using the dramatic characteristics of Baroque painting, and I’m using the placement and directional flow of the figures, but I’m totally abstracting it. I’m not trying to reproduce or imitate Caravaggio as such.” Berlyn’s ultimate goal is to create a good painting, an interesting painting, one with variation, one that you can look at once and come back to time and again and see it for the first time. “That is the mission of true art—to make us pause and look at a thing a second time,” posits Oscar Wilde.
After talking over several more paintings, uses of color, which Berlyn takes particular pride in (a nod to Josef Albers et. al), and interpretations, we come to the end of the afternoon. I’m compelled to ask to see the ink drawings he sketched while in the Korean War. He is most happy to oblige me. He goes to a back room and returns a moment later with a box he made to house this collection of some of his earliest work. He uncoils the string that wraps it with the lightest of hand, approaches the edge of the paper as if it were a tiny bird, and turns the first drawing over for us to view. I am again struck by the delicacy of his artistic hand, but even more so by the humanness with which he depicted his subjects: Korean prisoners in his charge. Men and women, some robed in linen garb, some busying themselves with banal tasks, all depicted as gentle, kind, human, and lonely. War.
Where does Berlyn see the connection? I get it now. What I had come to understand is that by distilling human emotion from the objects of nature, by eliminating the embellishments of gender, class, status, particularities of environment, boundaries, Berlyn disabuses any misperception about what it is to be human. He rises to a symbolic expression that reaches across time, culture, and borders to convey the essential, even spiritual, ideas of experience and of art.
My mood is elevated and light; my intellect crisp and heady. I am somehow aware of the weight of the hours I spent with Sheldon Berlyn and that I am somehow changed. A chord has been struck. In my literary world, it would be the equivalent of studying, if only for a trollop of time, with a Pulitzer Prize author, and I wonder if years from now university students will be highlighting Berlyn’s biography with yellow marker, cramming his philosophies about art, about beauty, about minimalism and essence into their heads in the wee hours of the night, readying themselves for a mid-term exam. Berlyn is a master of his art, a man of excellence, a man of measure who creates because he must create, an artist for art’s sake.
When I stop at the bottom of the winding drive, I look into my rearview mirror. Hawk Ridge is out of my field of vision—a respite tucked in a lakeside wood, hidden, as it should be, from the masses—and I am aware that my perspective of art in the old sense has faded.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 29,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 11 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
Art House Press Magazine met with a booming response!! All of the magazines flew off the shelves! We are now working on the second issue!!! Stay tuned!
Barnes & Nobles Pittsford Plaza, Parkleigh, Cornell’s Jewelers, Java’s, Arena’s, Spot Coffee, Pour Coffee, Memorial Art Gallery Gift Shop, Starry Nites Cafe, Makers Gallery & Studio, Scratch Bakeshop, Rochester Brainery, Axom Gallery, Joe Bean Coffee, Upper Crust Cakery//Glen Edith Coffee Roasters, RoCo, Root31, Scott Miller, Gallery Salon, Village Bakery, West Elm, Del Monte Spa & MORE COMING!
This December, there are a lot of bright-eyed dreamers waiting impatiently for one specific day- a day they will come together with friends and family to celebrate, eat together, and maybe even dress up as a Sith Lord. (A week later, they might also celebrate some holiday called Christmas.) If December 18th means more to you than “only 7 more shopping days,” you will definitely appreciate the art of Dave Pollot, a self-taught painter who turns lonely thrift store art into fantastical pop-cultural parodies that appeal to the kid in all of us.
I was born the same year Star Wars came to the big screen, so having grown up with Luke, Han, Leia, and a bunch of droids, I am especially drawn to Dave’s painting “Marina.” In it, an Imperial Star Destroyer emerges through wispy clouds and hovers over a weather-beaten marina. I can easily picture this piece in my living room, visitors admiring it above my couch, their brows furrowing as they think to themselves- hold up. Is that an Imperial Star Destroyer? Why is there an Imperial Star Destroyer in this painting? And what is she doing with it in her living room?
Dave does not just paint Star Wars parodies. In one of his paintings, Harry Potter and Ron Weasley soar over a Thomas Kinkade-like setting in the Weasley’s flying automobile. In another piece, a weeping angel from an iconic Dr. Who episode stands in front of a blacksmith shop, where a white horse peers at it dubiously. Dave has expertly altered each painting so that it seems as if these pop-cultural references have always lived on these canvasses.
Dave’s amusing spoofs have garnered him fans across the globe. Currently, he has over 29,000 followers on Instagram and over 26,000 fans on Facebook. What was initially a quirky hobby has turned into a full-fledged business. A software engineer by day, Dave spends his evenings painting. He says his two vocations balance “the left and right side of my brain.” His wife, Becca, runs their thriving Etsy store and takes care of the business side of the enterprise, marketing the work, signing them up for art shows across the area, and even locating previously-used canvases for Dave. In fact, Becca is the reason Dave began repurposing thrift store art in the first place.
Dave has been painting since childhood, when his father dabbled in Bob Ross-style painting. A Palmyra native, Dave began painting, too, and received a bit of “formal” education during his high school years. Dave also enjoyed math, and pursued computer programming in college. He didn’t take up painting again until his adult years, though he only produced about one painting per year. However, Dave was becoming bored creating what he called “traditional architectural paintings.” In 2010, Dave met Becca, a Palmyra native with an entrepreneurial spirit and love of second-hand objects.
Soon after Dave and Becca started dating, Becca began dragging Dave along on her thrift-store shopping ventures. On their journeys, they would often come across abandoned art and would joke it with one another about it, imaging how the canvas would look if Dave took a paintbrush to it. Then one day, Becca brought Dave a print from one of her excursions. “Do something with this,” she said. So he did. Soon, Dave and Becca they were actively looking for thrift-store paintings they could upcycle into original Dave Pollots. The first one featured a “silly little monster” from Dave’s head, but soon he was painting stuff he loved while growing up: characters from Ghostbusters, Star Wars, Super Mario Brothers, Legend of Zelda, and other “random geeky pop culture.”
After the Laughing Squid, an art, culture, and technology blog, showcased some of his work, news about Dave’s “geeky” art spread quickly. A feature article on Instagram gave him even more exposure. Becca, who has taken care of the logistics of the business from the beginning, became overwhelmed trying to juggle the business with her day job. So, she quit day job, and began managing Dave Pollot Art, LLC, full time. Becca runs their bustling Etsy shop, where they sell Dave’s original paintings, limited edition prints, canvas prints, and Christmas cards.
Dave believes people are drawn to his work in part because they are nostalgic for things from their youth, but also because they enjoy just laughing at something. His work takes a tongue-in-cheek jab at art that takes itself a little too seriously. Not surprisingly, Dave’s approach has garnered criticism from a select few who argue Dave is “ruining art.” Sensitive to this complaint, Dave avoid working on original oil paintings. Instead, he searches for reproductions and mass-produced art out of respect for other artists. Every piece he been languishing in a thrift store. Each provides him with a new challenge as he carefully adapts the style of the original artist when painting onto the canvases. He finds that matching the colors and the background of the paintings is much more difficult than composing an original piece.
Dave is just wrapping up a busy season of art festivals and shows, which have taken up most weekends since the weather turned warm. (His most recent exhibition took place during The Strong Museum’s “In Another Galaxy” weekend, a science fiction extravaganza that drew crowds both young and old.) This year, he has traveled as far as San Diego’s Comic Con, and as close as Rochester’s own Clothesline Festival. After an art convention in Geneseo early in the new year, Becca and Dave may be able to have an actual Saturday night out on the town, sans Slimer, Darth Vader, or Voltron.
Meanwhile, the couple has a basement full of thrift-store art waiting to be improved upon. Most evenings, you can find Dave at home with a craft beer in one hand and a paintbrush in the other. Except, perhaps, on December 18th, when local theaters might just provide Dave with new ideas for art that any sci-fi geek would love to hang on their walls.
I’ve known Penfield native Erica Bello for a couple of years now, but in that time I had never seen her so animated and talkative as she was during our interview session. I think during the entire hour or so we met over coffee I asked three questions, maybe. It was like she had bottled up years of jewelry making conversation and let it all out at once! I was rather expecting this interview to be difficult because Erica is the first artist I’ve interviewed with whom I had any familiarity. To the contrary, the only difficulty I had during our chat was keeping up with the flow of information.
I asked Erica what her thoughts were on the negative connotation of “craft” and what the word means to her. She relayed her definition as “something hand-made, of a certain quality, using skills acquired through education and experience.” It’s “making a technique or medium their own”, and likened it to the “difference between a career vs a hobby.” Erica believes that the term “craft” doesn’t have to be negative, and the fact is that craft is a broad term that can be applied to any number of delineations. Erica does feel that the growth of arts and crafts websites have skewed craft towards the low value, poor-quality end of the spectrum. Even within its own parameters, young jewelers face a bit of an uphill climb. Many of the established studio jewelers started when materials were inexpensive, education was inexpensive, and competition was scarce. Today’s younger artists, if college educated, face mounds of debt from exorbitant tuition costs to go along with the highest recorded prices of precious metals and stones. Thus, when the older, established group sees the prices that the newbies are asking, they react negatively and tend to dismiss the work of the new generation.
So then how does a young jeweler earn that respect? One of the ways is to exhibit at large national fine craft shows. These shows are highly competitive to get into because they attract the best and the brightest. On the down side, they tend to be expensive for the exhibitors for these same reasons. Also, Erica told me how new artists have to establish their presence at these shows by attending for a few years consecutively before buyers trust enough to purchase. These jewelry pieces tend to be a bit more expensive and customers want to feel secure that the jeweler from whom they buy is going to be around for awhile just in case something happens to their purchase. After all, jewelry sold at these types of shows is meant to be worn, and it stands to reason that some breakage will occur. Despite some of these drawbacks of the larger shows, Erica feels that they are imperative for an up-and-coming artist to try to attend. Even if your work isn’t selling, you meet all of these other artists and see their work first hand. Jewelry is obviously a very tactile product – you need to feel its weight, and observe directly the quality of the soldering and the materials themselves. Erica said that when she first started getting into and attending these shows, besides actually selling product, the compliments from her peers were what really urged her to continue honing her craft.
Hone her craft she has! Erica is the 2014 winner of the Halstead Grant which began in 2006. Halstead is a huge jewelry supplier that started this award to propel the emerging careers of promising fine jewelry makers. One winner per year is awarded $5000 cash to use any way he or she chooses and $1000 worth of supplies. One of the things that separates the Halstead from other grants is that the winner does not have to repay their winnings. The application for the grant is a questionnaire consisting of ten questions which Erica responded to in approximately twenty pages. In essence, the questions and answers are a business plan. The idea is to determine who has a grasp of their market, process, and their product to the point that they can effectively formulate a strategy to be successful. Erica told me that she still refers to her answers if she feels that she’s spinning her wheels a bit. To have the appropriate solutions written down at her disposal is a huge asset in running a one- person studio business.
While at RIT, Erica learned all about traditional metalsmithing, fabricating, and casting to create her jewelry. This is also where she fell in love with silver as the main component of her work. Erica made the most of her time at RIT, where a professor told her “school is the only place where you can make any type of jewelry you want to make,” so she did. Often Erica would make twice as much work as required by the assignment and really explored how she wanted to make her pieces look. She had learned the basics in high school, where she became one of those art kids that is always hanging around the art rooms. She was a self described art “junkie” and continued on to MCC where she was only offered the usual drawing and painting classes. They did not have any of the 3-D art classes like sculpture, jewelry making, pottery, etc. Erica didn’t feel at home there and after completing the degree requirements decided to take a year off and find a job. She began working at Jared’s doing mostly clerical and quality control tasks. Although not what she had envisioned as a jeweler, Erica said that the experience with the business end of things really helped her in starting her own business. Quality control and pricing are absolutely two of the more important areas of running a successful business.
Erica’s work is designed to be worn. While this sounds obvious, there is a segment of the jewelry making world that strives to create work that resides in display cases – beautiful pieces in every regard, but absolutely unwearable. Part of Erica’s design plan is factoring how the piece will age – durability, patina, weight and comfort, and its overall functionality. She describes this as “kinetic jewelry” – as it is designed to move with the wearer. Another way to describe her work is “functional sculpture”, again, referring to the fact that her jewelry is going to be abused in normal day-to-day activity. Erica described her work as traditional jewelry silhouettes, referring to many of the pieces not containing stones. Essentially, that makes them hollow settings, or a metaphor for some people’s desires for enormous precious stones, and the image that that portrays. Erica creates her minimalist work mostly by taking two-dimensional components and soldering them together to create 3-D shapes. This is a painstaking process requiring an amazing attention to detail and lots and lots of time. This process is getting easier with the use of 3-D printers. These printers allow for intricate and delicate components to be made more accurately and quickly than can be accomplished by hand. Erica approximates that 30% of her work is done using these printers now, and any jeweler needs to have at least some working knowledge of them to move designs forward. The fine details of this advancement allows for the more traditional styles to be made again, which tend to feature really small complex components.
Although Erica has spent several years developing her own style of jewelry, she describes herself as being at the beginning stages of her evolution as a fine jeweler. This idea of “implied volume” by creating hollow structures is nearly limitless in its scope, so she feels she hasn’t come close to exhausting her possibilities. Currently in the process of moving to Baltimore, Erica is excited about her proximity to The Baltimore Jewelry Center. This is a state-of-the-art off-shoot of the Maryland Institute College of Art, or M.I.C.A., focusing on the art of making jewelry. Serving as a possible look into the future of arts and crafts education, M.I.C.A. dropped its jewelry making curriculum due to small class sizes and high costs to operate. Students aren’t lining up to attend craft programs at major institutions because they are cost prohibitive. The Baltimore Jewelry Center may be the wave of the future for prospective arts and craft students as it is a not-for-profit, community based education center with brand new high caliber facilities. Students can take one class or a series of classes taught by professionals in their fields of expertise and not bury themselves in student loans in the process. Although the thought of colleges and universities dropping art programs sounds awfully scary, it may actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise by promoting the regrowth of lesser know fine arts and crafts.
“Craft” or “Fine Craft” as its best self, blurs the line between art and craft. At its worst, it is a poorly constructed glob of whimsy selling on Etsy. However, as we all know, art is in the eye of the beholder, and even that glob is fantastic to someone. Jewelry making is one of the reasons that line is blurred because the level of designs, quality of the materials, skills of execution, and practicality of the pieces can vary so dramatically. Erica is doing her best to help jewelry making uphold its value by using precious metals to create functional, well-made, hand-crafted jewelry pieces. Though we will surely miss her locally, we should be very excited to see one of Rochester’s own take her work to another level. Also, if you happen to be in the area, here’s a list of national shows at which Erica will be exhibiting:
December 4-5 – Society for Contemporary Craft
Pittsburgh, PA (Jewelry EDITION)
February 19 – 21, 2016 – American Craft Council Show
May 25- 29, 2016 – UWM Art History Gallery
Los Angeles, California, Washington D.C., and Rochester, NY. Do you know what these three cities have in common? They are home to the largest Deaf communities in the U.S. According to the American Community Survey, which was conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Census, Rochester boasts an estimated 19,428 aged under 65 deaf and hard-of-hearing residents in the area. Rochester has the largest deaf and hard-of-hearing population per capita in the U.S.A. (There are an estimated 23,236 deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals over 65 also living in the Rochester area.)
Rochester is also famous for being a smaller city with a big art scene, and so it was no surprise when an eventual intersection of the city’s deaf and art community came about. The Rochester Institute of Technology’s (RIT) National Technical Institute for the Deaf opened the Dyer Arts Center in 2000, a state-of-the-art gallery that showcases work by the deaf and hard of hearing, as well as allies of the Deaf community. The gallery has been expanding its reach into the greater Rochester community, and recently partnered with RocCity Signers, a community-based American Sign Language (ASL) studio. The gallery and the ASL studio have joined together to participate in First Friday Rochester. Susan Rizzo, founder of RocCity Signers, spoke with me about the collaboration between the two institutions.
RocCity Signers is a relatively new organization, established by Susan in 2013. Born from a desire to provide (surprisingly) hard-to-come-by ASL classes in a city with a large deaf population, RocCity Signers offers ASL classes for students ages 3 to adult. The studio is located in the heart of downtown Rochester on Goodman Street. Susan is a hearing ASL instructor and owner of RocCity Signers, and she has an enormous heart for Rochester’s Deaf community.
Susan took a non-linear approach to becoming an ASL instructor. Taking her first ASL class as a child in her hometown of Los Angeles class sparked an interest in sign language and Deaf culture, and she attempted to pursue that interest in high school. She and a girlfriend registered for a community college course in ASL, but had trouble finding parking on the first day. When they eventually found their classroom, they became flummoxed when trying to figure out how to explain their lateness to their deaf instructor. With tails between their legs, they left the class and never went back.
Susan took the same class later in college, and also ended up doing an in-depth comparison of English and ASL instead of taking a traditional comparative linguistics course. She earned a BA in Biology from Amherst College and subsequently headed to Chicago for medical school. At Finch University of Health Science/ Chicago Medical School, Susan founded the Deaf Culture Forum. The forum served to educate physicians about deaf culture, giving them a comprehensive understanding of what it means to be deaf from beyond a medical standpoint. In 2001, Susan began her MS in Secondary Education of Students who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing at Rochester National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at RIT. After she earned her degree, she headed back to Chicago where she worked as a teacher, a project manager, and earned another MA in Linguistics at the University of Chicago. She moved back to Rochester in 2012.
Susan described RocCity Signers as a “very casual learning environment.” Reluctant to call it a school, she refers to her space as a studio. She teaches a variety of classes each week, including “It’s Baby Signing Time!,” “ASL for Teens,” and “ASL Family Class.” There are three adult classes offered, from an introductory class to an intermediate-level class.
One day, Susan asked her friend, a professor at NTID, how to get the word out about RocCity Signers. The fledgling studio was established, and Susan was ready to grow her business. Her friend mused that the RocSigner’s studio space would make a great location for a First Friday event. He then showed her artwork from a friend, and told her that the NTID’s Dyer Art Gallery had a new curator. When Susan first reached out to Tabitha Jacques, the new director of the Dyer Arts Center had only been serving in the position for three months. Unsure whether or not Jacques would be receptive to a collaboration, Susan was pleasantly surprised when the director jumped at the opportunity.
Susan’s studio is a suite comprised of four adjoining rooms in a once single-family home. Converting the space into a gallery was surprisingly easy. The walls were already white, so the transformation entailed just the removal of chairs and the careful measuring and hanging of the art, which was done by Tabitha and a co-op student.
On September 4th, RocCity Signers hosted its first First Friday event. Susan had the privilege of curating the show herself, and describes gaining access to the Dyer art collection like being “a kid in a candy store.” Dyer owns an impressive collection of works, and Susan was excited to recognize and feature many of the noted artists.
One artist featured is Nancy Rourke, an expressionist painter involved in the De’VIA (Deaf View/Image Art) art movement – a category of art that is made specifically for the Deaf community. Susan describes the movement as “pride and affirmation art.” Susan met Rourke, who is also the first subject profiled in Jim W. Van Manen’s deaf art series, at an art exhibit in Detroit about a year ago. Susan was excited to have Nancy’s art on her studio walls. “Nancy paints primarily in primary colors and black and white. Each color stands for something. She has painted so many people in the deaf world,” Susan says.
Other artists exhibited at RocCity Signers’ First Friday events include Ann Silver, Mary Rappozzo, Guy Wonder, and Chuck Baird – one of the world’s most famous deaf painters. “He tends to paint deaf themes,” says Susan. For instance, he painted a man signing the word “tiger” with the visual imagery of the tiger looming from behind. The Baird painting owned by the Dyer Gallery, however, does not have an explicitly deaf theme. It is entitled “Rainbow,” and shows four paintbrushes that have been dipped in four different colors of paint on a hinge attached to a chalkboard canvas. The viewer can only imagine what the rainbow would look like on the canvas. Susan says it’s rare for a gallery to own a painting that doesn’t have a deaf theme. Sadly, Baird died of cancer in 2012.
The first show had no initial theme itself; Susan simply chose art she liked, art that would fit on her studio walls. Entitled “Polychromatic Whimsy: Through Deaf Eyes and Hands,” the show featured “fanciful pieces in a prismatic range of hues.” The event was a big success, drawing in a crowd of approximately 70 people. The second show, which took place on October 2, was curated by Dyer. The Halloween-themed event is called “Clairvoyance: The Physique of Phantoms.” This collection of bizarre and somewhat unnerving pieces are still hanging in the RocCity Signers studio. Susan’s personal favorite is a piece by Robin Bartholick that has been exhibited in both First Friday events. “Airhead” is a digitally manipulated image of a man whose head looks like it has been sawed open. A balloon floats out of the opened cranium. The second show had a smaller audience, many of them students, but was well received.
The only thing Susan received in turn for offering her space as a gallery is the pleasure of having great art on her walls, and a little bit of exposure for her studio. Her efforts are primarily about exposing Rochester’s vibrant deaf culture to a wider public. Susan believes Dyer Arts Center is an important part of the Rochester community. “Dyer provides deaf artists a place where they can go, a place where they can display work that the Deaf community can relate to, where deaf-themed art and deaf artists can break out into public consciousness.”
In the city with the country’s highest per capita deaf population, promoting Deaf culture should be a priority. Susan Rizzo’s efforts to bring these extraordinary works into the public sphere should be applauded, and we look forward to further First Friday events at RocCity Signers.