Tag Archives: Pam Acord

SHELDON BERLYN

BY PAM ACORD

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.

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon – Artist Sheldon Berlyn

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.

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon - Artist Sheldon Berlyn

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon – Artist Sheldon Berlyn

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.

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon

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.

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon - Artist Sheldon Berlyn

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon – Artist Sheldon Berlyn

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.

RANDALL COOK

BY PAM ACORD

Fiber artist Randall Cook’s initiation into quilting was born from the necessity to keep his mind active during Rochester’s long winter evenings. This doesn’t come as any great surprise. Randall is a certified project management professional and a nationally certified physical fitness instructor. He thrives on stimulation and activity. Moreover, he was raised on a Vermont dairy farm, and idle time on any farm is wasted time. Finding himself caught in the fray of the Y2K software frenzy, Randall’s days were spent managing software updates and deadlines; his nights were spent looking for ways to fill the hours. You know the routine: Work. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Many of us would find a blanket, a couch, and a TV Guide. Randall bought a sewing machine and crafted his first quilt.

Photography by John Schlia - Sewing machine

Photography by John Schlia – Sewing machine

Soon after he made another and another, gifting them to members of his family. He was his own apprentice, learning mostly from a book he picked up at the local bookstore. Quilting, for Randall, was a way to keep the neurons firing in an already astute mind.

Quilting has a long and storied history. Fine fabrics, pieced and quilted, regaled monarchs thousands of years before the common era; woolen mats cushioned the earthen floors of our tribal ancestors; dense layers of tied and knotted fabrics thwarted the would-be fatal blows of the Medieval warrior’s sword; layered and sewn bed linens averted the winter’s chill. In America’s early history, quilts were instruments of comfort as well, but they were often designed to communicate family histories. Pieces cut from Grandpa Jack’s flannel shirt or Grandma Jane’s cotton apron and a multitude of other once-loved garments were arranged to depict a story, to immortalize the present and preserve the past. They were functional heirlooms, handed down from one generation to the next. Like many human creations, quilts were instruments born from necessity, but unlike other creations, the craft of quilting evolved into an artform.

When I think of quilts, my mind’s eye

Photography by John Schlia - Detail of "Un-equal Until Death?"

Photography by John Schlia – Detail of “Un-equal Until Death?”

sees the traditional circle of women seated around sections of a quilt-in-the-making, stretched tight over a wooden frame the size of a dining room table, each with a sewing needle in hand, stitching to and fro, up and down through layers of fabric, chatting while young children scramble at play. These women are lovers of the craft, masters in their field.

When asked to write a story on Randall, I did the typical pre-interview research that most writers do: I pulled up his website. I expected fine craftsmanship. I expected calico prints, colors, geometric designs, maybe even some floral bouquets, battened with precision-needled threading. I expected to be impressed. But never did I expect to be wowed. What I saw on my computer screen ain’t nothing like your mama’s quilt. What I saw were works of fine art. Stunning.

I emailed Randall to tell him I’d like to write his story for Art House Press.

Photography by John Schlia - Randall Cook in front of his sewing machine

Photography by John Schlia – Randall Cook in front of his sewing machine

He invites me to his home where he hangs much of his work while pending sale. Sunday morning coffee and bagels. Randall is tall. He’s muscular. Again, not what I expected. He’s articulate and has a sturdy handshake (sturdy handshakes always impress me). He has a degree in mathematics, a MBA from the University of Rochester, and a sewing machine the length of my living room.
Randall earned his degree in the conventional quilting style. His early quilts are traditional in craft—fabric cut into small pieces and sewn together to create a larger pattern. His work titled At the Beginning Again . . . A Challenge to Myself took home the 2nd Place ribbon in the Large Traditional Quilts category and the Excellence in Machine Workmanship award at the 2004 New York State Quilt Consortium. That same year, Contained Chaos, took home the 1st Place ribbon for Art Quilts.

Although Contained Chaos may at first glance appear to be a traditionally pieced quilt, its abstract yet unusually ordered design breaks from its traditional cousins. It’s comprised of multiple squares, each a single quadrant of a wheel-of-life type design.

Photo provided - "Contained Chaos" by Randall Cook

Photo provided – “Contained Chaos” by Randall Cook

Several of these “wheels,” some in the foreground, some in the background, create a larger design. My eye moves in circular motion as I look at it, yet at every turn, the wheel changes color—perhaps a reminder of the uncertainty in the twists and turns of life. It’s a complicated design with a complicated message. It’s the bridge piece that heralds Randall’s identity as a fiber artist.

The obvious question here is: what’s the difference between a quilter and a fiber artist? That’s a difficult question to answer, if indeed a satisfactory answer exists. Firstly, the process in making an art quilt is markedly different than that of a traditional quilt.

Randall explains: He begins with white 100% cotton. Using squirt bottles and the finest of dyes, he discriminately stains the background colors for the image(s) the stitch pattern will ultimately reveal. This is an unforgiving process. A painter can paint over a mistake; a fabric artist can’t. At this point, the fabric can never return to the color of white. Once stained with dye, he then does some serious stitching that I can only describe in the likes of a Chopin piano trill or a point dance of Natalia Makarova—it’s that finely tuned. Intricate and shifting patterns create images just as a painter’s brushstrokes create images on canvas.

The first “art” quilt Randall shows me is his most recent titled One Earth. Calm, soothing ocean blues meet sky blues that flow between shades of greens. It’s pleasing to look at—healthy, vigorous.

Photography by John Schlia - "One Earth" by Randall Cook

Photography by John Schlia – “One Earth” by Randall Cook

The major portion of the work, however, is a deluge of reds as vibrant as blood. It’s hard to tell if it is bleeding from the earth or giving life to the earth. I ask Randall which he intended. He tells me it could be either. It’s all in the interpretation. One Earth is an abstract design—one of many of Randall’s more recent works. He tells me the abstract pieces are his favorite to create. “The best pieces have the least thought,” he says, “when I stop thinking is when I become most creative.”

Randall is an award-winning artist—national and international—and a published artist. His portfolio displays an impressive range of skill and vision: traditional pieced quilts, abstract dye-painted quilts, and figurative quilts.

“Where do you go from here, “ I ask.

“I want to grow artistically,” he says, “not necessarily in my quilting skills, but photography, I think, will be my next project. I want to use photos as models for my figurative art quilts.”

I Remain, perhaps Randall’s most celebrated figurative art work, was chosen as a finalist by the International Quilt Association in 2007. It’s included among the most noted fiber art pieces in People & Portraits: Profiles of Major Artists, Galleries of Inspiring Works, and most notably featured in the “Shocking Quilts” issue of Mark Lipinski’s magazine Quilter’s Home. It’s an imposing Adonis-like image of a male nude amidst a forest of burning reds, grasping the limb of a tree. It’s an image of strength, of rebirth, of renewal, of defeat and hope. It has earned every accolade it has received.

Fractured Self (my favorite) is the marriage of traditional and artistic quilting and arguably the most representative of Randall’s “constant tug-of-war at play in [his] life.” Fractured Self 2, likewise, is a post-modern amalgam of disparate styles—pieced, dye-painted, abstract, figurative. It returns us to the question: What is the difference between a quilter and a fabric artist?

Perhaps none. It’s all in the interpretation.

Visit Randall Cook’s website HERE!

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JUDITH RANALETTA

BY PAM ACORD

Judith's Headshot copy

Photography by Tony Barbagallo – Judith Ranaletta

 

When Judith Ranaletta was a young girl, an idea came to her while she and her father were on their way to the ice skating rink. She saw a “For Rent” sign posted in the window of a vacant space in a nearby shopping plaza. When she returned home that afternoon, she penciled out a budget plan to open her own ballet company. Later that evening, she sat at the family’s dinner table and told her parents she’s going to give ballet lessons to all the girls in the neighborhood. She was 10 years old. Judith’s father, an eternal optimist, taught her to dream; her mother, an eternal realist, taught her to plan and to be patient. Good advice that paid off for a young girl with a vision.

It’s 1982. Greece Athena High School. Judith is a fledgling theater teacher without a theater. No problem. She finds hushed hallways, pushes cafeteria tables against walls, groups singers, dancers, and young thespians into the corners of empty gymnasiums. They sing. They dance. They act. Then they get up and do it again the next day and the next. Stage props are created and dismantled, stuffed into already too-cluttered closets. Costumes are carried to and fro in car trunks. Opening night. The entire production moves to a neighboring high school because it has the theater that Greece Athena doesn’t have.

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon - Students rehearsing at The Strong National Museum of Play

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon – Students rehearsing at The Strong National Museum of Play

It will be decades before Judith’s students perform on a high school stage of their own; nevertheless, they produce award-winning shows year after year, demonstrating—perhaps unwittingly—an important maxim for a productive life: you can find your way around any obstacle.

In 2005, after years of fund-raising, designing, and negotiating, Judith brought a multi-million dollar theater complex to Greece Athena High School, which has come to be affectionately known as “The House That Ran Built”—Judith’s legacy to Rochester’s theater community.

Ten years later. Judith is nominated for a Tony Award—its first in an annual recognition for Excellence in Theater Education.

It’s a mid-March afternoon—2015. Judith and I sit at a bistro table for two in a window corner of a coffee shop. I ask her to tell me what led to her Tony nomination. She’s talking; I’m writing, but not fast enough. Her achievements are indisputably staggering. The list is long and nearly unbelievable. She dons degrees from renowned theater institutes in America and Europe. She studies with celebrity artists. She’s honored with international awards, national awards, and community awards. She is an entrepreneur, a fund-raiser, a teacher, and a mentor. She is an accomplished actress, singer, dancer, director, choreographer, set designer, and costume designer. She is a woman extraordinaire.

When Judith Ranaletta dreams, she dreams big.

Two hours pass and I’m still writing. Here I sit with the woman who single-handedly grew a high school theater program from a scant of 17 students to over 300 in less than three easy years.

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon - Students rehearsing at The Strong National Museum of Play

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon – Students rehearsing at The Strong National Museum of Play

More than 30 of her students have made it to NYC’s big stage; others have become theater teachers themselves; some are social workers, businesspersons; others are stay-at-home moms and dads. Three have been nominated as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts. They call her Ran; she calls them “my kids.” Judith delights in each of them.

Moreover, The Young and The Restless—yes, the soap opera—courted Judith for a role in its cast; the New York City Opera offered her placement in its prestigious lineup; The Fabian Revival Tour recruited her as a backup singer. She turned each offer down. Why? Plain and simple. She is called to teach. And her students have reveled in her tutelage:

 

“Ran showed us the way, made us realize that we were capable of much more than we ever dreamed possible and helped us believe that we could do anything, not just in music, but in our lives!”

 

“She believed in me more than I ever thought I deserved, but she also remembered to keep me and all her students humble.”

 

“Her teaching exuded confidence, pride, and self-worth.”

 

“I never worked with a teacher that made me feel more valued.”

 

Lofty accolades, to be sure, especially when coming from teenagers navigating their way through high school—a time in life wrought with wavering self-identity, aimless rebellion toward authority of all stripes, and anxiety-induced sleep deprivation.

I begin to realize that to catalogue Judith’s achievements is not to understand her success. I want to know about Judith, the woman. I want to know why her students were so willing to forego their self-doubts, how she managed to make them comfortable amidst the throes of theater’s inherent vulnerability.

“What is it about you, the woman Judith, not the award-winner Judith, that makes your students know they are safe when they’re on the stage?” I ask.

“Theater in itself is a safe place to be who you are,” she replies. “It has a great capacity to open hearts, minds, and souls. Art has no boundaries. There’s no black and white, no mold you have to fit into. You can come up with your own colors,” she says. “Many of my students tell me that the work we’ve done together forced them to see their individuality. It gave them their voice.”

“Yes, that may be true,” I say, “but there’s something about you, about Judith, that allowed them to speak that voice. Tell me about that Judith.”

Like most college freshmen, Judith was feeling the pressures of student life—grades, due dates, shuffling schedules, finding her place in the larger community of peers. And like most college freshmen, her sense of self was measured by what she lacked. One quiet winter’s afternoon, she went to the campus chapel. After a few minutes, she was overcome with an astonishing sense of self-value. While washed in this inner comfort, she realized a life-changing truth: “This is who you are. You are Judith Ranaletta. You are not [so-and-so]; you are Judith. Find the best of you.”

“How has that experience affected your teaching?” I ask.

“I have been so blessed in life because of discovering my own value, not just the talent or gift, but the value of being a human being. I had to know that in myself before I could offer my students the opportunity of discovering it for themselves.”

Judith is a teacher’s teacher. The city of Rochester may point to the Greece Athena theater as “The House That Ran Built,” but that’s not the gist of her accomplishment.

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon - Judith directing

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon – Judith directing

Her resume can detail her skills, awards, and her shoulder rubs with the Who’s-Who of the theater stage, but it can’t speak to her most important contribution of all: her human legacy—the many people, young and old, who have realized the value of their humanness through Judith’s work in Rochester’s theater community.

Cast you VOTE for Judith Ranaletta HERE! – Excellence in Theatre Education Award

DUDES NIGHT OUT aka DNO

By Pam Acord

When thinking of an artist, our mind’s eye sees one of two possible individuals: the starving artist or the Sotheby artist. Each is the product of our on-going enchantment with the great man or the great woman. Never the great group.

Why?

Photo provided - DNO Art show @ The Brainery

Photo provided – DNO Art show @ The Brainery

America cut her teeth on Horatio Alger’s triumphant individual. You know him. He’s the one who musters enough gumption to pull himself up by his own bootstraps. Using nothing short of his own wit, his own ingenuity, and perhaps a bit of good luck, he meets his challenges head on and overcomes adversity. America is obsessed with this myth of solitary achievement. Look no further than your TV: Survivor, Hell’s Kitchen, The Apprentice, among a slew of other titles, pit one person against the other. Whether it be money, talent, recognition, or Twinkies, there’s only so much to go around, right? And there’s only one winner. If one guy gets more, the next guy gets less. He must take what he can and do what he must to keep it. He’s in it to win it, and he’s in it for himself. The zero-sum game. It’s the American way.

It’s no surprise then, given our infatuation with the solitary hero, reflected in everything from the worship of rock stars to our fascination with Stephen Jobs, that we underestimate the power of collaboration. Despite our dogged conviction that the individual reigns supreme, the art world rests on creative collaboration.

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Take Michelangelo, for example. His infamous fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is widely assumed to be a masterpiece of a lifetime painted by the master himself. Ah—not so fast. It is no doubt a masterpiece, but the great artisan had thirteen, yes, thirteen, assistants painting alongside him. Likewise, Impressionist artists of the 19th century—Monet and Renoir, Degas and Manet— when blackballed from the Paris salons, met regularly, often painting side by side despite their continued rejection from the Academy. The 20th century followed suit with Cubist painters Picasso and Braque, whose creative collaboration was so intense, they referred to themselves as “two mountaineers roped together.” In the literary arts we have the wonderfully scandalous Bloomsbury writers and the equally vice-ridden Lost Generation of Hemingway’s Paris.

And Rochester’s own Dudes Night Out—a group of eighteen extraordinarily talented individuals who describe themselves as “a big bunch of art-making motherf_ckers having a bunch of fun.”

Two years and a dozen plus art shows under their collective belts, five of the eighteen dudes: two women, three men, meet with me at the ROC Brewing Company. (Yes, women can be dudes!) I watch as they toss around playful insults. They lean toward each other, open-handed, open-faced, eyes wrinkled with smiles that reach deep into the solar plexus. It’s a beautiful scene. What strikes me is their show of utmost respect. After the ribbing about their quirky kids, husbands, wives, or odd pets, the interview begins. Not once do they interrupt, talk over, above, or through the other. Each one cares; each one listens to what the other has to say. We talk a little about the typical who’s-who, the group’s genesis, its goals, and how it has grown from a handful of unknowns to eighteen greatly gifted individuals who now shuffle an impressive schedule of art shows, team meetings, creating new works, and magazine interviews. After a few hours and a beer or two, I begin to see what makes this group tick. It’s not what I expected.

Dudes Night Out is peopled with competent individuals capable of establishing themselves as singular artists and influencing many others—indeed, many already have. They tend to be mavericks working in the margins of their profession. They’re self-motivators who value great amounts of autonomy. Yet, conventional wisdom dictates that a strong group must have a strong leader. But leadership comes in many forms, and like I said, there’s nothing conventional about DNO.

Neither was their meeting conventional. In the early cold of 2013, East Avenue’s Record Archive offered up some wall space for DNO founder Aaron Humby to hang his art. Not wanting this opportunity to slip away, Aaron takes a chance on calling a few artists he remembers from past shows, festivals, or casual conversations and rallies a handful of artists-soon-to-be-dudes he barely knows. “I wanted to find a way to display my work, but I wanted other artists to do it with me,” he explains. “It was total chaos. No one knew what was going on. We were puttin’ paintings up wherever we found a blank space on the wall,” he laughs. They couldn’t have known then that this “big bunch of art-making motherf_ckers having a bunch of fun” turned out to be Dudes Night Out’s entry into Rochester’s art scene.

“How does someone become a dude, I ask. “Anyone can be duded,” according to artist Matt Roberts, “man or woman, but a level of humility must always be maintained.” The dudes recognize the genius of their collective creativity. Their humility won’t allow them to compete. Instead, they continually raise the bar. Competition is motivated by self-promotion. It erodes trust. Raising the bar is motivated by a desire to grow. It builds trust.

I’m reminded of a quote from American writer Henry James: “Every man works better when he has companions working in the same line, and yielding to the stimulus of suggestion, comparison, emulation. Great things have of course been done by solitary workers; but they have usually been done with double the pains they would have cost if they had been produced in more genial circumstances.”

Female-dude, artist Gia Conti knew this long ago, “I never had artist friends I could connect to. Where were you guys in middle school when I was getting dodge balls and powder thrown at me?” she beckons her dude friends. “Being an artist is hard enough,” Gia contends, “But all of us together, we’re a fist, a hive-minded single animal.”

Her sister dude Jes Karakashian agrees, “I wouldn’t make time for my art if I didn’t have DNO. I want to create art to show it to them, to talk about it with them because they make me better. It’s because of the people in this group that I’m even here.”

Magnus Champlin has the unusual habit of hanging his finished artworks in abandoned houses, lonely alleyways, or inside the doorways of bustling street corners. You never know where you might happenchance upon one, but if you do, grab it. Then send off an email. Once he got an email from someone in Colorado. He doesn’t recognize the address but clicks on it anyway. It’s from a man who says he found a framed painting on a Rochester city street with Magnus’s signature on it. Naturally curious, the man googles the signature and writes to Magnus “to see if he’s real.”

In a culture where it’s customary for the leader to be glorified at the expense of the group, DNO founder Aaron Humby couldn’t care less about an organizational chart. Nearly an hour has passed and Aaron hasn’t spoken a word. He feels no need to talk about himself. When I ask about his style of leading, he tells me that after the first year, he didn’t have to do anything. “Everyone came into the group pulling their own weight, plus the next guy’s. They knew what needed to be done and they did it,” he says. Dudes Night Out is a true collaborative of fully developed egos, where members are given the freedom to discover their own greatness and sense of ownership.

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There is no one maestro. One artist is seen as an equal among the others. When one falls behind, the other picks up where she left off.

The thing about the dudes is that they don’t produce art for the money, or for a career, or for status. Make no mistake. They want to sell their art. Again, the difference is in the motivation. They make art because they must make art, they cannot not make art. But a DNO art show is not for self-promotion. They draw no attention to themselves. They mingle with the crowd, inconspicuously, because they see themselves as part of the crowd. You see, it’s not about the art. It’s about connecting. Connecting with humans in a way that only art allows.

Communities that truck in selfless passion and merit are rare. And rarer still are people who take their work seriously without taking themselves seriously, who understand that strength comes to you by giving it away to others. Dudes Night Out is not only a community of greatly gifted talents; it’s a worldview that offers an alternative to the dogged Alger’s myth. “There’s just something about a dude,” says Aaron Humby, “you know one when you meet one.”

-DNO Website CLICK HERE!

CHARA DOW

BY PAM ACORD

Wood comes from trees . . . Whatever qualities or shortcomings wood possesses are traceable to the tree whence it came. Wood evolved as a functional tissue of plants and not as a material designed to satisfy the needs of woodworkers. Thus, knowing wood as it grows in nature is basic to working successfully with it.
– from Understanding Wood, R. Bruce Hoadley

Photography by Richard Margolis - "Driftwood Chair"

Photography by Richard Margolis – “Driftwood Chair”

When Chara Dow was a little girl, she and her father would walk the acre of wood surrounding their suburban home near Irondequoit Creek, gathering limbs a box elder may have dropped during the previous night’s wind storm. Back at the studio, he would show her how to fashion a ladle or craft a chair’s armrest. She spent her childhood as a father’s apprentice. Her first individual project was a headboard she made for a friend’s wedding gift. Shortly after that, she made two side tables that still sit in her parent’s living room.

Today I sit with Chara Dow in the studio she grew up in. A shallow-ladled spoon is on the worktable. Its wood is dark, waxy smooth. It feels good in my hand. Oriental bittersweet vines, black locust boles, and a black cat named Little Lady idle in the corners. A sweet, grounding aroma of cut wood and earth—marinated by the decades—comes from deep inside its walls. Chara hands me a mug of tea—chamomile and lavender, herbs harvested from her summer gardens. We talk.

Photography by Richard Margolis - Chair detail

Photography by Richard Margolis – Chair detail

Thinking it awkward, I self-consciously admit to my quirky love for trees, that each has a presence that feels differently in my mind. Without a thought Chara replies, “Oh yes! Trees have incredibly different personalities.” (Ok, so I’m not such a dork). “Black walnut is the popular kid,” she tells me, “the high school cheerleader or the quarterback. Everyone notices them.” But Chara likes to work with the woods that largely go unnoticed, which usually means the species that are difficult to deal with—the outcasts: the junky box elder, the scrappy black locust, and the worrisome oriental bittersweet vine. For one reason or other, these tree stocks are not favored by rustic furniture makers, but then Chara Dow is not the typical woodworker. She’s a woodsmith—if there is such a word.

Woodsmith, woodworker . . .tomato, tomahto. Until I met Chara, I wouldn’t have known the difference. Rustic furniture makers make rustic furniture. Period. Like most people, I thought the terms “rustic-style” and “Adirondack” were synonymous. I was wrong. Although Chara’s furniture is rustic, it differs from the Adirondack style that popularized the rustic genre. In the latter half of the 1800s and early 1900s, urban socialites from America’s eastern seaboard cities began building vacation homes in New York’s northern mountains. Cabinetmakers trained in precision-cut methods of case making were employed to furnish their grand lake homes. These urban craftsmen applied what they knew—square-cuts, right angles, carefully drawn diagrams, exactitude—to rugged mountain wood. From whence was borne the Adirondack style.

Chara Dow doesn’t work from drawn diagrams, nor does she worry herself with precision cuts, or exactitude. What she does concern herself with, however, is perfection. “The trees are perfect,” Chara says. “Like people, they grow up in different environments, and these environments have shaped what they’ve become. You can’t get too uptight about that or you limit the possibilities.” She describes a limb dragged in from the land behind her home: “It looks like spongy rot, moss and lichen all over it. But when I remove the outer decay, I see what’s good inside.”

Photography by Richard Margolis - "Bittersweet Chair" detail

Photography by Richard Margolis – “Bittersweet Chair” detail

I notice a knot of twisted wood, cleaned of soil and debris, on the floor to my right. It’s the underground root of the bittersweet vines I saw in the bin near the studio’s door when I came in. It’s a gnarled intricacy of twists and tumbles. Patina-smooth. I ask Chara what she might do with it. She’s not sure yet. It might become the leg bone of a table or the cradle of a chair seat. “I don’t want to force anything to be what it doesn’t want to be,” she says. “Trees are like children,” she continues. “If you pay attention to their inclinations and nurture that in them, they become what they need to be.”

Want to see more? Check out Chara Dow’s website HERE!

Videography by Rob Ferries – Interview by Natalie DiFiore

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CHRIS GOODENBURY

BY PAM ACORD

en·tro·py
/ˈentrəpē/
noun

The tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to evolve toward a state of inert uniformity; inevitable and steady deterioration of a system or society.

“It’s extremely frustrating not to be able to do what you know you should be doing,” says photographer Chris Goodenbury of his life before teaching himself photography. Humans create to fulfill a needed function, whether to house a family, produce consumer goods, aid the ailing, or grace life with aesthetic beauty. To move forward with purpose is a most satisfying achievement, but to lose purpose is the beginning of destruction. “Abandoned buildings,” Goodenbury says, “are a little like homeless people—displaced in the cities they live in. We don’t want to acknowledge them, or perhaps it’s that we choose not to acknowledge them.”

"An Infinite Moment" - Photography by Chris Goodenbury

“An Infinite Moment” – Photography by Chris Goodenbury

What exuberance the 19th century industrialists must have felt forging metal landscapes into America’s teaming cities, hewing earth’s stones into ecclesiastical architectures and castles reminiscent of our European ancestors. America was rising. Our romance with nature’s divinity was contradicted by the obsessive need to control it. We built monuments reaching to the sky, bridges held up with ropes of twisted metals, and coiffured landscapes fit for the kings we thought we were. And on the seventh day, we rested. We looked upon our creation and said, “This is good.” We thought our monuments would last forever, but nature is an untenable lover. Time, the one luxury deprived us, matters not to her. She patiently unrolls her inscrutable authority, squeezing out the hubris in humanity’s creations, slowly dismantling its labors. And this is precisely the notion Goodenbury aims to impart to his viewers: to demystify the natural turning of an ever-changing world, the beauty of descent, an appreciation for the return.

"Apostasy" - Photography by Chris Goodenbury

“Apostasy” – Photography by Chris Goodenbury

Goodenbury’s interest in architecture began decades earlier when as a child he watched the caped crusader scale the granite walls of Gotham City’s skyscrapers in the animated series of Batman. He did some architectural drawing and later enrolled in a course at Rochester Institute of Technology where he learned to paint 3D animations. “I wasn’t particularly good at either of them,” he says. Then in 2009 someone gifted him with a point- and-shoot camera. He’s been shooting pictures every since.

The thing about Goodenbury’s photos is they’re not like anyone else’s. Goodenbury’s inanimate objects live and breathe as fully rounded characters. The wide-angle perspective invites the viewer to see the space as he does. Viewing his work is like stepping into the round of a cinematic theatre. But most intriguing about his images are the opposing forces that lure our unsuspecting eye into the world he creates: “An Infinite Moment,” “Daydreams of Exile,” “To Defy Entropy,” “The Endless Procession.” They herald all the hallmarks of a gothic novel: bleak, foreboding atmospheres, imposing structures, isolation, gradual decay, forces outside of our control. We might assume that the gothic is meant to provoke fear, horror, or dread in the viewer but rather than invoking fright, Goodenbury’s art flirts with our desire for the sublime. It opens the hidden door behind the bookcase, allows us to satiate and thereby liberate our discomfort with the concepts of abandonment, isolation, and uselessness. The reason it is so powerful is that we all experience these emotions on some level.

Imagine if you will:

A 1940s dilapidated Chrysler is braided inside the gnarled filament of a leafless bush, the passenger door hanging from the bottom hinge like an amputated arm. The title: “I Knew Love Once.”

The ribbed vaulting of a forgotten church bears the yoke of neglect. Its ceiling, as thin as rime, falls through arched veins. The choir’s organ in the throes of decay—sheet music still propped at its helm—no longer heralds its god. Yet a melody is almost palpable.

Abandoned castles, stairways once graced by the hands of lovely ladies listen for footfalls of never again; asylum windows crackled like blood-shot eyes, vacant and mute, splinter under the weight of the cruelty they’ve witnessed.

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon

At some point, I’m aware that I can feel the images before my eyes can see them. It occurs to me that these buildings have lost their usefulness, left to succumb to a premature death. Amidst the utter disintegration, however, is an unexpected tenderness. A brilliant conceit of psychological realism. Goodenbury’s photos mirror the inevitable: the lurid twin of one’s self. Crumbling monuments serve the most important purpose of reminding us of what we so resist in ourselves: that we are indeed alone to the end, that our purpose is ever-changing, that we too can stand with grace as time tick-tocks down our days.

See More of Chris Goodenbury’s artwork HERE!

HEATHER SWENSON

By Pam Acord

To play is a trademark of being human. Play kindles exploration and discovery, a hiatus from the hustle-bustle of text messaging and GPSs telling us when to turn left and when to turn right. Players like to invent other worlds, conjure realities, create environments that never before existed, discover other selves. Most of us are told at some point that it’s time to stop “playing around” and get serious about our future. And, for good or bad, most of us spend decades becoming “serious” about a future we can’t even glimpse. The neighborhood pick-up game in the backyard sells out to designer equipment, legalese, monthly dues, and bumper stickers of one sort or other. What we’ve forgotten is that play is a refuge, a sanctuary of the mind where methods can be tried and revised, where pretending is allowed, and rules change as needed. A sense of play is at the core of each of us. It’s at the heart of who we are, but not everyone is lucky enough as Heather Swenson to have a career where play becomes an integral part of the job.

Photo provided - "Untitled" - Collage

Photo provided – “Untitled” – Collage

It’s the end of a Sunday afternoon, four days before Christmas. I’ve made four U-turns on the main thoroughfare of the city’s southeast side looking for Heather Swenson’s art studio. I’m late, I’m lost, and my anxiety is mounting. Heather’s been working a holiday show all afternoon; I’ve been working a low-grade fever, and judging from her last text message, she’d rather stand in a cold rain than wait around for this interview (or is that my fever talking?).

I eventually find my way to her studio where I’m warmly greeted and ushered to one of the two stools at her bistro-height artist desk. Paper clippings, oodles and oodles of them, are scattered on the outside edges of the desktop and circle the workspace floor, a dissected Family Circle Do-It-Yourself hardcover from the 70s lies open in front of Heather; painted canvases and pencil sketches flank the square room on all sides. Boxes and piles of what-not in every corner. A delightful disorder. Organic is the word that comes to mind—the space is as natural and necessary as breathing itself. I’m instantly disarmed.

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon

I ask Heather where she gets the ideas for her work. “They often come from my environment rather than a concept in my head,” she says. “My early paintings are of my studio or a room in my house or whatever environment I’m in. I never say, ‘I think I’ll make a painting about boats today.’ My ideas come from the spaces I see around me.” She reaches for one of the red and yellow Kodak boxes stacked on her desk, flips its lid, and fans through several inches of cuttings from publications decades old. These are not the glossy pages we are accustomed to, but the thick, textured pages of yesteryear when color saturated the paper’s fibers. She shows me a torn book cover with leather binding that she used in one of her collages, her most intuitive genre. Much of her work, she says, is a product of her sitting on her studio floor with a pair of scissors, arranging and rearranging. Color. Composition. Shape. Space. She plays. She discovers. She plays some more. She invents.

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon

Photography by Stephen S. Reardon

Swenson’s claim as a collector of oddities is evidenced in a myriad of trifles: wrinkled, twice-used paper folded into pocket-size boats—the kind your dad might give you as a small girl; black wire twisted into unnamable 3-D shapes; an old-timer’s bomber hat garnished with sunglass lenses hooked into its forehead and military-style ribbon wreathed below a king’s paper crown. But what characterizes a prevailing motif in Swenson’s art sits inches away: a three-walled, treeless treehouse made of miniature planks of wood, with a deep-pitched roof and open balcony, standing awkwardly on four skinny stilts. It’s lanky, a bit unstable and dysfunctional, but that’s the appeal. It’s a hideout of sorts, not unlike the tents, shadows, and veiled observers in Swenson’s other works, offering at once a removed, yet omniscient, vantage point for the viewer.

Photo Provided - "Untitled" Hideout Series

Photo Provided – “Untitled” – Hideout Series

She points to an unfinished painting to my right. A grassy square knoll. At its center is a tiny white picket fence in the shape of a digital number nine. She tells me it’s the fence she passed when driving to her mother’s cottage on the lake. This summer scene and a winter ski-scape photo torn from an old book, however disparate one from the other, share a mutual space . I ask her why she puts these two unlikely environments in the same painting, why the fence without the house, and why the juxtaposition of winter and summer. She says she doesn’t know. She doesn’t concern herself with the hidden narratives of symbolism. That’s the job of the critic, she says. What intrigues Swenson are the visual uncertainties that arise in her creations, the incongruity of the objects—all familiar, yet somewhat displaced. Art is about relationships, she explains. Relationships of colors, objects, and spaces. The distance between objects, those missing pieces, she continues, begets the slowing down of space and thereby evokes pause in the viewer.

Photo provided - "It's Always Greener" - Oil on canvas

Photo provided – “It’s Always Greener” – Oil on canvas

Swenson begins to talk about the ubiquity of geometric forms in her art. How they unwittingly shape themselves into the work, giving order to the freedoms at play. She points me to black and white drawings—perhaps seven or eight—hanging behind me. I loosely survey them while we talk until one catches my eye. I look and then look again, and again. I can’t quite tell if the geometric forms are moving inward or outward, similar to the visual trickery of Escher but not as deliberate. And what’s that in the corner? A midnight starscape? Look at the fog inching itself down onto the stair . . . or is it smoke pluming from a block? Wait . . . is that a block or a stair?

For some, it’s a block; for others, it’s a stair, but for Heather Swenson, it’s artistry at play.

 

Check out Heather Swenson’s website HERE!

 

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