Tuesday, November 22, 2022

"Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West" at the James Museum

"The Truth Hurts: Riches, Resentment, Revenge, RIOTS"
by Carolyn Crump
I've been a hold out on visting The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art. Western art just isn't my thing -- or so I thought. Still, I was eager to see the Museum's special exhibit "Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West." The exhibit features quilts made by the Women of Color Quilters Network and highlights the stories and achievements of Blacks in American western history. It is an impressive show. 

I am ashamed to say I'd never heard of the Tulsa Massacre and Race Riots until I saw the show "Watchmen" with Regina King. I found myself doing some research to learn if the horrifying attacks on the Black residents and businesses of Greenwood depicted in the show could possibly be true. Of course the sad answer was yes. 

Carolyn Crump's work depicts O.W. Gurley, one of the leading entrepreneurs in the area of Tulsa known as Black Wall Street. Expand your view of this quilt if you can so you can see the detail. Other Black businessmen are depicted in the blue portion of the quilt. The newspaper Gurley holds includes a picture of an unarmed Black soldier facing off against a white armed marshal. There are flames in the background and a Black man hanging from a tree. The parts of the quilt surrounding Gurley picture hooded Klansmen bearing torches and burning buildings. I can only imagine what a difficult work this was for Crump to create.

Detail from "Watts Riot" by Viola Burley Leak 
Another quilt focused on the devastation of the Watts Riots. I was familiar of course with the 1992 riots that took place following the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers charged with the use of excessive force during the arrest of Rodney King. But I didn't know about the 1962 riots that occurred over a five day period following the arrest of Marquette Frye for drunk driving. When he resisted, an officer hit him in the face with a baton. Numerous bystanders witnessed the abuse, and the city erupted. The riots resulted in 34 deaths and more than $40,000 in property damage. The 1992 riots led to 63 deaths, 12,000 arrests and estimated $1B in property damage.

Shown here is one of five panels that address the issues of drunk driving, physical confrontation, police brutality, surmounting anger and the explosion of the riot. Each panel includes some type of fire, a reference to the 1962 rally cry of "Burn, Baby, Burn." 

"Stagecoach Mary" by Dorothy Burge
I loved this quilt for many reasons, not the least of which is its unique shape. You definitely didn't want to mess with Mary Fields aka Stagecoach Mary.  She was the second woman and first African American woman star route mail carrier in the U.S. And now for a digression. The postal service used to go by the motto "Celerity, Certainty, Security." Apparently people had better vocabularies back then than I do since I had to look up "celerity." It means swiftness of movement. Each word had its own star, which is why they were called star routes. It does make you wonder if there were unstarred routes -- especially since this nomenclature was used until 1970. But that's a question for another day. 

Anyway... the wall cards for each quilt were quite fulsome, so I'll just quote from Dorothy Burge's description of Mary:  "Fields drove the 15-mile route from Cascade to St. Peter's Mission, Montana from 1895 to 1903...The six foot tall Fields was a quick-shooting and hard-drinking mail carrier who wore men's clothing and flaunted a revolver and a rifle. Locals praised her kindness and generosity, and schools in Cascade were closed each year to celebrate her birthday. Cascade's mayor granted her an exemption to enter saloons after Montana passed a law forbidding women from entering these establishments." This is a woman I'd like to sit down and spend some time with. 

"Cathay Williams aka William Cathay:
Female Buffalo Soldier" by Georgia Williams
Georgia Williams' quilt celebrates Cathay Williams, the first Black Female Buffalo Soldier. Of course the Army didn't know she was a woman when she enlisted in 1864. (No physicals were required at the time.) She served for two years under the name William Cathay as part of a racially segregated unit. 

Why, you might ask, would Williams want to become a soldier? First, she had some military experience. Williams was a teenage house slave living in Jefferson, Missouri when Union forces occupied the town. Captured slaves were often taken as contraband rather than freed. That gives one pause, doesn't it? Williams was put into service as an Army cook and washerwoman and traveled around the country with her Infantry unit. 

Once the war was over, few job opportunities existed for newly freed slaves. Many joined the military. Williams is quoted as saying, "I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations and friends." Williams' gender was discovered when she was hospitalized after contracting smallpox, and she was discharged from the Buffalo Soldiers when she was released from the hospital. It is estimated that 400 women posed as men in order to serve during the Civil War. 

These are just a few of the 50 quilts in the "Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West" exhibit at the James. The show runs through January 8th. If you go, allow time to see the rest of the Museum. I was surprised by the variety of work on display, from striking photographs by Edward Curtis to a Warhol-esque take on Red Cloud, a leader of the Oglala Lakota, by Stan Natchez. For more information about the James, click here.  

Friday, November 18, 2022

Behind the Scenes at Asolo Rep with Costume Designer Alejo Vietti

Costume for Kit Kat Club dancer
Life is a cabaret, old chum. So you'd better dress the part. For Asolo Rep's production of "Cabaret," the Theatre turned to Alejo Vietti to make sure the characters did just that. I had a chance to hear from Vietti and costume shop manager David Covach about how it all came together. With 60+ costumes required, it was a gargantuan task. Having already seen the show, I'm happy to report that the team's hard work paid off. 

Vietti is a native Argentinian who went to New York with his family for a vacation and didn't get on the plane back home. He said he had no plan, no papers and didn't know a single person. What he did know was that his career would be launched there. His credits include everything from Broadway shows like "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" and "Holiday Inn" to productions for Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Radio City Rockettes and -- wait for it -- Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. His work has aptly been seen previously at Asolo Rep in the 2010 production of "Barnum." 

Costume for Emcee
Vietti explained that for him, costume design is not about beauty. Instead, it should present the symbiotic vision of the director and the designers. Each costume must reflect the character being portrayed and help advance the story. For "Cabaret," the consensus was that the feel of the costumes should be vaudeville/circus costumes from the 1920s. 

Once the concept had been agreed, Vietti created sketches of the costumes and sent them to Covach. They then talked about each piece. How does it fit into the narrative? How much can we buy versus build in-house? Is a particular fabric required?  

Covach called this costume for the Emcee the "Frankenstein" of the show since it was pieced together from so many places. When Covach showed Vietti some black and white striped bicycle shorts that could be purchased, Vietti said, "I think the audience would be confused by that choice." (He handily calls on the audience's perspective when he nixes an idea.) So Covach ended up buying fabric and creating the shorts (with some spanx underneath for good measure). Men's socks don't come in sheer fabric so women's socks were repurposed. The sleeves are made from fishnet stockings. Frankenstein indeed.  

Vietti costume drawings for Sally Bowles and the Emcee
Dressing the orchestra was a unique challenge for the Asolo Rep production of "Cabaret." Instead of sitting in the orchestra pit, the musicians are onstage in full view of the audience. While Vietti provided Covach with sketches of the costumes for each actor in the show, his only guidance concerning the musicians was that they should look right at home in the Kit Kat Club. Hmm. Covach's first thought was to dress them similarly to the dancers; i.e., not wearing very much. Once he saw the somewhat burly men slated to provide the musical accompaniment, that idea went out the window. And so he pivoted to 1930s style tuxes. To add to the challenge, of the eight original band members, only three remained in the production come opening night. 

Covach and Vietti with "the" dress
The costume that caused the most stress was the Klimt-esque dress for Sally Bowles shown in the drawing above and this picture. It was going to be so simple. Covach saw a dress online that was pricey ($800) but in the budget. He got Iris Beaumier's measurements and sent them off with the order. No problem -- except that the dress wouldn't be available until February, well after the musical had not only opened but closed. What to do? 

The team outsourced production of the costume to a dressmaker in India. (To make it in the US would have been cost prohibitive.) Covach and Vietti worked with the creator via email and WhatsApp every step of the way. It's handmade from tiny glass beads and weighs approximately 20 pounds. The dress shimmered all the way up to the mezzanine where I was seated. One audience member asked what happens if Beaumier is out sick for a show. Would the dress fit her understudy? "That's not going to happen," Vietti said with a confident smile (and a wish and a prayer). The guys neglected to tell us how much the costume ended up setting the design budget back. 

"Cabaret" can be seen at Asolo Rep through the end of the year. If you have time between holiday gatherings, catch a performance. For more information, click here

Monday, November 14, 2022

"Justified + Ancient: 16 Contemporary Artists Transcend Time and Space," Part 2

 Works from "Valiant Series" by Mara Torres Gonzalez (2022)
and Sarcophagi from Ptolemaic Period, Egypt circa 4th c. BC 
If you're getting the feeling that I'm taken with the "Justified + Ancient" exhibit now on at MARA Gallery, you're right. What can I say? I wear my (art) heart on my sleeve. 

"Justified + Ancient" was organized by Halo Arts Projects, a non-profit whose mission is to provide financial resources and programming support to visual artists across Southwest Florida. Halo Arts Project secured the loan of the ancient objects in the exhibit, with Mara Torres Gonzalez (of MARA Gallery) and Jackie Cutrone curating the show. In case you're curious about the "justified" part of the title, as I was, it comes from the idea that when you justify something it is validated. Mystery solved. 

Gonzalez was challenged to create work inspired by two glorious Egyptian sarcophagi. I love the way the texture of Gonzalez' mixed media works speaks to the detail of the sarcophagi. I could try and wax eloquent about the pairing, but Marty Fugate has already done that in a great article about the show in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Click here to read his piece. And here's a fun fact: Sarcophagus means "flesh eater" in Greek. Moving right along...

"Within and Without" by Pam Olin (2022)
with Ancient Mid East Janus circa 3rd - 2nd millenium BC

Pam Olin works in a variety of mediums, but steel has been her passion for more than 30 years. On her website she says, "Steel is a language. A song. A breath." With such strong feelings about the medium, it's no surprise she put on her welding gear when she was selected to participate in "Justified + Ancient." 

Olin's object is a Janus-like figure from the Ancient Mid East circa 3rd-2nd millemium BC. Janus is typically depicted as a double-faced head and is associated with doorways and transitions and duality. (And, yes, the term "two faced" derives from Janus. Having multiple faces makes it all the easier to say one thing to one person and something entirely different to another.) Occasionally, as here, Janus is depicted with four faces. Perhaps that enables his words to come full circle. 

Olin's work gives multiple nods to the different interpretations of Janus. The cut-outs in her work are references to doorways. And it's those doors that enable the transitions as she cut -- literally -- to the core of the matter. The interior of her work has lights and a mirror to encourage self-reflection. And while touching artwork is generally verboten, Olin urged viewers to physically turn the work, with the rotations representing life's journey. (Turning the globe required a bit of work. So does life.) The exterior has what I presume are Olin's mantras: Be happy. Stay curious. Reach out. Go forward. 

Mayan Bowls circa 3rd c. BC to 12th c. AD and Howls' "Mayan Modern" (2022)
 I'll leave you with one of Grace Howl's works in the exhibit -- "Maya Modern." Howl is uber creative, community minded and collaboratively spirited. (The Exquisite Corpse exhibit at her gallery in 2018 still ranks among my favorite shows of all time.) So I was not suprised to learn she was one of the participating artists. 

Like the other artists, Howl was very thoughtful in her process. She shared a document with me in which she outlined her responses to the artifacts. She considered the reasons the artisans created them, which ranged from being useful in everyday life to paying homage to ancestors to recording life and the sky and constellations. Howl's final work incorporates traditional Mayan colors that represent east, west, north and south along with the sun, the moon, the stars and water. The symbols in "Mayan Modern" are Howl's interpretations not only of the Mayan bowls with which she was paired but the images and glyphs found in pyramids and codices. I particularly like the bird balancing on a chair that Howl created as the focal point. Life is a balancing act. 

"Justified + Ancient" closes this Thursday, November 17th, so now's the time to see it. MARA Gallery is located at 1421 5th St. in Sarasota and is open on Tuesday - Thursday from 10-3. I hope you get there as these posts do not do justice to either the ancient objects or the contemporary artwork. And there are many more pairings to see. If a visit to the gallery isn't an option, you can see the exhibit by clicking here. For more on the Halo Arts Project, click here. Kudos to all involved in putting together this incredible collaboration. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

"Justified + Ancient: 16 Contemporary Artists Transcend Time and Space," Part 1

Iatmul Hook from Papa New Guinea (19th c.) with panel
from Traci Kegerreis' "Rite of Passage" Triptych (2022)
Once in a while, I come upon an exhibit that is so special that I want to transport everyone I know to see it. "Justified + Ancient: 16 Artists Transcending Time and Culture" is that type of show. It is on display now through Nov. 17 at MARA Gallery in Sarasota. 

The concept sounds simple: Pair ancient artifacts from all over the world (owned by an unnamed collector) with contemporary artwork created in response to the object. The execution, however, was anything but. I had the opportunity to meet several of the artists and speak with them about their processes. Without exception, each dug deep into the history and meaning of the artifact with which she had been paired. They thought about what's happening in today's world and how the artifact and the artwork might speak to each other -- and to the viewer. There's no way I can do justice to the art or those conversations in this post. But I hope these posts will allow people who can't see the show to get a sense of it. 

Kegerreis' "Rite of Passage"
It was difficult to decide both which pairings to share and how to show them. Most of the ancient objects are dwarfed by their companion pieces in size (but not in power). The Iatmul Hook above, for instance, is no more than a quarter of the size of Kegerreis' work. So keep that in mind as you're looking at these images. 

Iatmul suspension hooks were both utilitarian and decorative. They were typically hung from a rafter so that baskets and string bags filled with food and other valuables would be safely out of reach of animals. I didn't have an opportunity to speak with Kegerreis about her thought process for the creation of "Rite of Passage." I do know, though, that she uses found and recycled materials in her mixed media work. So perhaps her work speaks in part to the beauty of objects we use in our daily lives. There are so many wonderful details, though, that I know there's much more going on. 

Clay jar circa 4th c. BC from Magna Graecia 
and "Same Sky, Messages" by Lisa DiFranza (2022)
Lisa DiFranza was paired with a 4th century BC object from Magna Graecia, a group of ancient Greek cities on the southern coast of Italy. She learned that this type of clay jar was used to store soaps and perfumes and was often passed down from generation to generation. These jars were typically present during bridal rituals as the bride prepared for the ceremony. So it's no surprise that the jar includes an image of a panther, a symbol of fertility. 

As DiFranza was beginning her research on the project, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Suddenly, her artifact had a much deeper connection with present day events. She decided to depict women protesting for reproductive rights in her painting. She thought about the relationship between protests and theater, an art form that thrived in ancient Greece. And in a direct nod to her artifact, she included an image of a panther on the dress of her central figure. 

Syro-Hittite Figures circa 1800-1200 BC
I had the opportunity to talk with Midge Johnson on two occasions about her work, which welcomes viewers into the gallery. I wish I had a recording I could share here. She is so thoughtful about her process and generous about sharing the details with viewers. 

Johnson was paired with these wonderful Syro-Hittite figures circa 1800-1200 BC. They were my favorite objects in the exhibit. Their faces are so expressive (not to mention adorable). They are votives that were used in offerings to the gods when in need of a blessing. 

"The Hittites: 420 Years" by Midge Johnson (2022) (one panel of two)

Before starting her work, Johnson researched the Hittite people. She learned that they lived during a time that spanned both the Bronze and the Iron Ages. In a nod to this history, Johnson includes three replicas of Hittite coins, which can be seen just left center of the wood canvas. They add a wonderful texture to the work. (Note that I have included only one of the works in Johnson's large-scale diptych in hopes of showing some of the detail.) In a bit of serendipity, Johnson realized after she had finished the work that it includes what looks like a horse nearly level with the coins. One of the coins includes an image of a horse, something Johnson must have subconsciously taken in. I love it. 

Johnson also learned that the Hittites used a cueniform script in writings on clay tablets that have been preserved. In fact, in 1259 BC, the Eyptian-Hittite Peace Treaty was signed. It is the oldest known surviving peace treaty and the earliest example of a written international agreement. So of course Johnson included her own lettering in her works. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post. But if you can, get to MARA Gallery to see the show before it closes on November 17. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Friday from 10-2:30 and Saturday, November, 12, from 11-3. It is an exceptional exhibit. 

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Chalk Festival 2022 -- Without the Chalk!

Hombre and Katrina by Lori Escalera (CA)
Denise Kowal, founder and organizer of the Chalk Festival, has wanted to do a Halloween-themed chalk festival for years. But circumstances have conspired against her -- primarily in the form of the pandemic. Finally, the stage was set for this Fall's festival with its theme of "A Spirited Museum in Motion." Dozens of artists, domestic and international alike, were set to descend upon Sarasota. But so was Hurricane Ian. Two weeks before the Chalk Fest was scheduled to open, Kowal was informed that the Venice Municipal Airport, site of the Festival, would not be available due to complications caused by Ian. It was time for a hard pivot. 

"The Art School" by Eduardo Relero (Spain)
With no time to secure the pavement space required for all of the artists who had planned to attend, Kowal decided the Festival would focus on 3D art this year. After all, many of the international artists who participate year in and year out were already in town and the 3D creations are their forte. What could not be found, however, was appropriate pavement on which chalk art could be created. What to do? How about creating the artworks on linoleum instead of pavement? But there was one problem with that approach -- chalk would not work as a medium on a vinyl canvas when it was rolled up and stored. And so the artists got to work using something more traditional -- acrylic paint. 

For the first time, I participated in the Festival as a volunteer. It was a blast. I had a chance to chat with many of the artists on Saturday, including Eduardo Relero. I loved his take on what an art school might look like. When asked what was up next for him, he said he'd be creating pavement art at the Mexican Embassy in Madrid in a few days' time for a Day of the Dead celebration. Cool!  These are some serious artists. To see more of Eduardo's work, click here

Mangrove Man by Sitka Dogan
I was also able to talk a bit with Sitka Dogan of Turkey. When I said his name was familiar to me, he said he'd painted "the horse" at the last Chalk Festival. Ahhhh -- the horse!  Last April's Festival featured 3D Illusion "rooms" -- essentially two large pieces of plywood connected to create a corner and two walls. (Again, the medium was acrylic for those works.) To see "the horse," click here. It was fabulous. 

This year Dogan created an Alice in Wonderland-ish Mangrove Man with a hat perfect for viewers to perch on. Once the work was completed, Dogan added some leaves for that little something extra. The man was also holding a stem with some leaves in his hand. Most of my job that day was telling helpful art lovers not to sweep the leaves off the work. That included me -- the first thing I did when I arrived was lean down to remove what looked like a gummy blob on the work. I quickly realized it was masking tape and Sitka intended it to be there. Oops! It's hard to see in this image, but the man has an adorable tree owl in his forehead as a third eye. Hence the yoga pose (which I just realized is tree pose -- how perfect!)  

Pablo Cacho by Santiago Hernandez
One benefit of creating the paintings on vinyl is that they could be moved. And so the final day of the Festival was held at the Ringling Museum. They showed beautifully on the sidewalks, and the artists were excited about having their work on display in such a prestigious venue. 

The change in location also introduced the work of these talented artists to people who might not have previously had the Chalk Festival on their radar. I suspect they'll be heading down to Venice when the Festival returns (hopefully in April). And one other benefit of the pivot -- the works are permanent and can be displayed in the future. Kowal said several people had already asked about bringing the paintings into schools or exhibiting them in other locations. So there will be opportunities to make more lemonade out of the lemons Hurricane Ian rained down on us. 

The work above is a portrait of Pablo Cacho created by Santiago Hernandez. The backstory is that Santiago helped Pablo create his first 3D pavement painting. Perhaps the portrait is recreating that experience. Pablo was one of the emerging artists at this year's Festival. It's a tightknit community. 

"Chariot of the Sun" mural designed by Kurt Wenner
I'll leave you with a work designed by Kurt Wenner that could easily be on permanent display at the Ringling. Wenner got his start as a street artist in Rome where he was just another "madonnari" trying to make a living. (The artists were known as madonnaris because they often created madonnas and other religious images. It's a tradition that dates back centuries.) It wasn't long before he broke out of the pack. 

Wenner is known as the creator of 3D street art and has become a familiar face around the Chalk Festival. It was Wenner who designed the 22,000 square foot megalodon shark that secured a short-lived Guiness World Record as the world's largest anamorphic (3D) painting. Click here to see that work and Wenner at work on a chalk painting. (Yes, I am a regular at the Festivals.)  

While the Festival wasn't what Kowal had envisioned, it was still great fun. Tentative plans are for a full-blown festival -- with chalk! -- in early April. With any luck, the delegations of infiorata artists who were scheduled to come to this Festival will be on hand. What, you might ask, are infiorata artists? They create large scale "carpets" using flowers as their medium. Click here to see an example. I'm already looking forward to it.  

Sunday, October 30, 2022

"Kara Walker: Cut to the Quick" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville

"no world" from the series "An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters" (2010)
"Sometimes it is hard to look carefully at Walker's art because of how deeply she cuts and how she exposes collective culpability and shame. Still, we cannot retreat. She never does." So ends curator Susan Edward's essay about the exhibit "Kara Walker: Cut to the Quick." Having seen the show at MOCA in Jacksonville, I couldn't agree more. Seeing one or two of Walker's works in an exhibit makes an impression; seeing 80 works in one place leaves you changed. 

The exhibit included the complete works from several of Walker's series, including An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010). This series addresses the "brutality of the transatlantic slave trade and its legacy, as well as the magical thinking of captives dreaming of flying or swimming back to Africa and freedom." (All quotes are from the curator's essay unless otherwise noted.)

I was particularly struck by the figure of the woman in "no world" who is in the water beneath the slave ship. Is she drowning after being thrown off the tumultuous ship? Has she jumped overboard in at attempt to swim to a distant shore? Either way, her chances for survival don't seem good. Perhaps, though, they're better than her alternative. To view the entire series, click here

The Emancipation Approximation (Scene#4) (1999-2000)
Walker's The Emancipation Approximation series contains 27 black, white and gray screenprints in which Walker shares her "riff on 'emancipation' or all that did not come with the promise of freedom." It is not easy to view with its images of "sexual dominance, trickery and subjugation." 

So what's going on in the image shown here, number four of the series? Walker references the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan throughout The Emancipation Approximation. If you're not up on your mythology, the god Zeus took the form of a swan to rape Leda. That's what's happening here in mid-air. What is presumably a plantation owner watches on with avid interest. Note that his coattails have morphed into wings and that he's holding something in his hand (at which we can make an educated guess) that takes on the shape of the swan's head. A none-too-subtle hint that the swan is a merely a stand-in. It is beyond disturbing. To see the entire series, click here

"Topsy" (1994)
Early on in her career, Walker shocked the art world with her images that harkened back to the racist stereotypes of "Sambo-ism." The word is taken from the illustrations of Helen Bannerman's "The Story of Little Black Sambo," published in 1899. Bannerman was applauded at the time -- in some quarters -- for her forward-thinking positive portrayal of black characters. It wasn't until the mid-20th century that the illustrations began to be lambasted as racist. 

The character of Topsy dates back even earlier than Little Black Sambo. Topsy was an enslaved girl in Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Like Bannerman, Stowe intended for her character to be sympathetic. When Walker began incorporating the exaggerated features historically associated with Topsy and other Black characters -- the oversized lips, the bug eyes, the wiry hair -- into her work, people didn't know how to react. In a 1997 New York Times article, Walker spoke to the fact that her works sometimes offend people because they feel she is perpetuating negative stereotypes. "I can understand it, and I can't even really talk my way out of it.. she said. "I can't say, 'Well, you shouldn't be offended.' Why not? It's a valid response, it's a valid way to feel." No matter who you are, her works evoke a strong reaction. 

Maquette of "The Katastwof Karavan" (2017) 
Walker is best known for her hand-cut paper silhouettes. (She has incorporated laser cut stainless steel silhouettes into her practice, as shown here in "The Katastwof Karavan.") The 1997 Times article noted that nobody had been using hand-cut paper as a medium since Matisse, an interesting tidbit. Walker talked about her use of the silhouette in a1996 interview in Index Magazine, saying, "The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that's also what the stereotype does, so I saw the silhouette and stereotype as linked." 

From "Resurrection Story with Patrons" (2017
Walker created "The Katastwof Karavan" for the Prospect4 Triennial in New Orleans. The work was a reminder of the institution of slavery, a point emphasized by its placement at Algiers Point, a location on the Mississippi River where enslaved people were held until they were sold into bondage. The work was later displayed on the National Mall in D.C. To read more about "The Katastwof Karavan," click here.  

Each work in "Kara Walker: Cut to the Quick" was striking and thought-provoking, and I wish everyone had had the chance to see the exhibit. The works have been returned to the collection of the Jordan Schnitzler Family Foundation. The Foundation has been working with museums to exhibit and lend works from its collection since 1997, the year in which it acquired its first Kara Walker work. Hopefully another exhibit of Walker's work will be mounted in the future. For now, I'm appreciative of having had the opportunity to see such a significant amount of Walker's work in one place. 

For Kara Walker's website, click here. To read the interview in Index Magazine referenced above, click here. And to read the Times article (titled "Kara Walker's Shock Art"), click here. While much has been written about Walker since she came onto the art scene, I found it interesting to go back to see what critics were saying in the early days of her career. Both are well worth your time. 


Sunday, October 23, 2022

The Ladd Brothers: Scrollathon - A Community Project

The Florida submission for the National Scrollathon made at
Sarasota Art Museum: "You and Me, Me and You, All of Us Together" 
If everyone could have a bit of the Ladd Brothers in their lives, the world would be a better place. Seriously. The expression
"I've never met a stranger" seems made for these big-hearted, generous, genuine and enthusiastic artists. I found it impossible to be in a room with them and not feel their positive energy. My response to them is not unique. While spending a single afternoon with Steven and William during an early Scrollathon project, a student drew pictures of them as super heroes. They and their work are indeed that powerful. (They were so touched that they saved the drawings, shown below.) But perhaps I should back up a little. 

The Ladd Brothers were on hand at Sarasota Art Museum in early September to open their exhibit "Lead with a Laugh." Their work is all about their stories, and they were eager to share them with the docent team. I fell in love with their energy then and was excited to know they would be returning for the kick-off of their National Scrollathon project (although I have to admit I didn't quite understand how it worked). 

Steven and William as Super Heroes
Since 2006, the Ladd Brothers have been engaging with students, seniors, physically and mentally challenged individuals, inmates and all kinds of community groups to create scroll art. They often work with constituencies that need healing. (Their work with students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL particularly touched my heart.) The concept is purposefully simple so everyone can succeed. Trust me, if I can do it, anyone can. 

Steven and William Ladd -- You get a sense of their vibe! 

Participants are invited to select two belt-like scrolls of different colors approximately 18" long. Once you've rolled them together -- starting with one color and overlapping the second when you get close to the end of the first. The scrolls are secured with a straight pin and you have your work of art. I said it was simple! But then comes the important part. 

The "artists" are invited to name their work and share the story behind it with the group. There's no pressure to share, but you can if you want. It's a surprisingly powerful experience to have people hear your story. For many participants, it's an opportunity that doesn't often arise. In my session, people talked about family members they've lost and the power of love and persevering through life's ups and downs. One woman broke down and cried (something that apparently happens frequently). Participants keep that scroll as a memento and then create a second scroll to be included in the group work. At the end, an individual picture is taken of everyone who participated in the event for future display. 

Some of the 600 people (including me!) who participated
in Sarasota's Scrollathon. It gives you a sense of the diversity. 
In 2019, the Ladd Brothers worked with 750 local participants in the D.C. area to create both their own scrolls and scrolls for what would ultimately be a mural comprised of more than 8,000 handmade scrolls. The work -- entitled "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" -- was then put on display at the Kennedy Center. While there, the Kennedy Center team asked William and Steven about their hopes and dreams. Never ones to think small, they said their dream was to create a national scrollathon exhibit. Representative works would be created in each state, D.C.and the five territorities. Works would also be made at ten Regional Native American Centers across the country with the hope that members of all tribes could participate. The goals: To show that we are more alike than different. To show that no single person (as represented by a scroll) is more important than another. And to show that together diverse people can create something beautiful and lasting.

"Let's do it!" the Kennedy Center folks said. And so the National Scrollathon project was created. The exhibit will be on display in D.C. in 2026 in commemoration of the 250th signing of the Declaration of Independence. "You and Me, Me and You, All of Us Together" -- created at our own Sarasota Art Museum -- will be Florida's submission. I am thrilled to have participated. 

"Abstract Chaos" (2018 - made 
in collaboration with those in custody
at the Manhattan Detention Center
I'd be remiss if I didn't write about the Ladd Brothers' work with the NY City Correctional System (including Rikers) over the last nine years. They do basically the same thing with inmates and guards that they did in Sarasota. The groups are smaller -- generally eight or so people instead of the 25+ people groups we had here. But the concept is the same (without the photos, which cannot be taken due to privacy issues). 

In telling us about their experiences, Steven and William admitted it was a bit scary at first. But they soon realized the inmates are people just like everyone else. They sometimes end up in lockdown with the participants, which gives them the chance to learn more about their lives. Occasionally they make a small misstep, like when they asked some inmates about their childhoods. They quickly realized that prisoners generally didn't grow up in loving families like the Ladds did and that they don't want to talk about their early years. Rikers now has a permanent art studio where the Ladds work with the diverse population -- male and female, old and young, people of varying ethnicities and gender orientation. While in Sarasota, the Ladds did two sessions in our local correctional facility with men and women in the rehab unit. 

Beaded self-portraits
Hopefully this post has given you a sense of how special the Ladds Brothers are and why I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to spend some time with them. To read more about their work in Rikers, click here and here. The first link includes a video so you can hear from them firsthand. The second link includes a program with descriptions of some of the works they've created in response to those experiences. To see more of their Scrollathon works, click here. For more videos of the guys talking about their work, click here. The videos give you a sense of what it's like to be in the same room with them. And if you're in the Sarasota area, you have an opportunity to do just that on December 8th when the Ladd Brothers will give speak at the Museum. Click here and scroll (get it???) through all the other great events at the Museum until you get to December. Trust me when I say it will be an experience you'll always remember. 

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