Word & Image, Song & Story

Fun Home was on stage at the Forward Theater here in Madison during the fall. I was excited to see the play, and was curious to learn how this funny yet intense graphic novel about personal identity and unpacking familial mythology would translate into musical theater. How better to present a sensitive, heart-rending story about an artist figuring out who she is in relation to the loss of her father, than on a small stage, with a packed house and marvelous actors, and a musical score? It could be called genre-busting. But after seeing the play, having the chance to listen to some other old soundtrack chestnuts, and diving back into a few favorite graphic novels, I wonder if maybe musicals and comics have always been places for difficult stories. Loaded with drama and pain, yet punctuated with real joy, this play might just be the inevitable coming together of seemingly disparate artistic forms.

Musical theater is the natural home for wrenching heartbreak. I was reminded of this when, for reasons of nostalgia—or possibly in an attempt to distract me during a card game–I was recently subjected to not one, but two dramatic, emotional soundtracks: Camelot (original Broadway cast), and Les Miserables (original London cast). The distraction was perhaps effective (or it might have been just a lucky win for the kid), but the impact of this music persisted beyond the usual earworm.

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Camelot (1967)

Camelot. Wrenching heartbreak? Isn’t that just a silly 1960s Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave movie spectacle, with medieval hippies flitting about the English countryside/sound stage, playing at courtly ladies and knights? Sure, but at its heart, Camelot is a tragedy, a tale of the failure to contain evil, the devastating fall of a culture centered on love and joy. The play was based, of course, on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, whose story humanized its medieval characters in a consideration of political ambition, emotional devotion, and utopian yearnings. Toss in some dreamy love songs, armored masculine posturing, and conniving offspring, and you have one complicated story-telling apparatus. I could go on about the similar structure underlying Les Mis–love, faith, greed, revolution–but my experience of this play is too heavily skewed. My 20-year-old-self shed a lot of tears during the production I had the privilege of experiencing in London; I still can’t consider this play separate from my original context for it. 

Although musicals have always easily handled complex storytelling, Fun Home is not just another excellent example. Something else happens in this play when a graphic novel is incorporated into a stage experience. This isn’t just a play with actors telling a story. This is a play that shows an artist creating a work. When the adult Alison is on stage, watching the the scenes from her childhood and drawing what she sees, the play seamlessly melds two mediums: drawing and acting. While the story unfolds the audience sees the artist remembering and recording and creating. The stage presentation captures something that is so central in the structure of the novel: the act of drawing that not only frames the difficult narrative, but is it’s very telling. It is in the remembering and drawing where Alison finds her story. On stage, the art-making and the theater experiences are so cohesive, so neatly intertwined. What is accomplished in their close integration is a view into the experience of memory and creation. The activities involved in discovery, sense-making, and understanding are the very story that is presented in this play.

Other graphic novels have certainly handled complex and challenging stories. With visual elements emphasizing concepts that would be lost in pure text formats, the graphic novel is a powerful medium for difficult narratives. The images of water in Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, the laughter and faces of the women in Marjane Satrapi’s books; the cityscapes in Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck or Jessica Abel’s La Perdida–these novels present personal narratives, visual and textual, some autobiographical, all beautifully drawn, hilarious, scary, fun, and heart-breaking.

But the form can also powerfully transform the presentation of technical material. In Radioactive, Lauren Redniss not only combines biography, history, and science education, she accomplishes this using a format that pays homage to the work of her subject, Marie Curie. By turning to drawings on cyanotypes, the work references the photographic exposure that was critical to the discovery of radiation. Its physical form is an important element in how the book is able to convey its story.

At UW-Madison, the cartoonist Lynda Barry is using drawing to explore the creative process with not only artists, but scientists. Her students have created the Applied Comics Kitchen, but there are also other efforts in visual science communication around Madison, such as JKX Comics.  It’s amazing, fascinating stuff. This is not just about images, these are explorations into different kinds of stories and story-telling.

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It is exciting to see compound productions like this–graphic novels and theater,  storytelling that is both visual and physical. The combination of text and image, music and communication, it’s an interdisciplinarity that is so powerful. I’m not talented enough to ever be as moving and charismatic as Karen Olivio and the two younger actresses I saw in the role of Alison, but few people ever really get to that level. I do, though, think about story-telling, about how to explore and better represent complex narratives. I’m not sure my answers will necessarily involve singing (actually, I am quite certain they will not), but there are so many other forms available. A wide-ranging consideration is an important place to start.

 

Process and Making: The Intellectual Power of Personal Adornment

What is it about original, handmade jewelry? Pieces purchased directly from artists, the chance to visit in the studio, to get a glimpse of the process? I am lucky. I own jewelry that has been purchased directly from artists, some picked up in studios, others at art fairs, or online. Weirdly, happily, wonderfully, I have ended up with a number of works, acquired by purchase or gift, by Madison-area artist Teresa Faris.

I have wanted to write about Faris’ work for a long time. A metalsmith here in Madison, Faris teaches at UW-Whitewater and makes compelling, visually engaging jewelry. She is an artist who works in an art form that can be functional (worn), but who pushes her material and its expectations in decidedly non-functional directions with a process that excavates and increases the medium’s capacity to convey meaning.

Faris is not alone in this effort to crack open the world of jewelry and stoke its expressive power. Many artists in recent years have been traveling on this same path. The exhibition that just opened at the Chazen this weekend, Shelter: Crafting a Safe Home (organized by Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh), includes work by two other jewelry artists who are exploring this same, meaning-laden landscape, Motoko Furuhashi (another HSU grad!) and Demitra Thomloudis (an SDSU MFA). Although centered on different issues, all three of these artists utilize metal, in combination with other materials, to expand beyond beauty and decoration. In their work they contemplate physical space, personal identity, and the expressive power of experience, process and making.

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Demitra Thomloudis, Houston Yellow Tape Project (detail), installed at Chazen Museum of Art, November 2018

In Houston Yellow Tape Project, a work included in the Shelter exhibition, Thomloudis presents a street map of a neighborhood that identifies only sites where homes have been torn-down. The map is enhanced by individual jewelry pieces that hang from the highlighted lots. The jewelry is an unexpected addition to the map, acting almost as game pieces, like the small metal shoe or top hat place-holders that occupy squares, indicating presence on a Monopoly board. Here they hang in front of a simple graphic of streets and lots. Some pieces are obvious as jewelry–pendants on chains, necklaces, brooches–but their materials deny expectations: some are constructed out of upholstery foam, others distressed wood, plastic, or unknown items.

The individual pieces are crafted of debris from the houses whose sites they mark. Thomloudis has gathered specific construction detritus and created functional works. The works serve as memorials to the demolished homes and to the neighborhood’s loss. They also, according to the artist, are intended to provide points of connection between people when worn, as conversation starters, as a means to connect and educate and share stories of what is gone.

Furuhashi is interested in similar ideas of place and specificity. The brooches and necklace that are included in the exhibition do not indicate loss, but rather utilize overlooked materials to redefine a sense of place. The artist takes map views and translates them into jewelry supports: street grids become the structure for brooches or the underlying organizational scheme of a necklace. The works are bejeweled not by precious stones, but by chunks of asphalt and concrete that have been excavated from locations noted within the mapped sites.

In combining a bird’s eye perspective and site-specific materials, Furuhashi creates abstracted portraits of places. Physical experience is represented in these works: a locating of self within a particular time, a network of streets; the steel and asphalt that support movement through the space are humble yet ubiquitous and powerful materials, they shape and underlie every passage.

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Teresa Faris, Collaboration with a Bird V, #10, Sterling silver, wood altered by a bird, 7″ x 3″ x 1′ (pendant), 2017

Faris explores not a physical site but instead an emotional landscape. She finds meaning in intricate labor: crafting chains, sawing, riveting, and punching to create a calming, meditative space. In her work, the artist’s repetitive motions are related to the chewing and carving activity of a captive animal, specifically, the cockatoo who shares her home. Incorporating the brightly colored chews into elaborately sawn metalwork, Faris makes Collaborations with Bird, a series of works that pairs the productive output of co-located beings. Anxieties about personal well-being are considered in human and animal terms, equated, and found to be analogous in expression.

A similar focus on repeated actions is evident in a more recent series, CWaB:Lien. Exploring ancestral debt and assimilation, these works are punched and dapped, then soldered together into large swaths of small circular forms. The end result is stunning: glittering, seemingly cohesive silver bits connected into what appear to be sturdy medallions. But are they solid? What is behind that process of connection, integration, of piecing together, of fitting in? What is omitted in the creation of a homogenous group? What, if we consider our debts, is our inherited legacy?

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Teresa Faris, CWaB:Lien #1, Sterling silver, reclaimed Comfy Perch™ 6″ x 3″ x 1″ (pendant), 2018

It is this focus on the overlooked or unconsidered that connects the work of Thomloudis, Furuhashi, and–although not part of the Shelter exhibtion–Faris. All three artists utilize jewelry to refocus attention, to turn away from decoration towards more complex considerations. Not items merely to be worn, the pieces are meaningful because of their external referents–they are visually arresting and conceptually weighty. These metal and wood constructions relocate the wearer: we are moved away from surface beauty to a place where personal adornment becomes a powerful intellectual presence that conveys astonishing expressive potential.

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Teresa Faris pendant

(update: listen to an interview with me about the Shelter exhibition that aired on Sunday Afternoon Live, December 1, 2018).

(update 2: see a blogpost on the textiles in the Shelter exhibition, on the Chazen Museum of Art website).

Notes on working with an artist in 2013

It is a rare thing to encounter another Humboldt State University alum, as I live in Wisconsin. But one week in 2013 was different, when my work at the Chazen Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison actually brought a fellow lumberjack into town.

Michael Lucero (Art, 1976, a solid ten years before me, Art, 1986) lives in Tennessee. His art-making has taken him from California and undergraduate studies at HSU to an MFA at the University of Washington. He has lived in New York and Italy, and has taught as a visiting professor throughout the United States, such as a 1989 summer arts program at HSU (I attended the summer 1988 session, missing Michael’s stint by one year). His ceramic work was featured in a 1996 retrospective exhibition organized by the Mint Museum that traveled to four venues, including the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art.

Michael was in Madison to install a body of early work in the Chazen’s 5,000 square foot Rowland Galleries. During the installation we had a chance to talk about Humboldt and studying art. I was so pleased to learn that he remembered people I studied with at HSU: Ron Johnson in art history, and Mort Scott who taught sculpture. Michael also had many stories about his experiences in the galleries of New York and his friendships with well-known artists, teachers, and dealers.

During the week we worked with the Chazen preparators to install 17 wire and wood hanging figures, made in 1978-79 after the artist first moved to New York. The works were on loan from a private collector, and two museums that received part of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: New Jersey’s Montclair Art Museum, and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.

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Michael Lucero Installation, Chazen Museum of Art, 2013

Reaching 8-13 feet in height, the figures are simultaneously fragile and imposing. Hovering just a few inches from the floor, they hung still when the gallery was empty, but they moved gently, responding to subtle air movement, even when anyone entered the room. They towered over whoever stood near, yet provided a chance for close investigation of their component parts: broken wood, crayon and paint, wire, mop handles, and broken furniture scavenged from the streets of the city.

The artist created new drawings for the exhibition, using sponges, fly swatters, shoes, toilet paper rolls, and foam noodles to stamp images onto cardboard, making bold, weighty figures that reference the hanging sculptures. He was also inspired by the gallery space, at the last minute adding a new work to the exhibition: two monumental figures stamped directly onto a large gallery door that had been painted to mimic the cardboard of the drawings. At first seeming so large, the drawings on cardboard were dwarfed by the newly painted wall figures, yet their textured surfaces demanded close looking. This was an installation both overwhelming and intimate, it played with scale and had so much to experience: subtle movement, shifting light, interesting textures, and spatial displacement.

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Michael Lucero Installation, Chazen Museum of Art, 2013

In the re-purposed wood and furniture fragments, in the drawings made from available materials, is Humboldt evident in this work, or is it all New York City? In the quiet of the towering figures with their slight movements, walking among them all that is missing is the sound of water dripping into the ferns on the floor of the redwood forest. Maybe, or not. But it was fun, for one week in 2013, to conjure a connection between Arcata and NYC, to swap art world stories with another far-flung HSU alum, and participate in the installation and documentation of a truly wonderful body of work.

Michael Lucero Installation was on view May 11 to August 18, 2013 at the Chazen Museum of Art at UW-Madison. Photos by Eric Tadsen.