Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Your mind: blown"

David Katz caught in his own network
  On Friday morning, my friend JT Tannous turned all YODA on me to describe the upcoming exhibit at the Coconino Center for the Arts. "Your mind: blown,"  he said.  I was deeply affected by his minimalism.

  Tannous and gallery director Robin Cadigan had just offered to give me a sneak preview of "Across the Divide"  during the installation process.  Then I found out that  Steve Schaeffer, one of the faculty members in the NAU Ceramics Department was the juror for the show, and in fact had been planning it for two years.  Now I had to go!  How wonderfully compelling this all was on a Friday afternoon!!

  "Across the Divide" is basically a sculptural ceramic show that pushes beyond traditional clay boundaries with large size, different techniques, or strange and interesting figurative subject matter.  It will be a fantastic addition to Flagstaff's summer art scene. 

  One of the best things about the exhibit is the process of putting it together.  This is no ordinary painting-on-a-wall type of show.  For instance, David Katz and his assistant, Shauna Cahill, hauled 600 lbs. of clay in from Indiana for their piece.  The piece is really fascinating, with its parabolic shapes and bone-like ladders, connecting to grids that contain joints. Katz calls it a "mediated landscape" with very architectural spaces, "an external world and interior world symbiosis organization."

David Katz and Shauna Cahill work on "Confluent Systems II"
  It's big, too.  Over 1/2 a mile of electrical fence wire was used, and over 300 pounds of raw clay was formed over the wire.  Katz said in Indiana, the clay would take a couple of weeks to dry completely, but in Flagstaff it only took 48 hours!

  "It's kind of like an artifact--evidence of the passage of time," Katz said about his piece.  Does that mean that time goes by faster in Flag?

  Other pieces required a lot of work to install as well, and I encourage you to imagine the process of putting everything together. They really took time, and then the artists have to come back and tear it all down!  It's so ephemeral!!  I just imagine, as an artist (and a viewer,) you dare not get too attached to the finished pieces.  It's like you have to love them sideways, so you can see out of the corner of your heart, and then maybe you'll be able to let them go.

  Or as Yoda says, “Death is a natural part of life...Attachment leads to jealously. The shadow of greed, that is.”

  In the meantime, catch these pieces while they're alive!  The show opens June 2, 6-8 p.m. and runs through July 28.

This 20 foot wide piece took 6 people to install.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Summertime--and the livin's easy!

(Check out my Inside NAU TV Show story above about Sherrie Wolf's amazing artwork.)

  Hey, just cuz' it's summertime doesn't mean there isn't stuff to see.  The exhibit at the NAU Art Museum, "Sherrie Wolf: Historyonics" is up until June 2.

  I took advantage of the opportunity to visit the museum today when no one was there.  I love the colors in Sherrie Wolf's art.  A friend told me she just wanted to lie down and soak it all up.  I'm not recommending you try this (people might look at you strange) but this is DEFINITELY the feeling you get when you enter this exhibit.

  I love looking at art with people who have experience and knowledge of it, and I also like introducing people to art.  When I was in Colorado last summer, I took my mom and dad to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, and told my dad "Before we go in, I just want you to know there's nothing to "get" with this art.  It's just an experience."  Turns out that was just the advice dear old dad needed, and he enjoyed himself better than any other art museum trip before.

  It seems like the most memorable art experiences for me are the ones in which there is an "experience," rather than a lesson.  When I went today to Sherrie Wolf's show, I had a spacey head (I've been sick with a head-cold for a week now.)  And although her still-lifes are based on famous painters, and art history students will see reproductions of paintings they've only seen on slides and in textbooks, I wasn't worried about those details today.  I felt almost drugged out with my cold symptoms, which may explain why I focused on the clouds in her landscapes.  Man, I felt like flying in those soft fluffy clouds!  I could almost smell the summer breeze!

  It was surreal.  I was just soaking in the cloudscape.  There was nothing to "get" and it seemed like a pretty good idea to have a cloudful, and calm, still-life experience. 

  I think this must be my official start of the easy-breezy summer type living.



Monday, May 14, 2012

The Beauty in Achievement

Spring 2012 College of Arts and Letters graduates.
Campus is really quiet.  Last week was finals week, culminating in graduation.  All the students have fled the university to start their carefree summer lives.

I've been volunteering at graduation for 6 years now.  I love it.  Yes, everyone's nerves are on edge; the staff are worried about herding everyone in the right direction; the dignitaries are nervous about their speeches and not tripping over the robes; and the students are anxious about having their name read right, finding their parents in the crowd, and are secretly worried about someone discovering that they don't really deserve to graduate.  Parents are proud, bored, and uncomfortable in their suit, ties and high heels.  It's just about the most emotionally-packed event that I attend every year.
Maybe it's the atmosphere, but it never fails that I tear up when I hear the National Anthem.  I'm not super patriotic or anything, but there is something beautiful about our country's song--it is evocative of everything that I hold dear about America.  It's difficult--the range is notoriously high; finding the right words is tricky--everyone from Christina Aguilera to Michael Bolton has messed it up; and getting up to the reaches of "the land of the freeee" is just as hard as attaining freedom in everyday life.

On Friday, the Star Spangled Banner was beautifully sung by School of Music students Quentin Lee and Andrew Surrena, both graduating.  Sometimes I'm so amazed that these 20-somethings reach levels of talent that surpass pop idols.

Then Bruce Aiken, Grand Canyon artist and honorary doctorate gave his speech.  He told the students, "there are some things that are beautiful in life, and you-you are one of those things.  I can see it in your eyes, I can see it in your faces."  They were beautiful with the feeling of their accomplishments, the feeling that they had their whole life in front of them.  They were talented, worked hard, and were ready for the world.  It really WAS beautiful!

There has been a little bit of talk in the news about how hard it is to find a job in this economy.  Some people have been focusing on liberal and performing arts majors--statistics show that these students have the hardest time ever finding jobs.  But I would like to point out that liberal art, performing and fine arts majors are also the ones most likely to have enjoyed their experience at the university.  (They are also half as likely to live with their parents--according to the Social Science Research Council.) They have learned how to critically and creatively think.  Their learning process will be a life-long event.

My friends and I have been talking about how it's better to focus on the process, not just the goal.  I think students from the College of Arts and Letters have learned how to be good at this--they know that their experience is about becoming more self-actualized, not just about getting a job.  And especially not about getting a job you hate!  As a society, we are often so goal-oriented that we forget to smell the roses, to stop at the scenic overlook and take it all in.

But sometimes we also forget to celebrate reaching our goals too!  NAU Graduates, celebrate the beauty of accomplishment, and may you never forget how important it is to keep growing, and to keep appreciating beauty in moments of growth, both large and small.

Bruce Aiken giving his commencement speech.

Monday, May 7, 2012


Bruce Aiken, Frances Reimer, Bob Breunig, Alan Petersen and Diane Rechel.  Benchmarkers in the Flagstaff art community.
I started this blog two years ago, in August of 2010, as a reaction to National Endowment for the Arts research that claimed only 34.6% of Americans attended art exhibits or performances in 2008. I was pretty shocked at those statistics.  As part of my job, I promote over 380 cultural events at Northern Arizona University alone, and so I know there are plenty of really good cultural offerings, both at the uni and in town. 

From the start, though, I had a hard time justifying the limits that NEA had put on what they defined as "art events."  According to them, they only measured certain events as bona-fide: "Benchmark activities tracked since 1982 are attendance at jazz, classical music, opera, musical plays, non-musical plays, and ballet performances, and visits to art museums or art galleries."

But the art world is a changing place.  "Benchmark activities" are no longer so measurable.  Sometimes a benchmark experience, one that sets the standard, is making calaveras masks and rolling around in a tractor tire while watching a street performance.   Or having an experience of synesthesia during a Klezmer music concert.  Reading poetry,  connecting with the local art community at the Viola Awards, and hearing about the importance of art in education--these were my own personal benchmark art experiences this year.   And I'm afraid that the NEA doesn't really want to hear about it.

Or do they?

Turns out that the art world is actually getting BIGGER, not smaller.  The people interpreting NEA's Survey of Public Participation in the Arts data say that now "Analysis includes a fuller spectrum of artistic genres and participation via electronic media and personal arts creation for a clearer, more accurate picture of arts engagement," according to a news release from NEA last year.

Well, that's just great news.  With that reinterpretation, all of a sudden " 3 out of 4 Americans participate in the arts" every year.  Automatically, the arts are recognized as being more integral to people's lives than we previously thought (or were told.)

Turns out we just had to broaden our understanding of what art really is if we're going to keep it alive.

Sky Black, Flagstaff's newest (and youngest) working artist, at The Pike.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

But is it ART?

I'm not really allowed to repeat what Laura said, but it made me laugh til I cried.

"A b**** is a female dog.  She's also a women who is crabby and won't let you be yourself."  
David Sedaris, Ardrey Auditorium  (4/27/12)

When I went to see "A Thousand Invisible Cords,"a movie about NAU Regents’ Biology Professor Tom Whitham and his work with an ecosystem community of cottonwood trees, aphids, streams,  wildlife, and other elements in nature, I wasn't thinking "This science is ART".

In the same way, when I went to see David Sedaris on Friday night, overhearing the lady next to me say "he is one SICK individual," I wasn't exactly thinking "This man's boundary-pushing stories about the foibles of humanity are LITERATURE."

Still, I'm starting to see the point of expanding my definitions of "art" and "literature." I guess I've been growing lately. 

As Dan Boone, producer and director of "A Thousand Invisible Cords" pointed out in his introduction to the film, he has always viewed art and science as the same thing.  They both take creativity to solve problems; they both use hard-earned tools of knowledge and skill to do it.

It's the same with writing.  While Sedaris may be a "sick individual", he is certainly creative.  He uses his creativity and humor to make life more pleasant, more tolerant of diversity and more accepting of different opinions.  In the instance of an annoying houseguest who was arrogantly throwing his French around, Sedaris seemed to exorcise the pain by writing about it.  (He also said that he "tries to write about people who aren't big readers.")  And as an audience member pointed out, he was always taking notes on what worked, and what didn't, fully utilizing his skills as a wordsmith, even while on-stage.  

Literature is written work considered of superior or lasting artistic merit, based on the perceived quality or value as works of art.  During the reading by Sedaris, I hit a point where I was laughing so hard, I snorted, and then started crying.  Considering that Sedaris is writing for humor, getting me to laugh that hard is probably a feather in his cap, a proof that his work has lasting merit.  (I think laughter is just as important to the understanding of the human condition as tears are, and maybe more so.)

In the same way, Tom Whitham started an experiment 30 years with cottonwood trees and the effects of aphids--and this experiment is still going!  He has shown that we are "genetically connected members of a rich community of interacting species....The world is bound together in more ways than most people thought possible" (see full article here.)  That certainly seems to be important to our understanding of the human condition.

While a lot of people can produce work that is creative, and certainly requires skill, I think that the pieces that stick with us are the ones that have meaning to our lives.  And finding out that we can relate to a different experience--that we are interconnected to all things, whether it be leaf litter or humorous ramblings by a middle-aged homosexual, I think it has value.  I think it's art.