Friday, July 15, 2016

Gwenessa Lam Explores Memory and Perception

Visual artist Gwenessa Lam explores what triggers memory and the nature of perception. She is also interested in how disaster images are made and disseminated. She was working on a series that dealt with Syria and the Arab Spring, but she wanted to do something that is closer to home. Quite literally. 

“House fires are something everyone is exposed to no matter where you live," she says. "There’s always some fire. They’re often neglected in relation to larger issues, like a terrorist bombing, but if it happens to you, or someone you know, the effects can be as devastating. They’re both ubiquitous and yet highly personal events. Among other things, they make you think about what constitutes home and what happens when it’s taken away—how very much more significant it becomes.”

Gwenessa spent the majority of her eight-week residency working on just one painting. She works in oil and her technique is laborious: she slowly building up her image through successive layers of glazes that must be applied when the surface is wet. This means she has a limited window of time when she can work. Being on a residency for an extended period without interruption is vital to her process. “When I’m at home, things get in the way so I have to reactivate the medium again because I’ve left it too long.” Gwenessa uses an extended medium that allows her about 24 hours, nevertheless, after two hours, the surface gets tacky and she has to reactivate it. “If I keep it wet, I can keep it going.” She has to adjust her recipe depending on where she is. Fortunately, Virginia’s humidity extends her window a bit longer than at home in more arid Calgary.

Gwenessa works from photographs, altering the images to create a negative version of the original in order to disrupt the way we look at normalized images. “I manipulate the photograph through filters and Photoshop, it’s still black and white, but I invert it and amplify things. For me, this is important in two ways. This particular fire is a night scene so normally it would all be black, but when you invert it, the black areas become white and the white becomes black. Initially, I was more interested in the fire as being light and hot. If you ever see a night fire, it draws you in—but I wanted to see what would happen if you reversed it. Normally, light is seen as life-giving; think of all the mythologies of fire, it’s the source of heat and energy and how we cook, but then in a different context, like a house fire, it’s very destructive. When you make it black it’s almost a psychological flip in one’s mind. So in some ways the blackness—it still could be like smoke so it’s ephemeral, but to me, the blackness is a psychological internal solidification that happens by making that choice to make it black.” The inversion is not only optically interesting, but it creates confusion. Is it fire or is it smoke? It’s hard to tell and if it’s both where one begins and the other ends. The smoke is an effect of the fire, but maybe it’s going out, or maybe it’s just beginning? There’s uncertainty. At what point of the emergency are we at?

At first, Gwenessa’s palette looks like monochrome black and white, but almost immediately you see a distinct pink cast to the painting. This adds a lovely soft aura that’s startling, eliciting, on the one hand, an emotional response akin to a kind of dreamy nostalgia, and on the other, bafflement at how weirdly at odds it is to the catastrophic image depicted. This effect is only enhanced by the refined delicacy of Gwenessa’s approach. She depicts the hard edges and nebulous shapes with perfect veracity and an overall restraint. The end result is a painting that is mysterious, and as beautiful as it is haunting.

Gwenessa uses the pink as a reference to the type of source image she’s painting from. “I’m conveying that the print [she's made from the original photograph] itself has an aberration—it’s not color corrected—sometimes you’ll have a cheap printer which will have a pink tone. I like to include those little hiccups as part of the palette to create an image that has a distant imprint of its source, like a patina. It looks like its black and white, but you’re not quite sure, and the effect will remind you of something. That’s part of the interest I have in perception in terms of recognizing the image, locating the source, but also in the way we experience it through the color. So one ongoing investigation in the work has been this interest in lightness and darkness, but also the idea of the imprint of an experience. A manifestation of this is the shadow and in in this case, it’s the idea of what survives after a disaster. Even the idea of the smoke and the fire as a type of ephemeral shadow as well.”

The inverted image also achieves a kind of solarization effect. It’s as if she’s captured the scene lit fleetingly by a great flash of light that has crystalized the moment of disaster.

For her subject matter, Gwenessa tries to find actual houses because she wants to reference actual events, but it’s quite hard to find them. By the time a news crew arrives at the scene, the house is usually too far-gone. Of the images she has found, Gwenessa has had to sift through to make sure they weren’t intentionally set by the fire department for training purposes. But these also interest her. “Trying to understand which are real and which aren’t has led me down a rabbit hole thinking about the reliability of these images. What is the source imagery? How is it disseminated?”

She was able to verify the one she was working on at VCCA is an actual house fire that occurred in Wainfleet, Ontario. But she has been tracking another one for the past year and has found no clear provenance. “It’s so strange because it’s such a popular image; it’s been re-appropriated so many times that its context has been emptied out. I figured out it’s on a meme generator website and in the last three months, the number of images, or websites that have been re-appropriating it are multiplying. Before I arrived, a couple of weeks ago, it was up to 700. People are using these images like clip art for things like home insurance websites, but also some of them are accompanying online blogs or narratives that have nothing to do with the specific house, or even a fire. I’ve found it on amateur news blogs that are reporting on a real fire, just not this one. If you read the news story closely, it won’t actually ever say this is the image of the fire. But to look at it superficially, you would think it was. That made me really think about the truth-value in the things that we see. We’re always looking at things online or even in the newspaper and thinking it’s suspect, but it became much more clear. And the fact people are doing it so boldly is so interesting.”

There’s a serendipity that comes into play Gwenessa’s process. For instance, the two figures on the bottom left of the painting were a discovery, made when she inverted the image. She didn’t see them in the original because of the darkness. Their proximity and seeming disinterest in the conflagration going on beside them is peculiar. At first Gwenessa suspected that maybe the fire was intentionally set. But she has verified that it is real and they are firemen whose aspect and position are somewhat distorted. Between them is another unlikely vignette, what appears to be a horse or cow calmly grazing. Because it was a poor quality image to begin with, it could have been just a weird formation, but to Gwenessa, this ambiguous blur registered as a pastoral scene and she wanted to depict it as she saw it, shaped by what she personally projected onto the image.

Nowadays, it’s hard to shock people because everything is out there easily accessible, easily seen. Maybe because a house fire has a quotidian quality—we are all at risk—it resonates so deeply with us. It’s interesting that Gwenessa achieves a reaction of fear, or at least foreboding, in the viewer using such quiet means. She is trying to understand what one’s engagement with the images is. “We all are exposed to disturbing events whether they be personal or external and how to respond to them. I’m trying to work through a romanticization or a dwelling in things. There’s enough atrocity and disaster around us. How do we work through all that and arrive at something generative. The reality is that those events and that feeling will always be there; it’s an experience that we have to acknowledge. It’s been really productive being here talking about this idea very loosely with other artists and writers dealing with similar subject matter, but in different contexts. Whether it’s PTSD or larger, global issues. I’ve found this through line to those points of difficulty and how to see something else in that disturbance and it’s almost like a slow simmer that strikes a chord because it’s such a slow and painful process as opposed to something that’s immediate and abrasive.”

In addition to VCCA, Gwenessa has had residencies at the Banff Center, MacDowell and Yaddo. She values interdisciplinary residencies. “I cannot control or determine who’s here, but something almost magical occurs in the way things fall in, there’s a kinship in the type of work we’re doing—it’s very different in terms of medium and approach, but I’ve had really great conversations with other Fellows and it becomes a larger conversation about the creative process, which I often find when you’re in a really specific space. I had never been to this region before and I value being geographically in a different place because it makes me think from a larger perspective.” Gwenessa likes the fact that a large number of Fellows return to VCCA and the mix of regional, national and international. “A day here is like a month when I’m at home; I am so much more productive.”

Monday, July 11, 2016

Guest Blog: Repost from s [r] blog – The Online Literary Magazine at Arizona State University by Barbara Crooker

First, let me tell you about the room I don’t have, the one at home. I’m the mother of a son with autism, now 32, and my work space is a corner of the dining room, where I can be at the computer and still see the short bus when it arrives. My “desk” is a book bag, highly portable. My actual books are in book cases scattered throughout the house. And my work day is fragmented, too—we have to provide transportation for him now that he’s out of school, plus there are household tasks, doctor appointments, trips to the gym. . . .I’ve got a yard full of perennials and a vegetable garden, which need my attention. My work day is also rife with interruptions—the doorbell, the phone, my beloved husband wandering in to read me items from the newspaper (which I’ve already read). And there are the other parts of caregiving: making up med sets, running a behavior modification program, cooking gluten and dairy-free meals; in general, I “run” things— But I also try to engage in the written word, even if it’s just reading, every day. I find it a small miracle that I’ve actually written anything at all, even though at this point I’ve published close to 900 poems. . . . 
So, every eighteen months, I try to go away to a colony, specifically The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, in Amherst, VA. It’s competitive; I don’t always get in, plus sometimes there are things “in real life” that make getting away impossible. But right now, here I am, in sweet Virginia, on a May morning; paradise restored. It’s nothing fancy; the studios are basic, austere, even, in a repurposed dairy farm. I believe my room formerly housed cows. The outside is cinder block; the floors are poured cement. But there’s a twin bed (you can sleep in your studio, but I prefer to walk back to the residence at night); a “distressed” (many writers have put butt to chair here) but comfortable leather arm chair and ottoman; a large desk, big enough to hold my printer, laptop, slant desk, and then some; two small tables; a book case; and two lamps. And four big windows with a view of the hedgerow, the dirt road that winds through the campus, a meadow of wild grasses and daisies, and the Blue Ridge Mountains stretching beyond.
 Lately, I’ve been reading blogs about “how to keep going after the MFA,” which leave me puzzled. We’re writers; writers write. Or they construct manuscripts, which is going to be my primary task here, to put, not as Coleridge said, “Best words, best order” (his definition of a poem), but “best poem, best order” for two book length manuscripts. If I finish these projects, I plan to take a look at where the poems that don’t fit in either of these manuscripts are going, what the themes are, etc., with an eye to another book down the road. And I’d like to write some new poems, as well.
All these days, stretching out before me. It’s amazing, when you take food prep (planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning up afterward) out of the equation how many hours there are in a day. I could hardly wait to get here. I roll up my sleeves and begin.
Here’s a poem I wrote after a previous residency: 
Wrapping up a residency, new work done,
car packed with poems, computer, books.
There’s a bluebird on the tree limb over my head,
white belly, orange throat, blue back.
His only job is to be beautiful.
For weeks here, there’s been nothing but work,
no jobs or families or domestic duties, not a pan
to wash or a meal to prepare. We have reverted
to childhood, trade items from our lunchboxes.
Play Truth or Dare at night. Put on plays,
read each other stories. On warm days,
we sit in the sun and drink lemonade.
No one tells us to clean up our rooms or our prose.
We write more and more. Whole forests have died
for our work. Each day, we are closer to capturing
beauty, though it flies out of reach.
I’d like to sit here forever, on the Pasternak bench,
and try to decide which is lovelier, the pink
dogwood or the white, write a few
more lines, watch the high white clouds scroll
on a brilliant blue sky, stay until
the sticky little leaves unfurl
to an audience of waving hands.
I’d like to sit here,
until the cows come home,
or Mother calls us in.
published in New Works Review, 2004

Monday, June 27, 2016

Bella Pollen Examines the Lure of Escape and the Pull of Home in her Memoir

While at VCCA this spring, Bella Pollen was finishing up a memoir, which began taking shape during her first VCCA residency in 2012. At the time, she was weighing whether to embark on a new fiction idea or focus on short personal essays. She had never tried the latter and was dubious, but one of the other Fellows encouraged her to try the essays. “I told him I had a lousy memory and he said, ‘Hey, you don't have to worry about the color of the napkins.’” The phrase was freeing, and after that exchange, she was on her way, writing short essays that have now become a memoir of stories linked both chronologically and thematically. “They loosely explore the tension between the lure of escape in all its forms and the pull of home with everything that means,” she says. “The book is divided into five different geographical sections, which incorporate graphic memoir, so the entire project is something of a hybrid and a first for me in terms of mixing mediums and collaborating with an artist.”  

Bella acknowledges with gratitude that the project that has taken up the last few years of her life was initially conceived of at VCCA. “Without VCCA this book would not exist,” she says. “VCCA has also paved the way for many more collaborations in various forms. Since that first visit, I have worked closely with half a dozen Fellows, on my own project and theirs. VCCA simply could not mean more to me in terms of inspiration, creative support and the opportunity to work with other artists.”  

Attending The Commission at Pharsalia afforded Bella, and the other Fellows in attendance, the opportunity to meet those in the community who financially support VCCA and so give its Fellows such vital, creative freedom. Bella’s residency consisted of “the usual business of making new friends, seeing new art, listening to new compositions, finding new poems as well as writing and getting a huge tranche of work done.”

In addition to Amherst, Bella has been in residence at the Moulin à Nef. “Auvillar is a French town which, takes an enormous interest in the fellows who come.”  She’s also spent time at the “residency of cakes and scones” as some of the Fellows have dubbed it a.k.a. the Tyrone Guthrie in Ireland. She’s also created or been invited to mini private residencies with various writers and artists, many of whom she originally met at VCCA.

Friday, June 24, 2016


Barbara Bernstein's Public Art Project: Connections Installed at Seven Stations in VA Transit System

                                                                                          Maquette for Station E

VCCA Resident Artist Barbara Bernstein has been hard at work completing a public art project commissioned by the Arlington Public Art Fund and the Virginia Transit System. Barbara won the commission in 2011 in an international competition. She then began her designs for the project, providing a unifying visual motif for the double curved roofs, windscreens and pavement of seven new stations connecting Crystal City and Potomac Yard in the Washington D.C. greater metro area.

According to Barbara, “ Connections” is a design of interconnected lines that provides a visual metaphor for the purpose and function of the Transitway itself: bringing together multiple peoples, traveling from different directions within a unified system, in order to make connections. Each line of the design is linked to another; each shape is related to the lines. The intricate design is also a unified whole, just like the intersecting web of the lives people live on a daily basis.

After five years, unfortunate budget cuts and unexpected delays, the final project has Barbara’s designs for windscreens for each of the seven stations, ranging in size from 20 feet to 200 feet in width and 8 feet to15 feet in height. “I have created seven iterations of the design. The lines of the patterns always connect, even when mirrored or placed back to back. This was not planned on my part and was a gratifying yet unexpected discovery while I was working. Each station also has a specific predominant color, becoming a distinct landmark while providing identification other than text. This visual recognition also assists those who cannot read English.

Each of the colors within each design has a different degree of translucency printed on the art film. These variations add a sense of movement to the overall pattern. The largest shapes are most sheer, while smaller shapes have deeper, nearly opaque hues. The effect is similar to lenses that change with the time of day and level of sunlight.”

Barbara wanted her work to be seen and appreciated not just by the users of the transit system, but by passersby and those using other forms of transportation as well. Her work is an invitation to all who see it as an on-going discovery, offering connections at every juncture. 

Barbara’s project will be in the International Public Art Review magazine in late fall 2016/early 2017 and will be considered for a national public art prize in 2018.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Aaron McIntosh's Strange Baby Blankets

A self-described “nerdy Appalachian queer guy” visual artist Aaron McIntosh comes from a long line of quilters. Aaron is justifiably proud of this family legacy, which he has appropriated and used in a decidedly contemporary way.

“My family didn’t really go to art museums or anything like that so in a lot of ways this was the creative outlet I saw most as a child.” In his work Aaron explores the intersections of material culture, family tradition, identity-shaping, sexuality and desire in a range of works including quilts, collage, drawing, domestic textiles, furniture and sculpture.

Growing up in the mountains of East Tennessee, Aaron picked up quilting, “almost like osmosis.” “Quilting resonates with me because of my family connection,” he says. “I think of my practice as being always grounded in quilt making, so whether it’s unit based piecework, or accumulation of materials, or even some of the things that surround quilting, like hoarding materials—I grew up around all of that. It’s important to me to both pay homage to the people who came before and didn’t have the luxury or privilege to study art, and also bring their traditions into the 21st century.”

Aaron is interested in how desire gets mediated through things and what it is to learn about one’s desire, sexuality and romantic inclinations through the printed word and visuals. He takes these and translates them into his quilt and drawing studies. “Sometimes it’s very present, something lifted directly from those sources and then turned into a quilt or the figure is maybe removed and so you’re left with a background, or a silhouette, or a negative space that indicates the figure. I’m interested in that movement from physical, corporeal desire and also material desire. There’s always a reverence for the materiality of the thing and patterns.”

Reinterpreted in brightly hued calico, the overtness of the figures’ eroticism isn’t all that evident, but it hovers over the work. Aaron likens these quilts to “strange baby blankets”. For him they play the role of transitional object as described by psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott who posited that young children use objects (teddy bears, blankies) to separate the "me" from the "not-me". “I’m interested in making transitional objects that aren’t rooted in childhood, but rooted in adult sexuality and eroticism,” he says. “In my own life, this means transitioning out of certain ways of being romantically, sexually, into new ways of being. I’m taking what those transitional objects represent together with some hybrid of the child’s blankie into this new space of sexual exploration.”

There’s an aspect of comfort that’s intrinsic to transitional objects. In pairing this traditional, familial technique with gay erotica, Aaron has found a way of uniting these two essential sides of his character; establishing a strong bond between them is the very definition of comfort.

Aaron hangs the quilts draped on a hook on the wall like rags, as opposed to stretched out. “You’re going to be denied the image,” he says. But the viewer will be invited to take them off the wall and hold them, to have a physical experience with them and be able to spread them out so they can see them.

In addition to fabric, Aaron works with printed materials and erotica, piecing them together and doing drawings over them. He’s done large room sized installations referencing the newspaper-covered walls of his grandmother’s house as well as small-scale drawings. Pieced together and featuring drawn stitches his drawings are symbolic quilts. “They provide a new way of thinking about transitional objects that is very personal to me.”

Aaron holds a BFA from the Appalachian Center for Craft and a MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. He has been Assistant Professor in the Fiber Department at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). He has joined the faculty at VCU Arts and will begin teaching there in the fall.

Aaron's residency was funded by the MICA Fellowship supported by the LEAW Family Foundation.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Joy Peterson Heyrman is New VCCA Executive Director

William E. Hunt, Jr. President of the Board of Directors of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), one of the leading artists communities in the world, which has hosted over 5,500 writers, visual artists and composers during the creation phase of their work, has announced the appointment of Joy Peterson Heyrman, Ph.D. as Executive Director. She will begin September 6, 2016.

“Dr. Heyrman’s personal and professional skills, passion for the arts and commitment to our mission make her the ideal candidate to lead VCCA into the future,” said Mr. Hunt. “Her experience working closely with boards, volunteers, arts advocates, and donors made her the VCCA Board’s unanimous choice after a competitive national search.”

Photo: Courtesy the Walters Art Museum
Dr. Heyrman was most recently Deputy Director for Museum Advancement at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where she worked for 23 years. On projects as varied as audience development initiatives, international exhibitions, and three ambitious capital campaigns which raised over $74 million, she worked with varied constituencies to build a culture of philanthropy and teamwork. A specialist in 19th century American Art, she also organized New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville exhibited at the Walters and the Mint Museum (Charlotte, NC) in 2013.

Dr. Heyrman holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Art History and Archeology from the University of Maryland, as well as a B.A. in English from Amherst College (Amherst, MA). She speaks French and German, a great asset, given VCCA’s international partnerships and established residency program in Auvillar, France.

“I am thrilled to come to VCCA, which plays such a vital role as a forum for artists,” said Dr. Heyrman. “It is an honor to take my place in this pastoral place of retreat for intensive individual creativity in Amherst and in Auvillar as well as in VCCA’s global network of artist Fellows and people who care about what they have to say. I look forward to working with a great staff and committed Board and Fellows to build on the strong foundation already in place at VCCA.”