Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Judith Robertson Brings Animation to Her Alternate Realities

Judith Robertson is a walker. She’s in residence now and it’s not uncommon to see her out and about on the Mt. San Angelo grounds. Aside from the personal pleasure she derives from the pursuit, it also has profound repercussions in her art. 

The act of walking: moving the body through space references the passage of time. There’s also a degree of uncertainty about the whole enterprise: often meanderings will take us off course. Sometimes, there’s a specific destination, other times not. “I’m very conscious of how we as creatures are making these lines around the globe with historic patterns going back forever. If you start mapping them, you’ll find they have their own unique story pattern and emotional subtext. In my recent work, I am becoming more panoramic. I’m trying to create a sense of time or bring time into the mix by virtue of motion: as we walk, time passes and the story unfolds.’

Judy uses photographs as the catalyst to achieve something quite different from the realism generally associated with photography. Working them with other media, she creates altered realities where a sense of foreboding, underlying confusion, or mystery is evident. You still see some semblance of the photograph “I want to plant the seeds of some representation, but I only want the story to begin there and then go someplace completely different.” The work is dreamlike and a little unearthly, but very much tied to the earth. “I want you to start from a familiar point but wind up in a labyrinthine state of confusion, or at least disorientation.”

It was her interest in conveying time that led Judy to her most recent project: a three-minute animated film of crossing a street in Miami Beach where she lives. “Shooting the video, I tried to get as close to how I shoot my digital stills as possible. It’s really crude and blurry. It’s fractured and jerky because I was walking. When I saw the rough footage, I could tell there was magic in it.”

The project is incredibly laborious and Judy’s VCCA residency has helped the work come to fruition. “What’s so great about these opportunities is it sets the stage for me to try something I’ve never done before, get a real foothold on it. At home, it’s so difficult to start projects of this scale.”

The raw video had 6,000 frames, many were duplicates generated by the camera as a reaction to Judy’s filming: “The way I shoot, the camera’s struggling, I’ve opened up the shutter, it’s dong things it’s really not comfortable doing so it duplicates in order to fill in blank areas.” After dumping two-thirds of the images, she had to resize and color correct the remaining 2,000 unique ones. She then prints them out onto drawing paper and works them with pencil, pen, marker, paint and collage. Finally she scans them back into the computer for insertion into the video.

“Doing this project, I’m understanding the rhythm of working with time now, the anatomy of serializing a thought. It’s really fascinating. You have to narrow your storytelling focus in a way it’s more literary than ever because you can’t talk about five things at one time in one frame. You have to talk about maybe a quarter of one thing and you have to have a quarter going into a half of one thing and then you have to arrive at the one thing 20 frames later so that kind of thing is brand new to me.”

Watching a snippet of the animation I was struck by how the quick juxtaposition of different media and styles—photographic images of landscape overlaid with flat, cartoonish drawing—added a dynamic energy. Spontaneous lines, floating numbers and an unrolling brick road turn the mundane act of crossing the street into a visual and narrative adventure.
Reading is Judy’s “mantra and inspiration.” Right now, books in her studio include
Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit, Across the Land and the Water poems by W.G. Sebald and My Very End of the Universe a compilation of five 'novellas-in-flash' (Rose Metal Press). The common thread seems to be time—Wanderlust is about walking, poems are “moments” and flash fiction is condensed (or speeded up) fiction—a nice parallel to what Judy is doing.


Monday, January 26, 2015

Jesse Lee Kercheval: Poet, Translator, Cultural Explorer

Jesse Lee Kercheval has been on a remarkable journey during which she mastered a language and discovered the rich canon of Uruguayan poetry. It all started six years ago when Jesse Lee decided to learn Spanish. Initially, she planned to go to Mexico, but Uruguay’s culture and cuisine appealed more to her 12-year old son who was along for the ride together with Jesse Lee’s husband and the family dog.

Though she claims to be bad at languages, after a seven-month immersion course and extended time spent in Uruguay, Jesse Lee persevered. She went from standing in a bookstore where she couldn’t read a thing to eventually translating the poetry of the country’s greatest poet as well as writing poetry of her own in Spanish. “Initially I found it easier to write in Spanish than writing in English and subsequently translating it into Spanish. I was living in Montevideo and thinking in Spanish. Plus, if you write in a language you’re learning you don’t write something you don’t know how to say.”

According to Jesse Lee, Uruguay produces two things in abundance world-class soccer players and poets. “There is a poetry event or book launch every night, sometimes two or three a night. The country is a country full of poets—it’s part of the national identity.

“I began meeting poets because I’m a poet. People kept saying I would end up translating poetry and that’s in fact what happened.” Her first experience as a translator was translating her own poetry for publication in magazines in the U.S.

Wanting to do something for the poets there, Jesse Lee hatched the idea of pairing 23 young Uruguayan poets with 23 American poet translators to create América Invertida: An Anthology of Younger Uruguayan Poets, which is being published by the University of New Mexico Press in the fall.

She also came under the spell of Circe Maia, Uruguay’s most acclaimed poet. "Everyone in Uruguay says she should win the Nobel Prize," Jesse Lee said. Maia, who is 83, lives in a provincial town five hours from the capital. “Like Eudora Welty, she’s very well known among writers, but doesn’t live in the big city. People make the pilgrimage to see her.”

Jesse Lee was surprised that so few of Maia's poems had been translated or published anthologies. “I got in touch with her and asked if she’d mind if I tried translating her poems and getting them published,” she says. “It’s a small enough country that if you want to get in touch with Circe Maia you ask one person and you get her email address.” Editors of literary magazines that usually take six months to a year to consider work wrote back to Jesse Lee the same day. So she decided it was time for a book. Invisible Bridge/El Puente Invisible: Selected Poems of Circe Maia is coming out from the University of Pittsburgh Press in the fall.

Learning the language the way Jesse Lee did means she picks up nuances of Uruguayan Spanish that elude many fluent Spanish speakers. Uruguayan Spanish, which is called Rioplatense Spanish, has lots of idiosyncrasies, sharing with Argentina the influence of the tango based slang, Lunfardo. The name of every fruit, vegetable, item of clothing differs from what they are called in Spain.

Navigating the cultural and historical references has proved more challenging. Sometimes, Jesse Lee said, she will miss something historical or an obscure allusion by one of the young poets to popular music groups, card games, or soccer chants, but she relies on help from Uruguayan friends to figure it all out.

There is a good deal of serendipity in Jesse Lee’s story. That she, a poet, landed in this rich landscape and that what was a terra incognita opened up in such a marvelous and unexpected way. “It’s something I could never have predicted would turn out to be this wonderful thing.”

Jesse Lee is the author of 15 books of fiction, poetry and nonfiction including the poetry chapbook pair Torres and Towers (Editorial Yaugarú, 2014). Long and skinny, the two volumes reference the World Trade Towers. Torres is the poem Jesse Lee wrote in Spanish about being in Uruguay during the anniversary of 9/11; Towers is her English translation. Her novel My Life as a Silent Movie was published by Indiana University Press in 2013 and her novella Brazil (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010) won the Ruthanne Wiley Memorial Novella Contest. Her poetry collection Cinema Muto (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009) was selected by David Wojahn for a Crab Orchard Open Selection Award. Her story collection The Alice Stories (University of Nebraska Press, 2007) won the Prairie Schooner Fiction Book Prize. Her first story collection The Dogeater (University of Missouri Press, 1987) won the Associated Writing Programs Award in Short Fiction. Space (Algonquin Books, 1998, reissued by the University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), her memoir about growing up near Cape Kennedy during the moon race, won the Alex Award from the American Library Association. Her novel The Museum of Happiness, set in Paris in 1929, has been reissued with a new afterword by the author by the University of Wisconsin Press as part of the Library of American Fiction. Her popular writing text Building Fiction has also been reissued in trade paperback by UW Press. Her other poetry collections are Dog Angel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004) and World as Dictionary (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1999).  She is also the author of two poetry chapbooks, Chartreuse (Hollyridge Press, 2005) and Film History as Train Wreck (Center for Book Arts, 2006) which won the 2006 Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize.  Her stories and her English and Spanish language poems appear regularly in literary magazines in the U.S. and other countries. Her bilingual Spanish/English poetry collection Extranjera/Stranger will be published in Uruguay by Editorial Yaugarú in May, 2015.    

(Photo: JesseLee: left; Circe Maia: right) 


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

MICA VCCA Fellow Carolyn Case's Ornate Abstractions

With a ravishing palette and compendium of different painting techniques, Carolyn Case creates ornate abstract works that are complex discourses on painting. Distinctly nonobjective, Carolyn’s work nevertheless evokes landscapes. Adding to this quality is her use of some kind of aperture that opens up to a completely different formal approach suggesting deeper space. There is something about her compositional arrangements and the dense energy she creates that reminds me, funnily enough, of Hieronymus Bosch though the two artists remain worlds apart.

Carolyn’s approach involves a lot of addition and subtraction. “Sometimes I‘ll have an idea that I will try and it will either work or lead to another idea.” If it doesn’t work, she simply sands it off and begins again.

Right now Carolyn is working with the idea of her paintings existing beyond the boundaries of the panel. What you’re seeing is just a fragment of a larger (imaginary) whole. “The paintings are happening out there and I’m only getting a bit of them,” she says.

This past year Carolyn travelled to Iran, her husband’s homeland. “It was not as beautiful when we went this time; it was in the middle of summer and everything was covered in dust. I was trying to think of a way to frame my mind so I wouldn’t be negative about the visuals and I began thinking of the dust as a unifier. Passing a tree, a storefront, a house, everything was covered so it allowed me to make compositions in my mind connecting things that I wouldn’t ordinarily connect because the dust carried through and so I was really thinking about this when I started this series.”

One of the most distinctive features of Carolyn’s paintings is her use of dots. These were inspired by the pulsating quality of the color in Andean weavings. “At first, I couldn’t figure out how to get that effect in paint and then I thought of the thread going up and down and up and down and that’s how I came up with the idea of the dots.” Carolyn combines this intricate motif with other passages that are more painterly with washes of color, or more impasto brush strokes. She also achieves a collage effect; painted areas look distinctly torn and layered. While she dazzles with color and dynamic shape she produces work that is very much about manipulating the illusion of space.

Carolyn’s residency is a joint venture between VCCA and the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). The program, available to MICA faculty, provides residencies funded by L.E.A.W. Family Foundation. Board member and VCCA Fellow Linda Wachtmeister established the partnership between the MICA community and VCCA because: "Both of these organizations are important in my life,” she says. "I have experienced wonderful things because of being a MICA artist and a VCCA fellow. I wanted to share that with other people."

This is Carolyn’s first residency at VCCA and first residency in 15 years. “I’ve got two kids,” she explains. Carolyn’s husband has been her mainstay and, with four snow days in the three weeks she’s been gone, has been put through his paces. For Carolyn, her residency has been incredibly inspiring:“I’ve never been around so many writers and composers before.” It’s also been a lifesaver: her first New York show opens at the Asya Geisberg Gallery in Chelsea in March and, “I would never have gotten the work done without this residency.”


Caroline Keys: String Band Queen

Caroline Keys is relishing her residency at VCCA. “I am so grateful for my time at VCCA. It informs everything I do and there’s just no way the things I get done here would get done at home.” A self-described collaboration junkie: “If I’m not careful, I’ll be rehearsing or performing every night of the week,“ she says with a mirth filled laugh. Being in residence at VCCA allows Caroline to check in and see what she can make on her own. And like so many other Fellows, she feels great freedom here to work in a more experimental fashion than she would normally.

Caroline’s a well-known figure in the Rocky Mountain and Northwest string band communities. She’s happy performing in a bar, a concert hall or recording studio—her one requirement is that the performance be a collaborative effort.

Caroline grew up in a family where music was valued. Her father, the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lynchburg, instituted a children’s choir, of which Caroline was a member, that sang every Sunday. Less successful, as far as Caroline was concerned, were the piano and violin lessons she suffered through. This was because, she later realized, they were solitary pursuits. It wasn’t until college, when she discovered the joy of playing collaboratively, that her musical talent took flight.

Caroline has an MFA in creative nonfiction but is a self-taught musician. She credits her experiences along the way as helping to shape her performing and compositional talents. And her band mates whom she describes as “music nerds who know so much. Working with them is like an extra grad school experience.”

Together with Caroline at the helm, they form the “astral art folk" band Stellarondo (named for the character in Eudora Welty’s Why I live at the P.O.). Stellarondo performs Caroline’s songs and compose film scores.

Stellarondo has been working in collaboration with award-winning writer Rick Bass scoring his short fiction pieces as if they were films. Bass and Stellarondo have performed in theaters across the Northwest, and in 2012 released a collaborative album at Humanities Montana Festival of the Book. Their performance was named a conference highlight at AWP 2014.

Stellarondo also were commissioned to score Paul Strand's 1921 film Manhatta live at 2012 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. In addition to this project, Caroline has also written recorded scores for films. It’s challenging work. As Caroline points out a song has a four minute arc (on average), Bass’ narratives can be 12 minutes long, but with film, you “need to get your idea in and out in 30 seconds.”

When Caroline comes to VCCA she brings her banjo, augmenting it with instruments she finds here. This trip, she’s become very fond of the keyboard, which “has all kinds of strange settings.”  

During her residency Caroline recorded 17 song demos, which she'll take back to her collaborators in Montana. She loves duets. She recently produced a duet between herself and the sound recording made by the Philae ESA lander on Comet 67P/Churyumov—Gerasimenko.

Montana Public Radio has used Caroline’s songs as bumper music and have featured her prose on "Reflections West." Last July 2014 Caroline published two poems in New Nowhere.  Caroline is currently Missoula Writing Collaborative poet-in-residence at Arlee School on the Flathead Indian Reservation and teaches music at Sussex School in Missoula.

Friday, January 16, 2015

2015 Wachtmeister Winner Announced

VCCA is delighted to announce that Anne Ferrer has been selected by the Fellows Council as the next recipient of the Wachtmeister Award for Excellence in the Arts.

Established in 2003 and originally called the VCCA Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Wachtmeister Award is endowed by VCCA board member Linda Wachtmeister and administered by the Fellows Council. It is presented bi-annually to a prominent writer, visual artist, or composer whose significant achievement in the arts is widely recognized and who has never been in residence at the VCCA. Applicants must have worked professionally for at least 15 years and have demonstrated substantial achievements in their field, including a significant record of exhibition of their work. 

This year the award was earmarked for a 3-D artist, sculptor or installation artist. Anne will be taking her one-month residency at VCCA in late 2015 or early 2016.

Based in Paris, France, Anne is known for her exuberant, brightly hued cloth “balloon” sculptures that combine a sophisticated eye with joyous playfulness.

“I have the desire to achieve in my sculpture an accessible, spontaneous experience for the viewer that is bold, exuberant, swollen, but also exquisitely delicate and smart. I combine two mediums that seem to naturally accomplish this best: air and lightweight colorful fabric. I restrict the form with the stitches and seams, so that they will become intricate organisms as the pieces balloon. I use this unexpected alchemy to achieve beauty, through a sensual lightness and a bold presence.”


Rosary O’Neill at Peaches Records

Rosary O’Neill will be sign copies of her book New Orleans Carnival Krewes: the History Spirit and Secrets of Mardi Gras on Saturday, January 17; 12:00 -2:00 PM at Peaches Records in New Orleans.


Leslie Pietrzyk’s "This Angel On My Chest" Awarded the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize.

Leslie Pietrzyk’s collection of short stories, This Angel On My Chest, has been awarded the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. It will be published by University of Pittsburgh Press in the fall of 2015. 

Leslie describes the collection as “unconventionally-linked stories, each about a different young woman whose husband dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Ranging from traditional stories to lists, a quiz, a YouTube link, and even a “lecture” about creative writing, the stories grasp to put into words the ways we all cope with unspeakable loss. For me, it’s a very personal book, a fictional exploration of my experience of losing my first husband to a heart attack at age 37.”

Leslie credits VCCA directly with the genesis of This Angel On My Chest: “I actually started down this road while at VCCA, inspired by a seemingly random conversation at breakfast with a poet who was interested in the literature of subcultures...and that was my self-assigned task for the day, to write about a subculture.  I chose the young widow support group...and so it all began.”


Fellows Council Elections

The following Fellows have just been elected to the Fellows Council by the current Fellows Council:

Amie Oliver, visual artist, Richmond, VA
Charles Adès Fishman, writer, Bellport, NY
Jaqueline Jones LaMon, writer, Brooklyn, NY
Lisa Schamess, writer, Washington, DC
Suzy Sureck, visual artist, Gardner, NY
Ami Sands Brodoff, writer, Montreal, Canada – International Fellows Representative

The International Fellows Representative is a new position on the Fellows Council, created to give a voice to the growing community of international VCCA Fellows. Ami is the first person elected to fill this role.

These Fellows have been elected to a four-year term of service that concludes at the end of 2018.

The six continuing members of the Council are:

Andrea Carter Brown, Chair, writer, Los Angeles, CA (Class 0f 2014)
Sally Bowring, Vice-Chair, visual artist, Richmond, VA (Class of 2016)
Christopher Preissing, composer, Chicago, IL (Class of 2016)
Enid Shomer, writer, Tampa, FL (Class of 2016)
Holen Sabina Kahn, filmmaker, San Francisco, CA (Class of 2016)
Lisa Sewell, writer, Philadelphia, PA  (Class of 2016)

Andrea Carter Brown was elected Chair of the Fellows Council in the fall of 2013, and Sally Bowring was elected Vice-Chair at that time. They will serve until the end of 2015. New officers will be elected in the fall of 2015 and will begin their terms in January 2016.

Three Fellows have rotated off of the Council this year: Ben Marshall, playwright, NJ; Joelle Wallach, composer, NY; and Martha Tod Dudman, writer, ME.

Sheila Gulley Pleasants remains as the staff liaison to the Fellows Council.

There will be a Fellows Council meeting at VCCA in late May 2015.  A number of Fellows Council members will be in residence at that time.