Friday, July 31, 2015

In Residence: Eric Moe

While at VCCA, Eric Moe was working on two projects. The biggest one, his comic science fiction opera, The Artwork of the Future explores the question of whether individual artists’ work can survive into the future and also whether human beings will even be around, or will robots have taken over. Though the piece in intended to be humorous, it taps into the fear that most of us share about what lies ahead for humanity. The libretto is by Rob Handel who previously had collaborated with Eric on a 10-minute opera, Valkyrie Suite. “We had so much fun working together, we thought, let’s do it again, but make a larger project out of it.”

The Artwork of the Future  was work-shopped in New York at New Dramatists, one of the country’s leading playwright centers and a nationally recognized new play laboratory. “New Dramatists covered all the expenses,” says Eric. “So now we are trying to get a company to commit to the production, once we have that, then other things can fall into place. The opera world is a new world for me. I’ve written operas and operatic things before, including 
Tri-Stan, a collaboration with David Foster Wallace, but that was a virtual opera and not meant to be staged. The Artwork of the Future will be Eric’s first full-length opera slated for dramatic production.

Chamber music is Eric’s main purview. He composes works for various groups from individuals to full orchestras. These days, the standard mixed ensemble has six to seven players. It’s close to the maximum you can do without a conductor, so I have a lot of pieces for that rough number of instruments—five, six, seven players.” His work is not limited to traditional Western musical instruments; the last time he was at VCCA, he worked on a piece using traditional Chinese instruments.

Eric was in residence with his wife, visual artist Barbara Weissberger. “It’s great to be here together, focusing on our work without the pressures of daily life.”

Following a residency at the Hambidge Center again with Barbara, Eric will be in Alaska as part of the Denali National Park and Preserve’s Composition and the National Parks Field Course: Composing in the Wilderness. In October, a piece for saxophone and piano will be premiered in Freiberg, Germany. Eric will be playing the piano.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Elegance, Wit and Gravitas Unite in Heidi Kumao's Work

In 2011 Heidi Kumao broke her back while sledding. During the slow convalescence, Heidi spent many hours lying on her sofa staring up at the ceiling. She describes it as like being “Underwater looking up at a layer of ice.“

Her film, Swallowed Whole, which was featured in the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Black Maria Film Festival, Tricky Women International Animation Film Festival, the Atlanta Film Festival and just won Best Experimental Film at the 13th Annual Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto is a wonderfully evocative portrayal of this personal calamity.

Heidi employs striking images and interesting techniques in her filmmaking. For instance, at one point, she makes the film frames thwack down like the lenses in an ophthalmologist’s phoropter to emulate the crashing down to the ground of her airborne sled.

She uses stacks of books, cookies and lifesavers to recreate the impact and shattering of vertebrae, and later on, melted ice cubes. These ordinary items are amusing and very effective stand-ins, adding a breath of fresh air to this grave and beautiful film.

The final shot—taken in the Arctic Circle—features Heidi standing on an ice floe, a lone, fragile figure in this inhospitable and awe-inspiring landscape. It’s a humbling and haunting image.

At VCCA, Heidi was working on a number of projects including a film that involved an antique birdcage she had picked up at a antiques store in Amherst. She was also working with the film snippets she makes and keeps on her computer. To help organize the clips, she sketches images on index cards, which makes it easy to arrange in the order she wants. One wall of her studio was covered with an arrangement of these cards. While they were really just a guide, they provided a striking collage of her personal language of hieroglyphics.

Heidi was also toiling over a couple of mechanical sculptures that emulate the movement of a little girl’s legs and feet. One set of “legs” stamped its foot, the other seemed to belong to a child lying on the floor pushing its legs back and forth in the throes of a tantrum. The “legs “ were plain metal struts, what made the anthropomorphizing so effective was the addition of vintage mary janes, which also added a whiff of creepiness. 

Heidi’s work showcases her easy and consummate command of her media. Her work has elegance and gravitas and also these moments of sly humor that add a refreshing lightness to the work.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Olive Ayhens in Elle Decor

Olive Ayhens is the subject of a profile in the July/August issue of Elle Decor.

Olive has developed a highly personal style that combines an almost naïve narrative language with a sophisticated formal approach. Her lush compositions and vibrant palette describing city and rural landscapes grab your attention. 

Olive has deep concerns for the environment and this forms a major theme for her work, but she also revels in her materials. "My work is much involved with my love of the paint itself—with layering it, with building textures, etc. all this is striving for a sensual visual beauty. Color is my first language. I have fun with personification as well as improbabilities of scale. My work is heavily influenced thematically by my environment, both physical and spiritual.”

Originally from Oakland, CA, Olive now lives in Brooklyn. She is represented by the Lori Brookstein Gallery. You New York area Fellows will recognize this as the venue of the VCCA Fellows’ reunion.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Grizzly Bears and VCCA Fellows in Denali National Park

There have been several recent occurrences of a VCCA-nature in the inspiring 49th State.

Earlier this month Fellow Eric Moe was in Denali National Park as part of their “Composing in the Wilderness” program.

Eric’s residency overlapped with VCCA staff member Kimberley Stiffler’s visit to the park, a coincidence discovered by Sarah Sargent, VCCA’s Director of Communications and Grants Management.

On July 14th Kimberley and her husband Dan flew to Anchorage and rented a Jeep for the rainy drive north to the park. The next morning brought blue skies and a view of Denali, white clouds parting to reveal massive snow-capped peaks. On average only around 30% of visitors to the park see the mountain because of the ever-changing weather.

The next day, a park bus shuttled them to the Eielson Visitors Center to get a closer view of Denali following a trail-less hike along the Toklat River. Two grizzly bears were spotted from the shuttle en route. An exhibit in the Center featured a piece by VCCA Fellow and visual artist Margo Klass of Fairbanks, a past participant in the park’s artist-in-residence program.

On their last evening Kimberley and Dan attended a live performance by the Denali Chamber Orchestra as part of the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. The concert included “Denali for String Orchestra” and “Teklanika”, works by two of last year’s participants in the “Composing in the Wilderness” program. Eric Moe’s brand-new piece composed during his stay in Denali had its world premier a few days later on July 21st at Davis Concert Hall in Fairbanks, played by the Concert Black ensemble with Andie Springer, violin. 

Eric’s work, entitled “The Voice of Mountain Torrents”, is scored for piccolo, violin, contrabass, and percussion.

During the return flight to Virginia, Kimberley finished reading VCCA Fellow Nancy Lord’s Green Alaska: Dreams from the Far Coast, a reflection on the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition. Nancy writes of John Muir, one of the expedition’s travelers: “He knew we needed such places, would always need them [. . .] as temples for our souls.”

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Mary Laube and Paul Schuette's Collaborative Sound Paintings

Visual artist Mary Laube and composer Paul Schuette met at VCCA in February 2013 on what was each their first residency. After returning home, they kept in touch making collaborative work remotely and getting together when they could for a few days at a time. They refer to their work together as the Warp Whistle Project. Mary and Paul scheduled their recent VCCA residencies at the same time with the intention of exclusively focusing on a project.

The two “sound paintings” they created are visually stunning featuring colorful geometric minimalism paired with lively digital chirps, pitch glides, whooshes and what sounds like some poor sod falling down a well. It’s alien and futuristic and whimsical all at once.

Mary executed the artwork directly onto the wall with the mechanical elements incorporated into the pieces. In one, wire provides a spiral that counterbalances the colored triangles, in the other, straight lines radiate from a 3-D pyramid to the brightly hued round speakers. The pyramids cleverly conceal circuit boards, which generated the sounds. 

Mary and Paul made a concerted effort to incorporate the electronic elements into the pieces and so obliterate the separation between sight and sound. “It was a very intuitive process,” says Mary. “Paul started placing speakers on one wall and I started placing triangles on the other. We then worked back and forth between the two pieces to see how the electronic materials could fit into the visual compositions.”

The sound did not come until after the speakers and visual elements were placed—a digital reaction to the visual information. Paul used a swoopier more glissandi language with the spiral piece and almost pointillist sounds to match the more angular work. He wrote a computer program that is constantly generating new combinations of sound. “The pieces were not composed to ‘talk’ to each other”, says Paul, “But when you spend a lot of time with them, you feel like they are talking to each other.”

This was the first time Mary and Paul had worked side by side from the beginning to the end of a project. “In the final analysis, it was a tremendous experience and the collaboration seems to have cemented itself,” says Paul. “We're both really excited about the future of the work.“

The Warp Whistle Project’s most recent series of work was part of the Emerging Artists show at the Phyllis Weston Gallery in Cincinnati. STEIM a music technology research center based in Amsterdam is interested in Paul’s four-channel violin pick-up and hopes to make improvements to the design and potentially bring the device to the open market.

Mary received the Illinois National Women in the Arts Award in 2009 and a Project Grant from the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2014.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Emily Mitchell Dazzles

Emily Mitchell’s collection of short stories : Viral (W. W. Norton), was featured on The New York Times shortlist for July 12, 2015. The collection, which has been called “dazzling”, balances absurdist humor with a haunting pathos.

Emily Mitchell's first novel, The Last Summer of the World (W. W. Norton), was a finalist for the 2008 New York Public Library Young Lions Award and was chosen as a best-book-of-the-year by the Austin 
American-Statesman, the Providence Journal and the Madison Capital Times

Her short fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review as well as other literary journals. Emily’s review-essays have appeared in The New York Times and the New Statesman. She teaches fiction at the University of Maryland.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Barbara Weissberger: Engaging with the Process

Barbara Weissberger was working on two parallel projects: Books of Marginalia and Collage Formations while she was in residence at VCCA switching back and forth between the two exploiting the cross pollinations that occurred.

Books of Marginalia are bound paper collage artist books. In some of them, Barbara uses text, but not in any legible way. It’s kept fragmentary, “As if they’ve all gone through a mill. They’re chopped up and chewed on.” Generally the books are unique one-offs, but she’s interested in producing a small edition of the one she made at VCCA.

Her photographs of the arrangements she creates, Collage Formations, straddle the world of photography and site-specific installations. Barbara is interested in exploring the tension between the actual thing and the illusion of space. A similar approach can be discerned in her use of representational material to make images that are abstractions.

Barbara’s work develops in a very organic way. She doesn’t have a preconceived idea of where it’s going. They’re complete and resolved pieces, in and of themselves, but making them provides a generative way of thinking through visual ideas. “I try and just be engaged with this process of making the work, letting it take its shape as it will. So I make the structure, the set ups not exactly knowing what the image or images will be. Sometimes, I’ll have an idea ooh… I want to photograph that thing there, but often. I try to be responsive to the process and the work. I’ll make a sculpture and it will really intrigue me, but it won’t work in the photograph. It won’t work for a very long time and then something will pop up and it will work. So it’s a very long continuum of the work. and I’m trying to be responsive to the situation I’m setting up in the studio. My structures are very temporary and I want them that way. There’s something very freeing about that. The photograph is the final piece whether it’s something on the wall or a free-standing photograph.”
Barbara’s photographs all start with some kind of set up, which might keep changing during the course of the shoot. The hope is that the set up will be fruitful, providing surprises and inspiration. Some of Barbara’s work is just about observation, about being receptive and noticing where there is an image. She thinks of her photographs as strongly linked to collage. She does the set up using whatever she has at hand, transforming objects in various ways, adding her small sculptures or drawn elements into the mix. For instance, she embellished the vinyl stool she found in her VCCA studio with silver tape.

The set up does not endure: the image does. "The work is very much about impermanence and for me, I like for the viewer to see how things come together. You can see if something’s leaning, or taped, or pinned or somehow held together in a temporary way; the photograph unifies everything and holding it all together in that moment. It makes it a thing. I like that sort of mix of a very impermanent thing, but then the photograph is like a moment in the life of that thing that is preserved.”

"There’s something about doing a residency that fuels my work. When you first walk into the studio and it’s this empty space of promise and then, with very humble means in not too many days, it gets really transformed. There’s something interesting psychologically and conceptually about working this way that’s really connected to my practice. It also teaches you to not be premeditated. The studios each have their own peculiarities, layout, furniture, light. I really like the serendipity of the environment and objects I encounter at different residency programs. I even wonder if going to residencies nudged me towards coming up with a way to work like this. Traveling light in a way, everything folds up, everything unfolds and then folds up again.

“I’m using the lens of the camera to make a collage of form, color and structure The more I work with it, the more I see issues with photography emerge, Even the way I’m thinking about light now is very different from when I started. The more I do it, the more I connect with the whole complicated history of photography. It's been an interesting trajectory—what’s really cool to me is that making these photographs has really reconnected me with objects and making sculpture. Photography has been the way back to older stuff. I always wanted to do everything: 3-D and 2-D and now I am.”

Barbara began as a sculptor, but reached a point when she stopped making objects. Because of her interest in narrative, she decided it made more sense for her to draw. For many years, she produced drawings, collages and some installations. Her practice of photographing set ups arose from taking documentary shots of her installation work.

At VCCA Barbara was working on pieces that are currently part of her collaboration with painter Eleanor Aldrich at New York’s The Drawing Center. The two are part of Open Sessions, a two-year program with over 50 artists working in a variety of disciplines, which offers exhibition opportunities in The Drawing Center’s Lab Space and other outside venues, as well as studio visits and public programs. This project features Barbara’s three-dimensional work that has evolved out of the set-ups.

Because they live so far apart—Barbara in Pittsburgh and Eleanor in Knoxville, they needed some kind of unifying element that put would put them in parallel motion. They came up with the mop. Aside from the obvious associations with the mop, touching on economic, social and gender issues, both artists are drawn to nondescript, humble objects and the abject quality of the mop appealed to them. There was also the mop’s resemblance, in form and gesture to a paintbrush and as a sculptural object, jutting out from a photograph, the mop acts as a bridge between pictorial space and the real world.

Barbara was in residence at the same time as her husband, composer Eric Moe. The couple does a lot of residencies and was headed to the Hambidge Center directly from VCCA. “We don’t really take that many vacations; we want to work all summer. Being outside of my world, really helps me focus. I concentrate well at home, but there’s an extra boost here and I really like the community. When you talk at dinner, you find all these points of intersection, so whatever the discipline is, there’re always some things that everybody can relate to. Being an artist can be a pretty solitary pursuit, which I like, but it’s good to have interactions with sympathetic people.”