It is my practice to journal a lot at the beginning of a body of work. It helps gather the disparate threads that have been coming gradually into awareness and begin to load these into images. As the body of work evolves, the writing continues and evolves. I have just delivered the first 8 pieces of this series of museum box artifacts to Avis Frank Gallery and I want to share the thinking and some of the history behind them here.
In 1968 I came back from graduate study at the Royal College of Art in London to play in a rock band. In 1968 that made perfect sense. Pink Floyd was the oft-present house band at the Royal College and the summer of Flower Power had just happened in San Francisco. In New York the Village was itself blooming, the Electric Circus was alive and Sargent Pepper’s had just been released. I worked as a partner in “The Guitar Shop” in the West Village, repairing and customizing acoustic and electric guitars. By word of mouth and the presence of Dan Armstrong (vintage) Guitars upstairs, we became the primary resource for touring bands during their New York engagements. We worked regularly with The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, The Who, Johnny and Edgar Winter, The Mothers of Invention, and just about any studio musician or band of note active at that time. We did a lot of creative problem solving, inventing, fine-tuning of instruments as well as custom design work. It was a very heady time.
With some of the woodworking experience and invention earned at the Guitar Shop, I began making Montessori “didactic materials” for a friend teaching in an alternative school in New Hampshire. These materials are elegant objects and include wonderful insets that depict and allow children to interact like jigsaw puzzles with an astounding array of natural shapes from Botany and Zoology. Some of the specialized techniques led me to develop my own objects, abstract organic artwork of tightly fitting cut shapes, which were shown and sold until 1983 in galleries and most major museum stores such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
I had become interested in papermaking in 1971 just as the renaissance of hand papermaking was beginning in this country. At first I was interested in casting and I developed some techniques of my own to make thin highly detailed casts from my sculptural work. Although I loved paper made by hand, I became more interested in the raw, irregular and imperfect qualities of the fiber than in making perfect stationery or drawing paper.
As a child, I lived near the Natural History Museum in Buffalo. I loved the Victorian atmosphere of the building and the semi darkness that highlighted old display cases and their wonderful, peculiar specimens. My favorite halls in the museum were devoted to fossils and collections of insects from around the world. There was something special about the not-quite-naïve excitement of collecting and displaying nature. It was a form of learning that was not yet jaded or removed to the rarified laboratories of science. There was mystery that was not altogether chased away by fact. There was a sort of fascinating darkness that today we might call Gothic.
All these influences find their way into my drawing and painting. I like objects. I tend to see even my two-dimensional work as object, as artifact. Many of the pieces in this current body of work are indeed artifacts. I have thought a lot about my early experience of Museum, of collection and specimen and the significance of objects in my life.
Museums occupy a peculiar place in our culture, in our assertive, busy, materialistic lives. They are oddly out of place and yet fascinating and telling. We warehouse these objects and collections to keep them safe. But I am perverse enough to turn that around and wonder if we aren’t also keeping ourselves safe from them. Does that naïve excitement or that mystery threaten us? What happens then if we find such objects out in the world with us rather than safely tucked away? Perhaps they are evidence not of what we have saved, but what we have lost.
Loss is itself interesting because it reveals change. We live in a world that is infatuated by change. Yet it is superficial change, fashion, the next new thing, and it is a device to drive commerce. It simulates and co-opts change so as to avoid the reality and what the full awareness of it means.
It is interesting that in addition to museums, we warehouse old people in nursing homes and young people in school rooms which then allows us to put our attention into the middle years of worldly production. We go about our business as usual without distraction. This middle part has a kind of security of routine and normalcy. But it masks the arc of a life. I find the awareness of loss compelling because it throws that arc into relief, precisely the way a story does.