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October 2019 Nashville Art Crawl post-mortem

Saturday night, I showed some of my work at the Nashville Downtown Art Crawl for the first time since July. After my last Art Crawl, I had decided to take some time off to develop some new pieces as well as focusing on preparing some new, smaller works for the Handmade & Bound show coming up at the Southern Festival Of Books this coming weekend.

I’ll break down the new stuff piece by piece in the coming days, but for now, here is a look at the layout and my general feelings about the October Art Crawl.

After participating in three consecutive Crawls, I was beginning to feel as if the pieces I was presenting were rushed. The July Crawl, in particular, left me feeling somewhat unfulfilled . . . perhaps even a little uneasy. It’s one thing to make no sales (who hasn’t been there?), but it’s something else to feel no enthusiasm for one’s own work. So I took some time to poke around and pull at a few threads of inspiration. Ultimately, I wound up in the same place so many others have over the last 400 years. At Shakespeare.

Maybe it was my concurrent preparations for the Southern Festival of Books that ultimately led me down that, but as I sat watching a (mostly) amateur production of Pericles at the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, I was suddenly flooded with ideas. From then on, it was open season on literature. Not everything on display last night was, the focal point of the show, in fact, drew on much older source material. As much as I love the idea of complete creative freedom, I have long found a certain vitality in the practice of breathing new life into something that’s been done to death (which, I suppose, will come as no surprise to those who know me).

With the exception of a couple of older pieces, everything I showed at the October Art Crawl was inspired by literary sources. And I think it was a wise move. By the end of the night, I felt a kind of creative energy I hadn’t felt in months. Perhaps it was the new space (still part of the DBO Gallery, but in a different room with nicer floors and better air circulation), but the whole experience felt different. While there was less foot traffic than other months, the audience felt more engaged. More than once, I heard gasps and saw jaws drop. At one point, a crowd gathered four rows deep, all of them looking at my work. I felt like a real artist for the first time. Yes, I am bothered by how much I enjoyed that feeling, but I am also encouraged by what feels like the wide-ranging appeal of an aesthetic vein I also find to be creatively satisfying.

P.S. If you are headed to the Southern Festival of Books October 11-13, or just in Nashville that weekend, stop by and see me at the Handmade & Bound tent on War Memorial Plaza. I’ll be there all weekend.

Post-mortem: Nashville Art Crawl (July 2019)

This was my third Nashville art crawl, and I am already beginning to notice some patterns. For one thing, I am learning that I get as much enjoyment, if not more, out of the curatorial side of assembling and showing these collections than I do out of knowing that it is my own work on display. I don’t think I could say for certain why that is, but it seems to be true.

My research interests were embarrassingly Wagnerian.

Maybe it’s just my background. I didn’t spend my entire academic career holed away in a studio honing my skills as a painter or printmaker. I did, however, spend the bulk of my academic career hidden away in the library learning to draw parallels between disparate art forms and various branches of the humanities (my research interests then, as now, were embarrassingly Wagnerian).

There is, of course, a limit to the amount of curatorial control one can exercise as part of a group show that only lasts a total of a few hours. And yet, there are a couple of threads that run through the three pieces on display at this past Crawl.

“They all dip a little deeper into the realm of fantasy than pieces I’ve shown in the past.”

For one thing, they are all based on found photographs (until now, I’ve only shown original photography). And second, they all dip a little deeper into the realm of fantasy than pieces I’ve shown in the past. As such, I think the intended sense of whimsicality came across a little more clearly than in past collections.

Early in the evening, a woman approached me and asked me directly if the pieces on display “mean anything”, which is always a difficult question to answer. In one sense, yes they do mean something in the sense that there is a self-contained narrative within each one. But as far as some kind of grand political or social message, there really isn’t. Not in these pieces, anyway. There is, I think, a certain subconscious philosophy that influences the source materials I am likely to draw from, but that’s a question for another time.

A surprising number of people are amused by the idea of grabbing the Devil by the tail.

Due to their location within the gallery, it was difficult to subtly gauge the audience reaction to the show apart from the handful of people who sought me out to discuss it directly. What I do know is that people are drawn to color (not really a surprise at all) and that a surprising number of people are amused by the idea of grabbing the devil by the tail. But perhaps the most flattering (and accurate) interpretation came from a friend viewing the collection online the next day who compared them to the films of George Méliès. While I don’t think I would ever have the confidence to compare myself to a visionary like Méliès, his is work that I’ve watched and studied for so long, it would be foolish to claim he is anything but a major influence.

Nashville Art Crawl, July 2019

When possible, I like to show my work in person before sharing it online. I prepared three new pieces for the July 2019 edition of Nashville’s downtown art crawl. The event was last night, which means it is now time to share them with everyone who couldn’t make it out in person. The general theme this month was “vernacular post-photography”. For now, I offer these without comment other than the artist’s statement I posted in the gallery. Over the next couple of days, I’ll work on post-mortem in which I’ll dig a little deeper.

Artist’s Statement

It was a few years ago, now. I was sitting in a cafe (ok, it was a Starbucks) trying to work on something or other. At the table next to mine were a few women, one of them an antique dealer. As they discussed their work, the antique dealer recalled another dealer whose inventory included a basket of old photos she had labeled “Instant Family”. “What kind of person would buy something like that,” she mused. “Why on earth would someone buy a photograph of someone they don’t know? It’s all so creepy to me.”

I had to bite my tongue because, obviously, I am exactly the kind of person who would buy something like that. I have been for the last ten years. I still remember the first one I bought, a portrait of three young girls from Green Bay, WI. Why it caught my eye, I couldn’t say. Their identities are long lost to history. Stripped of all context, the image is of little value as anything but a curiosity.

But it haunted me. This trio peered at me through a century of history, frozen on the other side of the Spanish flu, two World Wars, and a Great Depression, yet they looked no different from any of the children I had ever known. And here they were, alone in a dusty antique shop, orphaned by the passage of time if not by fate. So, why would someone want a photograph of someone they don’t know? I suppose the answer is “because no one else does”.

Currently untitled
19″ x 29″
archival inkjet print, linocut, and watercolor
“Boxing Brownies”
15″ x 19″
archival inkjet print, linocut
“Ronnie (windblown)”
16″ x 16″
archival inkjet print, linocut

That’s it for now. Each crawl is different. In a few days, I’ll share some thoughts on the July edition, both about the pieces I presented and the audience reaction.

This is my blog…

. . . well, one of them, at least. I already have one about music and another about old movies and theology. But this is the first time in about 15 years that I have had a blog that was about anything to do with me, namely my own artwork.

And that’s me. I didn’t take that portrait, though. That was done by Wes Fowinkle, a photographer in Memphis, TN specializing in wet plate processes like ambrotypes and tintype. So, why am I starting a blog about my own artwork by talking about someone else’s work? Because it goes a long way to illustrating how I wound up here in the first place.

I first encountered Wes through an ad posted on a coffee shop bulletin board in Memphis in October 2018. “Memento Tintype Studio is now accepting appointments,” it said. In a world where everyone carries a 12 megapixel digital camera in their pocket, there is really no practical use for wet plate photography. It was so unnecessary, so aggressively old-fashioned, I fell instantly in love with the idea. I said as much in an Instagram post and was soon offered a tour of the studio.

A few days later, I paid Wes a visit at his Midtown studio. He gave me a tour, showed me some of his work, then suggested I sit for an ambrotype (collodion on glass rather than metal) so I could see the whole process from start to finish. Though I won’t go into it here, the process is fascinating (here’s a video about it). But what really made an impression on me was the experience itself.

Staring down that ancient camera while Wes meticulously fine-tuned everything from the lights to the angle of my head, watching the image slowly emerge from the glass, are experiences few of us will ever have in a world ruled by the pursuit of the perfect selfie. There are no reshoots here (or hardly any). Every shot costs money and takes several minutes to produce. Technique and precision trumps repetition. Are the results any better than a hi-res digital photo with some creative filtering? I want to say yes, but I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ll remember taking this portrait long after I’ve forgotten every cell phone I’ve posed for, not because it is necessarily better, but because it was so hard.

I have since learned there is a growing community of people working in wet plate photography. I can’t pretend to know their individual reasons for pursuing this antiquated format, but I am encouraged to know they are out there. And if you’re in Memphis, pay a visit to Memento Tintype Studio.