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They Want to See Your Art, 4/11/06
"They want to see your art," said Viktor Egupov, who was serving as my translator.
"Your sculpture, paintings and drawings."
I was standing in front of a room filled with arts students at the Vladivostok Academy of Arts along with many members of the faculty. The hallways of the classic Stalin era building were filled with plaster casts of classic sculptures and walls with realistic paintings and renderings of people, many portraits of former Academy rectors or works created in the Socialist style. On the schedule I was to give a lecture on arts administration, on creating career opportunities through working in healthcare, cultural tourism and with youth at risk the disabled and other developing fields in the arts.
"What about the scheduled topic?" I said.
"They'd like to know about that, but first about your art."
In a sense their request reflected a fundamental difference between Russians and Americans. In the United States, when meeting, people often begin by asking what you do while in Russia they first want to know about your roots, in effect, who you are. So I began the lecture by showing images of Elk Lake, the village of Lake Placid, me rowing a guide boat (built by my friend Bill Michaelfelder) and rustic furniture, images of things that influenced the development and aesthetics of my art. Had I photos with me of my parents and grandparents, I would have included them along with teachers Bob Whitney and Sue D'Avingon.
"I grew up in Lake Placid," I said, "a small mountain village that has twice held the Winter Olympics. My parents and grandmother, and uncles, all had hotels. Through working for my parents and grandmother, I met many successful and educated people on vacation. They all inspired me, introduced me to new ideas, and stirred my imagination. Nature has always been a strong influence on my art, I often draw upon it for inspiration, including the crafts and building design that have involved from it such as guide boats and rustic furniture. Indeed as you will see, I have used the very same materials and construction techniques in my art works."
The number of photos I had with me in my computer was modest, but I began with drawings of rustic furniture, some quite realistic and others abstracting and exaggerating its sense of gesture. From there I showed drawings that followed my interest in pattern, movement and color starting with images based on duck decoys floating on a pond to leaves tumbling in the wind. Some of these drawings were quite large, around ten feet wide and most were drawn with oil pastels - a mix of laying in color and then scrapping away with a razor blade. Then I shifted to drawings of Lake Placid (lake) made from the top of Whiteface Mountain or Eagles Eyre where I explored the shape of the lake first simply, then again abstracting and exaggerating its sense of gesture.
My next series of drawings were based on time spent as an artist-in-resident in Cour d'Alene, Idaho where I was inspired by the logging industry. First drawings based on booms of logs floating in a pond, to the patterns found in a pine forest, and from there working quite abstract exploring the surface and pattern, and breaking up the horizon line the flatten and add tension to the drawing.
Then I took them back to photos of rustic furniture, first examples of traditionally made with the bark on and then with the bark off. My next photos of my art showed a series of wall reliefs, starting with a small one based on the design of a mirror, to others quite large all incorporating industrial nylon banner material for color and to create positive and negative space. Some, like the mirror and a large one based on Avalanche Lake, used real object or natural images as source material, some were inspired by the work of other artists, such as Jackson Pollack's painting "Blue Poles", and some were just pure abstraction. At the time I was well into this style of sculpture, rustic furniture maker Dan Mack was very intrigued by my technique of stripping the branches, joinery and mixing contemporary materials incorporating some of these approaches in his own work.
From there I showed them how I, in effect, took these reliefs off the wall by creating a box kite-like structure and flying it in the back yard. I loved the interplay of light and shadow and combined with the impact of sunlight, haze or shadow on its surface. This led to a mix of large outdoor and indoor installations such as "Wooster Boogie Woogie", a sculpture made of banners strung over a street in New York City's Soho in homage to Piet Mondrian's painting "Broadway Boogie Woogie"; "Quilt" a sculpture hung in The Commons, a giant indoor park in Columbus, IN; a kite-like artwork for a corporate headquarters in Chattanooga, TN, the circle of banners for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, and concluding with the 110 foot tall "Prairie Ship" displayed in a farmer's field outside Mt. Horeb, WI - the predecessor of the "120 foot tall "Prairie Ship Liberty" that was toured across the United States as part of Operation Sail and the Bicentennial Celebration of the Stature of Liberty. A dramatic finish as it includes a tiny speck near the base of one of the massive power poles used as masts, a speck that was indeed me and provides a sense of scale for the eleven storey artwork based on the shape of a frigate ship. I told them that the artwork was created to celebrate the beauty of the great American prairie that to the early pioneers reminded them of a great green ocean of grass.
Many large sections of my career were left out including years doing environmental installations in urban and rural settings, explorations through paintings, and recent work in healthcare, in part because I didn't have the images with me and I still wanted to leave time to touch on the topic scheduled.
"Any questions," I said.
"Did someone hire or pay you to create the art work in the field?" said a woman introducing herself as Irena.
"No, I just decided to do it. I had come from the Adirondacks, a place covered with trees, to the wide-open plains and fields of southern Wisconsin, where many trees had been planted by farmers as windbreaks. I was amazed by the huge skies and openness not unlike your steppes. So I decided to create an artwork that drew attention to the beauty of the land. I had to use large planes of color so it would artistically carry and hold together on such a vast space."
"Where did you get the money?" said another.
"It came from a mix of grants from the local government, volunteer labor by townspeople, and donated services by such businesses as a welding shop. I borrowed the poles from a power company."
"How old are you," said another.
"OK," said Viktor, "Now, shall we have Naj speak a bit about arts administration."
2006 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475