James Tisdale’s ceramic sculpture is a construct of personal iconography, referencing the cultural, social, political and religious experiences of growing up in Mississippi. Although his work often employs humor, it is often poignant, and sometimes unapologetically confrontational. The artworks challenge what is considered socially acceptable or beautiful, and the condemnation of what is perceived to be ugly and undesirable. For him, the intrigue lies not only within the borders of these interpretations but also in how these labels can influence a lifelong attitude. The work explores how social conscripts and learned behavior shapes our lives sometime for the good, and sometimes malignantly; how it is sometime difficult to recognize which side of the line you are on; and that beauty and ugliness can coexist in us all.
Mostly James uses his work as a conduit through which he communicates his own narrative. “This my language.” He explains. “It is built for me, made for me, created for me. It’s about expressing emotions and thoughts that are hard to put into words - I guess that’s why I am a visual artist. It’s a protective way of me putting myself out there without being totally understood – and that’s okay. It is a protective way of me being able to speak.” He purposely leaves the interpretation of the work to the viewer saying, “People get what they get, they see what they see. They can approach it with a want of understanding, but I’m not going to reign it in with a description - because I don’t want to put blinders on them. We have different points in our lives that we are going to come to experience artwork and I want people to see what they want to see.”
James first began to sculpt figures in Grad school at the University of Georgia. He arrived as a potter but transitioned to sculpture as a process of dealing with his father’s death. His father died shortly after his arrival at the art school and he stopped making pots and began making drawings. His professor told him he didn’t have to make pots anymore and that he should start building figures from his drawings. He hadn’t trained in hand building sculpture, his past studies being based around the potters’ wheel; and the hands-off nature of Grad school necessitated that he learn through his own trial and error.
James’ pieces are constructed using various methods with a heavy grog white clay body. Most are coil built, but recently he has created a series of slip-cast works. Once the form is established, the surface is then finished with several layers of underglazes, stains, and glazes. With each added layer, the work is subjected to another firing. His historical art influences range widely from the figurative art works of the Renaissance, to the personally powerful folk art of the south.
We are sad to report that Molly Cliff Hilts passed away peacefully on January 21, 2021. She had been diagnosed with cancer in late summer 2019. She lived her life purposefully and was a positive spirit who will not be forgotten.
As soon as we decided to open a new space in Astoria, I began planning my program, and talking to Molly Cliff Hilts about a show. Molly’s work fuses painting, photography, and printing using wax, lithographic ink, oil, and charcoal to create vast atmospheric landscapes and enigmatic portraits of people she admired, and birds she felt embodied the sense of the people she knew. We have shown Molly’s work for a number of years now, and love both the work and the artist. Once we had secured the venue and came to fix dates things had changed for Molly. Molly had been presented by the devastating diagnosis of cancer and was about to begin her first course of treatments. Molly was in a fighting mood, confident that she would be back in the studio in no time, and we set a date, on the understanding that it could be moved, delayed or cancelled.
When I write about an artist I generally focus on the work – I am a curator, not a biographer. But, in this case it’s hard for me to separate what Molly was going through this past year and her work. And in truth, she was an artist whose work should be seen in context of her family, friends and community. After art school she became an interior designer shifting to studio practice in order to stay home with her children. She began to exhibit these works as a contribution to her community, by way of offerings to fund raising auctions supporting causes she cared about. Her works became sought after by collectors and the organic shift to becoming a professional artist was inevitable. She is also known for hosting artist gatherings in her home and was delighted to discover that these salons are a family tradition dating back to her great-grandmother, Mary Porter Sesnon.
How does the details of a life being lived relate to the work? We are always influenced by our own circumstances, history, loves and preoccupations. There is a design element in Molly’s work that might be attributed to her first occupation. The landscapes she chose to paint were those in which she has shared experience with her family. The titles often relate directly to the narrative of her family life. Her large bird portraits are called by the names of her family and friends. She painted a series of portraits of fellow artists, writers and musicians she had become acquainted with through this extraordinary life experience.
Molly’s journey with her illness and her relationship to her work has been a complicated narrative - a year navigating feelings about her own mortality. She had complications resulting from her radiation treatment and in July was told that her cancer has metastasized. I am guessing that her commitment to this show was a welcome point of focus, but also, at times an unnecessary burden. She has shared process images of work from the studio and thoughts about her spiritual connection to the work. She has updated me on the developments of her illness and treatment. We have had difficult discussions about how the show would need to be delayed. All of our communication were by phone and email, as covid has prevented me from making a studio visit.
Although Molly was not able to finish all the work she had planned, we decided that 2021 should be set in the right direction by moving ahead with the show. We collected a group of six new works, which are now in the gallery with the collection of four works we already held from 2019. The exhibition runs through March 7.
We were able to send Molly images of the installation, as she was going into hospice care. She described this phase to me as a means to managing her pain while she researched alternative treatments. She even asked me to be be patient with her as she had every intention of completing the works that were unresolved in her studio.
There is one painting that Molly made that is not included in the show - a large landscape, a body of water, the light hitting the horizon and an atmospheric sky. As soon as Molly had posted pictures of this, she was getting offers to buy it. But there was something about this painting that had become essential to Molly and her wellbeing. She felt a spiritual connection to this painting like no other. In the band of light she recognized a place of calmness and of love, and it gave her solace and comfort. Molly now resides in that light.
If you want to send your condolences to Molly's family, there is a page set up by her sister, Shanti Cliff, at https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/mollyhilts. Here you will also find journal entries dictated by Molly through her journey. The following is taken from Molly's last journal entry.
"I found out a few hours ago that my painting, titled Eagle Creek, is now in the Portland Museum of Art’s permanent collection of Northwest Art. The painting is a premonition of the fire that started in Eagle Creek and spread to the gorge—as the hills are depicted in a smoky orange. I painted it in 2016 and the fire happened in 2018. This is a huge honor for me."
I want people to know that what I have learned through all of this is that I am loved and that I have made a difference in peoples’ lives. And I want each and every person to know that they are loved and they may not know it, but they have an impact and touch so many lives in so many ways that they are not aware of—sometimes big and some times small, but always meaningful."
Keaney Rathbun is a Northwest artist, working in the medias of silkscreen printmaking and painted bas relief carving. His work is a bright and optimistic depiction of happiness. His love of landscapes, gardens and birds is paired with a narrative of a life shared with family and friends. He explains that his images are “deceptively simple metaphors of human experience. They are joyous and whimsical, emotional and poignant. They represent an optimistic and naïve spirit embracing the moments that make up my life.”
He celebrates the simple acts of taking a walk in the park, sitting in a garden, observing something of beauty. In capturing these moments, he is presenting us with totems of love, kindness and joy. Their existence in a world that is much more uncertain and imperfect provides us with accents of poignancy evoking our own memories of fleeting joy. He tells us, that we can find peace, saying, “As I get older, I find myself seeking tranquility. I am less likely to squander my energy in turmoil. I am following my loves and interests, distractions and travels. I am comfortable in my skin. The making of my work - the incorporation of beauty and humor into my life’s subject matter - allows me to express personal feeling that I could not broach in words.”
Silk Screen Process
The silkscreen prints are created by layering colors through a silkscreen with a developing stencil painted on to the surface. With each application of color, the stencil is worked a little a little more. To keep colors clean, sometimes a layer is printed in white before being printed again in the chosen color. Each layer needs to completely dry before the next can be applied, and Keaney’s prints may have in excess of sixty layers of color.
Lyell Castonguay is a printmaker creating narrative woodcut prints depicting the natural world. Recently he has been playing with the introduction of man-made imagery, a plane seen immersed in a murmuration of birds, a submarine moving through a shoal of fish; but his work always has a natural underlying theme. His main subject is the portraiture of birds.
The artist’s interest in avian subjects began when he was gifted two juvenile society finches. Being fascinated with the hidden lives of animals and birds, an avid consumer of natural history literature and films, Lyell found himself the ethologist. He recognized their distinct personalities and observed them communicating with one another and huddle together at night. Aviculture remains a part of the artists home life, and birds the main protagonists in his work.
“Birds take on a larger than life presence in my work. As a long-time bird owner, I see my subjects up close every day. I’ve learned to appreciate their personality as much as their beautiful colors, shapes, and patterns. Birds always remain their own master, and my art is about capturing their indomitable spirit. Like the ancient shamans, who once drew spiritual power from animals, birds are my source of creative power.”
Early in the creation of this body of work Lyell was inspired by Audubon’s book, “The Birds of America”, to compile his growing bestiary of larger-than-life bird imagery. That is not to say his intent was documentation through scientific illustration. He is more concerned with the peculiarity of behavior and perceived personality of his subject from the viewpoint of the observer. These are allegorical beasts distorted through the lens of personification.
Lyell Castonguay was introduced to printmaking at New Hampshire Institute of Art. After experimenting with other media, he settled on woodcut printmaking as his primary instrument of creativity. He is drawn to the process orientated natured of the technique, which helps to slow down the creative process but also throws unexpected curve balls. “Woodcut is a decision-making process. Once a mark is carved into the plywood’s surface, it cannot be undone.” The finality of the mark making is offset with the uncertainty of how the matrix will print, the inks overlay, and myriad of issues the process may present.
Lyell Castonguay received his BFA from the New Hampshire Institute of Art in 2010. His influences include Antonio Frasconi, Leonard Baskin, Bruce Waldman, and Christopher Hartshorne. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including France, Ireland, and Wales. In addition to his own studio practice he is also the director of BIG INK, a collaborative project that encourages the practice and understanding of large woodcut. BIG INK revolves around a variety of programming including workshops and community printing events.
Lyell’s favorite piece of equipment in the studio is his mammoth press, which he affectionately calls “The Big Tuna”. Traditional woodcut techniques are often based around hand printing, but access to a large press has enabled Lyell to create large scale, multi-layered color works.
“I start a project by making painterly marks with ink onto plywood, establishing general forms. Then a finer rendering using sharpies and pencils balances the immediacy of the ink painting. This is in preparation for the hours I will spend hand carving around each drawn line with small chisels. Once the carving is complete, the woodblock is ready to print! A thin coat of oil-based ink is applied to a rubber roller. The roller distributes ink across the surface of the carved image. Ink sticks to all the raised areas of the plywood. The carved areas don’t catch the ink and remain white on the printed paper. Paper is placed on top of the inked surface and the woodblock is run through a press. The press applies even pressure thereby pushing the paper into the woodblock’s sticky inked surface. Finally, the paper is peeled away from the woodblock, resulting in a finished print.”
Michael Barnes was born in 1969 in Michigan of the United States. He grew up outside the small town of Ithaca, where his family lived on a wooded plot in the midst of farmland. This wooded plot contained a 19th century family cemetery where he spent much of his youth playing and fostering his imagination for later ventures in his artistic life. He went on to receive his BFA from Alma College, Michigan in 1991 and his MFA from the University of Iowa in 1996, both with a focus on Printmaking.
Michael developed a passion for the medium of lithography during his graduate studies at Iowa and has focused on this process for much of his work since. His research seeks to document and retain traditional methods of this fine art printing medium, while investigating means of integrating them with new media. His art has been exhibited and has received awards in venues worldwide. His research and artistry have taken him to such places as Germany, France, Serbia, Belgium, Italy, China, Estonia, Poland, and New Zealand, and he was recently supported by a Fulbright Specialist Grant. Michael now resides in St. Charles, Illinois, near Chicago. He is the head of the printmaking area at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where he is a recent recipient of the Presidential Research, Scholarship, and Artistry Professorship.
The Steindruck München Series
The recent series of lithographic prints created by Michael Barnes will be premiered in October at Brumfield Gallery in Astoria, Oregon. was begun during a residency at the Lithografiewerkstatt Steindruck München studio in the Münchner Künstlerhaus, Munich, Germany in 2018. The pieces began as the key black and white images and were developed in color over the following two years and just completed in September 2020.
The imagery of this series explores ongoing themes in Barnes’ work, which addresses, in part, the destructive nature and absurdities that so readily prevail for humankind, along with themes of mortality, morality, and the philosophical questions of existence in general. The images are concerned with environment, social decay leaning towards an inward and isolated path, and cynicism about the historical evolution of so-called civilization and its effects upon the world and its inhabitants.
The two-month period of working in the Altstadt of Munich brought new inspiration to this series. Daily walks through the city, its museums, and the beautiful Englisher Garten evoked images of daily life experiences and exploration and inevitably seeped into the imagery that he was developing during this period.
Additionally, a new theme emerged during this time exploring traditional folk lore. This was inspired by the stories and images of the Brothers Grimm, which came about during a trip into the Alps which passed through the small town of Oberammergau. In this town many of the houses are painted with murals (Lüftlmalerei) of traditional folk lore, scenes of Bavarian life and religious traditions.
On one of the homes was painted the mural of the four animals from Brothers Grimm’s “The Town Musicians of Bremen”. The animals are standing on each other’s backs in the famous scene where they all make their various calls and scare robbers from a farmhouse that was encounter on their path to Bremen. This encounter led Barnes to further explore these tales and in which he found many parallel themes to his own work.
In Barnes’ interpretation, “On the Road to Bremen” he embellishes the travels of the four animals, who stop to take a picnic outside of the farmhouse just after they have just scared off the robbers, (the town musician animals creatively altered in Barnes’ piece to reflect his own imagination and world of creatures). These tales, especially many of the older and original versions speak to many elements close to Barnes’s work in dealing with human nature and the ethics of life and morality, often in a rather dark manner. In this piece, he notes the point that unexpected experiences may happen on any life journey that may lead to a change in direction – in the case of the story, the animals, who all met originally by chance and shared life conditions, end up settling peacefully in the farmhouse they encountered and abandoning their original plan to moving to Bremen to be town musicians.
Maggie Taylor is an artist who lives the edge of a sun-drenched prairie populated by cows, alligators and birds on the outskirts of Gainesville, Florida. She was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1961, and moved to Florida at the age of 11. In 1983 she received a philosophy degree from Yale University, and in 1987, a master's degree in Fine Art, studying photography, from the University of Florida.
She began her career focusing on still life, a subject she still returns to in a reimagined form. Since 1996 she developed her practice around the manipulation of photography to create original digital compositions using Photoshop and other programs. She was, for a time, married to Jerry Uelsmann, an early exponent of photomonage in America. In 1995, Adobe's creative director tried to convince Uelsmann to try out Photoshop. He didn't like it, but Maggie embraced it as the main tool in creating her surrealist work. Breaking new ground, she became a pioneer on the field of digital arts. Maggie Taylor's work is featured in Adobe Photoshop Master Class: Maggie Taylor's Landscape of Dreams, published by Adobe Press in 2005.
The medium has provided a way in which to marry personal recollection with an imagined world. She draws from other magic story tellers such as Anderson, Lewis Carol and the Brothers Grimm. Layering and manipulating imagery, texture and color fields, it is a process of addition and reduction which draws on the principals of painting. At its heart though, it is still an art form based in photography. Elements are collected through scans of old photos and materials or photography directly taken by the artist. The resulting images appear to be impossible snap shots outside of time and reality of in an impossible world.
Her digital composites have been widely exhibited and have been collected by many museums including: The Center for Creative Photography, Tucson; The George Eastman House, Rochester; Harn Museum of Art, Gainesville; Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas; The High Museum, Atlanta; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans; The Art Museum, Princeton University; The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland; The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University; The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; and The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara.
In Duy Huynh's poetic and contemplative paintings the artist has developed a vocabulary of symbolism with recurring images that relate to physical or spiritual travel. Born in Vietnam, themes of geographical and cultural displacement are prevalent in Huynh’s artwork. Ethereal characters maintain a serene but precarious balance, in a surreal or dreamlike setting. He attempts to literally and symbolically connect the fluid patterns in nature with that of human made aspirations. His goal is to nurture a visual language that evokes a sense of wonderment while celebrating the fragile nature of life.
Duy Huynh came to the United States with his family as refugees in 1981. Described as "boat people", this epithet remains in the artist's consciousness and is sometime directly referred to within his imagery. Despite the challenges of assimilation and an enduring sense of displacement, growing up in southern California proved to be transformative. Here he was introduced to art through murals, graffiti, comic books and animation.
Duy studied illustration a University of North Carolina, and fell in love with painting. Following graduation, he pursued a career as a fine artist, and quickly became a full-time artist showing in several galleries around the country. He has explored a variety of avenues and applications for painting, including public murals and painting live on stage in collaborating with writers and musicians. He explains that, “it’s important to me that my work is accessible and far-reaching.” Artist Statement
As someone whose first language was not English, I have long been fascinated with the multi-layered ambiguities and nuances of certain words and phrases. As a visual artist, I enjoy taking things too literal, using the language of symbols and metaphors in conjunction with puns and hybrid words to add yet another layer of mystery to the narrative. Images that often reoccur in my paintings, such as moths/butterflies, boats, trains, musical instruments, flowers, trees, umbrellas, etc. have become a personal vocabulary used in deliberate combinations to hopefully evoke introspection and a sense of wonderment.
At the core of my work is a search for balance and continuity, usually between two or more mysteries. The characters I create often float (literally) somewhere between science and spirituality, memory and mythology, structure and spontaneity, ephemeral and eternal, humorous and profound, connectivity and non-attachment. The intent isn’t necessarily to provide enlightenment, but to celebrate the quest itself.
Doug Whitfield is fascinated with the concept of individual perception of reality, dreams and alternative realities. His approach to painting is instinctive, engaged and engaging. There is whimsy combined with real-world grit in the subject matter. In his dancing couples and shortened figures he questions the notions of loveliness and the grotesque - creating endearing protagonists that fall outside the norms of accepted beauty. He explains, “My compositions are dreamlike; they blur myth, history and fantasy together. My characters gesture to you dramatically and strike romantic poses on the stage of my fantastic theater. They are cognizant of you, just as you are of them. In my ambiguous dramas, the beautiful and grotesque seem but two sides of the same coin. The point of these juxtapositions, other than for your delight, is to engage the power of your imagination to reconcile the ambiguity. My performers beg you to step onto their stage and play along with them in my fantastic theater.”
Doug Whitfield was born into a family of artists in 1945, Cleveland, Ohio. He studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Mohawk Valley Community College, Rochester Institute of Technology and Syracuse University. He received his AAS in Design in 1965 and BFA in Painting in 1968. Whitfield's work has been exhibited in solo exhibitions throughout the United States, and in Europe and Asia.
Karen Abel's hand-built and slab-built ceramic structures often reflect homes, agricultural buildings and simplified bird forms. The flat planes of her construction provide a canvas for imagery that is incised and glazed on to the surface. Communicating a narrative is central to her work. Stories often emerge organically from the marks created by the clay texturing process. Groupings of multiple buildings provide a multi-frame structure through which the story can develop, and the interaction of bird groupings serve as a device to reflect human idiosyncrasies.
We wanted to get to know this artist a little better and she was kind enough to answer a few questions, with the resulting interview.
Why Houses? I’m Pacific NW born, bred and based. I’ve been blessed with a life rich in stories of family, friends, neighborhoods and community thus home and hearth themes have always resonated strongly. Houses, windows, doors, walls and stairs are overflowing with symbolism and meaning for most people – whether a protected place or a broken place. My challenge is thus to leave enough ambiguity in my structure’s shape and imagery so that others can complete the story with their own memories and emotions. I may think I have built a simple garden shed until the buyer starts to tell me about their grandfather’s sod house in Nebraska. Rural structures extend the symbolism with feelings of nostalgia and history and are interesting forms to replicate. I tend to be upbeat and enjoy tongue and cheek humor – houses, farms, communities, cul-de-sacs, animals and birds overflow with possibilities.
Your approach to glazing is very painterly…. do you do preparatory drawings or just work directly on the clay? I keep a sketchbook in which I gather ideas for structure shapes, approaches to color, and drawings of individual elements that become part of the overall image. However, I rarely plan out an entire scene because ideas and stories often emerge out of the texturing process; My work seems best if I can keep the etching and glazing process as loose and spontaneous as possible and not overthink things.
What other artists do you admire? I love the work of Dennis Campay. This contemporary Atlanta-based artist uses disorderly drawings and marks in his paintings of cities and street scenes. Often a quirky black bull pops up – sometimes next to a phonebooth. How fun it that?
The extraordinary surfaces on the ceramic vessels of Sam Hall and Craig Underhill, both contemporary artists in the UK, humble me and remind me I have a lot of development left in my own creative practice. Are there any artists or art movements that you feel have influenced your work? Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky pushed the used of color and line but I am most struck with Klee’s comment that a “drawing is simply a line going for a walk”. I love taking lines for a walk around and around my structures either with incised line or with wire. Is there recurring imagery in your work? And, is there any special meaning attached to that imagery? Birds, crows, cows, chairs, ladders and telephone lines crop up often. Birds, especially crows, mimic human idiosyncrasies and thus are great fodder for our own home and hearth stories. Cows have so much expression in their lack of expression that it’s easy to fill in the blank with our own thoughts. Plump little songbirds are sweet until they lined up and become nasty little gossips. I’m attracted to imagery that is often slightly humorous and gives the viewer a jumping off place to develop their own stories – and maybe their own title to the piece. Can you give a brief description of your technique? I work out three dimensional ideas for structures using stiff paper templates and a lot of masking tape to hold those shapes together. [Basically, I get to play around with paper houses!] That paper becomes the templates use to cut shapes from very stiff flat slabs of clay. Construction of the clay house is followed immediately with the application of texture by troweling on an uneven layer of moist clay and making marks, scratches and drawn imagery. Colored slip (liquid clay) is also added at this time. After the structure is bisque fired, I rub black stain into the textures and incised designs and apply very sheer glazes. Both these techniques really make the incised imagery pop. I’ll fire the piece two or three times to get the desired color wash.
Mary Alayne Thomas paints women adorned with flowers and birds, surrounded by animals. They are caught in a moment of contemplation and often are pensive. She is rendered as a part of the overall composition, no more important that the flowers and birds in her hair, the mink in her embrace, or bear at her side.
Mary Alayne is concerned with relaying a pure an innocent response to nature, drawing on childhood experiences. She explains she is, “constantly inspired by the wildlife, forests and dark beauty of my home in Portland Oregon, and childhood memories of wandering the mesas in Santa Fe continue to compel my work. I strive to capture those magical ephemeral moments we all experience, real or imagined.”
Raised by two full time artists, Mary Alayne began her career early, illustrating children's magazines at the age of eleven. After much experimentation with many mediums, she discovered the harmonious combination of encaustic with watercolor, refining the process to her current technique - a complex layering of encaustic and silkscreen over a watercolor painting. She says, “There is a sense of mystery, a softness that emanates from the floating art forms within the transparent, waxy surface. It creates an atmospheric work, a dreamy ethereal expression.”