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5 Notes (A studio visit with Robin Johnston)

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1.

Taped down on a table in resident artist Robin Johnston’s studio is a map of the stars. Next to it is smaller map, loose and folded and used, with a handwritten note in the margin: WE SAW FIREWORKS. A map handed out on the Fourth of July last summer, Robin tells us. Robin and her husband and her son (age 2) watched the sky light up above Penland.

 

2.

The moments of immanence that the artist experiences are collapsed into the work, to be revived or reimagined by the spectator when she enters its arena…–Ann Lauterbach, The Given and The Chosen

 

3.

Fireworks, family, the night sky, perception in summertime–Robin is collapsing these moments in her newest work. No, it’s more accurate to say: she’s recording them across the stretched map, each weft piece to be marked with a star’s position before it’s dyed and then the weaving begins. In the final part of the process, Robin will embroider the star charts of each season on the finished piece. This will take months and months. “I love tedious work,” she says quietly, grinning.

 

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4.

If you don’t believe that Robin loves tedious work, please note:

She’s the artist who gathered around 4,000 walnuts, soaked over a hundred of them, wrapped yarn around each one, unwrapped the dried strands, and used them to weave 143 Walnuts, the piece  hanging on the wall in the photograph below. Against another wall in her studio, next to an installation of walnuts still attached to strands suspended from the ceiling, is an old walnut picker. Her grandmother used it first–a handle attached to a metal cage, rolled over a carpet of grass to collect the fallen nuts on her sheep farm in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. “Robin’s work deals with measuring time, capturing moments as they pass, and the sense of loss that accompanies their passing,” her website tells us.

 

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5.

One last note: “immanence” is the opposite of transcendence, and Robin Johnston is an artist residing in what’s in her earthly grasp: 4,000 walnuts, millions of stars, the moth wing-resilience of ikat tape, the fact that indigo is insoluble in water and must first be reduced to a form called indigo white. When the thread is dipped and then pulled from the vat, Robin explains, a molecular change occurs. The indigo reverts to its insoluble form. It retakes its blue from the air.

 

Photographs by Robin Dreyer; writing by Elaine Bleakney

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Studio Visit: Rachel Meginnes

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In December, Rachel Meginnes’ sewing machine broke. She asked her friend, fellow resident artist Robin Johnston, if she could borrow hers. Nervous about roughing up Robin’s machine by sewing on paint (which is how Rachel broke her own machine), she stopped herself. “I thought about building up texture with more paint instead of by sewing,” she said. “I’m interested in pulling color from the cloth in ways I haven’t before.” From a busted sewing machine, Rachel’s process busted too.

Correction: processes–there are many. Rachel is a relentless pursuer of textures–“texture” having arrived to us from texere in Latin: to weave. Weaving is where Rachel started, and her creation of textures extends from a consideration of fibers, patterns, and their possibilities. How might an artist trained as a weaver accommodate painting methods and material foreign to the loom? Where would that take her? Rachel has gone far, far out with these questions–not unlike the child in the outfield who forgets, the second she looks up and sees all kinds of blue roping through the clouds, about being in a baseball game. Behold the wall of current Rachel Meginnes experiments:

 

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“If they fail, they fail,” says Rachel, about these ideas: gessoed paint build-ups, magazine transfers on cardboard, abraded surfaces, color behaving and misbehaving, thread and weave, articulate paper folds, that ominous X. Looking at each moment of texture, one begins to see the depths of Rachel’s experiments. “What happens when I can’t sand away?” she says, noting one of her techniques. Rachel’s studio time this past winter has involved voicing her  internalized methods and then veering away–toward discomfort, change, and not knowing what will happen. As a testament to her endurance in this process, check out her bowl of paint-shocked pins:

 

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Enduring a winter of self-imposed counter-intuitive experimentation might sound, well, painful. Perhaps the pain, for Rachel, is eased by an adherence to the grid–that endless, giving pattern she uses repeatedly. As I entered her studio, Rachel was applying white strokes of gesso to a fabric made from handwoven scarves that she had bought in bulk, cut up, and then re-pieced. She began to talk about the observational part of her work: watching, day to day, how paint affects not only the surface but the stretch of the fabric. I was immediately reminded of Agnes Martin: how the grid is a constant chance for alteration, for something else to happen. Rachel readily cites Martin, Robert Ryman, and Mark Bradford as influences.

The studio isn’t all action. Set away from a table populated with tubes of paint, there’s a small desk next to a well-tended bookshelf. On the desk, quiet arrangements: a draft for a dragonfly, an old issue of American Craft featuring the image of Ruth Asawa, who said once: “An artist is not special. An artist is an ordinary person who can take ordinary things and make them special.”

 

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Photographs by Robin Dreyer and Elaine Bleakney; writing by Elaine Bleakney

Read Kathryn Gremley’s 2014 essay on Rachel Meginnes’s work from Surface Design Journal here

 

 

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Studio Visit: Molly Kite Spadone

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Core fellow Molly Kite Spadone was in Penland’s cool lower clay studio this winter, making, among many other things, large porcelain fermentation crocks. (Part of the crock’s mold is pictured with Molly at right.) The crocks have a long, tissue-thin wall that feels impossibly solid.

Molly pulls out a bucket of slip to show us how she starts–and what her winter process has been.

We stick our fingers in the tense and smooth liquid. The chatter in my mind immediately dims. Molly explains “deflocculating” from the slip caster’s lexicon: breaking down and dispersing clumping particles.

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“Deflocculating” is the most beautiful word in the English language when you have your hand in a bucket of slip. Slip is the color of milky tea, air, maybe a gray rain cloud mixed in. I rinse my fingers off in the sink.

“You are making a membrane,” says Molly, explaining how she fills the mold with slip, hoping for a set form with no cracks.

All winter, Molly dealt with the rigors of membrane-making and the effects that duration can have in the process of slip casting. Under a light, she has spread the shards of broken membrane that she’ll reuse.

“I’ve been looking at the failures,” she says with a strange mix of affection and frustration as we tour the slip cemetery.

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How does the hairline fracture start? Molly’s at home with this question–winter has given her time for it. It’s her last winter as a core fellow at Penland, and she’s getting ready to move back to her native Maine with just enough time to unpack before she makes her way back to Penland to assist in David Eichelberger’s spring clay workshop. [Ed. note: she’s back now, and David’s spring workshop has begun.]

“I have such a sweet taste in my mouth for this place,” she says, looking around her as we take a last look at one of the finished crocks. No cracks.
View more of Molly’s work in clay this winter–including the crocks, featuring newsprint transfers of drawings by Molly’s friend and collaborator, Kay Kelley–on Molly’s blog.

 

Photographs by Robin Dreyer; writing by Elaine Bleakney

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Studio Visit: Audrey Bell

 

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Audrey Bell remembers her father bringing home old typesetting drawers, fiddling with the compartments inside, and then filling them with objects. She laughs after saying it, maybe because it’s such an obvious connection to what she’s making now: wood compartments populated by figures and objects, habitats within cabinets, drawers that aren’t drawers, and frames that aren’t frames.

 

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Here’s one (at left) she finished this winter. The painting moves: lines in the bodies, the woman’s hair, a sweeping slant of sky, shapes and colors brought out from the wood. The dark stain of a shadow. There’s a hairline of aqua tracing this shadow–another kind of container. This is microwork, drawing one very close to the wall, asking a viewer to consider what is the nature of the mark or the surface? And then you step back: funny yellow dart, yellow of the toy store blaring yet somehow in check with the shifting subtle tones in the painting and the wood.

 

The painting and the wood in this work–it’s a palette reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth, one of several artists Audrey notes as an influence. Influence is tracked in Audrey’s world. This is an understatement. Um, just take a look at her journal:

 

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Audrey is wild about Giotto’s geometry, colors, and figures; old masters like Hans Holbein and Jan van Eyck (subjects of drawings she’s done this winter and letterpressed on cards). She tells us about a painting she saw on a recent trip to D.C: Honore Sharrer’s Tribute to the American Working People. “Oh my god I wish I’d done it,” says Audrey, paging through her journal for Sharrer’s name. “Pea-green next to vibrant–I don’t know–green-green?” she says, describing Sharrer’s use of color.

 

Sharrer’s painting took five years, and Margalit Fox’s 2009 obituary for Sharrer in the New York Times closes with the fact that she used “more than 200 delicate, ‘double-zero’ paintbrushes” for the work. It’s a detail from the world of concrete things, 200 double-zero paintbrushes, brought to the foreground by the writer. In Audrey’s work, a similar instinct for the double-zero: a tenderness for it.
Photographs by Robin Dreyer, writing by Elaine Bleakney

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Winter Studio Visit: David Eichelberger

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Okay, we couldn’t resist. This is resident artist David Eichelberger’s daughter, Louisa. It was a snow day and schools were closed in Mitchell County when we stepped into David’s studio for a visit. David and his wife, ceramist Elisa Di Feo, had turned on Alice in Wonderland for Louisa and her sister, Mena. The adults were attempting to get some work done.

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“It’s a bread and butter product line,” David noted, walking us through the cups, bowls, platters, and other ware he’s made in preparation for the New York International Gift Fair. The pieces are cast from molds, and then fired, and then glazed, and then fired again. Then David (or Elisa, who is helping the endeavor along), applies a laserprint decal to each piece. Finally, the pieces are fired again. Iron oxide from the printer toner interacts with the glaze. “The glaze under the image gets slightly molten, and it captures the iron oxide,” says David.
eichelbergerpenland4 The resulting images on the vessels are casual and arresting: a fishhook, a frying pan. A turtle. A platter of turtles. Weird lures: a chair, a dead bird, an anatomically correct heart. “[The images] are everyday,” he says, “with a built-in plot. The user brings a story to it.” The drawings–the way they are drawn–evoke graphic novels, too. The objects feel removed from a panel, an “everyday” scene. Holding one of David’s cups, the image loses its primacy immediately to the feeling of the shape.

 

Meanwhile, in Alice in Wonderland, the March Hare looks at his watch and shouts, “I’m late! I’m late!” pulling the story into the next chapter.

 

The next chapter, for David (who completes his residency at Penland soon) is to remain in the area for awhile. Both he and Elisa have been adjunct instructors in Boone, and will stay on through Penland’s benefit auction, with David teaching an eight-week handbuilding workshop at Penland this spring and Elisa teaching at Penland in the summer.

 

eichelbergerpenland3 Both David and Elisa have worked a tricky balance the last three years: having a second child, creating their own work (David in residence, Elisa grabbing time in other studios), and working collaboratively on David’s pieces for the first time this winter. (“It’s Elisa’s turn next, David says, about the possibility of doing future residencies.) Their bread-and-butter studio collaboration will extend outward, too: David and Elisa plan to invite other clay artists, starting with Michael Klein, to make limited edition vessels with decals.

 

It’s not snowing steadily yet. Elisa has gone back to applying decals to pieces, and the girls are almost done with Alice. It’s the old Disney version, where the cups and saucers on the Mad Hatter’s table are stacked, falling, sloshing with tea: cracked, tossed, and bitten. Total chaos. The vessels in David’s studio are miraculously unscathed. As the March Hare’s watch is sunk in a cup, a heart on one of David’s cups flies a kite.

 

Photographs by Robin Dreyer; writing by Elaine Bleakney

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Moving Day

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Today, core fellows Molly Kite Spadone and Liz Koerner were packing up work they had shown in Gorelick Hall this week. Molly had left her boots near the door, pointing in. They’d just finished moving out of Morgan, their home for the last two years.

Zee Boudreaux, Mike Krupiarz, and Rachel Mauser: are you packed up already, too?

Goodbyes are hard and too easily cheapened in writing. So let’s look at Molly’s good, mud-loved boots.

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Winter Studio Visit: Tom Shields

 

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The chair. A form for one. A group of chairs: a human gathering, a table, a home. Gertrude Stein put it this way: Is there not much more joy in a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a place to put them.

 

Tom Shields has been messing with wooden chairs—and our domestic contexts for them—for a while now. He collects, breaks, and alters–reworking flat-backs, ladder-backs, whatever chairs he can find by responding to and then rebuilding them into each other. (And away from each other, too.) Even the bank of discarded chairs that Tom keeps as raw material in his Penland studio (below) feels kind of irreverent:

 
 

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It’s not just chairs: irreverence fuels all of Tom’s sculptural “furniture” work. Take this recent commission, made from a group of original Heywood-Wakefield tables:

 
 

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“Blasphemer,” says Tom, grinning as he tells us what one studio visitor called him after seeing the commission. If you’re a mid-century modern junkie, Tom might just be your nemesis. But looking closely, the tables retain their modern context. Form is interrupted and not shattered: the “futuristic” lines and planes are made fluid by Tom’s choices. It’s almost as if the atoms in the birch went haywire and some happy blasphemer came along and set the forms into each other, responding to the tables as potential parts of a larger functional sculpture.

 

In the irreverence in Tom Shields’s work, reverence. To put a finer point on it: in irreverence, reverent play. Gertrude Stein, another blasphemer, would’ve raised her glass. She said in 1935: A very important thing is not to make up your mind that you are any one thing.

 

Photographs by Robin Dreyer; writing by Elaine Bleakney