Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

The Folklife Center at Perkins Center for the Arts has launched into the new fiscal year, with plans for a variety of new and continuing projects.  I should explain that our annual work cycle is geared to the State of New Jersey's fiscal year, which begins each year on 1 July, and ends on 30 June.  This varies significantly, of course, from the standard calendar year, and thus we refer to our working year as "FY15", shorthand for "Fiscal Year 2015", which actually commenced on July 1st (rather than on January 1st) 2014. 

Looking back, FY14 was a productive year for the Folklife Center.  We participated in a statewide project with other folklife centers, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, to place artists in residence at local schools, in order to expose students and the school community in general to traditional and community arts.  The team from Perkins Center worked at the Delair School in Pennsauken Township with collaborating artists Queen Nur, an African American storyteller and cultural activist, and Giovanna Robinson, a Panamanian dancer, singer, and educator.  Our work culminated in a program in the school auditorium, featuring original stories and an original dance and song cycle -- conceived, presented, and performed by participating students.  The audience (and the students themselves) loved it!

The Folklife Center also played an integral role in the development of an exhibit and related workshops which opened at Perkins-Collingswood in May.  "Found Artists: On Country Roads, Side Streets and Back Alleys of South Jersey" was titled after the book of the same name by guest curator Sally Willowbee.   In preparation for the exhibit, I interviewed the participating artists and developed exhibit panel texts based on those interviews (see previous posts on this blog for the panel texts and a selection of photographs).  The audio files from those interviews are now part of the Perkins Center Archive Files, a growing repository of images, sound recordings, and other documentation relating to the diverse cultural life of South Jersey.  Once the archive files are fully and properly set up, they will serve as an important resource for artists, educators, and residents of our region and state.

To round out FY14, the Folklife Center, in collaboration with the Jersey Shore Folklife Center at Tuckerton Seaport, contributed to "NJ350", a statewide program in celebration of New Jersey's 350th anniversary.  Working through the Main Street Program in Hammonton, who were leading the effort to celebrate the event in that city, I conducted fieldwork in the area, and with help from Linda Stanton of Lines on the Pines and Jersey Shore Folklife Center staff, identified and recruited traditional artists to the event, which was presented the last weekend of May.  During the current fiscal year, we expect to continue this work by providing cultural programming in support of NJ350 events scheduled for Mt. Holly, and possibly also Atlantic City.  I'll provide information and updates on these programs as they become available.

Looking ahead, though too soon to discuss FY15 projects in detail, I can say that in addition to our continuing work with NJ350, we'll be back in the schools with another artist residency program, yet to be identified.  We've also begun planning for a larger initiative, with a possible focus on river-related culture and history, to be explored and presented through the rich array of artifacts and narratives associated with the Delaware River and tributary creeks.  Beyond that, and in keeping with past practice, I'll continue to do general fieldwork in the region, to identify traditional artists, explore local and community history, and document aspects of South Jersey history and culture.  One possible locale for general fieldwork is the Hammonton area, in order to follow up on work begun there in FY14 and explore new opportunities there. This and other fieldwork may someday contribute to exhibit and program development, while also nourishing and sustaining the growing Perkins Center Archive Files.

That's all there is to report for now, but there's much more information to follow on these and other topics.  So please be sure to check this blog for updates!

Rear Range Lighthouse, Paulsboro, painting by Ray Miller





Saturday, May 31, 2014

Elonzo "Smitty" Smith

Here's the Found Artists exhibit panel text that was developed for Elonzo "Smitty" Smith, along with a photograph taken by Sally Willowbee.

Decorated Fence

William Smith a.k.a. “Smitty” was born in rural South Carolina but came to Shiloh as a teenager, a member of the migrant farmworker labor stream, cutting asparagus on local farms.  Eventually settling in Bridgeton, Smitty found work driving a truck for a medical supply company, staying with that job until he retired.  Sitting in the shop of a local welder, Smitty was captivated by the welding process, and by the possibility of making artful things out of mundane objects.  Never content to live within established frameworks, Smitty began exploring the hospital dumps along his route, salvaging discarded materials, converting some into art, some into practical objects which could be sold out of his yard to passersby, to supplement his income.  He never took up welding, but with an imagination activated by early exposure to National Geographic magazine, Smitty developed a passion for art and art making, which dovetailed with an abiding need to be different.  Always the outsider, ever the dreamer and schemer, and gifted with a ripping sense of style, Smitty is the classic artistic persona.  Entrepreneurial and artistic impulses live side by side in him, sometimes coalescing into opposing forces, as when a neighbor complains about the “junk” in Smitty’s yard; sometimes generating mild discomfort at home with his decorative reconfiguring of the family property.               

Sally Willowbee

Here's the Found Artist exhibit text that was developed for Sally Willowbee, along with some photographs that were provided by Sally.

Woman Lamp

Born in Iowa farm country and later moving to South Jersey as a child, Sally Willowbee participated in household chores from an early age, leading to a lifelong process of making and fixing things, given a boost when she attended Quaker boarding school as a teenager.  Art was daily fare at that school, feeding Sally’s burgeoning imagination.  She soon began making things and giving them away, but true awakening began to dawn only after she moved to California and participated in the Women’s Building -- a project of Judy Chicago and other feminist artists -- which broadened her concept of art-making, and kindled sparks of self-identification as an artist.  Along the way, Sally undertook a series of journeys – to California, to New Zealand, to the Florida Keys – which became journeys of renewal and reorientation, and strengthened her commitment to travel as an integral part of the life process.  Transforming a chicken coop into a home using recycled materials, making a career as a woodworker, working with an array of found objects and salvaged materials, Sally gradually morphed into a true artist.  Exploring the many connections between the useful and the beautiful, she uses coconut shells, gourds, and colanders; hobby horses, Barbie dolls, and Red Tape, to make art.  Traveling locally, Sally discovered abundant riches close to home, in the hinterlands of South Jersey.  Her discoveries, coupled with her own work, demonstrate the significance of a public art made with recycled materials, culminating in this exhibit and accompanying book.        

Bottle Tree

Friday, May 30, 2014

Anne Shelton

Here's the Found Artists exhibit panel text developed for Anne Shelton. 

Anne Shelton made a career teaching in Woodstown, retiring after twenty six years, dreaming of making her own art.  Attracted to painting, she read about a woman in California who decorated greeting cards with dryer lint.  Fascinated, Anne began exploring, and was soon collecting lint and building a file of reference images.  By trial and error she developed a unique method of “painting” – using lint rather than resins.  Nowadays her materials are abundant and cheap, but they’re produced by a mysterious process, the dryer magically selecting and concentrating hidden colors in the fabric -- a beautiful sage-like green, a delicate shade of orange, a gentle aquamarine.  Unraveling the lint, Anne detects latent forms and images already present there; inspired by colors that speak to her, she’s continually drawn into the process of discovery and invention.  Expressive as well as suggestive, dryer lint has found a capable partner in Anne, who contributes creative vision and artistry, resolving details of proportion and perspective as she works through her process.  Supported by the images in her files, Anne delivers canvases that touch the visual, the sensual, and ultimately the spiritual realms.  Hands roving the delicate fabric, she weaves evocative tableaux that open onto another world.                 

Palace of Depression

Here's the Found Artists exhibit text panel that was developed for the Palace of Depression in Vineland, along with some photographs taken on site.

George Draynor was a drifter who lost three fortunes in disasters and downturns, before winding up in Vineland.  He purchased seven acres of land sight unseen – which turned out to be a junkyard situated on a swamp.  Undaunted -- and encouraged by visiting angels – the eccentric Draynor began his notorious building project, which collapsed into ruin after his death.  Reputed to be an epicenter of healing for Native Americans, and later adapted by Europeans to their own health-restoring practices, the site has been reclaimed by two local men, Kevin Kirchner, former building inspector for the city of Vineland, and Jeffrey Tirante, Vineland native and practicing artist.  Kirchner and Tirante, with volunteer labor and donated funding, are rebuilding the Palace and developing the site into a city park.  Fascinated by the odd uniqueness of the original, they’re working from that model towards a new version that will be up to code and handicap accessible.  Meanwhile, they’re carefully reproducing Draynor’s sinuous walls, divagating ramps, minarets and spires, and swinging turtle-shell entrance door.  And they’re embedding found objects – bottles, glass, bricks, pottery, car parts, found-objects in general – into the fabric of the building, just as Draynor had done.  Thanks to the myriad of materials used, the walls glisten in the sun and shimmer evocatively after a rain, a goad to the imagination and tribute to the persistence of two generations of inspired builders.   

Palace in Progress

Up and Down Ramps

Tom Peterson

Peterson Statue of Liberty

Here's the Found Artists exhibit panel text developed for Tom Peterson, along with some photographs taken at his shop in Egg Harbor City.

Tom Peterson operates a business in Egg Harbor, the last of several generations of family business, ranging from his grandfather’s pottery to his father’s gas station to Tom’s auto repair shop , all located on the same site, and all linked to the historic German community of that town.  With Tom, the emphasis has always been on family -- an early junk sculpture depicted a family tableau -- and his more recent efforts involve fabricating things to delight and amuse his wife and children at home.  He’s made whimsical pieces, such as dragons and dinosaurs, legendary pieces such as the Jersey Devil and a Day of the Dead figure for a Mexican restaurant, and “Americana” – a Rocky Balboa statue, the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, and his masterpiece, an outsized Statue of Liberty which advertises the business (it’s made from old car parts, as well as golf clubs and gumball machines) and doubles as a local landmark.  Tom learns by doing, and has branched out from welding to experiment with sheet metal.  Ever mediating between what is valuable and what is junk, between what is practical and what is art, between daily labor at the shop and creative retreat, Tom is an artist in situ, rooted in the local context, devoted to family, at work in the intersection between familiar and whimsical worlds.      

Re-purposed Car Seat