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Something More

Something Pretty at Transylvania’s Morlan Gallery means to complicate that idea. The artwork does so in a way that is both literal and conceptual, dealing with the viewer’s experience and judgment of the objects on display and the baggage brought to ideas of beauty, aesthetics, identity, and power by the act of looking and the often-trivializing effect of prettiness.

The works shown present an emphatic statement that they are more than nice things to look at. Instead, these works and their artists reach out to the viewer in ways that are deeply affective and lend a great deal of depth and complexity against the often patronizing and dismissive designation of what is called pretty. As Curator Dr. Emily Elizabeth Goodman explains, the word “renders anything associated with the term solely superficial and without any intellectual or cultural significance.” It usually plays on surfaces and appearances, concerned with outward expressions that can be categorized and hierarchized according to things like class, gender, and racial and sexual identity. But Goodman presents a means to complicate this process, a means to challenge the viewer’s own perceptions and biases in regards to art, artists, and their subject matter. It is an opportunity to examine the ways beauty can be a tool of erasure rather than visibility.

Loosely grouped by media, the works are displayed in several sectors within the gallery. Dominating a single walled-off area is a projection of HuiMeng Wang’s video work You Are Beautiful You Should be Seen (2015). As a kind of introduction that immediately grabs attention when entering the gallery space, the video shows the artist on a windy and overcast beach. She washes large exposed driftwood tree trunks and attempts to dig them out even as the blowing sand encroaches and reburies them. A narrator recounts the story that spawned the footage, and explains how such a situation and the beauty it holds is fleeting and often comes up against what one expects it to be. The narration is spoken with a generic male voice and its tone curtly matter-of-fact. As the video loops this disconnect between image and story seems to grate against deeper implications of visibility and beauty. Though a glossy sheen is provided by the narration, Wang’s nuanced meditation on beauty and depiction does not remain hidden.

Angela Dufresne, ‘Listen to Me You Idiot’, 2013

This engagement with pretty surfaces and what lives beneath them (or outside them) is reiterated as the viewer shifts to the exhibition’s sector of painted works. The painted surface was long a modernist preoccupation and here two of the artists artists penetrate the concept of surfaces through an engagement with images and content. Angela Dufresne’s works play with the multifarious conceptions of being painted. It’s Like This (2012) and Listen to Me You Idiot (2013) feature bright and thickly applied swathes of paint combined into grotesque hybrid animal-human faces. But these are not monsters, their expressions are complex and conflicted, and their colors worn like masks. Similar to the idea of being painted up, the concept of expression is both an affectation and a way of staking out and claiming identity. In these paintings, the surface is inextricably tied to both the painted object and painted body. In both cases there is a striking amount of depth.

Likewise are Tiffany Calvert’s painting investigations into the nature of surfaces, application of paint, and complex engagements with the tenuous nature of beauty. Her largest work, Untitled #305 (2018), is a deconstruction of an old Flemish still life. The image is digitally processed and printed on canvas and painted over with bold, wide, and flat strokes of blended color. The painted strokes sit on top of and next to similar digitally produced effects. Together they bring out the constructed nature of the painting, not just in its materials, but in the connection between images and reality. Two other works, Untitled #297 (2017) and Untitled #290, allow the viewer full access to the illusion. Frescos applied to roughly shaped insulation boards, the painted objects only hide their front and back surfaces. The banal material in-between shatters the paintings’ ability to easily inhabit the space of artistic objects and artistic beauty. Instead they teeter on the conceptual edge between art and just pretty objects.

Justin Favela, ‘Ahuehuete de la Noche Triste (After José María Velasco)’, 2017.

A bridge between materials and beauty is further stressed in the art objects of Justin Favela. Here expectations and identities clash. With images drawn from the oeuvre of 19th century Mexican painter José María Velasco, Favela’s “paintings” reappraise Velasco’s concepts of land nationalism through the application of media heavy with racial and class implications. Velasco’s lofty nationalist propaganda, in the form of idealized landscapes, is reimagined in Ahuehuete de la Noche Triste (After José María Velasco) (2017) with the cut paper of the Mexican piñata. The landscapes are abstracted to the point that they lose cohesion and become much more fluid patterns of shape and color. No longer tied to often-overtly racist nationalism, Favela’s objects create new spaces for engagement and exploration where the viewer might be free to encounter identities and experiences with a depth and through materials not before considered.

Subjective ideas of beauty and prettiness are often used to close off certain identities, bodies, or experiences from deeper engagement. The complexity and ambivalence of beauty is a common thread in the overall experience Goodman has curated. All these artworks have a depth that seeks to muddle the pleasurable and powerful implications of looking. This is a call to reexamine what it means to look. This seems most complete in Stephan Rolfe Powell’s glass objects. They begin as playful and aesthetically interesting but reveal much more in the implications of their forms. Two colorful glass objects, Cracking Frenetic Glare (2006) and Twilight Curiosity Buns (2000), are playful, erotic, presented as pseudo-bodily spectacles. Yet below their surfaces runs an anxiety about such bodily comparisons, especially as the objects sprout long phallic tubes from suggestively shaped bulbous forms. They reflect back on the viewer the subjective of the gaze.

Installation view with works by Stephen Wolfe Powell, Photo by Tristan Osby

Installation view with works by Stephen Wolfe Powell, Photo by Tristan Osby

This anxiety becomes more acute in Powell’s two large curved plates of glass. These one-inch thick glass walls, beautifully backlit, stand on low pedestals and tower above the heads of most visitors and confront the viewer with complex, patterned forms that dip and flow through the depth of the glass. The complex tangles of colorful tubes seem to inhabit their own world within the glass, locked inside but on the verge of escaping outward. At first pleasing to look at, the forms grow more sinister the more they are considered. What could be flowers or simple geometric shapes might be mouths or other orifices attached to long squirming creatures or phallic organs. Like with Powell’s other works, there is a transformation in the experience of looking as the surface-level beauty deepens into more complicated and even unsettling territory.

In this exhibition, the viewer is confronted and must likewise confront what it means to look at, see, and appraise things and bodies. The power dynamics of expectations versus experience can be reconsidered and rerouted. In the end these works demand more than a passing a glance but a more critical and compassionate look.

topical

Lexington Considers Matthew Shepard

Music has the “capacity to encompass, transform and transcend tragedy. Powerfully cathartic, it leads us from horror and grief to a higher understanding of the human condition, enabling us to endure” – a Washington Post description of Considering Matthew Shepard, an evocative touring choral drama coming to Transylvania University’s Haggin Auditorium (Mitchell Fine Arts Center)on Tuesday, Oct. 9, at 7:30 p.m.

The performance will occur nearly 20 years to the day from the date when Matthew Shepard’s life was taken in an anti-gay hate crime.

Composed by Craig Hella Johnson, the choral and instrumental masterpiece tells Shepard’s story and reverberates with larger questions. “Matt’s story is not unique,” his mother, Judy Shepard, reminds us. “It’s a universal story.” 

Listen to Tom Martin’s conversation with Johnson on WEKU’s Eastern Standard:

Tom Martin is a co-publisher/editor of UnderMain; the producing host of Eastern Standard on WEKU; a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader; and Student Media Advisor at Transylvania University

Arts

“Pangaea” at City Gallery, Lexington


The exhibition Pangaea — now on view at City Gallery at the Downtown Arts Center in Lexington — brings together the disparate practices of Patrick Smith and Robert Morgan in a way that illuminates how the same ideas and impulses can permeate in different ways across both generations and media. Juxtaposed closely in this exhibition, the similarities ring out, making clear elements of both artists’ work that would likely be overlooked in the context of a solo show. As a show, Pangaea, therefore, functions in opposition to the supercontinent from which it gets its name; while the landmass dissipated creating cultural and ecological divisions that have marked humanity since our emergence as a species, the exhibition ultimately unites distinct individuals and shows the shared nature of their art and lives in so doing.  

Detail of Bob Morgan’s sculptural assemblages

One of the starkest distinctions between Morgan and Smith is how each man approaches art making. Morgan, a sculptor now in his 60s, has always identified as an artist. He has been making art out of found objects for as long as he can remember. Morgan’s practice has been consistent for decades, making assemblages that are complicated and congested amalgams of various items, ranging from goat horns and religious figurines to rubber snakes and car parts, all of which he covers with bright colored paint and patches of glitter. 

Smith, on the other hand, is a painter who came to art making relatively later in life, around the time he was an undergraduate at Transylvania University. Now in his 30s, his practice is still evolving, and he conceives of his practice as a direct reaction to his surroundings. For instance, his recent works — which consist of  small, intimate and hyperrealist portraits —simultaneously reflect the regional tradition of intimate craft practices with regard to their scale, while also working against the abstract tendencies that dominate both the painting practices taught in art schools in the area and the looser styles that characterize folk and outsider art in Appalachia more generally. As such, Smith’s practice is more informed by the particulars of time and space than Morgan’s, a notion that is further underscored by the generational differences between them. 

Various self portraits by Patick Smith

Yet despite these differences, Morgan and Smith’s works share a considerable amount in common. For example, both artists explore issues of queerness and sexual difference in their works. Patrick Smith’s work deals with elements of visible queerness and difference through his engagement with gender and sexuality as performance. His self-portraits, for instance, often play with elements of drag, with Smith appearing heavily made up and, at times, dressed in women’s clothing from various (sub) cultures. 

Self Portrait in black top, Patrick Smith

In these images, Smith never appears to be passing as a woman, per se, but rather complicates elements of masculinity by adopting women’s dress. For instance in one Self-Portrait, he appears in a sheet black top, with heavy black eyeliner, and pink lipstick, with his mouth pursed to a kiss. His face gazes directly out but his torso is slightly turned with one arm bent at the elbow and raised behind him and the other wrapping around his belly, adopting a pose often used by women models in fashion magazines. Though Smith has adopted feminine elements of dress and gesture, his gender performance is somewhat incomplete. His shaved head, muscular arms, and hint of a five o’clock shadow remind us that Smith is a man. As such, he is queering the conventions of gender performance, embracing elements of both masculinity and femininity in a way that celebrates deviation from heteronormative and patriarchal conventions of sex and gender.    

Moreover, for Smith, all of his portraits are performances. He often describes his sitters as “getting into character” and for his self-portraits Smith allows his appearance to be styled by various friends who collaborate with him. As such, these works are not emblematic of the subject’s lived experience, but rather illustrate how conventions of gender and sexuality are performed moment by moment. 

Installation shot, “Pangaea” at the Downtown Arts Center

The performative nature of Smith’s work stand in contrast to Morgan’s practice, which is largely derived from his personal history. Morgan, a gay man himself, has been a prominent figure within the LBGTQ community in Lexington for decades. He is widely known for his role as a caretaker having tended the sick and dying here during the A.I.D.S. epidemic in the 1980s and 90s and caring for the legacy of queer folk through his role as the founder of the Faulkner-Morgan Pagan Babies Archive. His art practice has been, as such, largely informed by both his lived experience in and his research of LGBTQ history; he notes that most of his works examine themes of “A.I.D.S., Insanity, Alcoholism, and Drug Addiction,” afflictions that have commonly plagued the queer community and further marginalized LGBTQ folk. 

Bob Morgan with sculptures

Morgan’s affinity for the marginalized manifests in the work he creates. His assemblages are made from piles of junk, objects whose intrinsic value has been lost or was never fully appreciated. Morgan collects these items and transforms them into something new, something with an aesthetic quality that is elevated and is meant to be seen, rather than to hide. That many of these assemblages of people whose experiences were similarly marginalized — like the teenaged drug addict that Morgan cared for and whose nightmare forms the basis of The Island of Lost Souls — and that Morgan himself has felt marginalized in similar ways imbues the sculptures with a particular kind of powerful resonance.

Religion, like queerness, is a theme that is explored in both Morgan’s and Smith’s work. As with his explorations of LGBTQ struggles, Morgan draws from his own religious upbringing in Catholic school as the basis of his work. Each of the seven works on display in this exhibition features an oversized vintage doll, which Morgan has posed and covered with various objects — often including devotional items like figurines of Jesus or religiously symbolic items like swords and snakes. To Morgan, decorating these figures  is reminiscent of the way that The Infant of Prague is dressed and put on display in the chapels of countless Catholic churches and schools, like the one Morgan attended as a child. Yet these sculptures aren’t simply Catholic in character. Some appear to have a more clearly Hindu iconography, like the allusion to Shiva in The Horned Toad, and others involve the hybridization of multiple religious traditions like in Pangaea. Morgan asserts that the appropriation of religious iconography is central to his practices, noting “I steal from every major culture,” and citing a particular predilection for Byzantine, Egyptian, Mayan, and Hindu traditions. 

The religious character of Smith’s work is more subtle. Some of his portraits employ elements of dress and gesture that are reminiscent of the long history of religious icons. For instance, the first painting of Armani, depicts the sitter with their head draped with a pale pink cloth, much like the veiling of the Virgin Mary in many Renaissance portraits of the Madonna. 

“Skull on Red”, Patrick Smith

Smith has also called upon religious symbolism in his depictions of skulls, both in portraits, like the one held by Pablo and on their own. Within Catholic imagery, skulls have often appeared at the base of crucifixion scenes to depict the connection between Adam, the first man created by God, and Jesus, his son. Similarly, skulls are prominent in Protestant imagery, specifically in the form of the Vanitas, a genre of still life that was popular in the Netherlands in the 16th  and 17th centuries, in which the skull serves as a reminder that material objects cannot transcend the mortal plane and thus faith and good works are essential for transitioning into the afterlife. 

Placed side by side, Smith’s and Morgan’s works balance each other out to create a fuller picture of each artists’ respective practice. The overt role of religion in Morgan’s work, for instance, helps to clearly draw out those elements at play within Smith’s. Conversely, the highly legible engagement with performative queerness in Smith’s hyper-realist portraits primes the viewer to read Morgan’s very symbolic assemblages more deeply. The result of this compilation of two different artists with two very distinct practices is ultimately a greater understanding of both artists’ work and the issues they explore. As such, Pangaea, on the whole, illuminates how the differences among artists and their work can ultimately reveal their overall similarities. 

Arts

Lavish! Capturing Nature’s Beauty One Stitch at a Time

“If people fall in love with something, they’re more likely to take care of it, so I thought, ‘what suggests care and love’, and I thought that embroidering was an interesting one because we embroider things we care about.”

Lavish!: New Work by Zoé Strecker is the latest exhibit on display at Transylvania University’s Morlan Gallery by Associate Professor of Art, Zoé Strecker. Its purpose is to showcase the beauty of Pine Mountain, which is a natural community of the most biodiverse forests in Kentucky. “It’s actually the second most biodiverse temperate forest in the whole world, like the entire planet, except there’s a spot in China that’s very similar but has greater elevation differences,” said Strecker,  “This little treasure is just three hours from here and maybe unappreciated. I just wanted to do work about it and had started making notes, doing some writing, and it just was an idea that grew from how do I help other people fall in love with this place.”

Strecker gathered mainly volunteer embroiderers in groups or as individuals from various places around Kentucky as well as across the nation. These volunteers stitched over top of images taken primarily by Strecker of the natural communities of Pine Mountain, which she also edited into a circular shape, and printed out onto silk organza. The stitching enhanced the images by giving them depth with a 3D appearance. Some of the photos taken were close-ups of tree trunks that had moss or some sort of growth on them, and this is where Strecker or one of the volunteers would stitch to create an interesting effect for people.

Preparation in Strecker’s studio

“I imagine them [the images] as windows into each of the types of forest communities,”  Strecker said.

She proceeded to show me the various circular panels, where a large portion of the stitching was done by volunteer embroiderers. Good news doesn’t always spread quickly, but in this case, it did. Finding volunteers wasn’t difficult Strecker said, “Here in Lexington, I just invited people that I knew, and people associated with Transy friends, and then they invited friends or posted to Facebook, and their friends said ‘that’s so cool, may I come stitch?’”

Strecker stitching over image photographed on Pine Mountain

While the pieces themselves are stunning, the design of the exhibit is certainly something to be noted. The major, circular installation that holds the pieces measures 22 feet in length, and 10 feet in height, and is positioned off to the left side of Morlan Gallery. Strecker said she designed the space to help people feel as if they were surrounded by nature. “I made a bent wood frame and it has sheer walls and then these [panels] hang on it. Everything was done to be as minimal as it could be so that it has a very meditative, ethereal feeling in the space, and I also have audio of the forest, I have sounds of the background, water, wind, trees and bird sounds and bird calls. I also have aroma in the show, so all of these things are gonna come together,” she said.

One of the most interesting things about this exhibit is that it will continue to evolve, even after opening in the gallery. “The project will continue during the exhibition, it will continue after the exhibition, so we will keep stitching. There will be at least three more images and then there are lots of small ones also that are individual organisms. It’s a living work in progress” Strecker said, “It will continue, at least through the end of the summer for the stitching part, because there are three more big ones, but I’ll look for more exhibition opportunities that may include more stitching too.”

The process of putting this show together took place over a period of years and required extensive research and time. Strecker has been formulating the ideas for Lavish! since 2014, and began to conduct the research and do the traveling over the following few years.

Lavish! is especially unique from other art exhibits in the sense (literally) that aromas accompany the artwork.  “I had spent a fair amount of time over the last few years on and off researching perfumers who dealt with non-traditional smells, in other words not just flowery types of perfumes you think about wearing, but smells that you connect to a place, and I found several different individuals and companies that do that, and in the end I was able to get some that were affordable that are separate accents,” Strecker said.

She visited perfumers in their spaces to explore and research the scents, but in the end, “I just had to smell them with my nose.” she laughed. “I have six separate things that will be emanating through the space and I have them in little miniature vaporizers that look like little humidifiers, and I mix a very little of the perfume with water, and it just sort of gently emanates through the space.” Strecker is eager to see how the scents play out in the space she was given. “I’ve tested this all out in my studio, but to put it in that space which has a different square footage and a different heating system, and has different objects in it, I’m just so eager to see how well it works, but it’s up for a month, so I can tweak it. I can start with how I think the scents will be most powerful and then increase or decrease things. It’s definitely a living project” she laughed.

A display of images concealing small vaporizer placed behind on a small shelf

It was easy to see that Strecker was eager to finally get the show open after all the work she and everyone else has put into this exhibit. “I guess what I’m really curious about is whether it creates this sort of meditative, contemplative space I think it will and because I worked on the parts separately and they’re coming together for the first time all in one space in the show. I personally want to see if it is creating that space the way I think it will. And of course I get a chance to see how other people react, and that’s the fun and also maybe the terror of putting something in public. But I feel that this has been so supported already by people involved in it that I’m not really afraid, I’m more excited.”

These pieces appear all around the circular structure, imitating how they would appear in nature.

The idea for this project originated almost twenty-three years ago, when naturalist for the state, Marc Evans, discovered what he thought was an old growth forest while doing aerial surveys of the Pine Mountain area. Strecker said, “It was way bigger than he thought, and they saw that the massive tree crowns went further and further than he ever imagined, and they checked on the ground and found that it was true.”

Evans was in the same circle of friends as Strecker, and Pine Mountain sparked her interest when she heard about the discovery. “I’ve always loved wild places, I’ve always been a hiker and an outdoors person every since I was tiny, so I just became fascinated and kind of got involved.”

Strecker said that besides taking the photos for the project, she loved being out in the secluded forest. “Being out in the forest for long stretches of time, just sort of getting to know the sounds and the visuals of the place and the smell—all of those things, I just love them so much.”

An image that was heavily embroidered to create a 3D effect.

“For a few of the natural communities, I went with botanists who were doing fieldwork, so there were two people from the Kentucky State Nature Reserves Commission who were full time botanists, and they go out and do field work. I asked if I could come along, and they went off trail and they were counting species I was just looking for photo opportunities. That was really fun, you know, we had to move by GPS and we had to wear snake gators because we were going way off the trail, and we carried bear repellant in case, so we were very far out there.”

In addition to the main pieces in the exhibit, there’s also an exhibition within the exhibit on the other side of the gallery, by artists who are a part of the Pine Mountain Collective, which is a retreat that lasts three days at Pine Mountain and is co-hosted by Strecker. The retreat has been attended by over 100 artists, some who have work displayed in Morlan Gallery.

The artists chosen for the Inspired by Wild Places exhibit were Brian and Sara Turner, Rebecca  Allan, Erika Strecker, and Vallorie Henderson. “We have a show within the show, and an evening of musicians and readers,” Strecker said.

Lavish!
 is on exhibit in Morlan Gallery through April 2nd. There will be an art talk with Strecker on Thursday, March 8th at 6 p.m. in the gallery, and Wild Things: Selected Artists from the Pine Mountain Sessions on Friday, March 23rd from 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m. in Carrick Theater, which is also located in the Mitchell Fine Arts building.

Arts

New Domesticity: Women’s Work in Women’s Art

Feminism is often perceived as an attack on traditional values and in opposition to family life. New Domesticity: Women’s Work in Women’s Art, the current show at the Parachute Factory and the Morlan Gallery, investigates how people identify with societal notions of womanhood, and highlights the malleability of this concept as a whole.

According to the curator, Emily Elizabeth Goodman, “these domestic works…explore where we have been, calling on the work of women ancestors to illuminate the present by considering the past.” Right now, change is occurring rapidly in how society considers concepts such as gender, family, and femininity in particular; but works like these remind us that the past is not actually past.

Institutional ideologies only last because people fail to question them; thus it is essential to consider how history continues to inform contemporaneity. Now more than ever it is important to think critically about one’s perceived place in society and how gender may come to inform conceptions of identity.

Stacey Chinn, “Bindle (I Have a Fear of Commitment)”, 2013, Handwriting in ink on bedsheet, tree branch, polyester fiberfil, 114″ x 26″ x 26″

Some of the most particularly memorable works in the exhibition are by Lexington artist Stacey Chinn, “Bindle (I have a Fear of Commitment)”, 2013, and “Bindle (Mother May I?)”, 2017. The former is a nine and a half foot tall tree branch and a tied bed sheet with polyester fiberfill, leaning on an angle against the wall. Ink handwriting fills the entirety of the white sheet with the phrase repeated over and over, “I have a fear of commitment.”

Both of these works reference the cultural conceptions of womanhood in a context of the masculine vagabond. The use of the bed sheet in “Bindle (I have a Fear of Commitment)” references domestic labor that women are traditionally expected to commit to, such as making the bed. The bindle itself evokes feelings of rebellion and freedom from conventional norms.

The size of this piece makes it stand out across the gallery, but the juxtaposition between the coarse tree branch and delicate bed sheet adds another dimension to the statement on feminine freedom. Even the act of putting ink on the bed sheet can be symbolic for rebellion against the commitment to traditional house labor. This piece asks how one defines femininity in the presence of a desire for freedom and an absence of a “natural” domestic instinct.

Stacey Chinn, “Bindle (Mother May I?)”, 2017, Knitted yarn, tree branch, polyester fiberfill, 19″ x 3″ x 3″

“Bindle (Mother May I?)”, made from a thin stick and knitted pouch, references gender as well as motherhood in particular. It is a much smaller version of the previous bindle, a little longer than a forearm, and notably uses a combination of pink and blue knit. In comparison to the size of the “Bindle (I have a Fear of Commitment)”, this one reads as a child’s toy, and the knit material mimics handmade baby’s clothes. The combination of these formal decisions disrupts cultural conceptions concerning freedom by revealing the masculinity tied to vagabonds, and using it as a platform to consider freedom abstractly.

Stacey Reason, “Lomas Tower”, 2015, Steel, glass, pressed flowers, caulk, concrete, light socket, LED light bulb with speaker, paper, 10:44 minute audio, 37 1/2″ x 8 1/2″ x 7″

Another interesting idea of domesticity is depicted in Stacey Reason’s “Lomas Tower, 2015. From Paducah Kentucky, her sculpture was partly inspired by her time spent living in Mexico in a “European style” housing development, which was culturally cut off from the community around it. The sculpture is comprised of steel, glass, press flowers, caulk, concrete, a light socket, a LED light bulb, and paper. From a side view the sculpture appears minimal and industrial. Yet, when viewed from the bottom up, a succession of pressed flowers illuminated by light at the bottom creates a natural yet sterilized aesthetic.

Lomas Tower” engages with domesticity by calling attention to new types of domestic spaces and how traditional ideas translate. By calling attention to the form and function of these kinds of housing developments, Reason identifies the highly constructed lifestyle they perpetuate. In addition to questions of domesticity, Reason’s work discusses issues of class as well as industrialism.

The materials in the sculpture are the same ones used in her own housing development. Using cheap materials while also perpetuating a modern lifestyle; these housing developments are indicative of deeply rooted impacts of industrialism on modern home life.

“New Domesticity: Women’s Work in Women’s Art”, installation view, image by MS Rezny

New Domesticity: Women’s Work in Women’s Art, on view through February 16th at the Morlan Gallery and through Feburary 24th at the Parachute Factory, makes a uniquely essential point about current cultural conditions. Ideas about gender roles and femininity are being questioned in society, no doubt; but this show also makes the point that conceptions of femininity are not only fluid in terms of time, but also varied from one perspective to the next.

“New Domesticity: Women’s Work in Women’s Art”, Installation view, image by MS Rezny

The emphasis on diversity in age, race, and geographic location in this show provides a broad platform with which to further consider contemporary womanhood and find common ground among the obstacles, which usually keep us apart. The show is described by the curator as “a criticism of the fictional naturalness of the affinity between domesticity and womanhood,” but along those lines, it mimics the female empowerment movement in society today.

New Domesticity uplifts female artists, and simultaneously critiques the institutional ideas that have historically limited woman’s power, while celebrating the present condition of women by evoking the past.

This exhibition also features the work of Jane Burch Cochran, Rae Goodwin, Judith Pointer-Jia, Diane Kahlo, Helen LaFrance, Lori Larusso, Colleen Merrill, Stacey Reason, Jennifer A. Reis, Kristin Richards, Justine Riley, Bianca Lynne Spriggs, Bentley Utgaard and L.A. Watson is accompanied by this 51-page catalogue.

About the author: Savannah Wills is a Chellgren Scholar at the University of Kentucky. She is seeking art history and art administration degrees and has chosen to work with UnderMain as her spring project. Christine Huskisson has committed to guiding her as she embraces the concept of criticism in both writing and by assisting UnderMain in organizing our second panel discussion on the topic: “Critical Mass II: The Value of Critical Discourse in the Arts – A Discussion on Authority and Accessibility in the Written Review” to be held on Wednesday, March 28th, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky in partnership with the KMAC Museum and The Great Meadows Foundation. Watch for the UnderMain Newsletter on February 26th for final details and welcome aboard Savannah! 

Arts

Scene&Heard: When a senior recital rocks the house


Cities within a city, cultures within a culture, Lexington’s urban universities are living, breathing microcosms of the world at large. UnderMain from time to time likes to explore what’s happening on the campuses of the University of Kentucky, population 30,000+, and Transylvania University where some 1,100 students strive to shape their futures. Our latest Scene&Heard local music column turns over the page to Transylvania sophomore Taylor Mahlinger, entertainment editor for the campus student publication, The RamblerTaylor reviews the senior recital of fellow student Griffin Cobb. There’s a reason the venue was SRO.

Full of artistic talent and musical vision, Transylvania University senior Griffin Cobb gave a stunning final performance to a packed crowd at Transy’s Carrick Theater. He was able to showcase his multi-faceted music abilities while also letting his charismatic personality shine through, performing in jeans. Cobb majors in Music Technology and Spanish, with a Computer Science minor.

Cobb’s senior recital was divided into four segments. He opened the recital with a guitar and electronic synthesizer piece called Blue Stained Glass; he wrote the piece for Studio 300, which is Transy’s electronic music festival that comes around every two years. Cobb used a mix of pedal effects with different guitar tracks and some distortion, and he played live guitar over top during his recital. Cobb calls it “a study in electric guitar timbre.” He used the opening of the recital to demonstrate the full range of both his instrument and his playing ability.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Timothy Polashek

“In another section, I have three studio pieces that I invited some other musicians to come record tracks and mixed those,” said Cobb.

One of the artists Cobb collaborated with was Transy sophomore, soprano Ruth Choate. Both collaborated with drummer Brandon Trapp to cover the song “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene” originally by Hozier.

“She [Choate] didn’t have any specific songs in mind. She just came in and we went through a bunch of songs that I’m into that I just had on my computer and eventually she was just like ‘I really like that one’ and we went for it,” said Cobb. Choate’s ethereal soprano vocals over top of of the guitar and drum tracks added a fresh take on the song.

Collaborating with other musicians and getting their feedback is also something Cobb will miss.

“I’ve played classical before, but I don’t do that anymore, and it’s really cool to get other perspectives.” Cobb’s collaborations with other musicians for this concert added a layer of depth and creativity.

The third section of the recital was comprised of a video game called Traffic Cop Hero 1000. Cobb and two other people created the game over last May Term for their Game Design course.

Cobb called it “a retro-style game, and I wrote music for that. I thought it would be fun to put in the recital, and I played that up on the projector.”

The unique mix of interactive visuals and elements was a fresh addition to a senior recital that concert audiences don’t usually experience. Cobb’s background in Computer Science allowed him to bring in this element of game design and incorporated the music with visuals, such as the colorful 16-bit graphic game playing on the screen. There was an interactive element to this section because Cobb actually played the game on the projector in front of the audience.

The last section of his concert included two different jazz ensembles made up of of a quintet and quartet. The quartet, composed of Cobb on guitar with bassist Tyler Turcotte, Danny Cecil on the piano, and Brandon Trapp on the drums, performed two pieces, Mr. P.C. by John Coltrane and Nardis by Miles Davis.

The jazz quintet included Trapp on the drums, Cobb playing bass guitar, Cecil on Piano, Sarah Schaaf on saxophone, and Evan Baber on trumpet. The quintet performed three pieces, All The Things You Are by Kern and Hammerstein, arranged by Cobb, Along Came Betty by Benny Golson, arranged by Cobb, and Insensatez by Antonio Carlos Jobim, arranged by Cobb.

The improvisational style that jazz creates combined with Cobb’s generosity gave everyone a chance to perform solos in the recital.

Cobb said there are many things he will miss about the music department, one being the artistic freedom he was allowed: “I feel like I could go into any project and I would get support from the music faculty, even if it’s not something that a particular faculty member is into, they’ll tell me ‘oh this person can help you out with that’ or they’ll just say ‘go for it’.”

On his post graduation aspirations, Cobb says, “I don’t know for sure if I’m gonna go back to Louisville, but probably, and I’m gonna try to make a living off of performing and maybe writing. Getting a job at a recording studio would be fantastic because I feel like I have the skills to be a sound engineer. I’ve gotten into acting again over the past couple of years, and I’d love to do that.”

“It’s entirely possible that I’ll try to do that and it won’t work out, but you might as well go for it” Cobb said with a laugh and casual shrug.

Some of Cobb’s pieces from the recital can be found on SoundCloud.

Arts

Small is More Than Just a State of Mind

­­­In her book On Longing, Susan Stewart describes the miniature as a special type of object that speaks to the nostalgia and fantasy inherent in both childhood and history. The artworks included in notBIG(4), now on display at the M.S. Renzy Studio and Gallery in Lexington, Kentucky, typify these notions. The exhibition, juried by Transylvania University art professor Kurt Gohde, presented its entrants with only one stipulation: small scale. Working in sizes of twelve by twelve inches and smaller, artists submitted works that explore the notion that, in Mr. Gohde’s words, “bigger may not be better.”

A quick assessment of the works reveals a somewhat conservative approach on the part Mr. Gohde. Of the forty-five works, nearly half can be classified as portraits or landscapes. The miniature, especially in painted form, has a fairly consistent art historical track record. Painted portraits and small natural scenes were the affordable fine art choices of middle class collectors before the advent and wide popularization of photography in the mid nineteenth century. In a way, the exhibition pays homage to the historical miniature. Thankfully, it isn’t burdened by nostalgia for the past, but its works engage with nostalgia in order to explore and elucidate its presuppositions and effects.

The more appealing of the works in notBIG(4) represent a creative approach to the twelve inch by twelve inch limitation placed on their scale. In Mr. Gohde’s notes, he mentions one of several considerations in his selection process, that the works “NEED or TAKE ADVANTAGE OF the small scale” requirement placed on entrants. In my opinion, it is the more sculptural works that best exemplify this exploration of the exhibition’s focus on spatial limitations. Several works, including ceramic, wood, and mixed media assemblages, occupy and explore a miniature space rather than simply conform to a miniature scale. Like dollhouse models or children’s toys, they present the viewer with the possibility that within such a seemingly limited space there might exist whole worlds, imaginative or otherwise.

Rebecca DeGroot, Strain, Image courtesy of the artist

Rebecca DeGroot’s Strain is reminiscent of both Louise Bourgeois’ mammoth cast bronze spider-like sculptures and a piece of fine walnut furniture. While it could be both or neither, its mysterious nature, perhaps more akin to the micro than the macroscopic presents a fantasy grounded in reality. Similarly, one of exhibition’s honorable mentions, Critz Campbell’s Single Cloud, recalls both a wooden maquette and decorative period artifact. Again, it is a fantastical take on a natural phenomenon communicated through the imagery of both a child’s toy and technical model.

Critz Campbell, Single Cloud, Image courtesy of the artist

Another honorable mention, Rene Hales’ hazy and dreamy photo-encaustic Backyard Woods, is equal parts photographic record and pictorial fantasy. The encaustic’s wax  transforms the flat picture into an object with literally and metaphorical depth. In fact, several other works employ the use of encaustic, an application of wax mixed with resin, to create the illusions of the dreamy haze of age. Derek Ball’s Everyday Day, Every Hour (C1) offers a digital take on this aesthetic of translucent fogginess. The densely layered photographic object is equal parts knowable and mysterious.

Derek Ball, Everyday Day, Every Hour (C1), Image courtesy of the artist

Among the more traditional works in the exhibition, those of portraits landscapes, Mr. Ghode has selected pieces that run the gamut from Clint Wood’s City Corner, a colorful and somewhat flattened rendering of an anonymous street and its buildings to the nearly abstracted natural effects of Karen Spears’ Floating Foliage.

Clint Wood, City Corner, Image courtesy of the artist

Karen Spears, Floating Foliage, Image courtesy of the artist

Similarly among the portraits are several striking explorations of sizing and scaling images of the face. Irene Mudd’s Joan and Todd Fife’s Ghost Man both treat the details of the human likeness like pixelizations, though composed respectively from yarn and the stains and smudges of graphite and coffee. Still recognizable, the features point to the difficulties of certain media to accurately replicate and render the human image.

Tom Pfannerstill, Crushed Starbucks Cup, Image courtesy of the artist

Allison Tierney, 10/11/2015, Image courtesy of the artist

Of course, there are other works in the show that don’t necessarily treat miniaturization as simply an issue of size or scale. Tom Pfannerstill’s Crushed Starbucks Cup is in actuality a finely detailed painted wood sculpture that both elevates and eternalizes street trash as art object. What appears as stains and damage are the specific details of a meticulously crafted and considered totem of the vastness of urban waste and global consumerism. Likewise, Allison Tierney’s 10/11/2015, a wood panel layered with latex paint that resembles the leftover scraps of a painted canvas, is both painted object and paint as object. Like Pfannerstill, Tierney offers much more to the viewer than what is simply visible in her painting, and recalls Marilyn Minter’s early photorealistic painted floors and sculpted polaroids, playing with the discrepancies between what is seen and what is experienced.

Sean Ware, With Clouds in Sight, Image courtesy of the artist

The work awarded the exhibition’s best in show, a painting by Sean Ware titled With Clouds in Sight, seems an overly safe choice, considering its subject matter is neither a unique nor particularly engaging mediation on the miniature schema. While one of the more technically impressive works on display, it lacks the specificity that the miniature itself implies, that of the somewhat fantastic and nostalgic possibilities of they might contain. There are more interesting and fruitful works for the viewer here, works that eagerly attempt to find purpose in their relative smallness.

In the end, the exhibition and its space, though itself small and somewhat cluttered, allows the works their own room to breathe, and helps to further encourage viewers to consider the individual worlds they represent. While not everything on display succeeds in expanding and developing the rhetoric of smallness, the dollhouse specificity of many of these miniatures, especially the sculptural works, makes this exhibition seem much larger than it appears. The opportunity to enter, inhabit, and participate in the fantasies of self-contained and self-sufficient worlds gives notBIG(4) enough of a reason to be seen.

Arts

Dark Dualities: David Kenton Kring

David Kenton Kring, Get Out of Your Head, 2016, ceramic

Oh man, that is so creepy!

This, David Kenton Kring acknowledges, is a common response to his figurative works and that makes him feel just fine.

Kring is after a response from the viewer with his figural works and no apologies are needed if your first reaction is to be creeped out, turned off, or experience an unpleasant feeling of fear or unease. His motivation, however, is much deeper than mere shock value.

Kring wants to get your attention and then hold onto it long enough to present his intended juxtapositions – dualities that he likes to butt right up against one another. He pairs darkness with humor, contrasts smooth, brightly-patterned surfaces with blemished, crackled and peeling ones. And, with a broader brush, he hopes to examine the dual cultural realities of folk versus high art.

The artist’s figurative work is multilayered with metaphor and mystery, but the characters themselves come from specific memories of the ‘blue-collar folk’ that used to hang out in Kring’s family-owned clothing store in Frankfort, Kentucky.

While working his first summer job at Mitchell’s Clothing Store – where his father always had pot of coffee on – guys from the neighborhood would stop in looking for a little work. They’d tell dirty jokes and tall tales and, like the character referenced in I Can Do It Myself, always seemed to be just scraping by.

David Kenton Kring, I Can Do It Myself, 2014, ceramic

Kring admits that there is a little of himself in the figurative works as well. “Timid, for instance, recalls a specific point in my life when I was working non-stop in the studio,” Kring told UnderMain in our recent interview. “I was ramping up to begin a new and extensive body of work and I found myself too timid to go out and be with people – when I tried to take a break from myself, it was hard to take a break from myself.”

Timid

David Kenton Kring, Timid, 2015, ceramic

David Kenton Kring makes a living as an artist in Kentucky and getting to this stage in his artistic career had everything to do with taking it ‘slow and steady’. When asked what advice he might give other young artists trying to break onto the scene, he suggested that working for free – in the beginning – is necessary if you want to get connected.

At a critical juncture in his career, Kring found a job with Kentucky Mud Works where he realized that he could pay the bills by selling his pottery – coffee cups for the most part. But, he acknowledges that the figural work enables him to connect with his viewers in a much more meaningful way; they offer Kring the needed motivation to make art.

I am paying my mortgage with my pottery and then balancing my life with the figurative work, which inspires me most.

David Kenton Kring, Pottery in process, 2017

David Kenton Kring, Face Mugs, 2012-2014

David Kenton Kring, Face Mugs, 2012-2014

David Kenton Kring, Face Mugs, 2012-2014

Because Kring works in ceramics, many people consider him to be a folk artist and this puzzles him as he is professionally trained having graduated from Transylvania University where he studied under Dan Selter. The artist’s newest body of work titled Masks, examines the duality of folk art versus high art.

David Kring with Breakdown, 2016

In my artwork, I focus on the figure using the outlets of ceramics and mixed media. My art offers an emotional charge through gestures, facial expression, and painting techniques. My surfaces are extremely worked; I rely on bends, folds, and crevasses to create depth and character in my work. I tend to work metaphorically, narratively, and autobiographically with the inspiration I find in various styles of music, entertainment, and history. Raised in a small family owned men’s work wear business, I became obsessed with the stories people would trade with each other. Because of this exposure, my work tends to convey themes of the disturbed and delusional personality, the duality of good and evil, the supernatural form of being, and dark humor. The goal of my work is to provide a narrative, offering the viewer a chance to connect with the characters I depict. – artist’s statement. Visit the artist’s website. 

Arts

Scene&Heard: The Art of the Cover

The devotion to a good, solid cover that is “as close to the original as possible” is a sanctified quest.  To participate in or witness a true emulation of the original genius that produced the tune, to begin with, can be like stepping on holy ground for those who love such performance.  The homage that the Lexington Lab Band (LLB) created and performed most flawlessly on November 5th in Transylvania University’s Haggin Auditorium was a Mecca of precise tributes to the original songs, and those who made the pilgrimage to the sold out concert were happy, happy pilgrims indeed. As one member of the crowd John Boyd commented, “If you shut your eyes, you think you’re hearing the original band.”  That is the mission of the Lexington Lab Band, and folks, Mission Accomplished.

The original goal of the Lexington Lab Band was never to actually produce a live concert.  The founding members came together three years ago to create online videos of the original core members performing their favorite covers with professional accuracy. “It’s an academic thing for me,” says Michael Vandemark, original member, vocalist and instrumentalist extraordinaire. The videos created by “Vandee,” as his fellow musicians lovingly call him, and bandmates Randy Refalo, Dale Adams, Rob Pottorf and Ryan McQuerry, have created a following for the band.

vandee

Michael “Vandee” Vandemark

Listen to Cara’s conversation with Michael Vandemark:

The first concert in 2014 at The Lyric Theater almost happened by accident, Vandemark explains, as one former member, Derrick Breaux, was leaving the state and the live show was meant to be a fun send off with no expectation of filling the house.

It sold out.

So, two more annual concerts have followed, and the band has created not one but two groups of loyal followers, those who watch the videos online to study the tight precision with which the musicians and singers emulate the songs they are covering, and then those who come to the big yearly show.  Often the two are not the same.  At this month’s show, Vandemark asked the crowd to raise their hands if it was their first LLB concert, and over half the crowd responded.

And they sold it out again, this time in a venue with nearly double the capacity of the Lyric – Transy’s 1000 seat Haggin Auditorium. 

The finale has become a legend at an LLB show, with all the musicians coming together on stage, nearly 30 total, to rock out a massive medley of songs by Bad Company, The Eagles, Heart, Journey and ended quite beautifully with a group tribute to Prince’s “Purple Rain.”  It was a rocking, intense ending to a long amazing set that paid tribute to Boston, Huey Lewis, Bad Company, Def Leppard, Aerosmith, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, The Police, Pearl Jam, and Jimi Hendrix.

Photos by Mark Pearson and Ralph Bostic

Photos by Mark Pearson and Ralph Bostic

The night also included a worthy tribute to those artists we’ve lost this year: Merle Haggard, Glenn Frey of the Eagles, David Bowie, Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White, and of course, the fitting tribute to Prince at the end.

These are amazing songs to replicate; Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Pearl Jam, Boston.  We all know these songs, but to really hear them, to know the effort it takes to replicate those guitar licks, those keys, the drumming and the backing harmonies, is most impressive. 

At the pinnacle of it all is Vandemark himself, moving fluidly from lead guitar, to lead vocals, to keys, to bass. He never touched the drums, but he holds a degree in Percussion from Asbury.  As Vandemark said of trying to bring in a wide variety of songs to cover, “To do this right, we’ve got to have the right people, every time…You’ve gotta have the right voice or the right guitar player… [and] be open to bringing the right people in, and…make it a project that celebrates as much of our friends as possible.” 

And celebrate they did.

Such a feat could not be produced without drawing from an impressive collective of Lexington’s talent, with a few out of towner’s joining in for the fun. Several local bands are represented in the Lexington Lab Band, including the Twiggenburys, the Lauren Mink Band, The Throwbacks, Big River Band, Kung Fu Grip, Distraxions, Project 859 and Isle of Eight.

Perhaps the strongest backbone of the band in my humble opinion are the ladies: four women who sang with such tight, perfect harmony that they subtly stole the show. 

Photos by Ralph Bostic and Mark Pearson

Photos by Ralph Bostic and Mark Pearson

Kaitlynne Postel, Amanda Carter, Lauren Mink and Jessica McKenney sang the backing vocals to a majority of the songs, and Mink rocked Stevie Nick’s “Landslide,” while McKenney sang Heart’s “Barracuda” so tightly it took my breath away.  But the tightness in which they harmonized to all the other songs was phenomenal, truly.

Lauren Mink - Photos by Ralph Bostic and Mark Pearson

Lauren Mink – Photos by Ralph Bostic and Mark Pearson

There was a professional quality that guaranteed what McKenney, a singer at Southland Church, was hoping for:  a “true note-to-note to the original.”

The effort made by the Lexington Lab Band and its many contributors, all the musicians, singers, film crew, and volunteers throughout the concert, is a labor of love.  There is no profit, all the proceeds from the $27.00 tickets go to charity.  The first concert supported the Lexington Area Music Alliance (LAMA). Proceeds from the second year went to a Refuge for Women. And this year Vandee brought the crowd to tears when he announced to the surprise of his cameraman and LLB co-founder, the man behind the online videos Neil Gregory, that they were donating all the proceeds to a charity for Autism, in honor of Neil’s daughter who has Autism.  It was a beautiful moment, to see two friends bond over something so meaningful, to know so much good would come from something they do simply for the love of the music. 

Mike Huff, the lead singer on the Aerosmith and Pearl Jam songs and a member of The Throwbacks, summed it up eloquently when speaking to me about how many people it takes to pull off such a huge show. More than fifty people had been at the auditorium since 9 am that morning rehearsing for their crowd with such devotion to the craft, “That’s what’s so great about it for me, everyone here just loves music.” 

Listen to Cara’s conversation with Mike Huff:

Photo by Mark Pearson and Ralph Bostic

Photo by Mark Pearson and Ralph Bostic

Arts

To What Do We Belong?


Morlan Gallery, Transylvania University

HOME AND FIELD: Digital Explorations of Community

September 11 – October 16, 2015

Work by Michelle Jaffé and Stevie Morrison

Titled “Home and Field: Digital Explorations of Community,” the current exhibition at Transylvania’s Morlan Gallery, situates the work of two artists in the most mesmerizing way. Hollow and occasionally firm sounds from the show’s two clearly separate multi-media installations chase over and around a partition wall and successfully generate meditations on belonging and place.

The subtle movement in the work by budding artist and recent Transylvania University graduate Stevie Morrison challenge our relationship to familiar surroundings. A small house constructed of images from Google Maps taken at the 900th block in various neighborhoods around Lexington, Kentucky invites us to reexamine our relationship to place.

Morrison keenly sets up three vantage points – her two-by-two inch paper house hangs by a thin wire, it is also a large, off-kilter wall-projection, and a third image of the same house is present on the flickering screen of the recording projector. How do we know the place to which we belong? Can we be certain about any of it given subtle alterations in our vantage point? For sure these two audio-visual immersions allow us to contemplate a multitude of interweaving.

The occasional sound echoing from the static metal helmets in Michelle Jaffe’s “Wappen Field” move in the same way – in and out of our complete understanding of them. We catch this and that voice or phrase and try to hold onto it only to find something else around the corner. It is at the same time disparate and communal. Dissonant and familiar.

Brilliant in it’s pairing of these two artists – one nascent, the other established on the international stage – the curator of “Home and Field: Digital Explorations of Community” builds a small community of her own – one that deserves enough time to really experience.

NOTE: The Morlan Gallery will hold evening hours October 8 and 9. For more information, please visit their website.

original works

UnderMain Essay: The songs of the caged birds

Depositphotos_21973065_m

As with most people who have access to Netflix, I fell in love with the series Orange is the New Black. My dedication to watching the show began with the typical interest in the novelty of prisons, institutions that take people away from society, making them disappear.

The series is about a rich white girl who has to leave her comfortable life and do time in prison for a past offense.  As I continued watching, I fell in love with the stories of each individual character. I became so interested in seeing just how they got to where they were in life. By the third episode, however, I became very sad, not only for the fictional characters in Orange but for women in prison in real life – for those real women in my life.

My experience with visiting women’s prisons began when I was seven. My cousin was arrested and convicted as an accomplice to the murder of two people, one of whom was a child. At the time my cousin was young, the age I am now (20), and in a tumultuous marriage. Needless to say, drugs were involved. She was driving the car the day her husband shot and killed a man and his child in their home.

I can remember feeling scared for her as we drove her mother to the scene of the crime. I remember the court trials and going to visit my cousin in prison.

I remember talking to her, sitting right in front of her but having to use a phone to talk to her. I thought of how lonely it must be to have a glass wall between you and everyone you have ever known, to never have privacy and never to be able to go out in public.

The prison seemed like the inside of a metal lunchbox to me. It was crowded with visitors who were loud. I remember not being able to hear my cousin because the phone had a bad connection. Her mother would always cry whenever we visited her but I was always confused. I didn’t understand what was going on or why she had to be behind a glass wall. I didn’t understand why I had to walk through metal detectors before I was even ten years old. I also didn’t understand how my cousin could behave as though this place was normal. I never understood how she got used to it.

Our entire town saw her as different from other people. She was put away, “disappeared.” She was the subject of gossip for a few months, and then she was forgotten. Everyone felt “safe” and they moved on to something new.

My next experience with women’s correctional facilities involved my older sister. The first incident happened within a few months of our mother’s death of pancreatic cancer. I was fifteen and my sister was thirty-eight. I had known that my sister had been on drugs for years by that point, but the death of our mother caused such emotional trauma that her drug problem became much worse. She was arrested one night for driving under the influence and for having Meth under the passenger’s seat in her car.  Later that year she was arrested again for making and selling it.

I still have all the letters from my sister and my cousin. Little crochet key chains and Precious Moments coloring book pages from my cousin…confessions and apologies from my sister.

I would always receive the letters, with their names and ID numbers on them and become excited. It was like a pen pal, almost. At the beginning of their sentences, I became very excited to get their letters. They would ask me about soccer games, guitar practice and school. They never had much to say about their lives though, except for apologizing about their pasts and telling me about things that they missed. I couldn’t quite understand how they missed certain things. They missed biscuits and sitting on the front porch stringing beans with the family. My cousin even wrote me once explaining how badly she missed showers. As I got older, the letters between us became less frequent. I let myself get caught up with the outside world and forgot about the comfort those letters gave them. When the letters became fewer and fewer they were able to find comfort in other outlets.

I knew about the letters, but what I did not know about was their personal writings.

The women in prisons have to experience personal writings and expression and art in a different way from those of us who are on “the outside.”  Women have been oppressed for generations and limited in their ability to be in the public sphere as easily as men due to society’s judgment of women in writing. But women inmates have an even more difficult time with having their voices heard.

Women inmates have a more difficult time having their voices heard because of the negative stigma of being inmates; they are not only separate from the public sphere physically, but ideologically through the stereotypes and opinions of them. They have important things to say, but it is difficult for their words to get to us on the outside. The separation and stigma prevent women inmates from experiencing the therapeutic experience of being heard.

Just as women in general had been silenced simply as a consequence of their gender, the women in prisons are silenced for that and their inmate status.

Distinguishing between “good vs bad” enhances the negative stigma against the women in prison.  Women have been marginalized just for being women and thus cut out of the public sphere, but female inmates have to carry the labels of both “woman” and “criminal.”

The only access prisoners really have to “the outside” are through letters between themselves and family members, friends and penpals. While the rest of us can call in to news talk shows and chime in with our opinions, write letters to editors and blog about everything that angers us, those incarcerated do not have these options.

In our society, prison is a way of removing from the public eye, those who have committed crimes. They do not Facebook. They cannot have cell phones. They are limited in the amount of time they can use the prison phones and the phone calls they get and their in-person visits are timed and restricted to people on a pre-determined list.

It is easy to think, “Oh well, they are prisoners, they deserve it.” However, they are humans and separating them from society and limiting their resources only creates a cycle of low socioeconomic status and continuation of crime. It is hard to “come back up” when you are being kept down by your past mistakes.

The punishment that society imposes on inmates has the possibility of keeping them down for the rest of their lives, essentially extending their sentences even when they are eventually returned to “the outside.”

When I did a Google search on what people think about women in prison I found all of these terms: Untrustworthy; Trash; Bad; Poor; Unskilled. It is hard to carry all of these stereotypes with you – it can even make you start believing these things about yourself.

These labels lead to people deciding to not listen to what women in prison have to say. The thought of interacting with a prisoner makes people afraid and squeamish, so instead of being open to the idea of listening to an inmate, society pretends they are not there.

Who listens to the women locked in cages? Who listens to the women who are separate from their families, their friends and their jobs? Who listens to the women who are considered “violent” and “angry”?

Inmates have often been perceived as brutal, which is a false perception. In her poem, “Ready to Go”, inmate Tammica L. Summers, incarcerated at Broward Correctional Institution in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, compares the bars of prison to the bars of the zoo:

I wish I was somewhere else

Rather than this zoo

I take a long hard look at myself

And what I’ve been through.

(Women + Prison)

Summers was a college graduate who has been writing short stories and poems since grade school. However, she is not being recited at poetry clubs and appearing at poetry slams because she is incarcerated.

The legitimacy of the expressive writings of female inmates is no less than those lucky enough to receive an education in creative writing. Due to their status as an “inmate,” though, they lose all rhetorical credit and are easily disregarded.

There are many important reasons as to why we should open our eyes and ears and listen to the words of female inmates. They are humans and have the right to be heard. They are human just like all of us, which means we are just as likely to make the same mistakes they made that ended up with their incarceration.

Their words can encourage us to accept one another; to comfort one another; to listen to one another before it is too late; and to think about our actions before we do them. We are all capable of making mistakes and not every criminal is from a “rough background.”

It is easy to think that we are not capable of going to jail, that we are “good people”.

Every “good” person makes mistakes. Every person makes mistakes. We need to listen to female inmates and hear their stories and their pain. If we are unable to learn from them, then we are even more susceptible to incarceration ourselves. It is possible for any of us to also be in situations where we are one day silenced, as we as a society have silenced so many. It is even more possible that we will one day be cast away from society, just as we have cast so many away.

There are more than 200,000 women behind bars. Those are 200,000 voices that could teach us so much..

Maya Angelou, in her famous poem, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings writes,

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

or the caged bird

sings of freedom.

The caged bird may sing, but have you heard her?

To read the writings of female inmates you can:

*Become a penpal

*Go to one of these websites:

Angelfire

The Prison Arts Coalition

Women + Prison

*Read this book by the talented Lexington writer Bianca Spriggs.

Bridgett Howard is in her third year at Transylvania University as a Writing, Rhetoric and Communications major and Studio Art minor.  A native of Whitesburg, KY., Bridgett will graduate in May, 2015. She is UnderMain’s first intern.

Arts, Entertainment, Music

Thinking outside of the chamber

Richard Young was in the thick of it, hunched over a cellphone at the bar in Natasha’s. The news was challenging.

With only three weeks until “showtime,” the director of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington had suddenly found himself not only in search of an essential Steinway Concert Grand piano, but after getting word of complications with the original plan, also attempting to find accommodations for the festival’s five-member Ensemble-in-Residence

As it turns out, each dilemma has been resolved. More on that a bit further down the page.

But these crises did serve to remind that the business of organizing and overseeing a ten-day music festival not of the rock, folk or country variety, but instead focused on chamber music in 2014 is not for the faint at heart and certainly requires a tolerance for change.

“This is about something that is quite old,” Young observed. “I mean – it’s about chamber music. While it can be and often is a very progressive art form, most people know it as Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven quartets, that sort of thing.”

Now in its eighth year, Young’s fourth as director, the festival gets underway on the evening of Thursday, August 14 with a free public concert by WindSync – the aforementioned Ensemble-in-Residence – with beer and barbecue on the lawn of Loudon House, home of the Lexington Art League.

And you can read plenty into the selection of this particular group and that particular opening night format. The message? You don’t necessarily have to be a classical music aficionado to find something interesting, perhaps amazing in the performances slated for locations in and around Lexington between the 14th and 24th of August.

While the young, energetic Houston-based ensemble will offer its own performances in various more casual settings around town, the group also will integrate with the festival’s traditional concerts in the formal setting of the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion.

“After we brought Richard Young aboard as festival director, we had numerous board discussions about bringing our product—chamber music—to the community in a casual manner. And we did so with the enthusiastic endorsement of our board,” said Charles Stone, founding chairman of the festival board. “What sets our festival apart in our mind is our cutting edge presentation and programming. And what we look to do soon after we finish one year’s series is imagine how we can make it newer, bolder the next time,” Stone continued, describing a governing body willing to take risks by supporting new approaches to presenting chamber music to a Lexington audience “We are comfortable to embrace a room full of new ideas.”

Under the direction of Young, a 2011 graduate of the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music (Double bass), programming has steadily progressed and expanded.

In 2012, two years into his tenure as director, he experimented with staging surprise chamber music performances around the city several weeks prior to the opening of the festival.

These “pop-up” performances are now a staple. And there is method in this madness.

“Chamber music is such a niche thing. You like it, you hate it, or you don’t know about it. I think one of the main reasons it doesn’t have a broad audience is its exposure,” Young said. “You say ‘classical music’ and people think of either opera or symphonies. I don’t think a lot of people think of chamber music because it just doesn’t have a lot of exposure. It’s very hard to passively gain a new audience. The pop-ups are very intentional, targeted, focused. We see pop-ups as our way to do that.”

The street-performances have given the festival something of a gritty edge. Young recalled one pop-up concert in 2013 at the corner of North Limestone and Loudon. “People brought out old couches; everyone just sitting out on the street corner listening to chamber music and drinking beer in the middle of the afternoon. Cars going by, people walking up asking ‘what’re you doing?’ Experiments like that have left us with this Yin and Yang – weird, pop-up, gritty non-traditional things and then very formal, super high quality innovative programmed concerts in a hall that is perfect for chamber music.”

Innovation has been a consistent thread since the festival’s founding in 2007 by Stone and Lexington native Nathan Cole, now first associate concertmaster with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and artistic director of the Lexington festival. For example, Lexington’s is the only chamber music festival that commissions a new piece of music every year, according to Young.

“This year’s programming is more new music than old music,” Young said. “It’s very progressive.” In addition to a menu of compositions by lesser-known artists, “We’re playing a piece by Jeff Beal, composer of the themes of the Netflix series House of Cards and HBO’s Carnivale and Rome.”

Guest Artists for 2014 include Composer-in-Residence Adam Schoenberg, harpist Allegra Lilly, and soprano Karen Slack. Returning artists include pianist Alessio Bax, violinist Akiko Tarumoto, cellist Priscilla Lee and Burchard Tang, viola.

Plans call for the more casual events to include the free WindSync concert at Loudon House, a limited-seating brunch at Greentree Tearoom featuring WindSync, and a “laid back” concert by various festival artists at Natasha’s Bar & Bistro.

You can see evidence of this merger of traditional and progressive in a revised festival schedule. “Instead of this being just Friday, Saturday and Sunday concerts out at Fasig-Tipton, we’re doing Wednesday, Friday, Sunday – really pulling it apart so if you come to Lexington to come to the festival, no matter when you come there is something going on,” Young said. “We’ll have a public event every day.”

A first this year will be a lunchtime coffeehouse conversation at Common Grounds on High Street in downtown Lexington featuring composer-in-residence Schoenberg as well as other festival artists.

And there is a place for visual art in the scope of the event’s offerings. The “automata” sculpture of Lexington artist Steve Armstrong was commissioned to be auctioned in support of the festival’s future.

“That the board is so bought-in to trying new things, whether it be commissioning new music every year, commissioning a piece of visual art every year, to doing these very odd programming decisions like playing on the corner of Lime and Loudon, a spot that most people would not associate with chamber music, is incredibly helpful,” Young said. “They have been very open to letting artistic director Nathan Cole, board president Charlie Stone and me try and do something really new and exciting. If something goes wrong, it’s not going to destroy the organization. We just won’t do that next year.”

There have been a few clunkers. Master classes were not well-attended. Open rehearsals were tried. But while perhaps interesting in concept, in practice it just didn’t work. “They’re trying to rehearse, and you can’t hear them talking, so it was sort of awkward,” Young observed.

The open rehearsals have evolved into the Cabaret Concert scheduled for August 21 at Natasha’s. “It’s not as formal. You can sit and have drinks, eat and listen to some amazing music. If I were going to pick my ideal setting for listening to chamber music,” Young said, “that would be it.”

A new addition to the program is an Ensemble-in-Residence retreat with the North Limestone MusicWorks program.

Shaping programming – extending it beyond the formal and inherently rigid confines of the concert hall – to a younger, more casual audience in more accessible, less costly venues is, in Young’s view, essential to the survival of a genre that he believes is afflicted by “self-image crises.”

“I mean, the Philadelphia Orchestra went bankrupt. The Philadelphia Orchestra went bankrupt,” he repeated for emphasis. “That should be a wake up call to anyone that you need to think about what you’re doing.”

In arguing that interest in classical music is, in fact, not in decline where new things are tried, Young cited steady annual growth in audiences turning out for Lexington Philharmonic concerts and the Chamber Music Festival. “I think quite the opposite. I think it’s growing. More people are getting interested. Cincinnati Symphony, for example, does this great show, Lumenosity in the middle of the park right in front of Music Hall and if you saw a picture of it you would be flabbergasted. It’s a sea of probably 5,000 people. I think audiences diminish only if you become complacent.”

I asked Richard Young to talk to me about the music itself, in the context of the unstable, troubled world in which we live today. An opportunity to escape for a little while? Or to better connect with reality?

“Chamber music has a very strong ability to allow you to escape, but also to focus on some of these things that are happening. There is a great piece, Quartet for the End of Time (Oliver Messiaen, 1941) that we played two years ago that was written in a WW II prisoner of war camp. It doesn’t get more powerful than that. There is another, On the Transmigration of Souls (John Adams 2002) composed in tribute to those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. So yes, it has the power to distract, but I think it also has the power to take those issues, embrace them, look at them and give people a new way to experience and to think about them.”

Chamber music pokes at the emotions, Young said. “If you dig down and listen to it, it ranges all the way from really, really funny to really, really depressing. I think you can experience chamber music on multiple levels.”

Watching music performed on a more intimate scale can be as entertaining as listening, he noted. “If you have a great chamber music group, just watching them interacting with each other is something you’re less likely to get in the symphony hall.”

Ensemble-in-Residence WindSync, he noted, plays completely without music. “It’s engaging to watch a two-hour program played from memory by people who have played it a thousand times and know what to expect from each other and when to interact. And when you watch them communicate with each other without talking you can really see the power of chamber music.”

Oh, and as promised: Transylvania University stepped forward to provide accommodations for the five members of WindSync. And a 9-foot Steinway Concert Grand was secured from a generous Cincinnatian.

All is well as August 14th approaches.

Photo courtesy of Mary Rezny

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The Rise of ISIS and Why You Should Care

Transylvania University political science associate professor Michael Cairo

Transylvania University political science associate professor Michael Cairo

In the wake of two Gulf wars costing thousands of American lives and billions in U.S. treasure, Iraq is now rapidly being reshaped into a terrorist state. Transylvania University Political Science professor Michael Cairo, author of The Gulf: The Bush Presidencies and the Middle East (Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy and Peace), replied via email to a series of questions concerning the current escalation of sectarian violence in Iraq as Sunni insurgents seek to create a new ultra fundamentalist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Tom Martin: There may be confusion about the forces now in play in Iraq: Shiite versus Sunni and in particular, the full scale of the intentions of the Sunni insurgency and what its success would imply.

Michael Cairo: What most people fail to realize is that Iraq, in its present state, is a post-World War I creation of the mandate system.

Under the Ottoman Empire, the areas within Iraq were far from the center and relatively autonomous.  As long as these regions remained stable and did not upset the Empire’s interests, the Ottomans stayed out of the region.

Following World War I, the British brought three relatively autonomous groups together under one state: the Kurds in the north, the Shiite in the south, and the Sunni triangle in the center of the country.  It is also important to realize that the Shiite have a majority in the country.  Despite the Kurds also being Sunni, they share different interests than the Sunni in the center of the country.

Throughout Iraq’s existence, violence, paternalism, corruption, and patronage have been central to politics.  Saddam Hussein’s rule added to the distrust since he used violence against the Kurdish and Shiite populations and promoted the power and position of the Sunni population within the triangle.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein contributed to distrust and violence.  The Bush administration’s de-Baathification of the country meant the removal of all those associated with Hussein’s regime, including those involved simply for employment. This created a ready-made “angry” Sunni population. The Shiite government of Nouri al-Maliki has also contributed to this by ensuring benefits for the Shiite population at the expense of the Sunni.

The current sectarian violence, thus, is not a surprise to anyone familiar with the region and its history.

TM: What US interests are at stake in the present crisis?

MC: First, there is a bit of irony here since it may serve to create additional channels of cooperation for the US and Iran.

In recent years, the Shiite Government of Iraq and the Iranian Government have developed closer relations. Moreover, the Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has called for fighting against the insurgents in the north, suggesting a possible collaborative effort between the Iraqi Shiites, the Iraqi Government, and the Iranian Government with possible assistance from the US (most likely air strikes).  Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country is ready to help Iraq if asked, and would consider working with the United States in fighting Sunni extremists if the US decides to take action.

At the same time, this could prove problematic for the US since it might potentially increase Iranian power in the region. Not showing a degree of interest could signal to Iran that the US is willing to let Iran extend its power in the region. The U.S. aircraft carrier deployed in the Gulf has, in my opinion, two purposes – one to send a signal to Iran and two to be prepared if the president chooses an air strike option.

Second, the US most certainly has economic interests in the region.  Gas prices have spiked as ISIS has had an impact on oil fields in northern Iraq, shutting down exports from that region.  The heart of Iraq’s oil region is located in the south and an ISIS advance could seriously threaten oil exports and US economic interests in the region.

Third, ISIS could have a significant impact on Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, putting potentially threatening and violent regimes near their borders.  Spill-over from the crisis could have a significant affect on the region and lead to a wider war, which could prove disastrous.

TM: How does the present event differ from previous episodes of civil upheaval in Iraq and the region? The Iranian angle might be one example, but anything else?

MC: The current situation could be seen as a continuation of the past, as well as retribution for the past. Sectarian conflict has been a part of Iraqi history.  Saddam Hussein’s atrocities against the Kurds and Shiites are well known.  The Shiites have dominated the system since 2003 and have used economic and political patronage, and violence, as a form of retribution and control.  The difference today is that there is an increasingly religious element to the conflict.  Saddam Hussein’s regime was secular. ISIS is an Islamist group, changing the nature of the conflict somewhat.  Iraq is also home to one of the holiest sites for the Shiites, Karbala.  This adds to the threat that ISIS presents.

TM: Is there a credible possibility that what is now Iraq might end up fragmented, giving rise to the imagined ISIS?

MC: Absolutely.  This is certainly a possibility given the fact that Iraq as a state is an artificial creation, drawn on a map with a pencil and a ruler by British diplomats. This, however, would not necessarily mean a reduction in violence since these entities would likely have conflicting interests.  In addition, control of the economic resources – oil – could become even more significant for these new entities.

TM: Why should Americans care about what is happening in Iraq?

MC: First, Iraq’s geographic position in the Middle East – surrounded by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey – means that it has implications for the countries that surround it.  What happens in Iraq can have significant ramifications for what happens elsewhere in the Middle East.

Second, Iraq has significant implications for the international economy with its vast oil reserves.  We have already seen oil prices go above $113 as a result, in part, of the conflict.  In addition, the conflict constrains companies  from investing in those oil fields.  It is also important to remember that we are partially responsible for the current crisis in Iraq.  We opened the floodgates with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

TM: There have been observations made in media in recent days to the effect that if Bush over-reached in Iraq, Obama has under-reached. Wherever blame for any U.S. failures may rest, it doesn’t change the fact that with the rise of ISIS we have lost thousands of lives, damaged thousands more and evidently wasted billions in treasure in an attempt to stabilize Iraq.

MC: It is generally correct.  It is a tragic case of conflict.  While Bush certainly overreached, I am not so sure that Obama under reached.  Frankly, I am not convinced that increased US force in Iraq can stabilize the region without a serious long-term commitment.  The American public is not prepared for a permanent  American presence in Iraq and such a presence might only serve to increase reactions from forces like ISIS.

It is important to remember that American domestic politics matters too.  Obama could not have “overreached” even if he wanted to.  The critics often forget what he was handed.  While I certainly admit he’s made mistakes along the way, we need to be careful not to forget that he entered office facing an American public that was tired of war and ready to get out.  Perhaps he over responded to the American public, but our recent experiences in Iraq were impacting both him and the public.  The idea of fighting a long term war was out of the question for most Americans.