“Vessels: All the Eyes Can Hold”

September 22nd, 2013  |  Published in *, September 2013

“Vessels: All the Eyes Can Hold,”
Kennedy Heights Arts Center

By Karen Chambers

I don’t know how many exhibitions have been organized around the theme of “vessel,” or the number of shows of craft materials where the vessel form is the natural result — wheel-thrown clay, blown glass, lathe-turned wood, and spun metal. The final count would be in the thousands.

So here comes one more: “Vessels: All the Eyes Can Hold,” a juried exhibition at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center (K. H. A. C.) curated by Lynn Conaway and Carole Gary Staples. It’s a worthy addition to that list.

This is the first time the community arts center has issued a national call. It went out in January over the Internet to media-specific groups, local arts organizations, and national art and craft publications. It was also posted on the K. H. A. C. website and vessel blog. Keith Benjamin, professor of sculpture at the Art Academy of Cincinnati; Charlie Berger, an artist and teacher as well as trainer and facilitator for Macy’s Credit and Customer Service; and Morgan Thomas, art history professor at the University of Cincinnati, whittled the 161 entries to 101 by 56 artists.

“The impetus for the show was linguistic,” says Conaway. “Vessel is such an interesting word because it has so many applications, which I thought could be represented visually.”

As the call noted, “A vessel is a container; however, there are many things, which can be considered a container. A vessel can be a vase or a ship. There are vessels in our bodies and vessels in nature. Many people believe in spiritual vessels. Work can encompass any medium but must represent some meaning of the word vessel.”

“We wanted a balanced show with representative pieces of every derivation of words,” Conaway explains. In the end that meant including three- and two-dimensional works — painting, quilts, batiks, photographs.

The exhibition’s announcement card gave the dictionary definition for vessel: “1. a hollow or concave utensil, as a cup, bowl, or vase, used for holding liquids or other contents; 2. a craft for traveling on water, now usually one larger than an ordinary rowboat.”

The second definition spurred several people to suggest that the curators include the local ship-modelmaker Guenther Waesch. After trying for months to get in touch with him, Conaway and Staples finally succeeded just two weeks before the show opened. A visit to Waesch and his wife to see the models convinced them that they could be the “crowning touch,” according to Conaway, so he was invited to exhibit. His models are installed in the first gallery and do set the tone for the expansive interpretation of vessel.

Ship modelmaker Guenther Waesch poses with Sirius at the opening of “Vessels: All the Eyes Can Hold.” Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.

 

Waesch painstakingly reproduces every detail of his vessels, 18th- and 19th-century sailing ships and 20th-century pleasure craft “woodies,” which are wooden-hulled, usually varnished mahogany, power boats.

As beautiful and romantic as the multi-masted ships are, they were all about commerce. They plied the waters, carrying goods and people or conveying fishermen to harvest from the sea.

Last century’s woodies were all about leisure, laborers enjoying the calm on the water but also the exhilaration of slicing through it.

The curators and Gallery Manager Eric Bertelson, a volunteer like everyone else associated with the exhibition, must have had fun installing this show, arranging the 101 works to create conversations between objects as well as aesthetic alliances. I love that in the first gallery with all of Waesch’s meticulously crafted ships, they’ve put Steve Meyer’s Norb and His Bottle. An enameled glass octopus made in Meyer’s almost absurdly labor-intensive technique* has wrapped himself around a clear blown-glass bottle.

Steve Meyer, Norb and His Bottle, glass. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.

 

In an artist statement, Meyer explains that Norb was his father-in-law who had Parkinson’s disease and then suffered a stroke. Working from his home studio, Meyer became his primary caregiver. As I recall from conversations with Meyer, Norb was quite fond of alcoholic refreshment, hence the bottle.

Norb died the day the piece was completed, adding a poignancy that I would not have known without his written statement. For once, I don’t mind being told the story since the piece itself cannot communicate Meyer’s personal inspiration. On a purely aesthetic level, Norb and His Bottle succeeds, and the temptation to celebrate it for its tour-de-force technical aspects – too often the case with work in craft materials — fades.

In the same gallery, there was Bernadette Clemens-Walatka’s color photograph Blue Water. An old canoe with fading paint sits on a dock with its prow silhouetted against a rather amazingly blue lake. There’s a story there, too, and it’s one that we could supply for ourselves.

Another piece that would have fit neatly in the first gallery, especially in proximity to Michael Kearns’ photo Broken Vessel, where a beached boat lists to one side on a grassy beach, is Jonathan Brown’s brass Empress Abandoned. Sitting in dry dock, the rust-colored hull of the ship is decaying, revealing the skeleton of the structure. The metal sculptor shares that he is fascinated with interior spaces and exterior form, stemming from a love of ‘old school’ Ocean Liners.” The Empress Abandoned is only 3.25” long but the effect is monumental.

There are also visual conversations based on shared formal interests, such as color. For example along one wall, beginning at the far left, are Barbara Murak’s positively joyous vessels. They are made from scraps of grosgrain and metallic ribbons, organdy, net, and gold thread in a brilliant palette of purple, fuchsia, and Revlon Fire and Ice lipstick red (the shade my mother wore in the ’50s).

Murak’s forms are rudimentary. Red Square is simply four flat pieces sewn together at the edge with a meandering line, and Red Vessel Tall consists of two pieces. Murak’s investigation of container/vessel forms has “fostered spiritual awareness and personal insight. The theme of memory and fragility, found in both nature and relationships, is a reoccurring direction in my work,” as she explains on her website (barbaramurak.com).

Murak finds, “The cutting of fabric, textural layering, and the construction process is (sic) always challenging as is life; and I find the long hours of stitching meditative, rhythmically soothing, and therapeutic.” But these vessels are exuberant and energetic.

Next to them, Sandra Palmer-Ciolino’s Martello #7: Biofeedback quilt takes the energy down a notch. Long and very short strips of fabric are machine-stitched together into a rhythmic composition of vertical bands. A roughly triangular block on the bottom is darker than Murak’s palette — a deeper purple and brown-y eggplant, but, also, a caution orange.

The dark shape suggests a mountaintop against a “sky” of yellow, gold, pale olive, mauve, and lavender. Palmer-Ciolino has stitched a subtle line in diamond, squiggle, and soap-bubble-like patterns on top of the whole. To find the vessel here requires close inspection. She’s outlined, in an iridescent thread for a spark of life, a headless and genderless human figure with its arms held away from the body.

To its right are two felted vessels, which I first took to be by the same artist because of their similar bulbous forms. Instead it’s a dialogue between Pamela MacGregor’s Purple Couture and Betty Hayzlett’s Metastasis.

Before reading the label, I saw the first as a squat teapot with a peculiar handle that looked like the spout. Afterwards I realized that it was MacGregor’s rather dowdy interpretation of haute couture. The “dress” has pompom cuffs on short sleeves, lending a homely touch. On top, where a teapot’s lid would be, the pompoms might be a ruff or an undersized head. Either way, the effect is comical.

Its somewhat dusty purple harmonizes with the cotton-candy and hotter pinks of Hayzlett’s Metastasis. However, the color is that of muscle or a bodily organ so there is an ick factor. Hazlett explains that in vessels she focuses “on the contrast between what happens on the inside and on the outside of the piece . . . and how I connect the inside to the outside.” So in Metastasis, ropey forms slither out of an amorphous pink form to wrap the outside. Still icky.

In harmonizing colors MacGregor and Hayzlett give two views of the body. The former’s garment hides and protects it while the latter’s Metastasis reveals it at its most vulnerable.

Moving from zoology to botany, Angela Moore’s Vernacular Venom, a copper-and-brass sculpture, was inspired by a carnivorous plant. A vessel-like form with a stinger is suspended by what might be its stem from a curving hook. Moore sees it “as a commentary on the emotionally damaging aspects of someone who swallows up words shared in confidence, only to use them later as toxic weapons.”

Among the two-dimensional representations of containers were Elena Hagler’s trompe l’oeil oil-on-canvas paintings where the vessels can be seen as repositories of experiences and emotions.

In the painting Vessels, she depicts a wooden bowl with what looks like a Viking ship’s gracefully curving figurehead. Could it be a mythical sea serpent? The bowl sits on a stack of art books, representing the artist. Next to them is a slender-necked vase. It flares slightly at the rim and the bottom swells into a body that could be seen as a torso, shoulders tapering to a waist at the foot.

Hagler relates that her family’s history and her own has been a nomadic one. In the last 70 years, they have lived in Moscow, Siberia, Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Israel, Romania, and the East and West coasts here.

By combining cherished inherited objects with those she has acquired in her still life paintings, Hagler has developed a personal mythology. She hopes “in the quest for a particular vision of beauty, which they represent, I can touch upon something deep and universal – a felt experience that can be communicated to others.”

A more fanciful two-dimensional rendering of a vessel is Lydia Larson’s Void. This oil-on-canvas painting shows three levitating mason jars pouring confetti, streamers, and tiny paper airplane shapes into swirling clouds above a rural landscape. Void could refer to emptiness of the container or the atmosphere.

Another way of thinking about vessel was exemplified by Tim Kinsel’s Bargain Basins, his color photo of an array of salvaged bathroom sinks. “Photography to me is just ‘wandering around’ and finding something cool that stops me in my tracks. I tend to look for the unusual, things that others might just walk past and maybe not see. Perhaps no one has seen this before . . . at least from my perspective?

“One day while shopping for used building supplies, I happened to spot a grouping of used sinks outside that were all lined up in rows. My first thought was that they all looked like some sort of automobile ‘junkyard.’ Are they waiting to be crushed up and then recycled? Or, perhaps they are patiently waiting for a new home and just have to sit there until the right person comes along to find them? This was inspiration for the Bargain Basins image.”

More traditional vessels were scarce. A self-proclaimed hobbyist, Gwen Brisco’s three stoneware canisters were hand-built and glazed in that brown that was ubiquitous during the craft revival of the 1960s. But she’s burdened the objects with the title of Vessel to Store the Stuff of Life.

Also more traditional are Michael Conaway’s two exquisitely crafted turned-wood vases: the urn-shaped Walnut Vessel and Walnut Pod, a sensuous ovoid with a sliced-off mouth. The woodworker uses salvaged wood, working to maximum the grain patterns, a celebration of the material as well as aesthetically satisfying. “I like the idea of reusing wood because old wood is often more interesting than new, the process of aging usually leaves its mark somehow and adds interest to the piece. . . The wood tells me what it wants to be.”

Although the very word sounds arts-y-crafts-y, basketry can be pushed beyond conservative functionalism. Basketmakers can create amazing sculptural statements. (It’s my favorite craft medium.)

Peggy Weidemann’s goal is to use “traditional materials in sometimes un-orthodox (sic) ways. I want to create designs, shapes, and styles that stretch the imagination and react with the senses.”

Her Exploring Too lives up to its title. A twisting container form folds in on itself and then opens up again. You could cast this in bronze but the coiling adds a different dimension, one where the artist’s hand is more present.

Elizabeth Runyon expands on the traditional Appalachian ribbed basket techniques. In No Exit, she’s woven a large egg shape or sack in naturally colored sea grass and reed. The top of the form is almost completely closed, but woven bands grow out of the mouth, looping around the body like the flight of bees or wasps; flies are a little too benign. Escape seems impossible, but, then, so does entry.

The most disappointing entries are glass, with the exception of Meyer’s Norb and His Bottle. Robyn and Steve Lince’s collaboration Ancient Altar, a fused “plaque” of amber and gold pieces, is a mess compositionally and doesn’t even have fine craft to fall back on.

Billie Cunningham’s two geometric constructions using plate glass and other materials are no more aesthetically pleasing. One looks like an abbreviated wedding cake with circles of plate glass separated and supported by brass tubes, and the other takes the form of a two-tiered lazy Susan. You would expect more from the titles, respectively Vessels of Light and Romantic Moon Light.

But there’s much more to like in the exhibition, and the community arts center should be commended for successfully mounting such an ambitious show.

Karen S. Chambers

*Meyer began his glass career doing stained glass and has adapted the copper-foil technique, used by Tiffany, for his three-dimensional works. He cuts thousands of tiny enameled glass tiles and solders them to an armature built of copper and brass and covered with brass screen. On a good day he can cut 15 pieces. It may take eight months to finish a sculpture.

“Vessels: All the Eyes Can Hold,” Kennedy Heights Arts Center, 6546 Montgomery Rd., Cincinnati, OH 45213, 513-631-4278, www.kennedyarts.org. Tues.-Fri. 10 a. m.-5 p.m.; Sat. 11 a. m.-4 p. m.. Through September 28, 2013.

Photos:
• Ship modelmaker Guenther Waesch poses with Sirius at the opening of “Vessels: All the Eyes Can Hold.” Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.
• Steve Meyer, Norb and His Bottle, glass. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.
• Bernadette Clemens-Walatka, Blue Water, photograph. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.
• Michael Kearns, Broken Vessel, photograph. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.
• Jonathan Brown, Empress Abandoned, brass. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.
• Barbara Murak, Red Vessel Tall, mixed mediums. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.
• Sandra Palmer-Ciolino, Martello #7, cotton hand-dyed fabrics by Virginia Keiser, hand-painted striped batik by Debra Lunn, commercial cotton fabrics, wool batting, color and silk threads machine-pieced, and machine-quilted. 66.5” x 55”. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.
• Pamela MacGregor, Purple Couture, felt. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.
• Betty Hayzlett, Metastasis, felt. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.
• Angela Moore, Vernacular Venom, copper and brass. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.
• Lydia Larson, Void, 2013, oil on canvas, 66.5” x 55”. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.
• Tim Kinsel, Bargain Basin, photograph. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.

• Gwen Brisco, Vessel to Store the Stuff of Life, stoneware. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.

• Michael Conaway, Walnut Pod, walnut. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.

• Peggy Weidemann, Exploring Too. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.

• Elizabeth Runyon, No Exit, seagrass and reed. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.

• Robyn and Steve Lince, Ancient Altar, fused glass. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.

• Billie Cunningham Vessel of Light, glass and mixed mediums. Photo courtesy of Kennedy Heights Arts Center.

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