Friday, September 20, 2013

A Spellbinding Study Hall

A Spellbinding Study Hall

By Tom Wachunas 

    “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”

    -St. Francis Xavier, Jesuit missionary and educator-               

    EXHIBIT: Ludlow Prep, 1929: A Schoolroom Installation by Craig Joseph and Clare Murray Adams, at Translations Art Gallery THROUGH SEPTEMBER 28 / 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Noon to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Noon to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

    In his statement for this show (, Translations curator Craig Joseph writes about his creative process in a way that brings to mind how a garden happens. Arid ground, tilled, seeded then nurtured with water and light, can give rise to lush flora – from lifelessness to fecundity.

   Antique photographs, especially portraits, can seem like dry dirt, yielding only dusty remnants of lives once lived. Yet with photographs like the one that inspired this installation - a 1920s school group portrait found in an attic – we nevertheless intuitively trust that what we’re seeing actually existed in some specific place and time. On their own, though, such photographs are often mute, two-dimensional documents. Without stories, they remain cryptic compressions of past realities.

     Enter Craig Joseph’s imagination. With that, he has tilled and sowed the tightly packed soil of the photograph as it were, and cultivated it with the life-giving light of his remarkable poetry.

    The once anonymous students in the group portrait have acquired names and assigned seats, on which their faces are reprinted from the original photo, in a re-created vintage classroom furnished with 21 flip-top desks (along with the teacher’s desk). Each desk incorporates a written remembrance of the student, telling us who they became. Joseph has endowed this imagined community with plausible identities and unique biographies. Welcome to the deskography tableaux of a school called Ludlow Prep.

    Joseph’s poems are at once concrete and intensely lyrical marvels of description. Many of them possess an aura of what might best be called intimate authority. I got the sense that the people and life circumstances presented here aren’t simply fictions, but rather adopted personae… that the author truly knows them. In a word, uncanny, but not in any unsettling way.

    Enhancing that aura, Joseph’s choice to collaborate with assemblage artist Clare Murray Adams was surely spot-on. Adams has always demonstrated an astute sensitivity to how embedded memories can be revealed through visual and tactile association. Put another way, her configurations of particular objects and textures effectively evoke and/or illustrate intriguing stories.

    This is an impressive, fruitful collaboration wherein Adams has meticulously assembled the mélange of period memorabilia and found objects that comprise the desk contents. Ephemera of a bygone era, here made fully present. Harmonious with the spirit of Joseph’s writings, her arrangements of physical materials further enliven the installation with an emotive blend of reverential solemnity and lightheartedness.

    For visitors to the exhibit, only one test is administered in this schoolroom. It’s the test of real time and willingness to be wholly immersed in a wondrously designed sensory experience. Baptism by study, if you will.

     Sit, see, read, touch, even smell these lives of Ludlow raised up from the fertile ground of the artist’s imaginations.

    PHOTOS courtesy Translations Art Gallery.      

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