Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Heap of City Kitties

A Heap of City Kitties

By Tom Wachunas

Every time I walk north on Cleveland Avenue, through the heart of the Canton Arts District and approaching the northeast corner of Fifth Street, I cringe as I behold that monstrous excuse for public art called “Shattered Expressions.” Those sickly-colored faces are unavoidable and joyless reminders (despite the one that purportedly conveys joy) that Canton’s much-ballyhooed celebration of its public art installations might be a little overdone, if not a tad premature. And as if to add insult to injury, those sculpted masks of mediocrity seem like ghoulish sentinels overlooking the pale yellow metal duckie plunked down across the intersection on the southeast corner. That particular sculpture is a magnetic work, to be sure. Evidenced by the garbage accumulated at the bottom of its belly, it’s a magnet for urban litter. Duck droppings indeed.

Ahhh, but hope rules the day. Sometime in late July, a new public art work will appear, interestingly enough, very near “Shattered Expressions,” on an exterior wall of the HEAP Building at 201 Fifth Street NW. The work, DOWNTOWN CATS MURAL, is by Vicki Boatright, who is widely known as BZTAT, and was commissioned by Tim Belden and the Timothy S. Belden Charitable Fund, with support from ArtsinStark and Canton Development Partnership.

The mural (BZTAT’s mock-up is the accompanying image for this post) is comprised of four 4’ x 8’ wood panels, each depicting a cat on a window sill. The windows are simply fashioned in a manner harmonious with the style of the building, and in an interesting twist of perspective, we as viewers are “inside,” like the cats, seeing a city skyline outside the windows. The whole affair is rendered with the crisp BZTAT signature look of fluid, robust shapes that dance in brilliant colors. In all, it’s a delightfully whimsical and bold feline fantasy that will hopefully neutralize the cloying weirdness of its shattered neighbors.

These cool cats will have the upper scoop, as it were, on much of the city litter parading as public art these days.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tripping the Turpentine Fantastic

Tripping the Turpentine Fantastic

By Tom Wachunas

I’ve used the image accompanying this post before. I’m using it again. Get over it. It’s an oil painting called “Leitzel” by Frank Dale, our region’s master teacher of the Flemish method. Unfortunately I am not able to see the show at the Gallery at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron, “Legacy: The Master and His Students – The Life and Work of Frank Dale,” which ends on June 30. But I have seen and written about his work in the past, including my post of August 21, 2009, about his breathtaking one-man show at the Canton Museum of Art. Additionally, I’ve commented in the past, sometimes extensively, on a number of his students who are also in this show, including Pam Larocco, Michelle Mulligan, Erin Mulligan, Debra Thompson, and Kris Wyler – remarkable artists all.

Here, then, I am simply tying up some loose ends of my abiding appreciation of Dale and his painting method. It is one, of course, that he didn’t invent outright, but rather researched vigorously, adapted and personalized to one extent or another, I’m sure, and then went one important step further: passed it on. So ‘Legacy’ is a great word to put into the title of his latest show. For without his generous teacher’s heart (along with a handful of like-minded others, wherever they may be) and desire to preserve a technique for which he is clearly passionate, this kind of painting may all but disappear from our midst. And that would be a great loss.

I have been aware for a long time that there are innumerable “contemporary” artists and educators who dismiss this re-kindling of Old Masters methodology as an irrelevant curiosity, or a meaningless anomaly in this overly-democratic era of unfettered, in-your-face expression. I submit to you that such an attitude indicates a laziness of the soul, a tragic reluctance to recognize and savor the disciplines needed to make compelling images in a traditional manner. To make truly beautiful, timeless things. To make poetry. To make magic.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a studied and deep connection to many kinds of painting, both representational and abstract, new and old. The great Expressionists of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, speak to me just as much as Leonardo or the Van Eyck brothers. But I fear that our love affair with wild modernity has ventured into murky waters as we drift farther away from the lessons and visions of the past. We have increasingly become enamored of the notion that anyone can be called an artist (and celebrated as such) not because they’ve rigorously learned, practiced, and mastered a skill, but simply because they made something “unique.”

Consider for a moment these ingredients that Dale listed in his statement as necessary to his “system” of painting: Amber, Copal, Mastic, Venetian Turpentine, Canadian Balsam. The words roll off the tongue like an alchemist’s inventory. These are some of the raw materials that contribute to magical, glassy surfaces, and colors that seem to go on forever, simmering and glowing deep beneath the shine - literally inside the painting, not just resting on top. And let’s not forget impeccable draftsmanship and the demands of careful observation.

I like to think of Frank Dale as a composer as well as a conductor. I know for a fact that in the world of symphonic music there is great concern as to building new, younger audiences for the masters – Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and a magnificent host of others. Hope rests, for better or worse, in our arts education programs, which in many regions are non-existent, in others a shambles. Similarly, lingering questions come to mind in the world of visual arts. It’s one thing for Dale to pass his baton, as it were, to new teachers.

The bigger question is whether or not new students - who have been taught to savor history - will be there to receive, treasure, and continue to pass on an invaluable legacy.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Wholly the Some of its Parts

Wholly the Some of its Parts

By Tom Wachunas

Expectations and assumptions are fragile, tenuous things, and easily subjected to shattering. Take, for example, the word ‘diva.’ Rooted in the Italian/Latin term for goddess, in the music world it generally connotes, variously, a prima donna, an operatic personality, or an eminently accomplished singer.

The recent show by the Canton Cabaret Dinner Theatre at Tozzi’s On 12th was billed as “Divine Divas” (something of a redundancy there, but that’s certainly the least of its problems). The question is whether the term referred to the original women who made the hits (from the 60s, 70s, and 80s) performed in the show, or the women who covered them here. If the latter, then one might fairly expect an evening of electrifying, stellar vocal performances. Unfortunately, too often that wasn’t the case.

Abby Knowles, Me’ Na, and Terry Everett, accompanied by the Steve Dallas Trio, offered a lengthy program of homogenized pop, soul, and soft rock tunes. All were big hits in their day, while just a handful could rightfully be called timeless (like Your Song, Fire and Rain, Natural Woman). I say ‘homogenized’ because one of the more cloying weaknesses of the show was that many of the vocal performances were tarnished with a patina of generic-sounding karaoke kitsch. And at times the evening evoked those classic Bill Murray parodies of night club acts on Saturday Night Live, which I’m sure was not the intent here.

The fault, interestingly enough, was certainly not in the singers as technicians. Each displayed distinctly unique, professional vocal qualities. The problem was more in the subtle realm of interpretive skills – the ability to compellingly paint emotional color and draw us in to the lyrical message in a convincing manner, befitting the greatness of the song. It is an area of performance that, when mastered, separates good singers from truly remarkable ones.

Both Knowles and Everett are engaging, even charismatic performers, to be sure. Knowles in particular displayed admirable humor and grace under pressure as she weathered a storm of technical problems with her microphone in the first half of the evening. Each of them had their best, most believable moments in the second half: Knowles with a moving and sincere performance of “The Way We Were,” and Everett with a soaring rendition of “Blue Bayou,” which made excellent use of her distinctive vibrato. Still, they delivered many of their songs with a casual sameness of spirit that was more formulaic and cute than magical. I was left thinking that perhaps this genre of music is not their forte. Just when you anticipated that they would make a word or phrase really fly, or for that matter linger long and sweet, they often clipped the moment like pruning a rose bush in bloom.

Me’ Na, on the other hand, knew exactly how to let us smell the roses throughout the evening. She’s marvelously adept at communicating the essence of a song, getting inside it with a commanding sense of when to forcefully muscle a phrase and when to gently massage it.

The Steve Dallas Trio (Dallas on keyboard, Martin Nielsen on bass, Jim Howell on drums) provided an energetic backdrop that was for the most part remarkably tight and crisp. Dallas is an excellent pianist and arranger, though at moments here his lithe-fingered embellishments seemed overly-decorative and arbitrarily applied. Sometimes such indulgences had the effect, oddly enough, of diverting attention away from the singers and the song, bringing to mind the adage that less is more.

With some judicious tweaking both technically and artistically, I think there can be a bright future for this unique venue. The elegant room, which has a dance floor, is spacious, yet intimate and warm. The food is delectable (one of the best steaks I ever had). Lois DiGiacomo, founder of the Canton Cabaret Dinner Theatre, clearly has the heart and the drive for keeping the best of yesterday alive today, and should be congratulated for it. Here’s hoping that her ambitious and welcome vision continues to grow.

UPCOMING SHOWS: September 10, Memories of Motown / October 16, Sweetest Day Musical / additional info at facebook.com/cantoncabaret or rainbowrep@neo.rr.com

Photo: “La Chanteuse Verte” by Edgar Degas, 1884

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dinner with Divas

Dinner with Divas

By Tom Wachunas

And now for something completely different. Lately the lyrics from two songs have been pleasantly invading my thoughts. From the musical “Annie”: “Tomorrow, tomorrow. I love ya, tomorrow. You’re only a day away.” And from “Cabaret”: “What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play.”

Tomorrow, Friday June 18, only a day away, music will be made at Canton’s only venue for cabaret-style dinner theatre. Might make a nifty gift for Fathers Day. In any event, this healthy dose of sweet nostalgia should satisfy anyone with a heart for the pop divas of yore. My next post will be a review.

Meanwhile, thank Lois DiGiacomo for championing an oft-forgotten entertainment form. I’ve reprinted the info here.

For Immediate Release:
Lois DiGiacomo

Canton Cabaret Musical Dinner Theatre
DIVINE DIVAS Singing Hits of 60's, 70's, 80's
Enjoy the hits of Barbra Streisand, Dusty Springfield, the Supremes, Petula Clark, Karen Carpenter, the Shirelles, Helen Reddy, Linda Ronstadt and others in a musical, DIVINE DIVAS Singing Hits of 60's, 70's, 80's.
Enjoy this show JUNE 18th in a cabaret style dinner theater at Tozzi's on 12th (formerly the Four Winds Restaurant) at 4210 12th N. W. in Canton. Entertainers are professional singers Abby Knowles, Me'Na and Terry Everett, accompanied by the Steve Dallas Trio. The dinner begins at 6 pm and the show at 8 pm.
Tickets for dinner and the show are $40.00 and may be reserved by calling 330.477.7515.
The CANTON CABARET MUSICAL DINNER THEATRE was formed four years ago with an initial grant from the Stark County Arts Council, Arts In Stark, to raise funds for school programming. For additional information: facebook.com/cantoncabaret or email: rainbowrep@neo.rr.com.

Photo: “The Singer” by Vasily Kandinsky

Monday, June 14, 2010

Atelier Attitudes

Atelier Attitudes

By Tom Wachunas

Group exhibitions often set my mind, prone as it is to wildly free-associative processes, to wandering about the world of simile and metaphor. Case in point: “Art from the Salon,” currently on view at the Little Art Gallery in North Canton. Imagine, then, Forrest Gump as an accomplished artist rejected from the last May Show at the Little Art Gallery, feeling a bit bewildered and down in the dumps about it. His mama might well have intoned, “Life is like a juried art show. You never know what you’re going to get.”

Depending upon a predisposition to the notion of juried exhibits in general, we can fairly blame or praise the French for the contemporary presence of such shows. While any juror worth his or her salt will tell you that the aim of judging entries is to compile as great a looking show as possible, they’re just as loaded with opinions as are the hopeful entrants, and their labors invariably result in pleasing some of the people some of the time. Experienced artists fully accept the fact that most juried exhibits, such as the Little Art Gallery Annual May Show, are pay-to-play affairs with no guarantee they’ll actually get into the game. So I still stand by my sense that the quality of practically all the pieces on the entire west wall in the last May Show was maddeningly unremarkable at best, and served only to deaden the overall impact of the exhibit. The age-old query came to mind: What were they (the jurors) thinking? You never know what you’re going to get.

What this new show owes to the French is the idea of the Atelier Method. Dating from the 15th - 19th centuries, ateliers were art “schools” held in private studios where groups of students gathered to learn from accomplished masters. The teaching was conducted in an atmosphere of lively discourse and vigorous critique that eventually evolved into the formal (juried) French Salon exhibitions.

It is in the Atelier spirit that artist and teacher Nancy Stewart Matin began, two years ago, to invite other artists into her home studio not to be judged, but encouraged. “Art from the Salon” is a gathering of 12 artists who have clearly benefited from this traditional practice, and who here offer work that is indeed lively and vigorous in every sense. The collective result, piece-for-piece, is certainly among the most exhilarating group shows I’ve seen at Little Art Gallery in many years.

I can just about imagine what transpires at these artists’ sessions in Matin’s home. They aren’t about ponderous, academic pursuits of specific styles. I’m fairly certain that in her instructing, Matin has found a way to translate her own penchant for bold compositional experiments immersed in luminous color (check out, for example, her dazzling watercolor here, “Walk in the Woods”- a sylvan delight alive with liquid fire) into effective inspiration to take risks – regardless of medium or content - and push the passion for making art to new heights. And for all the varying levels and types of artistic maturity that are evident here, that passion is in abundant supply.

Following are some notable highlights among many. The works by both Russ Hench and Gail Wetherall-Sack are skillfully constructed combinations of paint and found materials into sumptuous, decorative exclamations of tactile intrigue. Intriguing, too, is “Over the Edge,” a watercolor collage by Nancy Michel, with its mysterious floral forms that break the picture plane. The alluring “Armed and Dangerous,” a watercolor by Judi Longacre, is indeed disarming in its close-up (and nearly abstract) treatment of a woman’s shoulders, bare but for the purple strap of her gown. Lynn Weinstein’s remarkable versatility is in full force, from the translucent magic of “Sand Bar,” a watercolor, to the haunting and visceral textures of her acrylic gem, “Port of Call.” And for boldly colored bravura, there are J. Kevin Maxwell’s muscular, energetic acrylics, like “Blue Tree.”

If this particular enclave of talented individuals should judge it appropriate to bring us another collection of their work in the foreseeable future, we’ll know exactly what we’re going to get: a thoroughly thrilling show.

Photo: “Blue Tree” an acrylic painting by J. Kevin Maxwell, on view in “Art from the Salon,” at The Little Art Gallery located in the North Canton Public Library, through July 10, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, (330) 499 – 4712, extension 312. Gallery hours are 10 – 6 Monday, Wednesday, and Friday / 12 – 8 Tuesday and Thursday / 9 – 5 Saturday / 1 – 5 Sunday. gallery@northcantonlibrary.org

Also on view in this exhibit are stunning jewelry creations by Paula Mastroianni.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

All Dressed Up With Somewhere To Show

All Dressed Up With Somewhere To Show

By Tom Wachunas

Lots of painters will tell you that red can be therapeutic for an ailing picture. A splash here, or a brushy flourish there, can revive even the wimpiest of scenarios. Red, the crimson panacea for lackluster palettes.

As evidenced by their joint exhibit of oil paintings at 2nd April Galerie, called “Dress Code,” neither Lynn Digby nor Marti Jones Dixon needs any help in spicing up a palette. But it’s the red, for example, in Digby’s portrait, “Nichole,” that adds an unexpected dimension of whimsical theatricality (or perhaps a more dramatic foreshadowing of lost innocence?) to an already stunningly painted picture.

The young girl in a long blue formal dress and white tennies has a look of self-assuredness well beyond her years. A single red flower and lost petal, both isolated against the warm (you can see the faintest wisps of red underpainting here and there) grayish “floor.” Field would be more like it – a field of vigorously laid-in brush strokes, smoothed just so, surrounding the figure.

“Buffy” is an astonishing portrait, too - a symphony of sumptuous textures and patterns, all bathed in the aura of gentle daylight from a window at the upper left of the picture. While there’s considerable, jaw-dropping dazzle in the detail here, the graceful composition spreads it out such that it’s never overbearing or gratuitous.

There is a classical sort of elegance in the way Digby paints the fleeting glances and expressions of her subjects. Yet her blending technique is never so pristine that you lose a sense of the paint’s substance. At the heart of her remarkable technical facility is a straightforward presentation of reality without surrendering to slick illusionism for its own sake.

Similarly, the paintings by Marti Jones Dixon are imbued with honest physicality, though with a distinctly different kind of painterly refinement. And like Digby, she’s an astute observer of the effects of light on color and form.

Dixon’s paintings have a constructed look about them. The placement of brush strokes (as in “Bev in Red” and “Hillary”) – some long and fluid, others staccato, like punctuation marks – seems deliberate and intentional without being fussy or self-conscious. Her methodology invariably generates pictures of an energetic, compelling immediacy.

Now, back to the efficacy of red. Several of Dixon’s paintings here are of different posers wearing the same thrift-store red dress. One of her strongest pieces is also one of the oddest, in a genuinely funny sort of way. “Todd” is a portrait of Second April co-owner Todd Walburn wearing the dress and peering out at us with a gaze of resolute acceptance. The perspective is a marvelously rendered one. It makes eminently clear that even if you’ve never met Mr. Walburn, he’s a very tall man.

Interestingly enough, Lynn Digby’s strongest works here feature blue clothes, making for some fascinating visual counterpoint. This show, then, certainly isn’t about a single color. In fact the common theme shared by the artists (who both have studios in the Second April building) is that of clothed figures, and grew out of joint conversation and consultation. So for all of the formal excellence that’s abundant here, what gives the show much of its unique energy is its sense of stylistic cross-fertilization, and of dialogue between not just the artists among themselves and their subjects, but the implied dialogue with us, their viewers. And in all, it’s a delightful and memorable conversation.

Photo: “Buffy” – oil, 36” x 48” – by Lynn Digby. On view through end of August in “Dress Code,” at Second April Galerie, 324 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Crossing Contexts

Crossing Contexts

By Tom Wachunas

Those of you who follow these missives regularly will hopefully recall that on several occasions I have told you of my Christian sensibilities. I will immediately add here that I don’t mean Christian ‘leanings’ or ‘tendencies.’ Please make no mistake about it. I am a disciple of Jesus, albeit a very flawed one. When I have alluded to that fact here, it has usually been appropriate to the art at hand.

Very, very often I write about work that is not overtly Christian in content, or made by a Christian artist (and I certainly don’t require or expect as much), yet I am still comfortable in articulating my praise and admiration for what I am looking at, or hearing. For as much as I can rave about a given artist’s remarkable achievements, it is the ineffable thing called spirit or force or inspiration embodied in that artist, released and manifest through his or her work, that is really “speaking” to me. In effect I am responding to what I have called the residual spark of God’s creative energy that still lives in all of us. In some of us that spark is nourished and stoked over time, and we become artists of one kind or another, perhaps ignorant of, or even denying God’s hand in it. And for those who never develop such “talent,” the capacity to seek out and be moved by the arts is nonetheless very much a function of that spark – again, even if not acknowledging the divine source of our enjoyment. In short, making and/or savoring art is intrinsic to our nature, and as such a reflection of the fact that we are indeed made in God’s image. We are sparks immortal. I’m not making this up, atheists’ and agnostics’ arguments to the contrary notwithstanding.

By extension, it seems to me that the same power that enables me to praise and savor human artistic accomplishments also enables me to be in slack-jawed awe as I encounter images from deep space, an achingly beautiful sunrise or sunset, the first blooms of my rose bushes and tiger lilies, the first words of my grandchildren. Or the impossible, mind-numbing vastness of the microcosm called the human body.

And so it is that a Christian friend recently reminded me of something I first encountered about three years ago: laminin. For some of you this may be old news, though I sincerely hope it still thrills you to the marrow to think of it. Briefly, laminins are a type of vital protein made up of adhesion molecules that literally hold our cells together. For every science entry you find on the internet about them, there must be at least one Christian commentary. This is largely due to the fact that laminin molecules are in the shape of the Christian cross. Unmistakable. Extraordinary. Utterly, divinely beautiful. The image accompanying this post is not just an artist’s approximation. Plenty of electron microscope photos of the molecule are accessible on the internet, and they look just like what you see here.

Once again, then, I respectfully remind you that God - Father, Creator, the First Artist - left not just his creative spark in us, but the very shape of his eternal plan for fellowship – adhesion - with him. We carry, from our beginning, in the very fiber of our being, the reminder of the redemptive act of Jesus.

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Colossians 1: 15-17

Can somebody give me an Amen?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Fine Art of Stargazing

The Fine Art of Stargazing

By Tom Wachunas

In her large-print, plain-spoken statement on the long north wall at Anderson Creative, Emily Vigil sums up her explanation and thoughts about her ambitious “Constellations Of Women” installation with these words: “As I continue in the early years of my marriage, a new stage of my career, and now, as I prepare to become a new mother, I am learning from the women you see pictured in this installation. Their struggles, talents, sorrows, courage, and laughter surround me. Like the constellations, they are there, changing patterns when I change my point of view…”

Suddenly the accompanying, very large display of small hexagonal cyanotype prints of faces, places and other odds and ends – a star chart facsimile of sorts – takes on a life of its own. On the wall opposite the statement and “star map” is a mixed media work by Vigil called “Milky Way.” It’s a densely packed, loosely composed collage depicting a seated woman (self portrait?) surrounded by various personal and stellar figurations, and clearly illustrative of the concept behind the show. Vigil has gathered fourteen other women artists to fill out the exhibit with a wide range of media.

On a personal level, then, the show is a fascinating testament about the women with whom Vigil has forged meaningful connections over the past few years. And on a more general, cosmic plane, if you will, the show speaks to the inspiration, nourishment and indeed light that comes from intentionally seeking and growing a community. So here is yet another excellent Anderson Creative offering, generous in its depth of compelling images and objects.

Clare Murray Adams’ “Entourage” is a grouping of three fiber sculptures that brings to mind canvas tents or strange vertical handbags. Carrying cases for private memories? What they may symbolize seems to be literally (each has an opening at the top) open for interpretation. In any event, there is about them a simple yet mystical air of rural domesticity.

The works by Katherine Cox are similarly intriguing, and marvelously well-crafted. Her meticulous graphite renderings on handmade paper - codified constructions depicting simple, ghost-like house forms rising out of Nature’s delicate aura – exude a spirit of gentle, elegant antiquity. And that same spirit, as well as remarkable drawing skill, is at work in “Them Bones,” a drawing of skeletal ephemera by Sandra Thouvenin.

“Xanthoria Parientina I” is an electrifying acrylic painting by Isin Sezer. It might be a view of organic minutiae, a floral arrangement, a still life, or a haunting landscape in the abstract. With its masterfully orchestrated variation of fluid marks, shapes and enthralling brush work (and those colors!), call it a mesmerizing symphony for the eyes.

Mesmerizing, too, is “Indian Madonna and Child,” a digital photo on canvas, enhanced with oil paint, by Sabina Haque. This is an awkward portrait, to be sure, even perhaps a bit cloying with its skewed halo and sloppily cropped edges. The overly-casual melding of modern and traditional media subtly serves to reflect the work’s conceptual duality – conflicting cultures occupying the same frame with equal insistence. Yet for all of this tension, the work, like so much of this show, exudes a quiet beauty.

Photo: “Xanthoria Parientina I” acrylic, by Isin Sezer, on view through June 25 at Anderson Creative in the exhibit “Constellations Of Women,” 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are 12:00 noon to 5:00p.m., Tuesday- Saturday.

To read more about this project, go to Emily Vigil’s blog at:


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Remembrance of Things Present

Remembrance of Things Present

By Tom Wachunas

And now, back to Dexter Sandap. Or, more precisely, E.F. Hebner. Who, you say? How quickly they forget, I say. If you’re of a mind to explore, go back into the archive here to my post on July 26, 2009 (“Abstractitudes”), and also March 15 (“Dexter Sandap’s Big Harvest”) of this year.

To be sure, Hebner isn’t a world famous artist, and certainly not known or shown here in Canton. Nonetheless it was he who, more than any other individual, most significantly affected my path as an artist. He didn’t train me in any specific medium, style, or technique. But on his watch during my graduate studies in Expanded Arts at The Ohio State University, he prodded and encouraged me to find and nurture something profoundly more lasting and precious: looking. I mean looking with complete and undivided attention to a thing or a situation. Looking with the whole body, mind, and heart. True looking fosters true seeing, and in turn allows an artist to effectively “frame” it – not literally, but conceptually. And isn’t that the essence of what artists do, regardless of medium?

Telling you precisely what and how I learned from Hebner is much like trying to remember the exact time, and what I said, when I uttered my first complete sentence. I can’t. It’s a memory and an ability far too ingrained to separate from my being now. All I know – and need to know - is that I’ve been speaking in sentences ever since. Hebner’s methodology was as unpredictable and mysterious as it was entertaining, and he certainly wasn’t an art teacher in any orthodox sense. In the context of education, I continue to think of him as a psychoesthetics engineer.

I share this with you as I greatly anticipate the memorial gathering for him that will transpire in Columbus on June 19. I feel honored and humbled to have been asked to say a few words about him in the presence of his family, past students, friends, and colleagues, some of whom I haven’t seen in more than 25 years. Much of my anticipation has been fueled by re-savoring two very small paintings (shown here) he gave to me many years ago. They remind me of how, over time, I came to be ensnared by the magic of his painterly visions. For all of the intense time and energy Hebner devoted to not just his own but also his students’ explorations of temporal (“performance”) art forms, I really believe he was a painter at heart.

In Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty explains his unusual vocabulary to Alice this way:
“ ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’”

Hebner was a master of pictorial mischief. I like to think of his abstract paintings as the visual equivalent to what Lewis Caroll called “portmanteaux,” or James Joyce’s “frankenwords” – new terms made by combining two or more old ones. Hebner’s frankenforms, as it were, are hybrids - a recombinant mother tongue invented to describe, simultaneously, the faintly familiar and the singularly strange. Generally, his paintings eschew detailed or logical representations of things in favor of more intriguing, suggestive, often playful optical situations.

I’m not sure when he adopted his signature formal practice of acrylic on masonite panels. I do recall that his work during the 1970s and into the 1980s was characterized by a seemingly minimalist technique of crisp, hard edges, and a fairly controlled, reductivist palette. Even the surfaces had a mechanical precision about them, right down to their very uniform texture (produced, I think, via fine-knap mini-rollers). Yet despite their almost rubber-stamp industrial appearance, the images were imbued with subtle lyricism, demonstrating an uncanny design instinct for engaging asymmetrical balance, and marvelous spatial ambiguities.

Hebner never abandoned those particular esthetic sensibilities. In fact he began sharpening them with increasing intensity and even humor sometime (I’m guessing) in the late 1980’s or early 1990s, when he transitioned from quiet palette and formulaic surfaces into more unabashedly painterly explorations (see the July 26, 2009 post here). There is a substantially rich, visceral energy in this body of work, and a distinctly joyous immersion in tactile surfaces alive with luminous, saturated color. These are works that speak of visions at once enigmatic and accessible – a beguiling topology of meditation itself. The portmanteaux of painted elegance.

Photo: 2 untitled acrylic on masonite paintings by E. F. Hebner, circa early 1980s.
Top: 7” x 7”, Bottom: 10” x 10”