Monday, August 29, 2011

Rustbelt Ruminations

Rustbelt Ruminations
By Tom Wachunas

“Art is the raw stuff which comes from aggressiveness by men who got that way fighting for survival.”
- sculptor David Smith –
“I have never felt and don’t feel now that art needs any justification outside of itself. One can only be suspicious of those artists and architects “who gotta serve somebody (Bob Dylan’s Jesus Christ capitalist theology).” - sculptor Richard Serra –

The kind of extreme industrial abstractions or Minimalism that most brutally sets my teeth on edge was best embodied by Richard Serra’a infamous “Tilted Arc” installation, originally placed in New York City’s Federal Plaza in 1981. The piece was an aggressive, incredibly ugly impediment to plaza foot traffic, and the furor it caused led to a protracted legal battle that climaxed with its removal in 1989. I was there, dumbfounded when the work – a menacing wall of rolled steel 120’ long and 12’ high - first appeared. And I walked through the plaza – elated - on morning after it had disappeared in the wee hours of the night. I never regarded the decision to remove it as a censorship issue. It was more a judicious re-assessment of its philosophical and aesthetic hubris. You can see a picture of the work, along with some additional commentary, archived here in my post of October 20, 2009.

Modernism in the second half of the 20th century gave us plenty of other examples of Minimalist sculpture at its most “pure” by artists such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Tony Smith, to name only some. In most of those cases the works’ raison d’etre was clearly a deliberate eschewing of emotional content. Forms, often made of industrial materials, were severely reduced to geometric simplicities in an attempt to redefine “the art experience.” The resulting new experience was a radical shift in our traditional sense of art’s contexts, roles, and meanings. These objects were intended to simply “be” on their own terms, divested of any necessary capacity to conjure, suggest, or declare anything but…themselves.

Still, I never believed that Minimalism’s intended down-playing (if not outright elimination) of emotional relationship with - or interpretation of - the art object could ever be completely accomplished. Even when encountering Minimalism at its most intrusive or interruptive, as humans we’re emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually wired to seek out meaning and purpose to our art, no matter what it’s made of or what it looks like. OK fine, so call me a Romantic.

Currently in the first floor gallery of the Fine Arts building at Kent State University Stark campus is a show by sculptor Terry Klausman called “Steel: A Welded Sculpture Exhibition.” He’s not a trained artist in the traditional academic or formal sense, so in some ways you might regard his pieces as “outsider art.” No matter, really. As demonstrated here, his workmanship is clear and crisp, and his eye for fusing elegant lines, textures, and intriguing forms is very well-practiced and refined. In his statement he writes that he’s been influenced by Minimalism. But beyond his presenting us with unadorned, cut-and-welded steel shapes of considerable weight, his is a “humanized” Minimalism, infused with – dare I say it? – real personality.

From the largest of his monolithic Vertical Series pieces, to the smaller, more intricate “IS-11” series, variously suggestive of gear boxes or mechanical “guts,” there’s a human-scale intimacy and that belies their metallic, machine shop patina. Is this a collective homage to the steel industry that once ringed this part of the country like a bold and shiny necklace around Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, and Canton? A love song, or a swansong? In any case, these works aren’t so many mute sentinels of a bygone era as they are impeccably crafted recitations of sculpted rustbelt poetry. A passionate declaration of human hand united with industrial machine. And in as much as they might be reflections on past or waning livelihoods, they speak now with remarkable liveliness.

Photo: “IS-11-10” by Terry Klausman, ON VIEW THROUGH SEPTEMBER 15 in the Fine Arts building first-floor gallery at Kent State University Stark campus, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, Canton. Viewing hours are Monday – Thursday 8am to 8pm, Friday 8am to 5pm.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reasons To Be Cheerful

Reasons To Be Cheerful
By Tom Wachunas

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
- 2 CORINTHIANS 9: 6 – 8 -

First, I offer my sincerest Thank You to fellow artist and blogger Judi Krew for her recent post (Tuesday, August 23 at, reminding us about the August 25 (tomorrow!!) benefit soiree for Brennis Booth, to be held at the Cultural Center for the Arts. Read it. Right now, please. I’ll wait.

OK, you back? Second, I offer another Thank You to Dan Kane for his Repository article in the Ticket section (Friday, August 19) on the event. Read it. Right now, please. It’s on line at

Still with me? Kane’s article acknowledged an earlier SnarkyArt post wherein Krew wrote, “Brennis and Todd are amazing people who truly have no idea just how big a footprint they have within our local community.” That loving assessment, it would seem now – judging from the astonishing volunteerism and support generated by The Brennis Bunch – is an indisputable fact of Canton’s cultural profile. You simply can’t grasp the realities of ‘the arts district’ without embracing Second April Galerie - its history, its community spirit, its continuing impact.

Did I just say “astonishing” volunteerism and support? Let me retract. I’m not astonished in the least. Gratified and overjoyed, yes, because God said there’d be days like this. He delivered. For I’m convinced that the successful outcome of Brennis’s surgery, and the outpouring of help in his time of physical healing and financial indebtedness, is first and foremost the result of God’s hearing many prayers – Brennis and Todd’s included. And in hearing those prayers, God uses servant hearts – even as they may not consciously know they are Divine instruments - to accomplish His ends.

So my last but biggest Thank You is to God and how He moves in this needy world. And included in that is my gratitude for the generosity and sensitivity of all those who stepped up to organize and contribute time, goods, and services to the August 25 fundraiser. The Brennis Bunch – what I called back on June 22 “Second April’s Effluent Spiral of Friends.” You are the manifest hand of Providence.

It’s His story and I’m stickin’ to it.

Photo, courtesy The Repository: Brennis Booth (left) and Todd Walburn, co-owners of Second April Galerie.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Reading the Righting on the Wall

Reading the Righting on the Wall
By Tom Wachunas

These days I keep wondering when or if we’ll ever see some real football action in our arts district – as in public art works about professional football. This is not necessarily to say I pine for the day. In any case, local media seems to have been largely silent on the subject since Robb Hankins, president and CEO of ArtsinStark, proposed back in 2009 “jaw-dropping” football-themed art works to adorn downtown Canton. So I wait with bated and baited breath.

Meanwhile, there is for our edification yet a new downtown mural by BZTAT – Vicki Boatright – that has been recently installed on the south-facing brick wall of the Imperial Room at 420 Court Avenue NW. While the mural isn’t a ‘jaw-dropping’ example of sheer physical monumentality, or dramatic trompe l’oeil sensationalism, there is a clearly head-and-heart-raising message behind this warm image of a smiling child flanked by a dog and cat. Boatright’s well-known passion for rescuing and caring for domestic pets is still vibrantly apparent, but here she draws deeper attention to the human element.

Called “Safe Animals Safe Kids,” the 12’ x 8’ painting is part of Boatright’s ongoing “Okey’s Promise: Art for a Cause” project, named for a rescued cat. As indicated on the panel below the painting, the artist wants to awaken our consciousness to the link between mistreatment of animals and child/domestic abuse. Her formal aesthetic remains consistent with past work, giving her contemporary pop compositions a decidedly commercial pizazz that looks part photo-shop manipulation, part paint-by-number segmenting. Add to that the neon-bright character of her palette, and the net effect is one of electric optimism.

While the idea that abused pets can bring to mind real and jarring scenarios of domestic violence, Boatright has wisely eschewed painting a mawkish visual narrative of darker realities for large-scale public viewing, presenting instead an uplifting symbol of hope to right a pervasive societal wrong. And in the ethos of public art, there is certainly a place for works that are positive calls to be aware of - and pro-active in - addressing social ills.

Beyond that, and with great respect for BZTAT’s commendable vision - her new mural brings me back to wondering about the state of public art works as it stands now in downtown Canton. This particular piece is her third in a two-block area. A small handful of other local artists’ larger works similarly dot the downtown landscape. Over-saturation? Time will tell. I’m simply hoping that our concept of public installations by local artists doesn’t become so insular as to suggest that the arts district – which should benefit the many (artists and public alike) - doesn’t become too personal a creative playground for the few.

For information about BZTAT’s work, and OKEY’S PROMISE, visit her web sites at
and Photo courtesy BZTAT.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide
By Tom Wachunas

“A Walking Shadow” - the newest play by Sherry Yanow and Deborah Fezelle that premiered August 12 at the Kathleen Howland Theatre – is a serpentine journey through relentless political ambition and conspiratorial intrigue that is somewhat slow in uncoiling. But when it does uncoil, it’s against the steadily swelling backdrop of murder along with a few loudly rattled skeletons falling out of closets long locked up.

The story, directed by Deborah Fezelle, takes place in modern-day Washington, D.C., set in the congressional office of Representative Ethan Masters, and in the library of his Georgetown home. Young Ethan is an impulsive idealist butting heads with his godfather - ‘Lion of the Senate’ Gilbert Stanton - over an upcoming vote on a controversial environmental issue. Stanton plans to be the next U.S. President, and has been grooming Ethan to be his running mate, in accordance with the wishes of Ethan’s recently deceased father, the powerful newspaper magnate, E.J. Masters. Stanton prevails upon Ethan’s chief of staff, long-time friend Georgia Dean (and former employee of E.J. Masters), to convince Ethan to fall in line and quit rocking the boat, else ruin his political future. Beyond struggling to deal with the death of his iconic father, other pressures on Ethan include the investigation of the murder of his estranged wife, a psychic probing his past, scandal and blackmail brewing around an alleged extramarital affair, and a crazed lobbyist hungry for more love after a drunken one-night stand. Throw in being stalked by an equally crazed tree-hugger, and it’s no surprise that Ethan quickly makes friends with the bottle.

While the play certainly isn’t a comedy, it is well punctuated with some notably hilarious interludes, provided by Kristy Shank and Rufus Malone, Jr. Shank is a fireball in her viciously over- the- top role of Mariah, the sex-starved lobbyist. And as the loony, rubber knife-wielding Herbert, who talks to an unseen forest critter he carries in a tote bag, Malone is a comedic marvel.

Ariel Roberts plays Hayden Storm, the forensic psychic who shows up unexpectedly and unwanted at first, but proves to be cathartic in the end, affirming Ethan’s idealism. Roberts is thoroughly fascinating to watch as she unravels the twisted secrets surrounding Ethan – “shadows trailing shadows,” she calls them - all the while seeming to struggle with the fine line between her human intuition and her gift. As Ethan, Joseph M. Haladey, III is fascinating, too. In his character’s passionate fight to be perceived as genuinely “sympathetic” amid all his flaws, Haladey’s performance is in fact the play’s most accessible and poignant one. And he plays a really fine drunk in the process.

More complicated are Marilyn Wells as Georgia, and Ross Rhodes as Senator Stanton. Both can be riveting – even astonishing at times - in their respective portrayals of two driven people, each with a terrible secret and each obsessed with their cosmetic support of Ethan. Their tragic characters are made for each other, actually. But they often speak, both to each other and to Ethan, with an over-played gravitas that’s more wearying than natural. The dialogue itself is sufficiently loaded with crackling energy, but their delivery imbues it with a kind of mock- Shakespearean dignity that needlessly slows down the proceedings.

The net effect that’s projected from these complex performances is that the characters tend to come off a bit like stilted cartoons – very adult cartoons, I’ll grant. Ironically enough, though, that’s not to the play’s detriment as much as one might imagine it to be. Were I a first-time visitor to this planet, encountering these people and their dreadful machinations, I would likely regard them as parodies, and ask them for directions to the nearest real people. Ahh, but we earth folk know all too well, especially now, that politicians seem to have evolved into (with apologies to Macbeth) a sorry lot indeed - exasperating idiots of the first order, full of furious sound bytes, signifying nothing.

But this play does signify something. More than merely imitating life, genuinely engaging theatre – which this is, despite some pacing problems – intensifies and illuminates it.

Photo, courtesy Deborah Fezelle,“A Walking Shadow” cast, left to right: Marilyn Wells, Rufus Malone, Jr., Joseph M Haladey III, Ariel Roberts, Ross Rhodes – shows August 13, 19, 20 at 8p.m. in the Kathleen Howland Theatre, located in the lower level of Second April Galerie, 324 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Tickets $10, call (330) 451 – 0924. Visit

Friday, August 12, 2011

From the Fringes, Dignity

From the Fringes, Dignity
By Tom Wachunas

“A portrait! What could be more simple and more complex, more obvious and more profound?”
- Charles Baudelaire –

“The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told.” –Cindy Sherman-

“Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” – Dorothea Lange –

Dorothea Lange is the luminary photographer who gave us “Migrant Mother, Nipomo Valley” in 1936 - one of the most poignantly searing photographs ever made of people living on the edge. Her statement quoted above resonates well with the theme and arresting images in the current exhibit of photographs by Jon Conklin, called “From The Margins,” at The Saxton Gallery in downtown Canton.

The quote also put me to wondering when we might have first introduced “taking a picture” into our vocabulary in reference to using a camera. There are many stories about how some “primitive” cultures saw the camera as a magical if not loathsome device that could rob a man of his spirit. “Taking a picture” was tantamount to a theft, or an assault. Of course civilized, enlightened folks attribute such perceptions to ignorance and superstition. Still, isn’t it ironic how we enlightened ones so easily measure great portraiture in terms of the photographer’s ability to “capture” the essence or soul of the subject at hand? Say what you will about clich├ęs in describing creative processes, the simple fact remains that genuinely masterful photographers are genuinely masterful thieves. They steal moments from time before they forever slip away. Photography is indeed the magical, ephemeral pursuit of capturing essences.

Much of the imagery in Conklin’s collection here, spanning some 30 years, presents a slice of humanity existing in the often neglected, disenfranchised, and shadowy recesses of American society. The show is in some ways a bittersweet fanfare, a sonorous bell, tolling for lives lived in quiet desperation. In other ways it is a window on hope and resilience. Even at their most melancholic or brooding, interwoven with the loneliness and gritty mortality that we read in many of his portraits and scenes, is a compelling sense of real if not fragile dignity.

“Halloween Day, 1984” shows three scruffy boys - one with a girl mounted atop his shoulders, and two with smudged-on ‘masks’ of black makeup - standing around the rickety porch of a dilapidated house. Mounted on the wood siding behind them is a flimsy five-point star made of holiday string lights - an eerie counterpoint to all the peeling paint. Like several other black-and-whites here, the picture emanates a mystique gently reminiscent of bizarre scenarios by Diane Arbus. “Muddy Boy With Cord” haunts, too. Holding a frayed bungee cord, the gangly lad looks for all the world like a young, contemplative Robert Mitchum. Is this the wistful gaze of a boy who has seen far too much for his years, or is he dreaming of better days to come?

“A Visit With Mom” poses similarly intriguing questions. It’s a marvelously complex color shot of an interior. A woman stands at the doorway of a bedroom, oriented toward OUR space, but her focus is clearly on a serious conversation with the elderly woman we see reflected in the dresser mirror. The dresser top is adorned with framed family photos. The arm postures of the women, along with their concentrated facial expressions, echo each other in this playful but tense scene of frames within frames, lives within lives.

Another kind of complexity is at work in Conklin’s color images from that eye-popping, surreal mecca of stratified humanity, the Coney Island Boardwalk. Here is the photographer not so much as thief, but as hunter. He literally shoots from the hip, with camera on auto-focus, to give us delightfully tilted, rich perspectives, as in the man and woman walking with a baby stroller in “Saturday Afternoon.” The paunchy, bare-chested man sports flesh lavishly decorated with freakish tattoos, their wild colors strangely echoed by the psychedelic patterns in his mate’s blouse.

One photo that embodies the spirit of this show particularly well is the black-and-white “Oscar Studer, Talking Hands.” The triptych portrays a seated old man, leaning forward with steady, loving gaze into the lens, his hands larger than life as they sign… a giving. As if to say, “Here, have my story.”

Rather than just “taking pictures,” Conklin demonstrates an uncanny ability to recognize and somehow encourage his subjects’ authentic surrender to the moment, even as they know they’re being photographed. In giving us those moments – moving, evocative, quieting - Conklin is a remarkably generous artist.

Photo, courtesy Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography: “Muddy Boy With Cord,” by Jon Conklin, ON VIEW THROUGH OCTOBER 1 at 520 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday – Saturday.

Monday, August 8, 2011


By Tom Wachunas

“No matter how much we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.” –Milan Kundera-

“I’m afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.” – Andy Warhol –

“We need to think seriously about how exactly we treasure and remember our heroes through our art. Are we loving the look, the feel, or the fame of our icons too much more than we love what they symbolize?” –June Godwit –

Among the most striking aspects of current show at Anderson Creative – called “Mann-Icons” - are its intimate uniformity of scale, and its straightforward concept. Anderson staffer Heather Bullach, in this her first project as a curator, gave each of her artists a wooden drawing mannequin and a shelf, and asked them to transform the figures into icons of their choosing, leaving the interpretation of ‘icon’ up to the artists. They were also required to create a 2-D background for their pieces. The resulting 13 works are, for the most part, delightfully entertaining 3D tableaus – presented like knick-knack or curio shelves – dedicated to figures from both fiction (literature and film) and real human history.

Given the ideological content, it’s not too surprising that a kitsch aesthetic is fairly prevalent. Some of the works look like they could be mockups for Lord and Taylor, or Macy’s window displays. While a few entries possess a slap-dash, throw-away carelessness, most are very solidly composed, constructed with impeccable craftsmanship and clear thoughtfulness if not unabashed affection for their subjects. Kitsch need not be so terribly cheap or vapid that it’s inconsequential junk. And rather than sparing us the strain of real contemplation - the hallmark of purely “low brow” art, or kitsch at its shallowest – the best pieces in this collection are pleasurable invitations to engage their subjects both cerebrally and emotionally, depending upon your predisposition to the “celebrities” being presented.

Sourcing cinema comedy, Kevin Anderson has cleverly reconstructed a scene, with his unadorned mannequin as Gene Wilder from “Blazing Saddles” (an iconic Western spoof if ever there was one), in his piece called “Yeah, But I Shoot With THIS Hand.” The mannequin’s hand is mechanically rigged to move up and down when viewers slide a toy pistol along a metal track. Interactive, kinetic art with hilarious results. Also from the world of film is Erin Mulligan’s “Mary Poppins,” with the mannequin elaborately made up into a likeness of Julie Andrews in her long black coat, holding her umbrella aloft as she glides through the air above London, shown via a luscious aerial-perspective backdrop painting in misty, liquid grays and tans. Luscious too is Chris Rood’s “Alice in Wonderland,” with its rich, meticulous sculptural detail and spectacular color. It’s a phantasmagorical menagerie that pays giddy homage to the Mad Hatter with Disneyesque panache.

David McDowell’s “William Shakespeare: Wordsmith” is a tour-de-force of unified form and function, content and concept. The mannequin is posed to conjure the famous soliloquy from Hamlet, with one knee on the bare shelf – the stage – and one hand holding a skull. Rising up next to the figure is a towering abstract ‘sculpture’ made from interlocking black plastic letters. A small spot lamp clipped to a corner of the stage shines up through the configuration, casting a shadow up on the wall in the startling likeness of The Bard. Dramatic and utterly ingenious.

For poignant, simple formal elegance, there’s Bob Yost’s “Jesus Christ.” The bare mannequin is crucified, the wood cross embedded in a mosaic of textured and glazed tiles, many carved with timeless, compelling words describing who Jesus is, what he did, and why. The piece embodies the more ancient connotations of “icons” – sacred likenesses. As such, the work effectively reminds me that this particular “historic” individual transcends modern manifestations of fame and celebrity. And in that, it’s the icon of all icons.

Photo by Heather Bullach, of the piece by David McDowell, “William Shakespeare: Wordsmith” on view at Anderson Creative, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Wednesday – Saturday 12 noon to 5 p.m.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Vital Signs

Vital Signs
By Tom Wachunas

Over the last several years I’ve had lots to say about the state of public art works in our fair town. It’s no secret that I’ve waxed both hot and cold as to the unevenly- mixed (in content, craftsmanship, and purpose) group of downtown “monuments” to local creativity. All told, downtown Canton’s public art ethos is itself still very much a work in progress. I care about it so much because the re-vitalization of downtown Canton has so often been equated (and understandably so) with the much-touted ‘renaissance’ of artistic presence. Along with that is the concern about the qualities of the congratulatory face – civic, social, aesthetic - we present not just to ourselves in the arts community, but to our local citizenry AND out-of-town visitors.

Let’s remember that public art is not intended solely for heavily trafficked commerce areas or locales regularly designated for large public gatherings. The operative term here is, after all, ‘public’ – something visible and accessible for unrestricted viewing by ‘the people’ at large, be they shopping in a mall, walking past City Hall, or passing through (and living in) an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood.

Case in point: The recently completed Great Wall of Summit mural project. Measuring 150’ x 7’, the painting, designed by artist Michele Waalkes, is on a concrete wall that runs along a sidewalk at the NE corner of 10th Street NW and Fulton Road NW, very near the Arts Academy at Summit School. As acknowledged in Waalkes’ blog (, the project was done in collaboration with Community Building Partnership (CBP), with contributions from JP Morgan Chase Foundation and ArtsinStark. Neighborhood residents, along with CBP board members, City Council members, and ArtsinStark representatives, helped with the actual painting.

With child-like simplicity, crisp linearity, and vivid colors, Waalkes’ design is an inspired and inspiring testament to urban transformation. The painting tells a story of sorts that reads from left to right, and in the process celebrates a community embracing the arts. On the far left is a grid pattern – a map of neighborhood streets that morphs into angled and upright lines which in turn become houses, then animated stick figures that emerge dancing, playing music, making paintings, taking pictures, filling the air with outward-moving waves of energy. The choice to place these rainbow-colored configurations on a black ground is in itself a telling one, it seems to me – a symbolic beacon of tangible relief from the dark sameness of neighborhoods spotted with lifeless, abandoned homes.

This vivacious, thoughtful public work is a stunning witness to the power of the arts to unite people right where they live, in a spirit of affirmation and hope. Speaking of which, we can smile and hope that those colored waves of artful energy, emanating from the last figure on the right, will travel far beyond the confines of neighborhood.

Photo by Michele Waalkes.