Monday, July 30, 2018

What's in a name?

What’s in a name?

By Tom Wachunas

   “If you think of aerosol graffiti as a shout, a moniker is the raise of a hand or a whisper.” – Scot Phillips 

   “Railroad iron is a magician's rod, in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water.”  - Ralph Waldo Emerson 

   “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”  - Henry David Thoreau

   “The mystery. The meditation. The trains themselves. The desire to become an anonymous and tiny legend.”  - 2359 (a moniker)

   EXHIBIT: Moniker: Identity Lost & Found -  an unprecedented documentation of mark-making and monikers—grassroots movements which began in rail yards in the late 19th century and continue today / Curatorial team: Andy Dreamingwolf, exhibition guest curator; Kurt Tors, artist liaison; and Massillon Museum Operations Officer Scot Phillips, project director

On view through October 21, 2018, at the Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon, Ohio / Phone: 330-833-4061 /  Tuesday through Saturday 9:30am - 5:00pm, Sunday 2:00pm - 5:00pm

   First this, from the Massillon Museum web page: “During the late 1800s, blue-collar workers and travelers began drawing unique symbols and words on the sides of train cars in chalk, ephemeral marks that crossed the countryside, exposed to anyone who idly watched passing trains. Over time, mark-making developed into a coded system of communication. Through repetition, recognition, and transcontinental exposure, symbols took on a deeper meaning. A drawing became a moniker: a name, an identity.”
Learn more at:

   This thrilling exhibit is a meticulously assembled compendium of photographs, texts, and artifacts tracing a legacy both historic and artistic. You could call it the preservation of an overground subculture as well as the celebration of a continuum: Railroad life. 

   It is a culture within a culture – vital, to be sure, yet often seemingly marginal and mysterious to the larger societies it serves. Within it there are  itinerant individuals who literally draw attention to their presence by making pictures and/or words visible to anyone looking at a train, moving or not. Sure, we can think of their marks as graffiti. But these aren’t the explosively polychromed, spray-painted configurations of wild, fly-by-night urban taggers. You won’t find such brash, billboard theatricality here. 

   These denizens of the railway world message each other, and for that matter anyone else who might happen upon their turf, with a much less spectacular form of declaration. Their images and words exude a primal air of runic mystique, stripped down and raw, conjuring something at once intensely private, vulnerable, and accessible. There’s an elemental poignancy, indeed gravitas to these sketchy drawings, these terse, coded utterings of a name, of a temporal, ultimately impermanent existence.
   Maybe that’s what prompted the most visually stunning component of this exhibit: A large gathering of uncoated steel panels, each 19” x 19”, and destined to become part of the Massillon Museum’s permanent collection. Ten of these are “Tributes” – remembrances by contemporary artists who have drawn on the panels with Markal paint stick to recreate or re-interpret the work of still active (including some who have worked in this genre since the 1960s) and past moniker practitioners. 

  An additional 27 panels are evenly spaced across three horizontal rows in an intriguing poem for the eyes. Think of it as a mesmerizing metaphor for trains lined up in a rail yard. The whole sensation of seeing it might suggest strolling on to the raised mound of a track bed to get a closer look at a boxcar in all its imposing scale. 

   Enhancing the experience of looking are the recorded sounds, emanating from a speaker mounted at the ceiling, of feet walking and scraping on stone ballast. When those footfalls periodically cease, we hear the sounds of chalk or paint sticks tapping and scratching on metal surfaces. This hypnotic soundtrack of mark-making is a constant sensory companion to the authentic railroad film footage (a 47-minute loop) projected on to a nearby wall wherein we see many close-ups of individuals, their hands drawing, their monikers taking form.

   Here then is a fascinating exploration of a socio- aesthetic phenomenon, a form of folk art wherein the ephemerality of codified identities has become arrested in time to become a tangible reality. Anonymity gets a name. Think of secret moments and thoughts revealed, of privacy gone public, but only for as long as it takes for, say, a side-door Pullman to clatter by on the tracks  (Quick, look! Is someone living in that boxcar?!) and then disappear into the distance,…provided you were really there to see it in the first place. 

   In lieu of that uniquely fleeting, actual experience, you can still catch the next train, as it were, simply by visiting this bountiful exhibit.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. by Bozo Texino / 2. by Qualm / 3. By Matokie and Twist / 4. Ten Living Tributes / 5. 27 steel plates by living artists spanning 50 years of the moniker tradition / 6. by Swampy / 7. by 2359

Monday, July 23, 2018

A Time to Plant

A Time to Plant

By Tom Wachunas

    There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,… - Ecclesiastes 3: 1-2

   EXHIBIT: ALTARED STATES, at The Little Art Gallery, 185 North Main Street (in the North Canton Library), North Canton, Ohio, THROUGH AUGUST 19, 2018

   From 1977 to 1991, most of my art was in painting and mixed-media collage/assemblage. The work often had the look of abstract “outsider art” and was otherwise marginally aligned with the “Neo-Expressionism” of 1980s New York scene. When I re-settled in Canton in early 1992, I was wrecked - paralyzed by questions about the meaning, direction, and purpose of my artmaking – indeed, my life. What transpired then was a creative void nearly eight years in duration – a dark period of drunken and artless malaise.  

   At the end of 1999, I surrendered completely to the cathartic blessing of sobriety. Midway into 2000, I began making art again in earnest. But this time, the abstract traces of personal spirituality that were present only in a general way in my earlier work began to take on a specificity – a new  identity and resonance best called Christocentric.

    My work of the past 18 years, then, has been a continuing evolution of a visual language that springs from the fact that I have been implanted and indwelt by the realization that I am a servant invited to love his master, Jesus. My maker, muse, and savior. In what, on one level, I regard as his autobiography, the Bible ( a.k.a. ‘The Word of God’), he tells us in the opening chapters how he made all of us in his image, formed us from the dust of the ground he made, and breathed his life into us.

   Over the years I’ve come to believe that all artists carry in themselves, whether they know it or not, a potential echo, a remnant spark, a still-glowing ember from the Master’s first explosive utterances of creation, “Let there be light…” and “Let us make man…”  Accordingly, I am called to celebrate my Master’s legacy of creation. To make as I have been made. My hope is to somehow give breath - a spark of life and light - to the dust of my chosen materials.  Most of the tactile narratives made after 2000 that I’ve included in ALTARED STATES are evidence of my attempt to excavate the merely apparent and uncover the fully real. Many are spiritual tableaux, constructed with a codified language of the heart, symbolizing aspiration, inspiration, faith, and discovery. An archaeology of the soul.

   Above are photos of my three most recent efforts, all finished in 2018. In order from the top down, Psaltree1,398 Biblical Drawings, Tent of Meeting, and Absent From the Body.

   Psaltree – 1,398 Biblical Drawings was more than a year in the making, and began as a salvaged artificial ficus tree. The title is a hybrid of Psalm (a song or prayer), psalter (a devotional book of collected Psalms), and psaltery (an ancient, zither-like musical instrument plucked with the fingers). There are 699 leaves on the tree (each numbered on its underside), and for months they were for me like the double-sided pages of a daily journal, each made to carry an image, symbol, or a single word or a short verse,  all from the Bible. I consider the writing of words as a form of drawing. Many of the words and images are repeated at various spots throughout the tree – recurring chants, refrains, songs. Some of the texts are in Greek, a few in Hebrew, the great majority in English. Each leaf represents a time of praise and/or prayer, and a meditation on what it depicts or declares.  

   Tent of Meeting -fabric, acrylic and gold leaf on wood panel- is drawn from the Book of Exodus passages that speak of a temporary tabernacle - a tent pitched outside the encampments of the Israelites during their wanderings. It was designated as the holy place to meet and commune with God. Absent From the Body – paint-stiffened clothing (acrylic) and gold leaf – is a reflection on 2 Corinthians 5:8, “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” 

   Until such time as that preference becomes my eternal state of being, I am content to be making as I have been made.  Offering up these painted episodes - these marks that I make - is a continuing act of faith, love, gratitude, and worship.   

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Pop Goes the Easel

Pop Goes the Easel

By Tom Wachunas

      “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” 
        - Robin Williams

   EXHIBIT: Before the Streetlights Come On – Work by Kat Francis and Steve Ehret, to July 27, 2018, Tuesday and Thursday 2:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at The Hub Art Factory, 336 6th Street NW, downtown Canton / 330–451-6823 /

   Once again, I apologize for this late entry, as this exhibit at The Hub Art Factory is quickly approaching the end of its run. But I’ve been, uhm… really busy of late.

   Anyway, after reading Dan Kane’s July 5 Repository piece on artist couple Kat Francis and Steve Ehret (click on the link above), I thought for a while how it might be interesting to be a fly on a wall in their home after they’ve each been making something. Do they have regularly-scheduled joint critique sessions on their latest projects? Is their exchange thick with arcane artspeak or deep philosophizing about compositional dynamics and iconographic content?

   Maybe, maybe not. In any case, this delightfully eye-popping exhibit offers plenty of evidence that they inspire and influence each other. The oeuvre of one comfortably complements the other while remaining individually true to a discrete graphic methodology, mode of presentation, and personal aesthetic identity. Here is a memorable gathering of distinct yet compatible signature styles.  

   Looking at the exhibit can be a little like eavesdropping on the couple’s  observances of people and occurrences in their urban neighborhood.  Imagine the titles of their pieces as being snippets of conversation, or shared remembrances, some fond, some edgy. “When Tony was four he got hit by a pigeon while his head was sticking out the passenger side window”; “Our neighbor Rick is a creep”; “Dancing in a rainy day parking lot”; “Earl loved Mr. Ed growing up so much he almost turned into him”; “My neighbor Jay”; “You know that one guy who’s always sitting in his driveway watching cars drive by?”; “Ill communication”; “The one green patch”.

   The organically-shaped, low relief configurations by Kat Francis – acrylic and graphite on wood cut-outs – have an adventurous, storybook feel, often emanating a tender and thoughtful spirit. The acrylic paintings on panels by Steve Ehret, on the other hand, might be a storybook as well, though one of a relatively more bold if not lurid sort. His renderings of heads and faces can seem like caricatures of caricatures, as if picking up where funky underground counterculture comix from the late-1960s to mid-1970’s left off. His technique is deftly tight and fluid all at once. Call it a controlled abandon -  freakishly colorful and, like this entire show, unabashedly fun.

   PHOTOS, from top: 1. Night Crawlers by Steve Ehret / 2. Keep the bubbly coming, by Steve Ehret / 3. Baby Squirrel Brigade, by Kat and Steve / 4.  Dancing in a rainy day parking lot, by Kat Francis / 5. Ill communication, by Kat Francis / 6. My neighbor Jay, by Kat Francis / 7. Photo of Kat and Steve by Karen Reynolds

Thursday, July 12, 2018

A Piquant Sojourn

A Piquant Sojourn

By Tom Wachunas

   “A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.” ― Diane Arbus 

   “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”  ― Susan Sontag

   EXHIBIT: Afterwards - New Photos by Aimee Lambes / curated by Craig Joseph, at The Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography, 520 Cleveland Ave NW, in downtown Canton / THROUGH SEPTEMBER 1, 2018


   The remarkable photographs made by Aimee Lambes while in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are not the kind of contrived, touristy scenarios you’d find in a promotional travel brochure. Nor are they likely to lure you into adding the specific locales that are depicted here to your bucket list of must-see vacation spots.

   These particular places feel old, far-flung, not especially verdant, and a bit lonely. Residents might ward off decrepitude with a coat of bright yellow or turquoise paint on the weather-beaten facades of their ramshackle houses and sheds. Otherwise it’s a raw place, with unattended docks and boats piled with the tangled accessories of rough maritime livelihoods. In short, it feels simply too strange to visit, and you wouldn’t want to live here.

   Then again, I could be mistaken…different strokes…whatever floats your lobster trap… all that stuff. That said, Lambes’ pictures are compelling – perhaps even oddly charming - in a number of ways, not the least of which being in how they pose more questions than people. In fact, there isn’t a soul to be found anywhere in these scenes – not one in the guise of a human body, anyway. Where is everyone? Is it nap time on a Sunday afternoon? Has everybody gone fishing? Are all the people here photophobic? Are they on vacation in more amiable, exotic environs?  Has there been a mass exodus, apocalyptic or otherwise? 

   This is not to say that the photos themselves don’t have soulful presence. There’s real eloquence in these visions - a poetical attitude, a lyrical perspective. On a purely formal level, Lambes has a finely honed skill for engaging us with intriguing rhythmic contrasts of colors, shapes, patterns, and textures that can seem to sing or dance across the picture plane. If these images were songs, they’d be bittersweet ballads. 

   Beyond such arresting compositional elements, however, is something more subtle and ineffable – a quality or character that you either sense when you see it or you don’t. If it’s there, it will show itself, but only after honest, intentional seeing.  

   Look slowly. Take a walk on the quiet side. I’ve always thought that photography (and for that matter, any art form regardless of the medium or apparent content) is at its most impactfull when it points to something outside its immediate materiality. Even better, when it makes us feel something of or for the artist’s life. Lambes has written of these photographs that they’re a record of the last road trip she took with her son before he went off to college. That mood of isolation and abandonment prevalent in so many of her photos is, then, a mirror of her own struggles to come to terms with the inevitability of distance, separation, longing. It’s that bittersweet ballad again. We can hear it with our eyes.
   It’s also interesting if not downright mystifying that Aimee Lambes calls herself “an introverted misanthrope.” Methinks she protests too much. She’s released her pictures, beautiful to be sure, into our embrace, indeed our lives. That’s not the act of a misanthrope, but of a generous soul.

   PHOTOS, in order from top down: 1. Lenny Hanlon / 2. Bay of Fundy / 3. Yellow House / 4. Dinghies / 5. St. John / 6. Lobster Traps / 7. Lobster Floats