Recently, Pulitzer-prize winning art critic Jerry Saltz asked this question on Instagram that prompted me to tell a story I’d been thinking about for a while: What was the first work of art that put a spell on you; that might have changed your life? What happened?
Anyone familiar with Picasso’s blue period knows his 1901 painting L’enfant au pigeon (usually translated "Child with a Dove"). It depicts a little girl with very short hair in a long dress with a big bow. She is gently cradling a dove (or pigeon) in her hands. The feathers of the bird’s tail are indicated with a few strokes in a herringbone pattern. There is a multicolored ball at her feet. She is looking out at the viewer with a solemn gaze. I always loved the simple chunkiness of the composition—everything described with a few black lines, especially the downward sloping, uneven horizontal dividing floor from wall (or grass from sky, depending on how you look at it), with Picasso’s familiar signature sitting on it, halfway up the picture.
In the early 1980s, I spent three months in England. I took a semester off from the University of Texas at Austin to earn the money for the trip by answering phones in the office of a warehouse for a company that had contracted to provide standardized tests for the state of Texas. We tracked the tests going out and the tests coming back. I learned the names of so many small towns that spring: Dime Box, Kermit, Prosper, London.
In the “real” London, I went to as many museums as possible and saw all the art I could. I was in the National Gallery (probably, though I remember it as the Tate) and I had seen a lot of art that day and was feeling the need to leave. Looking for the exit, I went around a corner onto a little balcony with a few steps leading down into a larger gallery. That’s when I saw it.
I hadn’t even known it was there and it took me completely by surprise. The colors were so strong, so powerful, that it was like being confronted by a supernatural force. You know that feeling when you step out of Plato’s cave and see the true forms instead of the shadows on the wall? It was like that. I was knocked back and, quite literally, had to grab the balcony railing to keep from falling over.
Until that moment, I had had no idea how many colors were in the wall, in the floor, in the dress. How thick and expressive the brushstrokes were. I love paint. How could I not have known about the paint? It was a revelation.
And it was huge. The original painting is supposed to be 28.75 inches by 21.25 inches, so about twice the size of the print in my room. But I could swear it was at least six feet high. In my memory, the Child is larger than life, and she always will be.
So was Picasso’s "Child with a Dove" the first painting to put a spell on me? To change my life? I think so, but in a subtler, more insidious way than I think Saltz was asking about. Living with that print from infancy imprinted ideas about composition and line on me in ways that continue to affect my work today. If you look at what I’m doing now, you might not immediately see the connection, but it’s there. And that experience of being punched in the face by color reinforced what I want my own paintings to do. I want the color to grab you and shake you and throw you off a balcony. But in a good way. Always in a good way.
Originally from New York City, Russo came to Boston in 1996 after several decades on the West Coast and continued his work as a photojournalist while also exploring fine art photography. He has come to feel very much at home in the Northeast, saying, “I really feel that New England is one of the richest art communities in the country.”
“It’s a totally positive experience,” he says. “A lot of these artists I haven’t met before, except for getting together to set everything up ahead of time.” Others he knows well, through the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston or other artist friends.
When Russo arrives at an artist’s studio, he keeps his equipment to a minimum. He works with the same light that the artists have available in their studio spaces. “I think by not bringing in lights, it puts the person more at ease with me. If I spent half an hour setting up lights and running cables it might be more intimidating to them,” he says. There’s also the question of space. “Sometimes I go into spaces and my back is against the wall and I’m tripping over things. People work in little tiny bedrooms. But you figure it out. Every space is really different. Some are great, and with some I’m there scratching my head going, what am I going to do? That’s the hard part of it—lighting is everything in photography. I have to be very creative. All studios have light but usually nothing very sophisticated. Generally speaking, I’d say it’s worked. I’ve never had to go back and reshoot anything.”
“The first artist was a gentleman by the name of Domingo Barreres; he was a professor of painting at the MFA Boston. I knew Domingo and took classes with him when I was at the museum school. He’s a very colorful individual. It’s still one of my favorite images in the series,” Russo notes. Originally from Spain, Barreres began teaching at the MFA School in 1967. The photograph (taken in 2012) captures the artist in profile, surrounded by paintings, one elbow on a table awash in cups, brushes, paper, and tubes of paint. It is a timeless portrait of an artist that could have been taken at any point in last 60 years, but for the tip of the Croc clog just visible beside the arm of a chair.
For the first couple of years, Russo would reach out to artists he was interested in photographing, and received suggestions from artists as to who else to contact. “In the last couple of years, I don’t solicit artists anymore. A lot of people have been contacting me. And that’s OK, too. I’ve met some amazing people. Most of my friends are artists—not just in Boston but throughout the country—so I can just sit there and talk to people for an hour about their process and what they’re doing, and at the same time I’m looking around and deciding what to do.”
But sometimes, he will chase an artist. Elsa Dorfman, for instance. “I chased her for about a year, but Errol Morris was making a documentary about her [The B Side, 2016] and a lot of her time was spent with him. Then out of the blue, she called me and said, ‘Jerry, I can give you an hour.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it!’ I get to her studio in Cambridge and there’s the big Polaroid camera (and who knows who she’s photographed with it!). I put her against the backdrop that she would photograph people on, and she had the remote that she would use to click the shutter on the Polaroid camera. She was awesome. A real child of the 60s, you know? She’s got a big personality—she has this great voice and says what she wants to say. It was great being around her. I set the alarm on my phone for an hour and when it was up, we were done. The next day, they shipped the camera to Teluride for the opening of the documentary. And then she locked the door on the studio and was done. She retired.”
Moments like this remind Russo of the historical value of the project, as well. “Somebody said to me, whatever else you’re doing, you’re keeping an archive. That wasn’t my intention when I started, but the more I do it, the more I think of it that way. Given that I graduated from the SMFA, and the connections I made there, I've naturally photographed many faculty and alumni and intend to continue. It's a special place and deserves this type of documentation.”
Kim Pashko and David Kelly were fixtures of the Boston art scene, with their huge place in South Boston that served as both their home and their joint studio for more than 25 years. His double-portrait of Pashko and Kelly catches the ambiance of this spacious, cool, arty, much-lived-in, much-worked-in space and freezes it perfectly in time. Shortly after this image was taken, Pashko and Kelly left Boston for Houston, Texas.
The Artist Studio Project also raises questions about the effect the economy has on artists, where they can work, and what they can make. “In Boston, with so much gentrification going on in the last couple of decades, it’s hard to find artists spaces anymore,” Russo points out. “And if you can find them, you can’t afford them. When I first moved here in 1996, it was easy to find a studio then. That’s a real problem, now. It’s different for a photographer—if you’ve got a computer, that’s your lab. But if you’re a painter, you need a real studio with ventilation or you have to switch mediums. I’ve been to all sorts of situations with artists and their environments—in their homes, in their attics, in their basements. Some of them live in their studios.”
Not every studio requires a well-lit loft or even a room in the basement. Russo heard that filmmaker Roberto Mighty was the first artist-in-residence at the historic 174-acre Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. Mighty spent a year there preparing his multimedia installation earth.sky, which is based on the cemetery and the stories of people who are buried there. “I called him and said, ‘You have a really interesting studio,’” Russo recalls. “He knew the cemetery like the back of his hand. He’s a filmmaker, so I asked him to choose some locations. We spent the afternoon walking around the cemetery—awesome filmmaker, great guy.”
After five years, the end of the Artist Studio Project is in sight. Russo has already photographed well over 100 artists, but still has a few more in mind, which will entail trips to Maine and the Berkshires this summer. “By the end of the year, I hope to start the process of publishing a book of many of these images.”
To see examples of Russo’s different photographic series, visit his website at www.jerryrussophotography.com.
Note: All photographs used in this article courtesy of Jerry Russo.
So many streams seemed to be flowing together, into one river.
Groenke was intrigued. “I’d never heard of World Water Day. I looked it up and came upon The Water Project, a nonprofit organization right there in Concord [New Hampshire] that brings wells and water to South Saharan Africa. I thought I’d check them out and see if they had a place to have an exhibit.” The building, as it turned out, wasn’t really workable for an art exhibition, “but the staff was really excited to talk about what they’re doing and there’s a lot of energy there.”
The next October, she read The Water Princess, a children’s book by Susan Verde, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. "It’s the story of a model named Georgie Badiel, a former Miss Africa and activist from Burkina Faso, and her childhood dreams of bringing fresh water to her village. The Water Project was working to put in a well in Burkina Faso. It kept coming up.”
All these streams were carrying her toward this exhibition, and when she followed them back to their source, Groenke recalled her past as a neonatal intensive care nurse in the 1970s in Cleveland and Tennessee. “I know that if a child is ill, things go south really fast. These water-borne illnesses causing diarrhea and vomiting are very serious. The mortality statistics are very high, because it takes very little time for a child to go from slightly dehydrated to a state of shock. If you can’t get safe fluids, you can’t bounce back.”
The show was scheduled for March 4-29, 2018, to coincide with Women’s History Month and World Water Day. Twenty-five members of WCA/NH are participating [including me]. Groenke says, “We’ve had a wonderful response. It takes a village when you’re putting on a show like this. So many people are helping with everything from tags to fixing website problems. Everyone just worked together so well and it all came together with their help. I couldn’t have done this myself.”
In conjunction with the exhibition, Groenke also arranged for a celebration of World Water Day right here in English-speaking New Hampshire with an event at the NHTI Library gallery and speakers Lisa McAllister of The Water Project and Christine Destrempes, an artist who paints about water, at 6 p.m. on March 22, 2018.
Her own work has responded to the force of the water concept, as well. “The piece that I did for the show was conceived back in 2015 when I read about the oil spill in Santa Barbara.” That spill reminded her of the 1969 spill in Santa Barbara when Union Oil Platform A blew out. More than 3 million gallons of oil spewed into the ocean, killing over 10,000 seabirds, dolphins, seals, and sea lions. [More full disclosure: my family was living in Santa Barbara at the time, and I remember people taking seabirds home to wash them.] Activists mobilized to create environmental regulation and education, and established Earth Day (first celebrated in 1970, and now an annual event on April 22) in response to this event.
Groenke started a mixed media piece. “I was experimenting with hydrocal at that time. It’s like plaster of Paris but faster. In 20 minutes it can go from a drippy consistency to like sour cream to like cement that you can spread around with a night. I’d get together with my friend Cilla Sheehan to play with it. One time, I was experimenting by using it on chunks of pine. Four of the five pieces I did that day went into the piece that’s in this show.”
Carole Groenke with her piece "Phoenix at the Beach" (right): Mixed-Media found object wall assemblage collaged with newspaper articles, Citra-Solve altered magazine pages, painted glass and mussel shells, hand-made Italian paper, and acrylic and ink on paper. Foam art block print on plexiglass and sculptured, painted, Hydrocal over wood. Left: Halfway to Heaven, mixed media, by Cilla Sheehan.
On May 19, 2015 an onshore pipeline owned by Plains All American Pipeline ruptured spewing up to 140,000 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean. ... One image in particular that haunted me was a photo taken of an oil covered bird, (possibly a Cormorant - hard to tell exactly as the bird was entirely encased in black, thick, crude oil). In the photo the bird seems to be trying desperately to take flight but of course, its feathers saturated and matted, to no avail. It remains in the tide pool, splashing among the rocks in the shallow water. This image of the bird, wings outstretched and obviously heavy from its burden, became the inspiration for this piece. The newspaper articles collaged onto the piece are from the Santa Barbara News Press. ... In 1969 this same area was the site of a spill (estimated at 3 million gallons) of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean. That spill prompted the birth of the environmental movement as it is known today. The nation’s first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970.
For Dayna Talbot, the process is the art—a process that is rooted in slowing down, wrapping, tying, cutting, sewing, binding, allowing each piece to evolve on its own. Sometimes that process is expressed in prints or paintings, sometimes in sculpture
We all know where we were on September 11, 2001 when the news broke of the attack on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Talbot happened to be at the hospital that day for a few tests, so she wasn’t at her job as a United Airlines flight attendant. She lost many friends and colleagues that day.
“Since 9/11, I’ve just felt bombarded and needed to find that quiet space,” Talbot says. Art has given her a way to both find and express the conflict between balance and chaos in the modern world. When United Airlines offered flight attendants the opportunity to take a leave of absence, Talbot decided, at the age of 50, to enroll at MassArt and earn a BFA. During this time, her artwork referenced 9/11 and the healing process. During her graduate program (she received her MFA from Lesley University College of Art and Design in 2016), she began to think of her artwork more conceptually, and began researching the connection between spirituality and artistic process. “Allowing myself to become vulnerable to a new way of producing work meant accepting the chaos that comes with life and the unknown.”
Talbot describes herself as working and thinking fast, with one of those brains that’s always going a mile a minute. She feels the need to take life more slowly—to take hold of right now. “How much quality can you put into something when you’re just so busy?” Talbot asks, making the hand gesture for checking things off a list.
“It started when I was trying to paint a landscape and depict a meditative state,” she continues. “It didn’t work for me. My mind was racing. I started using other things to make marks—strings and sticks—and these unconventional tools slowed me down. It was such a struggle for me. I was so frustrated. Then I decided to weave all those mark-making tools together into a wall hanging, and it worked. The process of tying and wrapping became the meditation.”
Allowing myself to become vulnerable to a new way of producing work meant accepting the chaos that comes with life and the unknown.”
... defiance not as a negative trait, but as a focused intention to overcome great obstacles and adversity.”
“It affects my imagery and symbols, but in an indirect way. Many of my ideas do not come to mind through active thinking. They arrive in a flash or when I am in a state halfway between being awake and sleep. When this happens, I immediately make a very rough sketch of it so I don’t lose its essence. I then later on refine those ideas,” Benavides explained. “I have noticed that my art tends to be symmetrical most of the time. I don’t know if it is because my bone condition causes asymmetrical bone deformities and my artwork’s arrangement expresses an unconscious desire to have a normal skeleton. There are also things that I portray that directly deal with what I am experiencing at the moment, but do not realize I did so until much later, usually when someone else points it out.”
See more work by Abiu Daniel Benavides at www.theartof thetiger.com
A friend recently drew my attention to this YouTube video of Benedict Cumberbatch reading Sol Lewitt's letter to Eva Hesse. Artists often need to be reminded of everything he says here, nobody where you are in your practice or your career. Lewitt was right on target.
Recently, I met a college student at an opening of one of my solo exhibitions and had a fascinating conversation with him. I didn’t find out his name but I hope I get the chance to sometime. He looked closely and carefully. He asked great questions. He stuck with the paintings that interested him for a long time and noticed more and more and more. This is the viewer I paint for.
I asked him about himself and he told me that he was student at the university, studying business but thinking of switching to finance. He had never taken an art history course, he didn’t make art of his own—he was just fascinated. I suggested that he take the opportunity to learn more about art and to see as much art as he could. I told him that the art world needs viewers like him.
Afterwards, of course, I thought of other things that I wish I had said to him. So I’m going to say them here:
Unknown student, one day you are going to be a remarkable art collector. You may not have disposable income yet, but you are going into a field where having disposable income is likely. I hope you spend it on art you love. Because there are two kinds of art collectors. There is the kind that buys for investment. Generally, collectors in this group are not interested in the art as art; they are interest in art as a commodity. They buy what Larry Gogosian or someone like him tells them will increase in value, and then they store it in an offshore freeport where it doesn’t see the light of day until it is sold for a profit.
Then there is the other kind of art collector; the kind you will be. This is the person who collects art to live with. The person who buys the work that speaks to them, and looks at it, and learns from it, and grows as a human being because of it. This is the person who collects based on the artwork itself, not the name of the artist. Sometimes this collector will purchase something by a famous artist (living or dead) and sometimes this collector will purchase something from someone unknown, or almost unknown, because the work speaks to them. This is the kind of collector that artists value because this collector is the person they need to bring about the final completion of the work.
Making art is an act of communication. That means it requires both a sender and a receiver. If an artist makes a painting or a sculpture or a piece of music or a dance, and nobody ever apprehends it, the work is not finished. This kind of collector—the kind you will be one day—is that receiver. Whether you collect that piece or not, whether you encounter it in a gallery or a museum or an artist’s studio or a friend’s home or wherever, when you give it your careful attention, then the piece has the chance to do its work. The act of communication is complete.
I had another interaction that day that left me wishing I had said something different. As my family and I were getting ready to leave the building after the opening, we passed a man who had gone through the gallery on his way to another event that was going on in the same building. He had asked us where to find the room where the event was being held, so we knew he wasn't part of the faculty or staff. When we saw him again, he turned around and angrily asked me what the point was of showing art in the university gallery. “Nobody is going to see it! Who is going to buy it? Students?” he said. It seemed like this question had been on his mind and he was grabbing the opportunity to ask.
I gave him some sort of answer, but not a great one, because I was taken by surprise. I could have explained at length about universities having a cultural mission to the community, and that there is more to looking at art than commerce. I could have said a lot of things.
But his question answered itself: Angry stranger, you saw it.
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I'm Marcia Santore, an artist and a writer. This blog is all about artists and their stories. See my artwork at