The Happy Couple Exhibit

This essay was published in the 2014 edition of Words & Images literary magazine, a student-run publication at the University of Southern Maine.

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I heard the woman first before I saw her or her partner inside the museum of the Onondaga Historical Association in Syracuse. She said in loud voice, “Rick, where are you hon?” The OHA had a few exhibitions running simultaneously on this Saturday in early January 2013, and so it was possible to lose sight of your friend or partner as you made your way through the different gallery spaces and inspected the various works. “Hon, come here, look at this,” she added.

Onondaga Historical Association

Onondaga Historical Association

At the time I was examining the exhibit Manifest Destiny and The American West by Buffalo artist Robert Hirsch. Hirsch presented nearly one-thousand images in a three-dimensional display—with the pictures placed inside jars and serving as a commentary on how the geographic progression across North America shaped U.S. culture.

After I finished looking at the Manifest Destiny jars, I started walking toward where the couple was standing. They were planted in front of some panels of an exhibit highlighting historic stereoscopic photographs.

Rick was probably in his sixties. He was tall, broad-shouldered and bald except for a tuft of grayish-white hair at the back of his head. He had a bushy mustache that curled downward and matched his hair color and he was wearing a tan jacket. The woman, whom I will call Ruth, was small and also appeared to be in her sixties. She was wearing a black fur coat, tall black boots and bronze earrings that looked like costume jewelry. She had short black hair, a birthmark on the right side of her face and she had applied a little too much burgundy lipstick to her mouth.

But it was her dialogue that made her memorable. I am not a casting director, but I believe you could pick Ruth up and place her in a Woody Allen film and without even reviewing the script, she would fit in with no problem. In fact I bet she would steal scenes away from Scarlett Johansson or Penélope Cruz.

I heard her tell her husband, as I assumed they were married, “See, I should have lived in the 1920s. I’d be dead now, but look at all the stuff I would have remembered.”

Something else about Ruth struck me on a personal level; she reminded me a lot of my late mother. My mother had never attended an art exhibit in her life and was not loquacious like this museum visitor, but the two women shared some physical features. Both were short and had short black hair.

My mom: Carmella Ruane, 1945-2011

And just like Ruth, my mother would often smear too much of the same shade of burgundy lipstick on her mouth. My mom also had the habit of applying a little too much rouge to her cheeks. If she was getting ready to leave the house to attend the Saturday vigil mass at St. Peter’s Church in Rome, New York, where she lived, I would tell her, “Mom, you need to blot your cheeks. The rouge is caked on.” Her standard reply would be, “Oh shut up. Can’t you ever say anything nice?”

Ruth, Rick and I were gathered inside a small gallery space where Carl Lee’s multi-channel video Last Housewhich documents the destruction of a house in Buffalo, was being screened.

In the piece, on what looks like a bright spring or summer day, a backhoe starts demolishing the house and three separate camera angles capture the action simultaneously. Viewers watch as the scoop of the backhoe starts eating away the roof and walls of the structure, while a man stands near the rubble and uses a power hose to spray water on the scoop and house so no sparks jump to life.

As arresting as Lee’s video was, his exhibit became trumped by a living breathing work of art—the older couple that had seized my attention. And as I stood near the back wall of the room, my focus shifted from the images on the screen in front of me to Rick and Ruth seated on a black bench nearby.

“You see that, it’s three angles of the same thing,” Rick said.

“Yes, I know,” Ruth replied. She paused and then added, “You must think I’m a real idiot.”

I almost burst out laughing because her delivery was a spot-on impersonation of my mother, using the same words my mother had said to me on numerous occasions. But I managed to suppress the laughter swelling inside of me and kept it contained in my throat.

A short time later Rick said to Ruth, “Hon, are tired?” Ruth rubbed her thighs and said, “A little, but I’m OK.”

“Well it’s 2:30,” Rick said.

“No, it’s later.” She checked her watch and said, “It’s 2:40.”

“Your watch is fast,” he said.

“No it’s not. I set it by the stove, and it’s always slow.”

They stopped chatting and watched in silence as the house was being ripped apart in the video. Then, a little while later, amid the grating sounds of the backhoe and the walls tumbling down, Rick turned his head toward Ruth and said, “Are you sure you’re not too tired?”

“No, I’m fine,” she said.

And that’s how I left them. The couple was still sitting there, watching the video when I stepped out of the exhibition space and exited the OHA.

I think what intrigued me most about the couple was their ease of interaction and level of comfort with one another. And I was thankful for having witnessed this slice of life from their apparent happy marriage, a snapshot of two older people behaving in an unguarded fashion in a public museum on an ordinary Saturday afternoon.

I did not assume they lived a perfect life without worry or conflict. But it appeared Rick and Ruth understood and accepted one other unconditionally. In spending a few moments in their presence, it seemed like neither partner had any illusions about the other person, and there appeared to be no mysteries in their relationship still waiting to be uncovered. They had likely revealed all their flaws and weaknesses a long time ago, and yet, they still enjoyed spending time together and remained happily married and devoted to one another. Or at least that’s the impression they gave to outsiders.

I often get a rush of creative energy after visiting an art museum, attending a play or concert or seeing a great film. And while I was walking home my rumination about the couple sparked an idea. I decided they would make a compelling subject for a modern art exhibit.

So here’s my proposal:

A museum would build a large installation showcasing Rick and Ruth as one of the last surviving happy couples in America. It would be a spectacle like something 19th Century showman P.T. Barnum could have curated and promoted.

Rick and Ruth would be placed inside a large kitchen space encased in glass like the diner scene in Edward Hopper’s iconic painting Nighthawks.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, 1942

We would observe them sitting in their kitchen—drinking coffee, talking, cooking and eating breakfast, lunch or dinner, reading the newspaper, playing Scrabble, baking cookies, celebrating their birthdays and washing and drying dishes.

The display would offer viewers an unfiltered window into the life of the couple, and the images, sounds and conversations would document Rick and Ruth’s ease of interaction. The goal would be to reveal the secrets of this happy marriage.

As a result, the exhibit would aim to answer these central questions: What makes this couple different from others? What is the key to their bliss? And what advice or insights do they have for other couples in terms of making a relationship last?

From a technical standpoint, Rick and Ruth would need to be well-lit and microphones would need to be placed on or near them to pick up clean sound; the museum would also have to mount speakers or headphones near the display so the viewer could listen as the couple communicates.

As this idea spun wildly inside my brain, I felt a sense of joy bubbling within and I smiled when I imagined Rick and Ruth hanging out in their hermetically-sealed museum kitchen.

I could almost hear him saying something like, “You know, we’re gonna have to eat a little later because the chicken still needs to defrost before we put it in the oven.”

Ruth would then shoot Rick a dirty look, smack her lips or maybe place a hand on her hip. “Do you think so?” she would say. “God, you must think I’m a real idiot.”

Moments later Ruth would be standing at the counter making a salad and Rick setting the table, and Ruth might turn to him and ask, “Hon, what do you feel like for dessert?”

“Oh I don’t care,” he would say, his eyes lifting from the cutlery on the table. “Anything.”

“Well we have that Entenmann’s crumb cake in the freezer. You want me to take it out?”

“Sure.”

“Yeah, that sounds good, doesn’t it hon?”

“You bet Ruth. It does.”

Then, as the museum would get ready to close for the day, the lights to the kitchen display would be dimmed and Rick and Ruth would depart the exhibition space. And we wouldn’t be allowed to tag along with them when they walk outside the walls of the museum, get into their car and head home for the night.

But I suspect not much would change between them, and I find this reassuring because I wouldn’t want to miss anything.

 

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The Earth Answers: Sarah McCoubrey: Works on Paper

Sarah McCoubrey’s mixed media works straddle the line between the real and the unreal, as the artist manipulates elements of nature to create a rich fantasy world that sparks viewers’ imaginations and is open to wide interpretation.

McCoubrey’s Works on Paper exhibition continues until Aug. 24 at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York.

McCoubrey, who is a landscape painter and a professor of art at Syracuse University, drew inspiration from hydrofracking sites across the Northeast and the industrial waste beds of Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, where she lives.

But for McCoubrey, this polluted landscape is fertile ground for creative inspiration—a place she calls Eden. The exhibition wall text states McCoubrey “begins the process by ‘planting’ outdoor sculptures comprised of natural elements and human detritus she finds at these sites and then makes digital prints of them, adding constructed imaginary elements by hand.”

The result is more than 20 works on paper, composed of digital images, mixed media and ink drawings, depicting a combination of twisted branches, roots and mounds of earth, slender, damaged trees, industrial debris and strange creatures emerging from the toxic ooze and crawling across stretches of barren land.

I witness an older woman sitting on a bench in the exhibition space, looking up at a series of eight panels. “Is that a potato?” the woman asks her friend, who stands nearby. “Yeah, I think so,” the friend replies.

The panels indeed show potatoes—one large potato per panel—in various states of departure. The tubers are taking off, fleeing the landscape either on foot or flying through the air.

And the images provide ample raw material for viewers to invent narratives:

One potato—Escape Vehicle: Fat Potato, 2012—looks a little like a Goodyear Blimp, perhaps floating above a patchwork of farms and fields somewhere between Akron and Columbus; maybe it’s en route to an Ohio State Buckeye football game.

Escape Vehicle: Fat Potato, 2012. Locks Gallery

Escape Vehicle: Potato With Propeller, 2012, shows a potato with wings, a blue propeller and two small trees sticking out of it flying from right to left over what looks like the snow-covered hills of upstate New York.

Escape Vehicle: Potato With Propeller, 2012. Locks Gallery

Another piece in the exhibit, Moving the Buffalo, 2012, recalls the beast from the 1954 movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, as a group of walking figures, constructed out of organic material like branches, transports an industrial-looking wagon across the ground.

Moving the Buffalo, 2012. Locks Gallery

Moving the Buffalo, 2012. Locks Gallery

A stocky man in his fifties stands in front of Boats on the Water, 2014, gazing intently at the work. He then turns to me and asks, “What do you see?”

Before I can answer him, he says, “It reminds me of an eyelid closing.”

The foreground of the image is dominated by a curved patch of dark earth with clumps of roots beneath the surface and small trees dotted above. In the background, we can see boats floating on a small body of water, likely a pond.

Map of the Wastebed, 2014, shows a map seen from above with fish and boats surrounding the site. Is this a scaled view of McCoubrey’s Eden? It reminds me of a treasure map and is similar—at least in terms of intent—to the map of the Hundred Acre Wood from the Winnie-the-Pooh series, written by A.A. Milne and illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. The map gives us the setting where McCoubrey’s stories play out.

And this is where the exhibition shines. There’s no doubt McCoubrey’s work is serious, as she calls attention to the damage of toxic waste and other threats to the environment. Her images portend a future world where the Earth seems to undergo a rebellion as the planet adjusts to cataclysmic changes.

Yet she delivers her message softly by hooking viewers with her playful touch and characters that could be found either in a Dali painting or jumping off the pages of a Scholastic picture book.

In fact I believe children would enjoy seeing this exhibition. They wouldn’t need to know anything about global warming, pollution and hydrofracking; instead, they could stand in front of McCoubrey’s prints and giggle at some of the shapes and figures while comparing impressions. It would be the art gallery equivalent of lying on your back on the warm grass and staring at cumulus clouds moving across the sky. And I am sure my five-year-old niece Elizabeth would get a kick out of seeing some potatoes zipping through the air.

Sarah McCoubrey: Works on Paper is part of the museum’s 2014 Edge of Art Series. For more information, go to http://everson.org/.

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Second Look: Hotel Art

I spent a recent weekend at the Wingate by Wyndham hotel in my hometown of Rome, N.Y. Besides the amenities of a free daily breakfast, a 24-hour fitness center and a coffee pot in my room—which I consider a necessity—I enjoyed another perk I imagine most people overlook when roaming through lobby of a hotel or grabbing a soda at the vending machine. It was the collection of artwork hanging on the walls of the lobby, in the hallways and in my room.

Hotel Art #1

I think the abstract works were acrylic paintings or mixed media pieces, and it was obvious they were all made by the same artist, although I never determined his or her name. The prints were mounted with navy blue matting and had wide silver picture frames.

I admired the simple, elegant designs and lush color schemes. Tan, orange, rust and turquoise colors dominated the surface, and what looked liked black graphite markings outlined circles, squares and other shapes filled in with acrylic paint. The textures, patterns and colors invited the viewer in, but did not overpower or call attention; the effect was a feeling of serenity.

Hotel Art #2

If I needed to rehearse a business presentation in my room I would welcome the chance to glance up at these paintings, taking a visual break from memorizing the notes, charts, graphs and sales figures. I think looking at the artwork would allow my mind to wander briefly, getting lost in the landscape of colors and patterns. Perhaps the reverie would relax me, making me feel less nervous about the presentation and even lowering my blood pressure.

Obviously hotel art does not attract attention like a Warhol or Dali exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. And in the rush of checking in, carrying your bags to the room, swiping your key card and flipping through the HD channels on the television, you could easily miss some of the art pieces scattered throughout any Marriott, Hyatt, Crowne Plaza or Sheraton hotel in America.

That’s because hotel art is invisible, like the maid pushing a cart in the hallway or the frumpy lady clearing the breakfast dishes. But the pieces are there, just waiting for us to look at them. The paintings in my room seemed to say, “Hey we’re here anytime you want us. No pressure, though. Enjoy your stay.”

Hotel Art #3

And this recognition made me realize I have to sharpen my sense of awareness, being open to the possibility of making discoveries amid the bustle of keeping on schedule and crossing off items on the day’s itinerary.

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Collage in the Closet

The manuscripts had collected in my bottom drawer. This verbal clutter consisted of poems, stories and film scripts, all fused into the genre of unwanted black ink on white paper; in short, words rejected by the eyes of editors.

And then in early December 2009, an idea struck me. I decided to try to create a work of art in another form, gluing the scraps of paper to a foam board to make a collage composed of cut-up manuscripts. I even had a title for the piece: “Unpublished Manuscripts.”

As a recreational artist I have taken photographs over the years with my Pentax K1000 camera. Some of the images have been exhibited in small galleries in central New York and also published in literary magazines.

However, I had never created a collage before, so I wasn’t familiar with the process.

But that December I had an exhibit scheduled at the Rome Art and Community Center in my hometown of Rome, New York, and I thought I would make the collage as an additional work to go along with the group of photographs. I purchased a 20-by-30-inch piece of foam board, several 3M glue sticks and a can of acrylic spray. 

I now felt ready to tackle the medium. Then time became a factor because I had one week to go before I had to travel to Rome to drop off the artwork for the exhibition. I worked feverishly several hours a night after work, selecting the manuscripts, ripping the pages into non-uniform pieces and pasting them to the board. 

And it was fitting because I received a rejection form letter from The Atlantic that week in response to some poems I had submitted. I added it to my collage.  

When I was finished gluing all of the pieces of paper, I sprayed a few heavy coats of acrylic spray on the surface. I remember being petrified that the release of the chemical spray would lead to spontaneous combustion in my apartment or cause the gas stove to explode. So just to be safe I opened my door to allow the frigid night air to dissipate the cloud hovering over my bed, as I had placed the collage on top of the green comforter covering my mattress.

A few days later I dropped off the collage, along with about a dozen of my framed photographs, at the RACC. I also made sure the unframed mixed media piece had wire attached to the back for gallery hanging.

Christmas came and went, and before New Year’s Eve I headed back to the RACC with my stepfather Bill to pick up the artwork.

As we went inside, trying to dodge the melting snow dripping from the overhang of the roof, a female museum employee was talking to the mailman outside. The lady told me the executive director, who approves and schedules all exhibitions, was off that day. Bill and I climbed the stairs to the second floor, turned down a hallway and entered the small community room gallery where my pieces had been displayed.

Bill helped me to pack the framed photographs into some blue plastic totes we had brought with us, but we could not find the collage anywhere. Fear consumed me, and I said to Bill, “I hope they haven’t thrown it out.”

We asked the woman who had been talking to the mailman if she knew where the collage was hiding. She did not have a clue, but she said the executive director would not have thrown it out because the director had too much respect for artists. I doubted this claim.

Bill walked downstairs with a couple of totes stacked in his arms, while I searched every inch of the white room, along with some of the other gallery spaces. I then came back to the community room and noticed the outline of a narrow closet door near one of the corners.

The door creaked as I opened it slowly, and I found my collage leaning against some shelving, still sheathed in the plastic bag I had put it in.     

I was crestfallen, as it seemed all my effort to create the piece was wasted. If I wasn’t so disappointed, I would have found the humor in it. The piece to celebrate a writer’s rejection was stuffed in a closet, hidden by the art museum and deemed unworthy for the eyes of visitors. 

Bill and my mother tried to cheer me up later in the day. In the evening, after going to Mass, they went to Wal-Mart and bought a large black frame. After they brought it home, Bill, who works as a contractor and possesses a craftsman’s magic when it comes to matting, framing and hanging pictures, set my collage on the kitchen table and put it inside the new frame.

And the frame looked attractive hanging on a wall in my parents’ living room. Since then, friends and family who have seen the work have complimented it; some have called it a “conversation piece” and also inquired about the time and effort it took to rip up the small pieces of paper and attach them to the surface.     

Truth be told, I am not a collage artist at heart. I have been raised with digital media, and photography and video are the tools I use to express myself visually.  

At the same time, I have discovered collage to be the most freeing medium. It seems there are no mistakes, as the wrong turns and “goofs” only make the work more interesting. Even the bubbling of the paper behind the glass of the frame gives the work a three-dimensional quality. In collage, all fear is banished and the artist is allowed to set his or her imagination free without regard to the consequences.

And what I love is the physical nature of the materials, which have no electronic components. There are no computers, no circuits, no wires and no Internet connections. No batteries are needed.

You take vestiges from the world, things that are discarded or items that no longer have use in their original form, and you add them to other small pieces to create something new and beautiful.    

I had salvaged something of merit from my piles of rejected manuscripts. Through collage, I allowed the writing to live in another form, as the manuscripts now had value in the appearance of the words, instead of in the quality of the content. 

And whether rejected by editors or the museum director of the Rome Art and Community Center, I had added something new to the world that did not exist before. I learned that art is in the creation itself, the expression of the artist, the sending forth of his or her vision; it is not dictated by the acceptance of others.

Perhaps this collage project also brought me some good luck. Because a few months later, many of the rejected poems included in the artwork were accepted by Flutter Press and published in chapbook form. 

And the joy I experienced when I first opened the cover of the publication matched my delight in seeing those same words hanging on a wall.

 

 

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