Artists seek shelter in different forms

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NORTH ADAMS — In the 1950s, artist Opie O'Brien was issued a dog tag with his name and other pertinent information on it. As a student at Public School 33 in New York City, the dog tag and Civil Defense "duck and cover drills" were just a normal part of daily life during the Cold War.

"It was a time when kids were taught to seek shelter under their desks and that, supposedly, was going to save them from nuclear disaster. He's of an age where the school kids in Brooklyn, N.Y., were issued dog tags they had to wear," Arthur De Bow, curator of MCLA Gallery 51 said while pointing out O'Brien's childhood dog tag centered, between two brightly painted nuclear warheads bearing the names USA and USSR. O'Brien's multimedia piece, "Duck and Cover," also includes a group of school children made from vintage game board pieces, centered in front of a fallout protection manual issued by the state of New York.

In a note accompanying the piece, the artist, now a North Adams resident, describes the dog tag as "a chilling reminder of how much fear and paranoia was a regular part of 1950s American life."

The work is one response to the questions De Bow posed to the group of 19 local, regional and national artists of "Shel-ter," on exhibit through Sept. 23 at MCLA Gallery 51.

"This really came about in terms of exploring the word shelter in all its definitions and all its meanings," De Bow said. "It kind of generated because of it being such a pertinent word in our society and our world right now with so many people around the world needing to seek shelter; needing new shelter because of the enormous amount of natural disasters happening; the overwhelming issue of the homeless, to the very strong meanings and definitions of shelter in terms of emotional shelter.

"So many people are feeling they need to seek emotional shelter because of what is happening in the world — socially, economically, politically. So, it just struck a chord of a great concept and word to really have explored and to have artists explore that word in their own artistic voice, in their own meaning and interpretation."

The result is a show filled with a diverse range of art — from ceramics, paintings and photographs to fiber arts, book art and installations — all exploring the topic.

"One thing that was very purposefully for this show was to seek a nice diversity of artists. A diversity of artists in terms of location, which is why we have local, regional and national artist, but also in a diversity in materials," he said. "Since we were really asking artists to explore the diversity in the definition of shelter, we also wanted that diversity in the materials."

A set of three oil paintings by Stephanie Serpick, a Brooklyn-based artist who completed a residency at the Studios at Mass MoCA in 2017, feature recently slept in beds, all with rumpled sheets and pillows.

"The concept of shelter for her, being one of the most profound and immediate forms of shelter that we seek, is being in our own bed — burying ourselves, pulling the covers over our head," De Bow said.

Others, he said, such as a series of paintings by Julia Dixon, of North Adams, strike on even more topical concerns. Dixon's paintings feature faces of local residents with words, that are meaningful to the individual, written on them.

"Julia Dixon's [paintings] go to the more emotional need of seeking shelter from what is happening in our world in a social, but even more political, stance," he said.

Heidi Kirkpatrick's work is more conceptual in interpretation than some of the other pieces. A fine art photographer from Portland, Ore., she is known for developing her photographs in old Altoids tins.

"She was really of interest for me for the show, not only because I know her work, but because she does her work in what in essence is a shelter," De Bow said.

Michelle Daly's response, "Nested," an installation of 538 colorful paint chips, each embroidered with thread, explores the expectations of marriage and relationships.

"It has an extremely strong emotional content," De Bow said. "It's about needing to seek shelter from physical, emotional abuse. Unfortunately, some of us have found ourselves in what, I think it's not wrong to say, a toxic relationship. The 538 pieces represent the 538 days Michelle was married."

Daly added, "It's also about the expectations of home ownership and this kind of DIY, HGTV-aspirational culture that puts a lot of expectations on nesting, on marriage and relationships, on when that is not fulfilled or not appreciated."


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