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RI Archives: Arts

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Man Of Stone: Mark Mennin And His Monumental Creations

By Joseph Montebello

In person Mark Mennin, a resident of Bethlehem, Conn., is as impressive as the sculpture he creates. He is tall and broad and looks as if he could move a massive piece of stone with the greatest ease. His impressive granite carvings explore the landscape and the human figure’s relationship with the earth. Or with a piece of furniture — because many of his works resembles not so much articles of stone but plumped, cushiony couches that would have looked at home in a Maurice Villency setting.

Born in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Mennin grew up in New York City and from an early age had an artistic bent. 

“My father was a classical composer and my mother was a musician and photographer. They totally encouraged pretty much anything I wanted to do. My parents were also master draftsmen and I was always drawing. I made two trips to Italy – one when I was nine and again when I was eighteen. They were such powerful experiences for me. My dad was my guide and he knew as much about art history as most professors. I had planned to go to law school at Princeton but I dismissed that idea and decided to follow my dream of being an artist.

“I did a lot of ceramics in college and had the opportunity to study with the Japanese ceramicist and artist Toshiko Takaezu. I carved my first piece of stone when I was 23 and it was a pretty simple piece.”

Mennin went back to Italy again and had the good fortune of meeting a group from Texas who were looking for someone to copy Greek statues for a temple they were building.

“It was a baptism by fire,” Mennin recalls, “but it was also a crash course in carving directly and realistically and being in Italy gave me the opportunity to make a living and to start my own work.  My first weekend in Italy I climbed up to the mountains, above the quarries and looked out and definitely decided I was going to make it as a carver.”

And indeed he did. That was in 1984 and for several years he followed the same cycle; a third of the year working in Italy, a third working at a family home in the Adirondacks, and the last third in New York, peddling the work he had created. In the beginning, however, his work was not as massive as it has become.

Mennin bought his Bethlehem home about 20 years ago with the idea of enlarging the scope and size of his work. The scale of his sculpture has evolved to giant landscape and architectural pieces which, in many cases, involve hundreds of tons of granite.

“Most of my pieces are displayed outdoors,” Mennin explains. “So I use granite because it’s permeable. Marble doesn’t weather as well in the northeast; I carve marble and onyx for spaces that don’t have a winter.”

Mennin stockpiles stone on his property and tends to have about 1000 tons on hand. Fortunately he has a 3000-square-foot barn and 10,000 square feet of outdoor space. He also has a 3500-square-foot space in town; he refers to it as the “Winter Palace” which he uses when it’s too cold to work outside.

He does all the carving himself and has produced a large body of work for both private and pubic collections, including the fountain and installations at New York’s Chelsea Market; Stanford University; Penn State University; Bruce Park, Greenwich, Connecticut; Laumeier Sculpture Park, St. Louis, Missouri; The deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, Mass.; Delbarton School, Morristown, New Jersey; SUNY Staten Island; and the Hotchkiss School, Lakeville, Conn.

Most recently Mennin created the unique bench that sits in the Judy Black Memorial Park and Gardens in Washington Depot.

“Originally we were going to put in a fountain,” explains Mennin. “But dealing with northeast weather presented a problem and a fountain is not so impressive when it’s turned off. I made a model of the bench I had in mind and everyone seemed to love it.”

What’s not to love? The bench is made of black granite, measures forty feet long by five-and-a-half feet wide, and weighs 60,000 pounds. The subtlety of the waves across the bench adds to the mystery and allure of the piece. It is a sight to behold and a testament to Mennin’s creativity and ingenuity.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 01/07/18 at 11:18 AM • Permalink

Katharine T. Carter Makes The Art Go Around

Katharine T. Carter with Hugo T. Poodle. Photo: Michelle Barclay.

By Jamie Larson As patrons and appreciators of the fine arts that fill the institutions and galleries across our region, most of us spend little time contemplating how the art got there. The complex mechanisms, bureaucracy and caprice that fill the chasm between struggling artists and their due is invisible to the audience but can be a real slog for even the most visionary artist. This is where Katharine T. Carter & Associates come in. For nearly 33 years, Carter, with the help of a current team of 21 critics, publicists and curators in New York and Los Angeles, has helped artists ascend in stature by getting their work out of the studio and into museums and other nonprofit institutions. What’s novel about Carter’s model is she manages to assist in every part of the process. She kind of lubricates the art world machine so artists and curators can spend more time focusing on art and less on the minutiae. And she’s doing it all out of her quiet home in Kinderhook, New York. “The business has become so competitive that it can be hard for an artist who is focusing on his or her work to navigate the things you have to do to get shown,” Carter said. “There’s nobody that’s doing what we do.” While she may be well connected from years of experience, Carter isn’t hoarding any of her industry secrets. Her book, Accelerating on the Curves: The Artist’s Roadmap to Success, which she wrote with her associates, was just released in its second edition. “An artist comes to us and we decide how best to represent them,” said Carter. “We put together all the marketing material for them and the written support for their work, from reviews to the display materials. We send a catalog of an artist’s work, where we’ve essentially curated what an exhibit of an artist’s work would look like, to museums across the country. It’s a unique business model in the art world. The artists, the critics and the curators all get involved. That’s the reason the company has been successful.” Before she began the business, Carter was a successful artist in New York for 10 years. She was getting shown often and began a national speaking circuit. Then, in the mid ‘80s, she got in a car wreck. “I was a hard-edge painter and after the accident I tried everything, special chairs… I just knew it was over. Then I thought, what in the world am I going to do?”

Photograph by Sparky Campanella, now on display at Joyce Goldstein Gallery in Chatham.

She continued traveling on the lecture circuit, giving over a thousand talks on art and management, into the mid ‘90s. But she also had begun helping artists she knew make catalogs, as well as introducing them to contacts she’d made as an artist and a speaker.

“I wanted to help artists and I had contacts. I started to realize artists didn’t know how to get into the places they deserved to go.”

In the ‘90s she started working with the New York Times critic William Zimmer, who helped open the door so that her artists could get the critiques they needed to be considered for high-profile institutions. Now Carter & Associates handles just about every aspect of the behind-the-scenes process of booking exhibitions.

“I say to a client, ‘hey I got you a show!’ They don’t realize I approached 80 museums,” Carter chuckled. “These days, to succeed you have got to have beautiful materials, energy and the guts to follow through. The world has really changed and you have to buckle up.”

When people come to Carter they’re usually somewhat known and she puts their work on the road for 10 to 15 shows. By the end of that tour, they’re in a different echelon than when they started.

“If you haven’t done that, the higher level institutions won’t look at you. You can really change the course of someone’s life. When you’re able to give that to someone in three years and take them to the next level, it’s a good feeling. I’ve had a lot of wonderful clients over the years.”

She cites Katharine Eliot and Martin Weinstein as a couple of the artists she placed into about 30 shows, which really elevated their careers. But everyone knows that when artists are starting out, they don’t usually have much in the way of finances. Carter is cognizant of that.

Photograph by Sparky Campanella, now on display at Joyce Goldstein Gallery in Chatham.

“Money is a real issue for artists,” she said. “That’s why we’ve always been fee based and why I wrote our book. We want to empower artists. I shared everything. I gave up all my techniques.”

Carter has been plying her unique trade from our region since the early 2000s when she visited Hudson and a friend showed her that she could have the space and seclusion she desired while remaining connected to her associates and clients in the city. She bought her home in Kinderhook in 2005.

“I felt Kinderhook was good for me because I’m a bit of a recluse but I can still access so much in Hudson.”

In the years since she moved here, the local art scene has grown considerably, punctuated a few years ago when an old friend, Jack Shainman, opened his huge museum-quality gallery in Kinderhook.

“It’s really wonderful to have Jack here. I’ve known him for 30 years. When he moved here I couldn’t believe it.”

What does Carter like to do for fun? Facilitate excellent gallery exhibitions locally, of course. She recently worked with minimalist photographer Sparky Campanella to set up a show at the Joyce Goldstein Gallery in Chatham, New York which runs through December 2, and will soon help present the work of John Lyon Paul and George Spencer locally.

While Carter’s success is due primarily to her technical acumen and years of experience, it’s clear that what drives her is an intrinsic love of art and passion for helping artists, as people, reach their potential.

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 11/14/17 at 08:24 AM • Permalink

How Do You Follow Up 7 Emmys? A Quilt Show, Of Course.

By Lisa Green

If you look closely — and it helps if you are well versed in the wardrobe of Sesame Street characters — you might find pieces of Miss Piggy’s elegant cocktail dresses in the patchwork of Stephen Rotondaro’s quilts. Rotondaro, who was a costume designer with The Muppets for 25 years, likes to say he sewed his way to seven Emmys. And now he has sewn his way to his own quilt show at Brookside Quiltworks in Egremont, Mass. The show, which will feature around 50 quilts made over the course of 30 years, opens on Sunday, Oct. 8 and will run through Dec. 21.

So how did an award-winning costume designer, adept at creating a spider costume for The Muppet Christmas movie or — perhaps his most bizarre assignment — a smoking jacket for a brick (yes, a brick), come to embrace the art of quilting?

“My mother died at age 54, and left quilt tops,” says Rotondaro, who by osmosis picked up the sewing gene (he also has a graduate degree in costume design from NYU). “To honor her I finished her work. Then I worked with a quilter at The Muppets. She had a calendar of Amish quilts that inspired my first one.”

Everywhere he’s ever worked — The Jim Henson Company, Sesame Street, Chelsea Editions (a high-end textile manufacturer), Rotondaro collected tiny bits of fabric that were headed for the scrap heap. He also had inherited his mother’s collection of cotton fabrics. All of that collecting accounts for the astonishing play of patterns in his quilts, whether designed in traditional Amish patterns or his own free play of colors and prints. Some of the scraps get used right away; others, like those in one of his hexagon quilts, took years to accumulate.

One of his favorite patterns is called Broken Dishes, a basic quilt pattern constructed entirely of half-square triangles. He’s worked Broken Dishes in versions of monochromes, bright solids, fabrics of the same theme, and random bits and pieces that appeal to him, or have special significance. Rotondaro sews the pieces together by machine, then has the tops and bottom hand quilted, many of them finished by an Amish woman in Ohio.

Despite their artistry, these quilts are not necessarily precious decorations. “Everything I make is very usable,” Rotondaro says, picking up a quilt that hung as his shower curtain when he lived in New York, and a slightly faded set of placemats. “At The Henson Company, as a group we made friendship quilts when somebody had a baby or got married. We made over 30 of them. And now some of those babies are having their own kids. I’ve made a lot of baby gifts.”

Now living in Hillsdale, New York with his husband, an architect (they built a stunning house 12 years ago), Rotondaro, who grew up in California, still contributes to The Muppets wardrobe. He just made a dress for Miss Piggy (or “Piggy,” as he calls her). He made a Broken Dishes quilt for The Muppets TV show (2015-2016), and last year created a quilt (from his own scrap collection) for a talking bed for “Elmo’s World: Sleep.” He also recently sewed costumes for “The Happytime Murders,” a feature-length film set to launch next year, making clothing for both the human actors (including Melissa McCarthy) and the puppets (which are not Muppets).

When you have a surfeit of Emmy Awards, you put them on a shelf in your coat closet.

Rotondaro’s quilt production depends on his costume design workload, but he made 12 quilts one winter when he wasn’t working. In spite of creating a collection substantial enough to fill the Brookside Quiltworks barn, working with fabrics and sewing is just what he does, whether it’s for costumes or quilts.

“I don’t consider myself a quilter,” he says. “I just make quilts.”

Stephen Rotondaro Quilt Show
Show Opening Sunday, Oct. 8, noon–3 p.m.
Brookside Quiltworks
2 Sheffield Rd., Egremont, MA
(413) 528-0445

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Posted by Lisa Green on 10/02/17 at 02:04 PM • Permalink

Joy Brown’s Roly Poly Figures Go From Kent To Broadway

One Holding Small One at 96th Street. Photo by Katharine Manning.

By CB Wismar

When you look into the faces of Joy Brown’s larger-than-life, thousand-pound-plus figures, they look back. The eyes are open and alert. The faces are not nervous or self-conscious. “There is no culture, no gender, no age,” says Brown. “They each have a life of their own.”

And now nine of them have settled, for a while, on Broadway in New York City, thanks to an invitation courtesy of the Broadway Mall Association and the New York City Parks. The Kent, Conn. artist’s engaging human figures, placed from 72nd Street to 168th Street, are irresistible to passersby who stop, climb, sit on, hug and sometimes simply gaze at these innocent visitors. “The rounded forms and earth tones of these big figures evoke a feeling of stillness and peace,” Brown says, “yet they bring out the child in us to play.”

Joy Brown’s own journey has crossed continents, bridged cultures, suffered the deep frustration of having to learn without direction, and culminated in an internationally celebrated career as a potter and a sculptor. 

Born in the United States, she settled with her medical missionary parents in Japan, went to an international school, came back to graduate from Florida’s Eckerd College and returned to Japan to learn the ways and wiles of pottery.

It was during her first apprenticeship that Brown learned the almost Zen-like patience that comes from creating the same piece over and over again, only to destroy it and begin once more. Her second apprenticeship was more fulfilling, teaching her both the mysteries of clay and the finesse required to build a wood-fired kiln. Returning to the U.S. to pursue her chosen career as a potter, Brown created pieces that satisfied a growing audience while she, herself, continued to grow.

“What you make becomes more and more you,” Brown reflects as she looks at a gentle figure standing peacefully in the midst of her South Kent artist’s compound. “I moved to the figures in a kind of funny way. For five years, I had a studio in Webatuck Craft Village outside of Wingdale, New York. While I was working there, I started making clay and cloth puppets. The puppets morphed into small animal figures, then into my human figures.”

Confined in size by the dimensions of the Japanese-style anagama wood-firing tunnel kiln that she built herself, Brown dreamed of taking those figures and turning them into heroic-sized pieces that could find their place in sculpture gardens and public parks.

It was when William Morrison, owner of the eponymous gallery in Kent, invited Joy to exhibit her pieces that the connection was made for a larger showing. 

“I had followed Joy’s work and was really taken by the peaceful presence of her figures,” recalls Billy Morrison. “I’ve had a wonderful relationship with the Broadway Mall Association and NYC Parks. ‘Joy Brown on Broadway’ took two years to come together, but it was a natural.”

Joy uses her clay figures as “maquettes” or models that are eventually scaled up in plaster, made into forms and created by pouring in molten bronze. “I was able to show my first bronzes in the 2010 Shanghai World Expo,” Brown says. “I had started working with a foundry in Thailand, but through connections made as far back as high school, I became involved with Peter Zau and The Purple Roof Gallery and Atelier in Shanghai. His support and assistance made the creation of the New York show figures possible.”

Recliners at 166th Street. Photo by Katharine Manning.

Joy’s involvement in the transformation of her clay pieces to the stunning, lovable bronzes in NYC is fully hands on. She builds the plaster figures in China with her assistant Tanya Kukucka, supervises the foundry work and the welding assembly of the bronze components, then, in a quiet moment, adds the distinctive features that make each piece so unique.

Brown is reverential when talking about the process. “I get to the warehouse early in the morning before the crew is there. They position the figure so I can step far back and get a sense of where the eyes and mouth should go. I use pieces of black paper and place them on the figure, step back, determine what needs to change, then repeat the steps until I know it’s right.” 

In 1998, realizing both the universality of art and the great need for artistic communication across cultures, Brown started Still Mountain Center in Kent with fellow artist Denis Cooper. “I realized the Center could be a forum in which to communicate the values I had learned about clay, work, community and life. We demonstrate how art encourages the spirit of being human.”

And so, like emissaries with the gentle soul of Still Mountain, Joy Brown’s figures have come to New York, fully present as Joy is in her work and in her life.

The figures will be encamped on Broadway until November.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 07/10/17 at 10:13 AM • Permalink

The RuraList: The Big Six At Building 6

By Nichole Dupont

MASS MoCA, the unofficial Louvre of the Northeast, is about to unveil its newly renovated Building 6 on Sunday, May 28. The 130,000 square feet of space will be the new home of changing exhibitions, long-term installations, and so much natural light that it can alter the mood of visitors, who will travel in droves to see Louise Bourgeois’ megalithic marble sculptures, the floating, breathing light of James Turrell, and the virtual realities of Laurie Anderson.

Building 6, with its rough-hewn floorboards, exposed brick and factory windows, is a masterpiece of which every corner should be explored, including the art. But to ground you on your journey through the totally reimagined 19th century industrial complex, here are six things not to miss in the magnificent Building 6.

1. Cosmic Latte
Spencer Finch returns to MASS MoCA — his work, What Time is it on the Sun? appeared in 2007 — with the whimsical, 80-foot Cosmic Latte installation. More than 300 custom LED fixtures hang from the ceiling, emitting a brownish-gold light that cannot be muted, even with the flood of natural light coming into the gallery space. The lights are arranged in the formation of the molecular model of the pigments that are used to achieve this “latte” color. And the shape of the entire installation is meant to represent the Milky Way as it would be seen (in our hemispheric sky here in the Northeast) in early spring. You don’t have to be an astrophysicist to bask in the warm light of these stars, but they will inspire you to think great things.

2. Joe Wardwell’s wall of words
You might just get lost in the Boston-based artist’s Hello America: 40 Hits from the 50 States, a layered “landscape” that covers the entire wall, floor to ceiling, of one of the gallery spaces. The background of the work is the sloping silhouette of the tree line on Mount Greylock. But the naturalism stops there, as layer upon layer of yellows, blues and pinks, then huge lettering, lead us into the foreground: 40 screen-printed texts. Song lyrics, campaign slogans, quotes and lines of poetry from brilliant minds like Hunter S. Thompson, Maya Angelou and Bill Clinton create a haunting homage to an American dream long ago shattered. You’ll want to spend hours reading each fragment, and contemplating “what’s next.”

3. The lightwell
At the core of Building 6, which is three stories high and includes a bike tunnel, is a nexus of stairwells and bridges leading from one exhibit to the next. At first glance, it seems like the decision to make part of the building “open air” was cavalier considering the fickle New England climate… but look up. A 20-foot-wide by 140-foot-long skylight has replaced the roof of the building, allowing for maximum light to pass through. Rain or shine, the light is perfect.

4. Barbara Ernst Prey’s commissioned watercolor
The unofficial theme of Building 6 is “larger than life.” This includes a 9-foot-tall, 16-foot-wide watercolor — yes, watercolor — painting of the interior of the building before renovations began. No detail went unnoticed, as Prey captured the breadth and detail of each column (there were 400), brick and beam, using the most unforgiving medium with the precision of a watchmaker. Building 6 Portrait: Interior is by far her largest commissioned work to-date, and may be the largest watercolor ever completed by a living female artist.
5. The disturbing documents of Jenny Holzer
This multi-talented, multi-medium artist leaves no stone unturned on the MASS MoCA campus this year. Carved benches, large-scale outdoor projections and early wheat paste posters present the breadth, and brevity, of Holzer’s long career of tapping into the public consciousness. The posters are drawn from interviews and official accounts found in the annals of Human Rights Watch and Save the Children. The words, printed on large, stark canvases, are haunting reminders that war and politics infiltrate and slash the everyday lives of people the world over. In addition to the wheat paste “classified” accounts, she has arranged two tables of human bones — vertebrae, femurs, shoulder blades — to illustrate the stark reality of a society steeped in conflict without end.

6. The eternal sound smile of Gunnar Schonbeck
You don’t need to be a musician to make beautiful music. No Experience Required features a repertoire of fantastical instruments — a nine-foot banjo, megalithic chimes, a larger-than-life marimba — all designed and crafted by the late Gunnar Schonbeck. Throughout his musical life, Schonbeck — a professor of music at Bennington College — created more than 1,000 instruments, welding together steel drums, pan pipes, zithers and harps from found objects. Visitors to the installation are invited to play for themselves this unique collection of instruments that have been used by Bang on a Can founding member Mark Stewart as well as Wilco’s Glenn Kotche.

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Posted by Nichole on 05/22/17 at 01:45 PM • Permalink