JAMESTOWN – Tom Culora is dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, but he also is an amazingly innovative artist.
He created a large portrait, more than 6 feet tall and 3½ feet wide, called “Madeline Ernest: In Her Own Words.” The image is created from some of the sentences Ernest used in a story she told as part of the Oral History Project of the Warren Preservation Society.
The viewer can go up close to the work and read what Ernest said, or step back several yards and see the features of her face and hair.
Culora wrote her words on long strips of gessoed basswood, about a half-inch wide. He wrote the words using markers with points of varying thicknesses and shades of gray in such a way as to “draw” the image that is visible from a distance.
It is one of more than 50 fascinating pieces created by the 20 artists featured in the Jamestown Arts Center’s summer exhibit “WORD: Text in Contemporary Art.” The participating artists used text to develop their aesthetic, incorporating the lines and shapes of letters so they became part of the artwork itself.
Karen Conway of Newport, the exhibition director and curator, spent more than a year working with local artists, as well as national and international artists, to put together the exhibit.
“I never thought they would all agree to be part of the show,” Conway said. “They were extremely generous.”
Barbara Kruger, 72, a conceptual artist who works from New York Cityand Los Angeles, has always incorporated inspirational, provocative and political phrases in her work. Some of her recognizable slogans include “I shop therefore I am” and “Your body is a battleground,” which appear in white letters against a red background in other pieces.
“She was the inspiration for the whole exhibit,” said Conway, who worked for several years at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which has featured Kruger’s work.
Conway chose this quote from Kruger to introduce the exhibit: “I work with pictures and words because they have the ability to determine who we are, what we want to be, and what we become.”
Featured artists have created pieces that are heart-wrenching, perhaps none more so than a piece called “Veiled Barbara” that was created by Alexandra Broches of Wakefield. She used a photo of her cousin, Barbara,who was only 3 years old when it was taken in August 1943 by famed German- Dutch photographer Annemie Wolff.
Over the photo image, Broches superimposed a letter written by the little girl’s father, Fritz, in Nazi-occupied Holland. He wrote the letter to his relatives in the U.S., worried about how he could protect his daughter.
The photo was taken a month before the family was sent to the Westerbork Transit Camp for transport to Nazi extermination camps. Broches’ father and mother had left the Netherlands in 1939 to settle in New York.
“Gradually I came to know more about our Dutch Jewish family’s history, the story of my parents’ arrival in the United States, and the deaths of my father’s family in the Holocaust,” Broches wrote in text accompanying the artwork.
There are also playful pieces in the exhibit, such as those created by Leslie Dill of Brooklyn that show sculpted animals and other likenesses covered with words.
“She called her puppets vehicles for poetry,” Conway said. “The strings show we are not perfect beings.”
A little boy recently went up to one of Dill’s pieces and said, “Look, it’s a word zebra,” Conway said.
She is pleased artists such as Edwin Schlossberg, the husband of Caroline Kennedy, agreed to participate in the show, she said. Schlossberg created a piece showing wordsthat change color with changing temperatures, one of three pieces he has in the show.
“I had trouble choosing three,” Conway said. “It was tough to cull down the work of all the artists.”
Schlossberg, who is founder and principal of ESI Design of New York City, specializes in designing interactive, participatory experiences. Back in 1977, he recreated the first hands-on learning environment in the U.S. for the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.
“He has been at the forefront of museum design, all the interactives, for example,” Conway said.
Gayle Wells Mandle of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, has a painting in the exhibit called “Susquehanna,” depicting the river and the Market Street Bridge not far from her former hometown of Kingston, Pennsylvania. She is the wife of Roger Mandle, the former president of the Rhode Island School of Design.
“The writing in the waters of my painting tells the story of how the banks periodically overflowed, flooding and polluting the towns along the river and causing the coal mines in the area to fill withwater,” Gayle Mandle said Her mother was a plein-air artist who often painted the river, she said.
Moroccan-born photographer Lalla Essaydi uses the Arab traditions of henna painting and calligraphy to write on models’ skin, clothing and walls. Her piece in the exhibit shows an Arab woman dressed in a long robe and hijab that are covered in words.
A major focus of Essaydi’s art is the role and status of women in Arab society, she said in text accompanying the work. She wrote that she is “uncomfortable thinking of myself as a representative of all Arab women. Art can only come from the heart of an individual artist, and I am much too aware of the range of traditions and laws among the different Arab nations to presume to speak for everyone.”
The exhibit at the Jamestown Arts Center, 18 Valley St., remains open until Saturday. A closing reception will be held at the center on Wednesday, from 6-8 p.m., with Conway and some of the artists attending.
Sean Flynn, Newport Daily News
Monday, August 7, 2017