Monday, September 22, 2014

Joellyn Rock Talks About Her Life in Art and the Amazing Sophronia Project

Joellyn Rock teaches digital art and filmmaking classes for the Department of Art&Design at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She is one of the faculty members who helped establish UMD's new Motion and Media Across Disciplines Lab, a video studio and motion capture lab with options for interdisciplinary research.

Though she has done other work that has caught my attention and fired my imagination, her involvement in The Sophronia Project is what compelled me to follow through with this interview. I consider it a major achievement in the Minnesota arts scene for 2014.

EN: Your creativity is expressed in a range of mediums. Can you briefly describe the various phases of your life as an artist?

Joellyn Rock: My medium of choice has shifted over the past three decades, but one constant has been my desire to tell stories with images. After college, I lived in Seattle for about 15 years, doing drawings (colored pencils, sgraffito) and paintings (oils and acrylics) while working a bunch of day jobs (cook, bookstore clerk, daycare teacher, whatever paid the rent). During those years I did illustrations and designs for posters and print publications, like The Rocket and The Seattle Weekly.

My aesthetic was influenced by the visual culture of that time: punk, comics and outsider art. I also did some collaborative and performance works, installations in gallery windows, experimental theater, shadow puppetry. Duluth actually reminds me of Seattle's art scene at that time… small enough and remote enough to be really friendly, open-minded, and supportive of new-comers. Smaller galleries and cooperative spaces gave young artists the chance to show our work and build community. Eventually I started moving into more mixed-media sculptural works (found objects, glass, clay, wood) and hand-built ceramics. I began to transfer my narrative imagery onto the surface of these ceramic works, stories disguised as decorative paintings in underglazes on clay. I also lived briefly in Paris and New York, where I continued to make art, living hand-to-mouth on part-time teaching gigs and sales of artwork. Then, in 1995 I had a baby and moved to Duluth! Maintaining a ceramic studio proved difficult, so after that I made the leap to digital media. I was drawn to the creative potential of the web and emerging interactive formats that offered diverse ways to tell stories. Since then I have done a range of projects that use tools like photoshop and digital video and web software. Most recently, I am exploring various ways to reintegrate tactile materials and physical interaction into my work with digital narrative. Do you have a primary medium you like to work in?

For me, I switch the medium to accommodate the project, and also in response to contemporary culture. As a digital artist, sometimes I miss working with clay and other tactile materials. I think the culture in general is overwhelmed by ubiquitous technology. My next work will probably try to grapple with that imbalance.

EN: Where were you trained? When did you realize you were going to be serious about art? How did that come about?

JR: I always loved making pictures as a kid and I hung out in the art room at Robbinsdale High School. I chose to study Comparative Literature my first two years at the University of Wisconsin Madison, partly because visual art didn't seem serious enough! But about half-way through college, (It may have been while sitting in an art history class) I began to realize how much I loved paintings… the colors, the formal elements, the ideas, the stories… and I began to feel that fire-in-the-belly for making art. I finished my undergrad degree in visual art at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Evergreen was a new interdisciplinary innovator in education, and it drew together a mix of radical thinkers and creative risk-takers. I had some wonderful female art professors at Evergreen (Marilyn Frasca, Susan Aurand). I was also lucky to be there with talented student artists who took the creative process very seriously (but not too seriously.) We even held our own student crits outside of class, just to talk about our work!

Some years after college, I was juried into the Washington State Arts Commission's Artist-in-Residence Program. For about 4 years I traveled around the state doing teaching gigs in schools and community centers, presenting my work in lectures and doing workshops. I was actually making my living as an artist, and when I walked into the room, they would introduce me as "the artist". That experience was an important validation for me.

EN: What are your primary themes? Where does your inspiration come from?

JR: I like to tell old stories in new ways. I often work with fairy tales and myths, reinventing characters and settings. I often spend a lot of time at the beginning of a project doing historical research. Visual imagery and literary ideas gleaned from the past are often layered into my work.

EN: How did you become involved with the Sophronia Project and what is your role?

JR: I drafted the original proposal to create the project for Northern Spark this year. Northern Spark is an annual all-night interactive media event presented by Northern Lights and curated by Steven Dietz in the Twin Cities each year. Kathy McTavish and I had been looking for a chance to do some collaborative work in digital media. We were both using digital tools to remix text and image, but in very different ways. The call for Northern Spark proposals gave us the idea to develop this project together. The theme of Northern Spark this year was : Projecting the City, taking inspiration from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. In the book, Calvino spins a series of tales about imaginary cities. I liked the story about Sophronia, a place made up of two half-cities, part circus and part stone. Our project proposed to create an interactive installation by making use of Kathy's graffiti angel software for projecting text, my digital art and video mash-ups, and netprov writer Rob Wittig's technique of crowd sourced text in twitter.In the multimedia installation, a glowing tent serves as canvas for a mischievous mix of digital video, text, and live silhouettes that disrupt, subvert, and create a playful participatory space. Projections include remixed digital collage, video mashups, and text fragments gleaned from the project database and at #sophroniatwo. What have you found to be the most gratifying facet of Sophronia?

I am especially grateful to have the chance to work with generous collaborators willing to take the risk on something so experimental. At the Walker, we had to change our entire plan overnight because of the forecasted storms. It's both nerve-wracking and exciting to be able to reinvent a complex multimedia work like this, and to allow it to morph to various conditions and spaces. In each location the work took on a different mood, integrating the wildly different architecture and audience each night. It was fun to discover how we could adapt the project to these strange variables, and enjoy the interactive experience it provided at each location. Most gratifying of all, was the fact that the piece was appealing to such a wide range of participants. The glowing, mesmerizing projections seemed to entrance toddlers, teens, moms and grandpas… They all wanted to take a turn and play with their shadows.

And of course, I am Super grateful to work with all these people:
multimedia projections Kathy McTavish,
additional video by Lane Ellis and Lizzy Siemers
soundscape by Kathy McTavish electronic music by Tobin Dack
words by Rob Wittig, Kathleen Roberts, Sheila Packa, Katelynn Monson, Mark Marino, Cathy Podeszwa and #sophroniatwo on twitter
silhouette performances by Cathy Podeszwa, Emma Harvie, Gary Kruchowski, Lizzy Siemers, Jamie Harvie, Jay Sivak, Joellyn Rock, Rob Wittig and the audience participants!
set decorating by Ann Gumpper, Nancy Rogness, Karin Preus
tech support by Ben Harvey

EN: How many locations have you been at with Sophronia and how were they selected?

JR: The work was originally presented at the Walker Art Center for Northern Spark in June 2014. Funding was provided thanks to cooperation between Northern Lights and Walker Art Center. I also wrote an Arrowhead Regional Art Council grant to fund two additional shows which were staged at the Free Range Film Barn in Wrenshall in August and at the Duluth Art Institute in September. The Walker location was made through our Northern Spark application. The barn and depot locations were made possible by the generous curator Annie Dugan at Free Range Film Fest and Duluth Art Institute. I'm so thankful that these funders and venues are open to experimental works like Sophronia!

EN: Is there anything especially unique in how you create?

JR: I seem to be willing and able to ride out the mess of a complex project. I am compelled to make connections between diverse ideas and images. Eventually I am able to mash them together into something colorful and surprising. Since I'm not a perfectionist, and I am comfortable with failure, it doesn't prevent me from trying things I've never done before.

Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Reader.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Local Art Seen: Rodrigo Bello at Trepanier Hall

Friday evening Trepanier Hall hosted a Rodrigo Bello exhibition titled Northland-Southland. Bello's paintings caught my attention the first time I saw a few of his pieces at a PROVE Gallery show titled Transplants which featured artists who have recently moved to our community. Bello is originally from Santiago, Chile where he attended an arts high school, which eventually led to a career as an engineer. Along the way he met and married a Duluth girl. After nine years in Chile together the pair moved here to the Northland. It's my understanding that the Bellos will be moving to Minneapolis next, which I believe will provide excellent opportunities for the artist to showcase his work to a broader audience.

Bello's paintings have a striking, evocative quality. There's a shroud-like mystical sense in much of his work which combines indistinct, moody abstract backgrounds with sharply defined characters or scenes, as illustrated in Fishing Day below. There are also paintings revealing a social conscience, most forcefully his Three Voices which echo the monument to Duluth's infamous lynchings. (May we never forget.)

"Three Voices"
"Fishing Day"
Like many of the art receptions at Trepanier Hall, the evening is orchestrated to be an event as well. In this case Kathy McTavish and Richie Townsend provided a musical accompaniment, Rocky Makes Room shared his spoken word art, Jake Vainio performed with his guitar and Bello himself shared a few words from the heart.

As Bello noted in an interview last October, "Art plays a significant role in any society. It creates a sense of self-awareness. This is essential if we want to pursue a better, peaceful and joyful society."

The walls were crowded with paintings, and some might call that a criticism as it didn't allow enough breathing space between pieces. In point of fact, the abundance of work enabled the Bello to showcase his range. Here are some of the pieces you missed if you were unable to attend.

"The Trapezists"
"Santiago 1973" (detail)
Rodrigo Bello will be an artist to watch over the comping years. 

Meantime, art goes on all around you. Engage it.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Free Handbook of Drawing Offers Help for Students of All Ages

Brush and ink drawing by Ennyman.
Sometime this summer I stumbled upon a website that offers a free book every day. These are no ordinary books. The site is called Forgotten Books and that's exactly what they give you, books from long ago that have probably long been out of print for which there may have been high demand at one time but which are no longer in vogue, perhaps considered by our current culture as no longer relevant.

So much of what has been created in the past has been lost because of our perpetual fascination with the new. The newest movies, the latest TV shows, the new fashions. And yet... what wonders have been produced in ages gone by.

As regards these books, the subject matter is as varied as your interests. Books on social science, religion, mathematics, history, medicine, literature and the arts.... forgotten books for every kind of interest. Including this one on how to draw. A book about drawing will always be useful for the beginning artist. If you ever wanted help with regard to improving your technique as an artist, or for your children who are growing up, this book has many practical bits of advice and countless illustrations. It even has a course of study for helping fledgling artists learn the ropes.

When I was a young art student someone gave me this piece of advice. "It takes a thousand bad drawings to make a good drawing." I took it to heart and set about to make as many drawings as possible as fast as I was able.

Now the reality is that those first 999 drawings weren't "bad" drawings. They showed creativity, imagination and promise. But the process of drawing over and over provided me with an awareness of what my pen or pencil would do if I did this or that. I mastered certain aspects of eye-hand coordination, for example. I learned how to fool the eye and create the impression of depth on a flat surface.

In reality, though, a real class on drawing will offer more than that. And it helped that I had some training when I was very young so that I wasn't shooting from the hip.

High school drawing shows effect of varied line strength.
This 1880 volume by William Walker provides nearly 300 pages of useful instruction. In the early part of the book one learns how the eye works, the persistence of impression, the ways we perceive light and color, and how to observe as an artist. We learn about the tools of an artist and the proper way to sharpen pencils. There are insights on drawing lines, both straight and curvilinear. Sections dealing with outlining, shading, sketching, contour, light and shade, and the use of shadows. This is all groundwork for a course of study which forms the next major segment of the book, which included lessons on beauty, variety, proportionality, and composition.

And there is much, much more.

Even if you are not planning to be an artist, there are many occupations where the ability to draw will prove useful. If you are a cabinet maker, or in the trades, it can be useful to have improved your drawing skills so you can convey a concept to a client.

You can't argue with the price. If you don't want to keep it, you can simply hit the delete button.

A Handbook of Drawing can be found here in this section of their online catalog. If drawing is not an interest of yours, then check out the books on philosophy, poetry, ancient history, recreation, home and household, self help or business and economics.


Friday, September 19, 2014

The Ceramic Art of Carolina Niebres

Art fairs are a great way to see a wide range of art in a short amount of time and to meet new artists. I met Carolina Niebres at the Bayfront Art Fair in mid-August. Because I liked her work I asked if I could share it here and she consented to this interview.

EN: How did you get started in ceramics?
CN: I actually started in 7th grade making sculptures. I always wanted to do more but did not get back to it until 1999 after I had a health incident that made me realize that life is too short not to do the things that I want to do.

EN: Where were you trained?
CN: I started and continue to take classes at the Edina Art Center. I had my first Friday night beginner class in January 1999. I still take classes there and also help with firing, glaze mixing and other things. It is a great facility to learn as much as you are ready for. I have also gone to classes and workshops by other potters like Bob Briscoe, Ellen Shankin, Ian Currie, Robin Hopper, Robbie Lobell, Simon Levin, etc.

EN: Where have you been showing your work?
CN: I mainly do art fairs but have a few galleries. Iowa Artisans Gallery - Iowa City, IA; Gallery 319 and Octagon Gallery - Ames, IA; Edina Art Center - Edina, MN; Minnetonka Center for the Arts - Minnetonka, MN. Hopefully more to come.

EN: Where does your inspiration come from?
CN: Some of my designs come from the plants in my yard. I also love tribal tattoos from the Pacific Islands with all their intricate lines following and accentuating the lines of the body. My shapes come from observing natural curves; however, some of my new forms have been more geometric.

EN: Any up-coming shows?
CN: Yes, you can find them at my site:

EN: Do you have a website or somewhere we can see your work online?
CN: My site is listed above. My more current work can be found on my facebook photos and here.

EN: Is there anything especially unique in how you create?
CN: Besides my designs, I do fire my pottery by adding a mixture of baking soda, sawdust, and water for the last few hours of firing. The baking soda circulates in the atmosphere of the kiln and falls on the pots very randomly. This adds additional variation and movement to each piece by possibly changing the glaze color and also flashing and creating a thin glaze which can build up to have an orange peel texture. This required extra work in the preparation, firing and clean up but the effects for me are worth all the extra work!

EN: When did you realize you were going to be serious about art?
CN: About 2 years after my first class, I found that I was making more and more and want to learn more! I knew then that I need to not just give away my work but actually sell it so that I could do more. A group of us decided to have annual holiday sales. I found that I really liked doing shows and interacting with clients and started doing juried shows. It just progressed from there.

EN: What are you working on now that has you jazzed?
CN: I am continuing to explore shapes out of round in all different forms: pitcher, bowls, mugs, tumblers, bottles, etc. I am working on "twisted" square or triangular forms that just have flashing on the exterior. I don't have many yet. I still also love working on new patterns as well as old favorites that are very meditative to create like my spirals and spiral trees.

* * * *

Quick note here: If you are in any way able, be sure to check our Remigio Bello's art opening, Northland-Southland at Trepanier Hall, tonight at 5:30. Trepanier Hall is the former YWCA located at 202 West 2nd Street in downtown Duluth.

Meantime... enjoy your weekend. If able, go out of your way to see or do something creative. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Dluth Master Comes Home: Gene Ritchie Monohan at The Red Herring

Poet/entrepreneur Bob Monohan and I have more than one thing in common. But one that is the highlight of today's blog is that both our grandmothers enjoyed painting. Mine, however, was just a dabbler, whereas Gene Ritchie Monohan was an artist of exceptional skill who had the privilege of being able to immerse herself in the burgeoning, vibrant 1950's New York art scene.

During last Friday's art crawl I eventually made my way over to The Red Herring to take in the late Ms. Monohan's works which are on display there through November 2.

Genevieve Mae was born in Duluth to Arthur C. Ritchie, an electrical engineer, and Jeanette M. Daily, a homemaker. Growingup in West Duluth she attended and graduated from Denfeld High School in 1926. After two years at a state teacher's college she transferred to the U of MN in Minneapolis where she married George Monohan, a fellow student. After her husband completed his R.O.T.C. course work the family lived in various locations like army families to. Though Gene focused on her family during that time she still pursued her interest in art and eventually completed a Master of Art Degree in 1942. When her husband retired from the army in 1953 they moved to New York City where she was able to connect with the art community there.

The works in this exhibition include more than a dozen oil paintings on stretched canvas which have been assembled from the personal collections of the Monohan family. There are also sketches, prints and more. It's apparent that she brings a warmth to the work so that the pieces aren't just technically executed but convey a feeling intimacy between her and her subject matter.

One of the pictures that is especially fun is the 1984 painting of her grandchildren, including young Bob. The kids were 9, 7 and 5. Cute kids.

The Red Herring has already begun to make its mark as a music venue, connected as Bob Monohan is to the music scene through his Chaperone Records. With this exhibit he's making a statement that it can also be a serious art venue as well.

Recommended: Find an excuse to check it out.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Margie's 1972 Search To Find Bob Dylan: The Encounter (Part 3)

Warfield Theater, November 8, 1979
There are undoubtedly many stories of fans going to extremes to meet their heroes. I knew a couple girls in my junior high school class who climbed through a window into the hotel where the Beatles were staying when the Fab Four came to New York fifty years ago. The efforts Margie Marcus made to find Bob Dylan also seem extraordinary. Unlike my classmates, Margie succeeded in her quest. I share this more as a human interest event, and neither recommend nor endorse this as a means of meeting famous people. Nevertheless, this is the culmination of Margie’s story (continued from yesterday)…. And here’s how it unfolded.

* * * *

FRIDAY, January 14, 1972

By this time it was about 11:30 and I had until 2:30 to meet Tony (Scaduto). Didn’t know what to do-so decided I would take a cab to the Village and try to find Dylan. Incidentally, neither Weberman nor Schechter would tell me where he lived. I happened to find the address inadvertently on a paper that I saw on Weberman’s desk about the birthday party he had given him and I asked him if I could have the booklet. He sold it to me for $1.

So, I had the address but had also been told by everyone along the line that Dylan uses fictitious names and disguises sometimes. I was sure that if I went to this address I would not know what bell to ring. I got out of the cab right in front of his house and went into the hallway. Lo and behold, the first name on the lineup of about 6 doorbells was Dylan. I couldn’t believe it. I rang it and in a moment his wife answered--I recognized her from the picture I had seen in the NY Times. I said “Mrs. Dylan?”

She said “Yes,” and I began to tell her that my name was Margie Marcus, that I came all the way from Deerfield, Illinois just to meet her husband. I was talking through a door and she was up on the first landing. She said she was sorry, they were very busy today and began to go in. I stopped her by pleading with her to tell her husband that I didn’t want to bother or bug him, I only want just to meet him and just couldn’t come all this way on a special trip and be so close and not accomplish it. She didn’t care, repeated that they were busy and closed the door.

She was nice, but just wouldn’t listen. So, I sat on the front radiator for a few minutes wondering what to do. I had my paper with me that I had written about him and wanted to give it to him.

I left the building and walked down about 3 doors and just stood there leaning against a wall. I was bound and determined to stay until hell froze over because I knew now that he was in there and figured maybe if they didn’t see me waiting that at some time maybe he would come out for a walk or something. This was about 10:00 and I waited about 15 minutes during which time I scribbled a note to him writing against the wall on a piece of paper telling him how it would be a high point of my life if he would just read this and if I could meet him, etc. (I have it all in my scrapbook.)

All of a sudden I saw a colored maid wheeling 2 little children in a stroller going down the steps into his building. I figured they had to be his children, they were about the right ages and the way I saw it, there are not many people in that area with colored maids--probably none--so I ran up to her and didn’t ask if she worked for him but just blurted out, “Would you please see that Mr. Dylan gets these papers.” I no sooner got the words out of my mouth, and she didn’t even have a second to answer, when the door opened and out he came with his wife and his guitar. I said either out loud or to myself, “Oh my God, it’s him.” “He walked up the 2 steps and I said, “Mr. Dylan, my name is Margie Marcus, I am from Deerfield, Illinois and I came all this way just to meet you and shake your hand and tell you how your music has changed my life.” The first thing he said to me was “Didn’t you write me a letter?”

I almost fell over. Yes, of course I had written him letters but had no idea he had ever received them or read them. Evidently he did because he knew my name. Then I began my little spiel –what respect I have for him and his music, how nervous I was just standing there and talking to him, couldn’t believe I was face-to-face with him, etc., and handed him my papers telling him that I would be so grateful if he would just take a few minutes of his time to read them. He took them from me and said “Thank you.” No matter what I said after that he just continued to say “thank you.” Not much of a conversationalist but I’m lucky he even stood there to listen to me.

His wife then said to him “Bob do you have the keys?” And he went back into the house for a minute, left the papers in the house and when he came out, I approached him again. We talked for a few minutes, made some small talk about the sights in the Village and I was so nervous I didn’t know what to say so I asked him what else there was to see as long as I was in the neighborhood and he said, “You can always go and see the Empire State Building,” a typical Dylan answer. After that he said he had to leave, so he and his guitar went one way and I went the other.

I was literally shaking with excitement and flew to the first cab I could get back to the hotel and called everyone I knew. My husband Dave was having lunch with the President of E.F. Hutton and I got him there and he was very flustered and couldn’t talk, obviously.

I couldn’t believe I found him. I couldn’t believe I had actually talked to him. I did it. Mission accomplished. Now this has changed my life and I can go home.

* * *
Margie Marcus went on to live an interesting life of involvement in the Chicago theater scene and corresponding with interesting people. Dylan later sent her a photo of himself and during a 1974 Dylan concert in Chicago Margie was able to place a yellow rose on the stage for him, which he received.

* * *
Photo credit: Bob Dylan at the Warfield Theater, San Francisco; William Pagel Archives