Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Women Making Art- There is an Ocean

A couple of weeks ago I visited the Women's Studio Workshop art collective in Rosendale. If life was a fairytale, this place would be the witch's gingerbread candy house in Hansel and Gretel...minus the witch...and the child-baking...it's just this magical, wonderful, self-sustaining place in the middle of nowhere. And you can't help but be drawn inside.

I love everything about these women. I'm taking a seminar on artists' books this semester, so we'd read up on them a little, and I knew their histories, but meeting them was really bizarre, really funny. Four women started the collective in 1974: Ann Kalmbach, Tatana Kellner, Anita Wetzel, and Barbara Leoff Burge, each with their strengths and weaknesses, each committed to creating a space where woman artists might work outside the shadow of their more publicly-legitimated male counterparts. If you ask them about their feminism, they won't lay claim to anything specific, other than the desire for that free space. It comes out in their work though, so no worries.

Literature about the collective makes them sound like titans, impossibly resourceful and focused and inaccessible. Yes, yes, and no. Somehow formal introductions were plowed through, and I was left to guess who was who among the women showing my friends and me around. I knew from reading about them that Ann and Tatana are partners, and as soon as two of our guides started bickering, I knew that was them. Only lovers fight that way. Anita was the long-faced, soft-spoken one with the fuzzy seafoam sweater. Barbara wasn't around.

So the way the collective works is this: artists apply for (and may or may not receive) grants to live and work on the premises. There's an intern house, an artist house, and the workshop itself, as well as the bright(er) yellow house across the way where Ann and Tatana dwell. Almost all is communal- the space, the equipment, the daily vegetarian potluck lunch....even the dogs...which are adorable...and almost went home in my backpack.

When we got there, everybody was busy. Tatana and Anita were in an office doing paperwork, while Ann was upstairs doing some silk-screening. An artist-in-residence was busy in the front studio doing sketches of birds and marine life, preparatory pieces for her finished color prints, which seem very much inspired by Chinese "Bird and Flower" paintings. "I usually do these fish and herons," she said. "I think I'm going to try an eagle."

In the basement there was an intern, covered in clay and turning out dozens and dozens of bowls in preparation for their annual Chili Bowl Fiesta fundraiser (which just happened on Feb. 26th with a massive turn-out), where attendees are treated to hot chili, live music, and clown antics, and may purchase gorgeous handmade bowls in a variety of price ranges. Back upstairs, and another intern showed us how the printing press works before Tatana, suddenly inspired, whisked us into the next room to show us how they make their paper. They're actually in the process of establishing "ArtFarm," which, once finished, will allow them to grow their own fibers for paper-making and truly make them self-sustaining. I stuck my hand in the giant vat of paper-pulp. It was squishy.

While we were there, we asked to see the few books created at the workshop that Vassar doesn't have in its collection. The books, you see aren't books as you would normally think of them, and they're housed in Vassar's Special Collections section, which means you have to make an appointment to see them. Each is an artwork, realized in book form. Some come in caskets, and contain life-size castings of human body parts. Others order you to blow into a plastic straw, sewn to the page, in order to cure your headache. One of my favorites, "Pistol, Pistil: Botanical Ballistics" (by Ann and Tatana) included preserved slices of squash and fungi.

It was interesting; the women seemed a little surprised when we asked to see one of the few workshop books authored by a man. They used to allow men to apply for residencies, but that stopped when the founders chose to accommodate the needs of a female artist--presumably with a trauma in her past--years ago. I have to say though, this book was, for me, one of the most powerful I've viewed so far. Created by Joshua Saul Beckman, it's titled "There is an Ocean," and consists of seemingly never-ending fold-outs, lines and lines and almost miles of verse about one man's encounters with bodies of water, sewn over with thread so that only the smallest bits are left visible. There's an entire life written down on its pages, but the words are almost completely unreachable. We debated in class about whether certain books, certain artworks, have an "aura." This one makes me think so.

Moral of the story? You should go. Look around, stick your hand in the paper vat, stay for lunch. Pet the dog, watch Ann and Tatana bicker, see some amazing artwork being made. Apply for an internship. I'm dying to.

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