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CCU Atheneum:
"Untitled" by John Schiro

'Wood, Paper, Canvas': The artists behind the work

by Mona Prufer
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You might wonder what a misshapen chair has to do with voodoo photography, some rich, local landscapes and some very large, mischievous pink and green acrylic abstracts.

“Wood, Paper, Canvas,” the current exhibition in Coastal’s Rebecca Randall Bryan Art Gallery, brings together four unlikely artists – a sculptor, a photographer and two painters – whose work goes amazingly well side-by-side.

Cynthia Farnell, gallery director, says the exhibition was intended to show a substantial body of work from each of the newer faculty.

“Although the materials, methodology and process are quite different for each artist, their work does share visceral, tactile qualities that make the work very human,” says Farnell. “Chris Todd’s hairy chair, Dan Powell’s layers of scraping and paint, Easton Selby’s waxy buildup and John Schiro’s stains and spills all demonstrate a sensual approach to image making. This is the key reason that these four very different voices work together so well as a group. “

Chris Todd: Wood

Chris Todd hasn’t always made chairs that you can’t sit in. She started with stools you couldn’t step on – “you could stand on them sometimes, but you had to be very careful” – then tables you could not place items on – “they wouldn’t hold stuff up, it just slid right off.”

Now, for the past five years, she has been focusing on chairs. But not functional chairs you can sit in. They are whimsical, inverted, struggling, reaching, but not exactly sit-worthy. They have inner turmoil; they are awkward. They are us.

“The neat thing about chairs,” says Todd. “They have similar parts to people; they have arms, legs, a back. They are stand-ins for people, but without the direct reference. They are a buffer zone away from an actual person, and yet, they still capture some emotion.”

In her artist’s statement, Todd says: “The conceptual basis for many of my sculptural pieces involves removing function from objects we interact with daily. When an object (or person) no longer serves a function in our lives, how does that change our needs and interactions? To that end, I have been exploring dysfunctional chair forms for a few years and find the biomorphic associations rich and exciting.”

Todd earned a BFA degree in theater design and technology from the University of North Carolina Greensboro, but that career choice made her feel unfulfilled. “It was great fun, and I consider it a perfect stepping-stone to what I moved on to,” says Todd, who returned to the northeast to study woodworking and furniture.

Since she was already doing hands-on building, Todd’s interest in furniture led to further training in woodworking through an MFA in Artisanry: Woodworking and Furniture Design from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. The work reflects her heritage since her grandfather, a hobbyist with a real practical, depression-era sensibility, also made furniture.

“We spend so much time in chairs,” she says. “There are so many of them that are gorgeous but that don’t take good care of us. These chairs aren’t functional, but they do tell a story. They are certainly characters.”

Easton Selby: Paper

Born in Clinton, Miss., Easton Selby’s photographs are a product of the geography he grew up in. He was christened Presbyterian and raised Baptist and later switched to Episcopal services (after he and his twin sisters and dad revolted) in a small Southern town. So it isn’t surprising to note that Selby’s work delves into “the spectrum of religious belief systems” of the region, particularly the mysticism and magic of New Orleans’ voodoo culture.

He draws reference for his art from all things Southern – the literature of William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor – the rich heritage of blues music, the familial tradition of folk tales and storytelling, all reflected back into his photography, which he describes as “more conceptual than traditional.”

His photographic series “Rootwork,” which is partly on display in the gallery (five of the 10 photos in the series are exhibited), was inspired by an obscure set of out-of-print books written in the 1950s by an Episcopalian minister on witch doctors and voodoo practitioners.

To create an image, Selby uses objects that he finds or that people give him, relating to the stories – and recipes? – in the books: a chicken bone, a rattlesnake’s rattle, a crab shell, a claw. Standing close to the silver gelatin photographs, the viewer is distracted by trying to determine what the familiar looking thing is in the image. But view the photo from across the expanse of the gallery’s maple floors, and you more fully appreciate the feeling of the conjurer.

“I think my work is pretty dense, and most people won’t get all of it,” admits Selby. “Everybody interprets art differently, and that’s okay. I’d rather leave someone with something, even if they perceive it in a different way.”

When not dropping claws and snake parts into glass canning jars, Selby is teaching photography classes and working on growing the program at CCU. This summer, he and a student are going on a study abroad trip with Kansas City University, touring France and England on a “where photography began” tour.

Then he’ll be back in Mississippi, working on another project photographing the places of the blues – the juke joints in the middle of nowhere like Po’ Monkey in Merigold, Miss.; the shack where Aretha Franklin was born; and Club Ebony in Indianola, Miss., which was recently purchased by B.B. King. The “Geography of the Blues” was conceived by a Sam Houston University professor who found some old images of Selby’s that he liked, called him and signed him up for the project, along with two photographer pals of Easton’s.

And Selby has also just embarked on a new series, this one photographing gamecocks being raised by a professor friend – not, he emphasizes, for fighting, but for showing and breeding purposes. For this project, he shoots in color, a departure from his usual black and white imagery. “He offered me one or two of them, but I wasn’t sure how my roommate and my Quail Creek neighbors would take it,” he says.

Dan Powell: Canvas

Dan Powell is a student of light, of natural beauty, of trees and atmosphere. Of water. He has always been drawn to paint the water. He comes from the northeast where there is, he says, “incredible beauty everywhere.” Here in South Carolina, there is also the beauty of nature, “but you have to get out and look for it a little harder.”

“The beauty here doesn’t give itself up so easily,” says Powell, who is married to visual artist Cynthia Farnell. The couple go kayaking on the Waccamaw and Little Pee Dee rivers, inspirations for Powell’s oils and watercolors on linen, which are often small canvases full of light and vibrantly colored abstractionism.

“I love the landings of the Waccamaw and the Little Pee Dee,” says Powell in his artist statement for the exhibition. “There weʼve come across proud brides, excited children and bemused locals. They are dotted with reminders– oyster shells and beer cans, a forgotten sneaker, stray cats and the tracks of countless boat-loving dogs. These are the sites of untold beginnings and endings.

“All of that is hard to get into a painting,” Powell continues. “The local colors appear briefly, but they are buried under hues I struggle to recall. The hint of rust orange of bald cypress bark, the deep blue-violet black of the river water and once, blood red rose petals covered in ash drifting quietly past a crude wooden cross erected just far enough midstream to catch a slight wedge of the late afternoon sun.”

Powell earned a master’s degree in visual design from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in 1997. He has taught art at Chester College of New England, Salve Regina University, Horry Georgetown Technical College and Coastal Carolina University. Powell’s work has been exhibited in venues from Rhode Island to South Carolina

John Schiro: Canvas

John Schiro, a native of Houston, was originally a classical dancer and instructor who owned his own dance studio for 15 years. Then one night, while driving a friend home, he was hit head on by a drunk driver, which ended his dance career.

“I had to go back to school so I could earn a living,” says Schiro, who planned to teach high school art until his professors encouraged him to get a Master of Fine Arts degree, which he did at Rutgers University in 2008. “Since I spent most of my adult life teaching, the passing on of knowledge is so rewarding,” he says. “So as well as being an exhibiting artist, I knew I wanted to teach. ” When offered a teaching associate job at Coastal two years ago, Schiro packed up and moved.

In his painting, usually acrylic on large canvases, Schiro still finds himself influenced heavily by classical dance.

“There is a connection so close to dance and visual art that painting replaced what I could not physically do any longer,” he says. “All of the arts are related; I just never realized how close the connection is until I started studying visual art. Dance is communication without words. Visual art is the same; they both pick up where language stops.”

In “Wood, Paper, Canvas,” Schiro’s paintings are the largest in the gallery and fairly dance off the walls. “It is the viewer’s responsibility to interpret the work in the way they see it. I want people to interpret what they want after we bring our own life experiences to what we see as well as what we create,” he says. “My work in this exhibition has a sense of humor, and if a person knows abstract expressionism and post painterly abstraction, they see it and they get it, and that really pleases me.”

Schiro is a process painter, which means he paints by processes, not with a brush. “I was trained with a brush,” he says. “Being a dancer, I understand that part of learning is imitating. I could paint any style – photo realism, realism, figurative, abstraction, etc. I just was not satisfied and did not feel challenged.

“I was determined to find my own visual voice and visual vocabulary. Then when I felt how physical it was to stand up and move around the canvas (I work with the canvas laying flat) pick it up, spin it, turn it – I started to see the connection with dance and why it intrigues me. I paint in my head continuously.”

Schiro earned an AA and a BFA from the University of Houston. His work is in private collections in New York City, France and China.

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