Ellen Dieter Returns to the Swift

Ellen Dieter Returns to the Swift
The Bay Park Paintings give a beautiful taste of home

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Dark and Stormy Night Gets Darker: The loss of David Webb

The house was full, the poetry reading lovely, the food, provided by gallery patron Stephanie Swift filled and warmed the rain weary guests . I was just thinking how lovely the evening had come out inspite of all misgivings, when I was approached by a slight woman in a cocoa powder colored leather jacket who looked intensely at me from beneath a mass of long blonde curls and said, "Where did you get these David Webb paintings?"
Man Feeding Deer- David Webb Acrylic on Canvas 30 x 30

The Woman tured out to be local painter and Broker's Building personality Madeline Sherry, a friend of David Webb, and the news she had was shocking. David Webb, one of the featured painters of the show, was dead... "He died on September 11th..."

It may seem odd to the reader that we could be showing the work of an artist without knowing of his passing, but then, this was the nature of  David Webb. David, a prolific painter,  was often homeless. He had lived his life "up and down the 101" said Jane Fyre, the president of the Creative Arts Consortium.

It was Fyre who had supplied Webb's works from pieces owned by friends, or by the CAC. She had hoped to locate Webb before the show, but it was not to be... and not being able to locate him was not unusual. She'd expected, within the three months of the show's run, to find Webb in his usual haunts. Instead, as we opened, we learned that a brilliant and gifted artist was gone.

In His Head- David Webb, Acrylic on Canvas, 48" x 48"

David Webb was a prolific painter, who although he often lacked a home, always rented a storage locker (or two) for his paintings. After his passing, Madeline Sherry and another friend became the de facto conservator of his works, a stunningly complex task. The paintings number in the hundreds, not only canvases, but works on paper and cardboard. There are even canvases cut from frames and rolled carelessly. If Sherry's description even approaches the truth, simply cataloging the works could take months.

If you regularly read the blog, you have noticed Webb's style varies widely, from chunky abstraction to finely drawn figurative works. So what's in those storage lockers? It's difficult to predict, but it is also hard to imagine that there isn't work of importance and power in those wildly strewn frames and rolled canvases. The CAC's Jane Fyer provided a tantalizing hint, with an old photo of David with a work called "Three Men." The location and condition of the painting is unknown at this time.

Webb with his Painting, Three Men

In a narrow hallway, perhaps of a small hotel, which was his common home, David Webb stands with a painting of breathtaking power, directness and a disturbing subtext which the viewer can only begin to glimpse. The space is cluastrophobic, barely able to contain him and the work. The date on the photo reads 10-10-96- a chilling reminder that he would be gone in five years, passing on the tenth aniversary of our greatest national tragedy at the age of 56. In the photo, he looks strong, and full of life. It's easy to imagine him striding past the numbered doors, down to where the corridor turns, and dissappearing from our sight. 

David Webb is gone, leaving a wake of glorious, beautiful and painful images, his life both tragic and yet a cause for celebration. A life lived by and for art is never wasted.

There will be an evening of rememberance for David Webb on December 2nd, from 5- 8pm, at the Swift Gallery. The evening will feature more of Webb's extrordinary images, and a reading by Webb's brother, screenwriter and author Michael Blake. Blake, who won an Academy Award for his work on Dances with Wolves, will share a film and verse rememberance of his late brother, "Boy in the Rain."  Please come to help us remember the life and work of David Webb, this unknown artist whose profound and powerful works continue to delight, excite and move our hearts in his absence. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Recovering the Artist: It was a dark and stormy night....

...which was no surprise. After all there is a tradition of rain on Expressive Arts Week openings. I believe at least five of the eight were accompanied by inclement weather. But when the winter storm sky ripped open at 4:40pm, dropping a brilliant shaft of rainbow almost on our heads, I felt a sense of relief... Perhaps some few hearty-souls might come.
The crowd arrived with umbrellas, boots and anticpation.

The week leading up to the event was immensely pressured, with lots of small details Some of which I cheerfully handed off to the estimable Jane Fyer, the grand-dame of the Creative Arts Consortium, a woman of infinite resourcefulness, who I have come to greatly admire in the work of pulling this show together. A bit about Jane:

Her long experience leading the CAC lends her a calm patience rare in the art world. She is serious and thoughtful about the work, yet quick to laugh. She has the wisdom of a veteran politician, and the savvy of New York Lawyer, and the energy of a woman decades younger .  Jane never seems surprised... (of the broken glass on a painting she owns, dropped an hour before the show, she simply said "Oh it's fine. it happens all the time.") Jane has a heart of gold and, a great eye for art.

Fyer helped lead the jury to amazingly diverse offerings, like Dodecahedron
by Steve Rodgers (foreground) and Woman of the Day by David Webb  
By 6pm, we found ourselves lightbulbs replaced, tags corrected, paintings repaired with a full house. The crowd enjoyed a middle eastern themed feast provided by Gallery patron Stephanie Swift, while waiting for a special opening night event , a poetry reading organized by by Michael Turner of the CAC. Michael teaches art and poetry at many mental-health venues in San Diego County. A veteran himself, he works with vets, seniors, and disabled persons, teaching them how to competently and confidently express themselves. He brought with him veteran performers Christopher R, and Dan Woodward, and a guest; first time reader and student of Turner, Rafael Perez.

Poets Michael Turner, Rafael Perez and Dan Woodward mesmerize the crowd.
The Expressive Arts Institute has seen its share of powerful performances, but none exceeding the nights' offering.  Michael Turner read from the deep places of the souls journey, touching on his Native American heritage, his esctatic journey as an ultra distance runner, and his deeply held conection and reverence for all things. Christopher R. (not pictured)  used wordplay, humor and rhythm to spill out a critique against the absurdity of the current state of all things , himself included. Young poet Perez gave a credible reading, with some memorable language "Graffiti is street talk between devils and angels..."
The full house was attentive, moved and entertained...
By the time Dan Woodward stepped on the stage, with his gray mohawk, eyes intense, the crowd was ready for anything. And Dan delivered. Starting with Gulf War Blues "...I knew her before she became a syndrome..." he recalled the loss of a chopper he helped to launch, in a war that seemed absurd. But before long, the crowd moved into laughter, as Dan read Shoot me for Food. Another piece in praise of larger women brough the house down with its vivd depiction of women "escaping a Jenny Craig convention" to ravage a buffet, in an Animal House-esque food fight.

Michael Turner returned to the stage to read one final piece, taking us again in the the space and light of his landscapes, the man who "...run(s) to figure things out..." leading us into a turning calmness, into the center of belonging with the strength of his lungs and heart. Before the applause finished, I was wondering about the possibility of a chap-book for the show, so later visitors ( it runs through January 7th 2012) could read the poetry which seems to match the visual art so well.

Of course you should have been there...

The evening, a great success,  was to hold one more shocking surprise for Jane and Me...but that is news for another post

Thursday, November 3, 2011

At the end of a long day...

Well. The interview with Philly Joe went okay... Still I came away not entirely satisfied.  I felt the fundamental thing I'd like to get across was maybe lost in the cross-talk. Maybe teachers always feel a conflict between a presentation and a conversation... in any case here's the thought.

Art is Art. What you think art is, or what I think it is is not so important. The point is, we can both agree it exists. That said, when we encounter art in the gallery space, museum or on the street, in a very real way  it doesn't matter who made it. The encounter need not be mediated by personal knowledge of the artist, or by what anyone else thinks. We meet the being, the stranger, the presence in the frame or on the stage. And we respond. Not to the history. Not to the back story. (at least not immediately)

We respond to materality. To presence and that aesthetic response connects us strongly to the imaginal realm, the place where dreams are cast and cracked from molds white hot. The place where difficulties become for the moment transparent. Heaviness floats. Time pauses. At it's best, the encounter is visceral, it takes our breath, changes the very internal rhythms by which we walk and talk. It breaks us open, it reveals the hidden, even as it bandages the wound. Yes. Art does that.

Persons who live with mental illness live with two sets of constraints. Those placed upon them by society, and symptomology, and those they place upon themselves. The answer to fear is control, and many people find, by diminishing their lives, taking fewer risks, allowing less unknowns, symptoms fade.  But this is not a strategy for recovery or vigor.

Art, when it's real, is not small. It will not be made small. It won't be polite, restrained, contained. It's a trouble maker, a random stranger, an unpredictable outcome, a look into the void, into the chaos of unfolding possibility. And so, it is the perfect antedote, for a life of constraint, self-imposed, or not...

David Webb- Dinnertime at the Oaks -Acrylic on Canvas
The art in Recovering the Artist isn't interesting because of who made it. It's interesting because it is art. It exists purely for the sensuous encounter, it rattles our cages, tickles our funny bones, raises our pulse rate, breaks open those deep places, just as it did for the artist in the making.

I feel better. How about you?

Recovering the Artist opens Friday November 4th at The Martha Pace Swift Gallery. For information/ or directions, visit the website.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wes to be Interviewed tonight on Art Rocks Radio

Hi friends. As if the week couldn't be anymore packed with goodness, I have been invited on to speak about the upcoming show, Recovering the Artist tonight (11/2) at 7pm at Art Rocks radio with Philly Joe Swendoza. Philly Joe is a long time supporter of the institute and the arts in general, and he really believes in the work we do and that art is a human existential. I think we'll have a great discussion, so please join us 7-8 pm pacific time. And please join us for the opening. Details are at the Expressive Arts Institute Special Events Page.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Recovering the Artist: Our 8th Annual Expressive Arts Month Show Opens Friday

The time of year has arrived again when we at the Swift present art that is in many ways closest to the heart of our mission statement. That is, the Annual Expressive Arts Show.
Tonika Garrett- Geometry Acrylic on Fiberboard
 Given that the gallery is associated with the Expressive Arts Institute displaying the art of artists who are in recovery from mental illness is clearly in line with the gallery's mission to bring art of social and emotional relevance to the community of people we serve as helpers. For the past seven years, we have given the clients who work with our students a place to show their art, and to demonstrate the powerful work that art making can bring forth. But this year's show is quite different... this year, for reasons I will discuss in following essays, I felt it necessary to broaden our reach, and to go into the community at large, in search of artists in recovery from mental illness. To that end, the Swift has partnered for the first time this year with two venerable organizations for arts and mental health.
Downstairs by the main entrance, the magic begins with images by
(l-r) Derrick Avalos, Ashlyn Johnson and David Webb
The first one I'll mention is a name you might recognize: NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). The San Diego chapter is well known for, among other things, hosting a high profile annual walk which serves as a way for people to show their support for better mental healthcare, while fighting the artificial barrier which seperates those with mental healthcare needs from patients with other chronic illness needs. 

It's entirely possible that the second organization might have escaped your notice. The CAC (Creative Arts Consortium) is an all peer run organization which has a mission to support artists with mental illness in their efforts to do a broad outreach into the community, helping both those in recovery and their families through the arts. The CAC sends teaching artists throughout San Diego to work in visual arts and creative writing with other's who also face the challenges of mental illness.
Detail: Lynn Marco, The Gift Within Acrylic on canvas with canvas applique
You might expect such a show to be full of soul-searing, raw, emotional art about despair. The show is not without emotional content, but you might be surprised to know that there is as much joy, and reverence for the gift of life depicted as there is suffering and sorrow. This was not by design. This is the art that showed up, but it is a beautiful illustration of why we wanted to have such a show in the first place.

Recovering the Artist is a show about art...not illness. Artists come from every walk of life and make their images in every concieveable media, style and tradition. Those with mental illness are no different. Yes, suffering comes up, as it does in all artists who truly create from the ground of their own experience. All artists use art to contact their imagination, and explore the possibilities offered by the world. And as with any artwork, both the commonalities and differences in our experience make the art an engrossing and finally satisfying experience for the viewer.  

Recovering the Artist opens Friday, November 4th and runs through January 7th 2012.