Monday, July 15, 2019

"ArtReach: Vashon High School Vashon through a Lens"

by Natalie Avondet

Per usual, before I exit my car, I adjust the rearview mirror, ask myself…” Which face shall I wear today?” Lipstick.  Today, I wear lipstick. Pink Rosette. I apply; exit the car; and head to the Museum. The front door is heavy. I pick through the complimentary brochures and climb the stairs.

I am alone; though, I can hear a tour guide educate his followers on the floor below.

ArtReach: Vashon through a Lens, installation view. Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, May 17-August 18, 2019. Photo: Dusty Kessler.

It’s a handful of photographs by Vashon High Schoolers.  All in a row along one wall. Beautiful souls caught by the lens of a camera.

The photography on view, this photography, is a partnership between CAM (Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis) and Vashon High School and led by St. Louis-based teaching artist Tiffany Sutton. According to the CAM pamphlet, the exhibit is a collection of the selfie composed of “deliberate creative choices.” The exhibit is an exploration into the “multitude of personalities” each student, each photographer, each and every person has. In that we can relate.  However, for me to know or compare my experiences to these souls would futile. I don’t know.

Yet, here I stand in front of a photo of a girl. She wears a pinkish head wrap and a military uniform. “Do you see the child inside? Do you see my wild side?” I love the contrast between what I assume is her everyday attire or the attire of her heritage and the uniform of America. Two in one. I want to know more. More about her and more about Vashon High School. I’ll have to research that. I read the card. Her name is Kayla Green. I want to know more about who made the creative choice in this portrait/selfie. Was it the subject’s, Kayla’s, or the photographer’s, Nicholas Allen’s?

I move on. It’s another image of Kayla. Military gear sans head wrap. The next…Kayla in street clothes only. She had a read head scarf. Bright almost neon orange nails. Very long. “A woman who hides her fears, holds in her tears?” Both of these photos were take by Allen as well. I want to know more of the Kayla I see. All three of the Kaylas I see.

Jamijna Westbrook. Donyae, 2019. Digital Photograph. Courtesy the artist.

The next photo I see is one of Allen. Nick in Blue. It, however, was taken by Kayla. The subject has become the photographer. Nick has cleverly been divided between light and shadow, hinting at contrasting personalities. “Can you see my dreams? Can you hear my screams?” Was the creative play on light and dark his decision or hers? Who chose blue? I want to know.

Backing up, I examine all the photos. All are intriguing. Creative. Thought provoking. I am no longer alone. A crowd has formed. My thoughts are now being influenced by what others say; therefore, it’s time to leave.

I reach for the door. It is still heavy. I exit. Now outside, I turn back. “I feel as if I am on the outside, lookin in. Look at me…who do you see?” I check my reflection in the window. My lipstick is gone. “Who do you see?”

“I have many faces.” Funny [to me] that the author is unknown, although the poem can be found at
ArtReach: Vashon High School Vashon through a Lens” is on view through August 18, 2019 at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Blvd., St. Louis, MO. 314/535-4660. Gallery hours are W, Sat. & Sun, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Th-F 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Free & open to the public.
Natalie Avondet is a St. Louis-based artist. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Journalism/Advertising with a Minor in Psychology from University of Missouri's School of Journalism. Natalie's early career was in commercial advertising in the Midwest and Los Angeles. Art is a lifelong passion and she began seriously painting and exhibiting in galleries while in Los Angeles. Determined to pursue her artistic career, she returned to the Midwest and since then has exhibited in Kansas City, Los Angeles and Saint Louis. Her work is represented locally by Grafica Fine Art Gallery. You can reach out to Natalie through her blog.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

"Poetics of the Everyday: Amateur Photography 1890-1970"

by Natalie Avondet

Untitled (rear view mirror). c.1960; American; gelatin silver print; sheet: 2 7/8 × 4 1/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of John R. and Teenuh M. Foster 296:2018

As I pull into the parking lot of the Saint Louis Art Museum, Sturgill Simpson leaks through the speakers. “The dead will still be walking around this whole world alone. Well after life is over the afterlife goes on...” I put it in park. Turn off the radio. I mean my phone. Hum the next refrain to myself as I walk to the entrance of the Museum. I like it here. This time, I’m here for the “Amateur Photography” exhibit.

I keep walking. I keep humming.

Arriving at the double glass doors, I meet the exhibit. I enter, and immediately, I’m hit with the wall of description… "Poetics of the Everyday:  Amateur Photography: 1890-1970”: “This exhibition draws attention to an extraordinary period beginning in the late 19th century, when portable cameras became available to throngs of enthusiastic amateur photographers…these photographs are rich in detail and complex in composition, entangling us in their small worlds. As unique physical prints, they reflect a different relationship to picture making than we have in our digital era. This exhibition helps tell a larger story about the history of photography…”

A quick scan of the exhibit. It fills two rooms. Seems to be divided into sections of like photos. Slowly, well, not so slowly, I meander from section to section; reading each accompanying blurb.

I find myself lingering longer than intended in front of not one, not two, but three works. Oddly, I can’t get Sturgill’s song out of my head. I tap my foot. Shake my hips. Slightly. It’s a slow song. I’m in public.

Untitled (out-of-focus hand). 1950s; American; gelatin silver print; sheet: 3 9/16 × 3 1/2 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of John R. and Teenuh M. Foster 371:2018

One, a framed collage of black and white photos from long, long ago. Mixed media on paper. Photos salvaged, perhaps, and brittle from resting years in the bottom drawer of an old, old hutch. Their destruction loomed with their resurrection.  I can smell the photos. Feel their weight. All have hand-written notes. Names. Dates. Places. All held meaning to someone somewhere but not to me. I don’t know these people, nor do I know their photographer who was most likely a family member, a guest at the party. Long gone.

Untitled (people in wheat). 1904; American; gelatin silver print; sheet: 5 7/16 × 3 3/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of John R. and Teenuh M. Foster 322:2018

Two, a very eerie photo of a man standing in a field. Ghost-like. I laugh at the memory of how the development process was once just as delicate as these photos. How if something went wrong somewhere that spooky image emerged. The shutter glitched. The light was too bright. Something, anything that caused over exposure, a burn mark, or that faint image in the background. That thing that sparked the imagination of the unexplained.

My foot still taps. “They’re just ghosts inside a dream of a life that we don’t own.”

Untitled (ice scene). 1936; American; gelatin silver print; sheet: 4 × 5 1/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of John R. and Teenuh M. Foster 311:2018

I wonder, “Did the photographer know the gem he held?  Did she know someday, somewhere, someone would stand marveling at its beauty? No doubt, the photo has faded over the years, but the fog complimented by the glitch in development sends a chill down my spine. Did someone just blow in my ear? Am I under an AC vent? I step to the left.

Untitled (sailboat). 1889; American; gelatin silver print; sheet: 4 1/16 × 3 1/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of John R. and Teenuh M. Foster 316:2018

Three, a series of a man diving into a pool. Is it many different shots of one dive? Did the cameras of yesteryear really react that quickly or is it different shots of many different dives? Who is this man? Who was the photographer? The composition is truly lovely.

Alas, I come to the end. A glass case filled with vintage cameras. The cameras that once captured all these everyday moments. Funny. There’s a 1930s box camera. A Beau Brownie No. 2 from 1931. I have a very similar model that was my grandfather’s. It sits on the shelf in my living room. Every living room I’ve had for the last 30 years. Pretty sure it pre-dates this model but not 100% sure. I should check that out.

My thoughts then turn to my camera of today, or should I say phone of today. Something that was once a luxury is now an everyday item. Pictures we used to hold are now on a screen, untouchable. My, how things change. Yet, touchable or untouchable, weathered or pixelated, amateur or professional, the desire to hold onto a moment, leave a legacy, or create runs soul deep.

The dead don’t die anymore than you or I. They’re just ghosts inside a dream of a life that we don’t own. Well after life is over, the afterlife goes on.”  - Sturgill Simpson, The Dead Don’t Die
Poetics of the Everyday: Amateur Photography 1890-1970” is curated by Eric Lutz, Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at Saint Louis Art Museum. This exhibit features 150 amateur photographs from St. Louis collectors John and Teenuh Foster and is on view in Galleries 234 & 235 at the Saint Louis Art Museum through August 25, 2019. Saint Louis Art Museum is located at One Fine Arts Drive in Forest Park, St. Louis, MO 63110. The Museum is free & open to the public Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. & Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Mondays. 314/721-0072.
Natalie Avondet is a St. Louis-based artist. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Journalism/Advertising with a Minor in Psychology from University of Missouri's School of Journalism. Natalie's early career was in commercial advertising in the Midwest and Los Angeles. Art is a lifelong passion and she began seriously painting and exhibiting in galleries while in Los Angeles. Determined to pursue her artistic career, she returned to the Midwest and since then has exhibited in Kansas City, Los Angeles and Saint Louis. Her work is represented locally by Grafica Fine Art Gallery. You can reach out to Natalie through her blog.

Monday, May 13, 2019

“Through Her Eyes,” an all-woman exhibit

by Natalie Avondet

Grafica Fine Art Gallery and Framing. The corner of Big Bend and Laclede Station. St. Louis. Webster Groves to be specific. Any other gallery, I would be driving around and around trying to find it but not Grafica. I know it well.

Judy Stroup. Fall Blush. Oil on Canvas Board, 10"x8".

A quaint little house on the South side of Big Bend. It’s rainy. A tad cold. I wind my way through each room taking note of the hardwood floors (I believe they’re oak and original to the building.); the fireplace; its mantel. I spot Larry. Larry Bozzay. Owner. All around good guy. We chat.

The mantle catches my eye yet again. A perfect place to display a gorgeous oil on canvas. A landscape filled with a mustard sky and olive foliage. I sense a peace. A glance to my left and I’m hit with Judy Stroup’s work. A small piece. A stunning flower that jumps out at me. Yet again, I sense a peace.

A quick scan of the room. It’s artwork of all sizes. Bordered by a variety of frames. Mostly landscapes. All beautiful. All peaceful. All women artists. It’s an all-woman show. “Through Her Eyes.” Twelve St. Louis area women who paint together outside and in.

Mary Drastal
Jane Flanders
Sandy Haynes
Gwendolyn Moore
Debbie Rathert
Susan Rogers
Lee Streett
Judy Stroup
Deb Trafton
Jan Träger
Margaret von Kaenel
Norma West

Most are former art teachers. Retired from teaching, but not from making art and sharing their passion. All creating beautiful paintings of all sizes and colors that blend magically. Similar subject matter as in one gender, yet each creating a beauty all its own.

“The true beauty in a women is reflected in her soul. It is the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows.” - Audrey Hepburn

Judy Stroup. Iris Time. Oil on Canvas Board, 8"x6".

Through Her Eyes” a show with works by twelve different women. Each framed piece is like looking through the eyes of the artist. Each piece reflects the beauty of the artist’s soul. Eyes are, after all, the window to the soul.

Again, I go back to the work on the mantle, it’s by Sandy Haynes. Her mission…”to paint the world around [her] with paint and canvas. [She] attempts to find beauty in the commonplace by demonstrating the power of light on a subject.”  The mustard sky. The light glowing behind the the trees brings tranquility. I feel its warmth.

Mary Drastal. Just Around the Corner. Oil on Canvas Board, 11"x14".

The clock chimes. Suddenly I realize I’m late for an appointment. As I leave, I notice the sidewalk is brick. Has it always been?  The sun is out. I swear it’s twenty degrees warmer.
Was I in there that long?
Through Her Eyes” remains on view through May 24, 2019. Grafica Fine Art Gallery is located at 7884 Big Bend Boulevard in Webster Groves, MO. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. 314/961-4020.

Natalie Avondet is a St. Louis-based artist. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Journalism/Advertising with a Minor in Psychology from University of Missouri's School of Journalism. Natalie's early career was in commercial advertising in the Midwest and Los Angeles. Art is a lifelong passion and she began seriously painting and exhibiting in galleries while in Los Angeles. Determined to pursue her artistic career, she returned to the Midwest and since then has exhibited in Kansas City, Los Angeles and Saint Louis. Her work is represented locally by Grafica Fine Art Gallery. You can reach out to Natalie through her blog.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Focus on Local - volunteer writers sought for the Art Saint Louis/Art Dialogue blog

In response to the lack of published art reviews in our fair city, Art Saint Louis launched this blog, Art Saint Louis/Art Dialogue, back in October of 2007—so, nearly 12 years.

With a focus on local, for over five years now, our goal has been to provide St. Louis regional artists and galleries the means to fair consideration and peer review of their works and exhibitions. This blog features exhibition reviews, interviews, studio visits, images, and more. We work to present a wide range of opinions and reflections on what is being created and exhibited by artists in the St. Louis metro community.

Art Saint Louis welcomes experienced as well as firt-time art writers/reviewers residing in the St. Louis metro area and representing all walks of artistic life, including artists, BFA and MFA art, art-history and even journalism students, curators, critics, professors, and others to contribute to this blog. This is a volunteer (non-paying) position.

We’re seeking interesting viewpoints and thought-provoking reviews that will be of interest to artists and non-artists. Proper English language usage, grammar and the ability to put one’s thoughts down in a professional manner are important considerations. You don't have to be a 'professional' writer to write like a professional.

Submission Guidelines:
- There are no deadlines.
- Submissions are considered at all times.
- No guarantees that an item will be published.
- Since this is a blog, submissions should be kept to a reasonable length— so do your best to self-edit.
- Art Saint Louis Artistic Director Robin Hirsch is the editor of this blog and edits all items, as well as posts and publishes all items. She will "lightly" edit items, as-needed, with possible corrections to spelling, grammar, punctuation, and facts. Some items may need more serious editing, so we reserve the right to edit as-needed.
- Please provide contact information for yourself, the gallery or artists about whom you are writing, hyperlinks, when possible.
- Please provide photographs that are approved for our use (get full reproduction permission from artist or presenter) along with full photo credits, including artist, artwork title, year, media, size of artwork, and any other information required for photo credit.
- Submissions should be presented in the most professional manner possible.
- We will not consider or publish the following: unprofessional, incoherent/unclear writings; items using profanity; shameless self-promotion; anything resembling an outright mean-spirited rant.
- Even when posted on Art Saint Louis/Art Dialogue, the story remains property of the author. Upon posting, Art Saint Louis retains the right to reproduce the story for publicity and other Art Saint Louis organizational purposes.
- All items will be posted in a timely manner.
- New postings will be publicized to the community at-large via e-mail, Facebook, Art Saint Louis membership communications, and a local community listserve.
- We aren’t able to pay writers, however each writer’s byline will be posted with the review/story and can include a hyperlink to a personal/art website and any other bio or contact info you wish to be included.

We can gladly provide you with a list of current exhibitions on view in the metro area as well as the appropriate contact person at the venue. If you review an exhibition, please ask the gallery/museum director for digital images to include with the story and be sure to get permission to reproduce said images. Also be sure to get proper photo credits, including: artist; title of artwork; date of work; media; dimensions; photo courtesy of; photo credit; etc.

Thank you for reading the Art Saint Louis/Art Dialogue blog and for contributing to the artistic dialogue & conversation in St. Louis.

If you'd like to review an exhibit, interview an artist or write about local art, please contact: Robin Hirsch, Art Saint Louis Associate Director and Art Dialogue Blog Editor at

Rachel Whiteread Exhibition at SLAM

by Natalie Avondet

Not realizing the cut-off time for entering the "Rachel Whiteread" exhibit at the Saint Louis Art Museum was a full hour earlier than the close of the Museum, my pace is hurried if not an all out run.  The sound of my heels and their echo are almost indecipherable. A taptaptaptaptap. More like a typewriter than an echo.

With only a few minutes to spare, I reach the entrance. Hand over my ticket. Flash a smile. Check to make sure I didn’t break heel…not an unusual occurrence for me. I am in. A glance here. A glance there. I take note of what looks like a door, several “boxes” arranged in a grid on the floor, and a few hot water bottles on a shelf.

Not knowing much about the exhibiting artist, Rachel Whiteread, I decide to read the pamphlet.  She’s British. Good to know. She was the first woman to win the Turner Prize for sculpture in 1993.  Interesting. Known for her solid casts of negative spaces, she is one of the world’s leading contemporary sculptors. Very interesting.

Installation view of the exhibition "Rachel Whiteread" on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum from March 17 to June 9, 2019.  © Rachel Whiteread

I check out the hot water bottles. The “boxes.” The door. I hear the echos of the other patrons’ whispers. Should I whisper, too? Examining the displays a little closer, I realize the hot water bottles are casts of the interior of each vessel. Each “box” is a mold of the underside of a chair. The door is simply an impression of its exterior. Now, the negative space is clear.

Whiteread is casting the blank space inside the hot water bottle, around the chair, on the exterior of the door to create her work. Essentially, she is recreating the mold that was or could have been used to create the object. She is taking the subject back to its origin and preserving the memory of its form and every memory it holds from its creation to its time of casting.

In Whiteread’s own words, “In a way.  It’s almost like taking photographs or making prints of the space. If those parts of the building don’t exit later, I’ll still have, as you say, the archive of the place.’’ A blueprint, if you will. As stated, her work transcends the blueprint. She has also “found a way to make memories solid.” For it is in that space, the memory takes place.

Though each cast of each door can be used to re-create a door, each cast holds the memory of a knock; its opening to a first date or a soldier returning home from war. Each cast of each hot water bottle holds the memory of a home remedy. A mother’s touch. Comfort.

Her works range in size, material and color. From a tiny toilet paper roll to a full sale Victorian house which earned her the aforementioned Turner Prize; from resin to concrete; from translucent to pink… she explores similarities and differences.

Though the door casts are similar, each has its own knicks and scrapes from years of knocks, or as Whiteread has more eloquently stated, “the residue of years and years of use.” And though we may not have ever knocked on that particular door, we all share a memory of knocking on some door, somewhere, some time; and therein, lies the experience, similar yet different.

It’s 5:00 p.m. The exhibit is closing. I’m hungry anyway. As I leave, I return to the door through which I entered. I am walking more slowly now. There is no hurry. The echo of my stride is a much more familiar echo. Tap….tappptappptappp. Tap…tappptappptappp. Tap…tappptappptappp. Similar yet different than an hour before. Just one of the memories the space between these walls hold. Hmmm. I wonder if my barefeet would produce an echo?

If you had a chance to see the exhibit, what was your take away?  Comments welcome.
"Rachel Whiteread" is on display at Saint Louis Art Museum March 17 through June 9, 2019. Museum hours are Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Friday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Last ticket entry of day is one hour prior to Museum closing. Saint Louis Art Museum is located at One Fine Arts Drive in Forest Park, St. Louis, MO 63110. 314/721-0072. Admission to the Museum is free every day. Admission to main exhibitions is free on Friday and free to SLAM members, otherwise tickets are required. Tickets for this exhibit are: $6 (children 5 & under), $8 (seniors & students), $12 (adults).

Natalie Avondet is a St. Louis-based artist. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Journalism/Advertising with a Minor in Psychology from University of Missouri's School of Journalism. Natalie's early career was in commercial advertising in the Midwest and Los Angeles. Art is a lifelong passion and she began seriously painting and exhibiting in galleries while in Los Angeles. Determined to pursue her artistic career, she returned to the Midwest and since then has exhibited in Kansas City, Los Angeles and Saint Louis. Her work is represented locally by Grafica Fine Art Gallery. You can reach out to her and comment on this post through her blog.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Wild Clay with Susan Bostwick and Alleen Betzenhauser

by Carmen Alana Tibbets

Mississipian-style bowl of native clay by Susan Bostwick. Photo by C.A. Tibbets.
Most of us have daily contact with ceramics, but few contemplate the history of the craft. You may not have given much thought to the vessels used in your daily life, but Susan Bostwick, a local, award-winning ceramic artist has a different view. She recently told me, "With my own work, I think a lot about all the stuff we humans have, that we own, that we make. How easy it is to get stuff! And then I feel a responsibility as a maker, that I'm adding more. Here's more stuff! ... I spend a lot of time thinking when I'm making, I think about the iconography, the imagery ancient people used. What is my iconography, why am I using these images, is there some importance? " It is no surprise to learn that she extends this thoughtful approach to other aspects of her artistic practice.

I recently interviewed Susan and Dr. Alleen Betzenhauser to discuss their fruitful collaboration featuring projects with local clays. Alleen is the Field Station Coordinator with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey at theAmerican Bottom Field Station in Fairview Heights. Her current focus is elucidating the purpose of enigmatic forms of ancient ceramic vessels found in the St. Louis area, and she is now also working with Susan, learning how to be a potter.

The two met at Schlafly’s “Art Outside” art festival where Alleen was drawn to Susan's work. Alleen recalls, "I saw Susan's tent with those lovely trowels with the (pot) sherds in them. I thought, 'Well, I'm an archaeologist, I like trowels'..." The two started talking and their conversation turned from trowels, to clay and making pots. Alleen has an ongoing interest in a type of clay called Madison County Shale and the functional items native people made from it. As she described the unique attributes of the vessels, Susan became intrigued and suggested that the two travel around Madison County (IL), dig clay samples and try to make pots.

Susan describes their first adventure; "I think no one really wants to go dig's hard work! So, Al (Alleen) showed up one day - it was really hot - and we started by walking along the bike trail. I had seen one wall (of clay) that looked great, so we shimmied down the ravine, of course unprepared! I loaded my shirt with clay (she mimes scooping a pile of clay into the front of her shirt) and then we're clambering back up, just as some cyclist goes by. Here comes this old woman, covered with mud. Ha! I was saying to him, 'It's ok, everything is ok'." Both women laugh and insist that, in spite of this comical beginning, working together the past two and a half years has had an important influence on their professional lives.

Examples of Madison County Shale. Photo courtesy Rob Rohe, Illinois State Archaeological Survey.

The impetus of the project was the search for Madison County Shale, an elusive type of clay used to make a unique form of pottery. The clay fires to a pinkish color and is distinctive to the uplands of Madison County and points farther north. It was only used for about 150 years right before Cahokia became dominant around 1000 years ago. Archeologists estimate that during the time Madison County Shale was in use, each community had their own potters, making ceramics with local clay. Once Cahokia was established, it became an important cultural center, with specialist artisans, distributing ceramics throughout the region.

To date, Susan and Alleen have found and tested over 10 types of clay from around the county, creating a variety of pottery samples, but none is identical to those seen from the archeological record. Despite their lack of success finding the target clay, both artist and archeologist maintain enthusiasm about their progress. In the beginning, they explain they were having so much fun, they were just going with the flow, collecting clay, then making and firing pots

Native clay samples test-fired in an electric kiln. Photo by C.A. Tibbets.

After some early successes, Alleen suggested Susan meet some of her friends (also archeologists) who were participating in a field school at Cahokia Mounds State Park. Susan went for a visit, and after chatting during an excavation, said it seemed evident to her that field study students should have some experience making something. "I asked if they would like that, and they came out here (to her Edwardsville studio) one evening. I already had clay from Calhoun County and, fast and furious, we made pots, dried them while we ate dinner, then burnished and decorated them."

Everyone considered the experience a success, and this led Susan and Alleen to consider new ways to share their growing knowledge with the community. They hosted a tent display during Archeology Day at Cahokia Mounds, where people could work with clay and make basic pots. Last fall, they offered a four week workshop at Susan's Edwardsville studio, educating others in how to obtain local clay, form pots and use simple, backyard firing techniques. Because a number of participants were local art teachers, Susan and Alleen are hopeful the skills, along with a greater appreciation of Cahokia,will spread.

Firing pots in a backyard bonfire at Susan's Edwardsville studio. Photo by C.A.Tibbets.

They also worked with an experimental archaeology class at Washington University, recreating a type of vessel called stumpware. Susan described the experience, "It was a riot! It was fun! As you (Alleen) were talking about stumpware, they (the students) saw the image on the screen, and man, they're just making, they just dove right in! Most of them never worked with clay before. The clay had so much grit, large chunks of rock, actually, the walls were really thick, and I had doubts. I was saying to them, if they (the pots) don't make it through (the firing), it's ok, it's going to be ok... and damn if their pots didn't all turn out".

Although the goal of recreating a Madison County Shale vessel remains paramount, the process of trial and error has led to artistic breakthroughs. For example, Alleen describes trying to figure out what medium ancient people used to burnish pots; someone had suggested deer tallow. "I asked a co-worker who is a hunter to save me some fat. I rendered it in a Crockpot. I used it to burnish a pot, but it wasn't great for that. When I fired it, it didn't have the sheen I wanted, but Susan used it as a resist and it worked beautifully. Susan says, "Oh, it was fabulous! ... You just paint it on, it dries fast, then you paint over it. Then it (the fat) melts away in the fire. It's beautiful".

Susan and Alleen are still working with the different clays, assessing how easy - or difficult- it is to work with each type, comparing attributes from both an artistic and archaeological perspective. They change tempers (grit or bits of broken pot mixed into the clay), surface treatments and shapes. Alleen says the pots she makes are inspired by those of the past. "I look at an example and try to recreate it - I'm trying to learn how pots might have been made. When I get stuck, I can reassess and do this or that to make it go a certain way". She describes one of the frustrations of working with ancient ceramics, "We analyzed millions of sherds and tens of thousands of parts of pots, but rarely do we get enough of it to see what the whole pot looked like. Mostly we're dealing with pieces. To actually have one (a complete pot) that I've made, that looks kind of like it, is so helpful".

At this point the discussion turned to the ceramics that have inspired both women. Susan pulls out a variety of archaeology books about Mississippian ceramics edited by Alleen and we three pour over beautiful and inspirational images. One of the cooking pots is enormous - over two feet tall. Susan exclaims, "The walls are so thin! I think about that wide open form, and I wonder, how did they do that? This is just stunning". As we sit there studying the pictures, we are all drawn into the world of fascinating surface decorations, animal imagery, and intriguing shapes. There is an elegance and power to these ancient vessels which is difficult to ignore.

Re-creation of a faceless water bottle Alleen Betaenhauser.

Susan explained that in most educational settings as a potter, a student will have a primitive pottery experience. The basic process includes finding some clay in the field, making pots and firing with sawdust or a bonfire. Collaborating with Alleen has given her new perspective. "Immediately in working with Al, it's like this idea of primitive - just put that away! There is nothing primitive about these people or their techniques... She has shown me pots that just blew me away... One of the things that drew me to pottery was the history of women as potters. Until the (potter's) wheel hit the scene... it was women. Yeah! Women made the pots, it was a community effort and I loved that. It's so labor intensive - digging, prepping, making, firing."

Alleen adds what she's learned, "Susan has taught me so much about making pots, especially the handwork. I was very uptight about making a pot 'right.' After working with Susan it is much more relaxing. In terms of learning how people made pots in the past, this gives a more well rounded view of how people were living in the past. I like the embodied experience of making pots,.. I don't think I'm getting into the mind of the ancient potter, but sharing similar experiences gives me a better idea what life was like".

In addition to their professional growth, the public outreach component of the project excites both artist and archaeologist. Alleen explains that using arts and pottery to expose people to archaeology is a useful method to help local residents value the area's cultural resources. "We want to teach people about the history... this area is so unique! Not only Cahokia, but East St. Louis, all the mounds destroyed on the St. Louis side (during settlement), Monroe county, Chesterfield... There were about 50 mounds in East St. Louis before people came in and leveled them all. It just wasn't valued and there were no laws protecting them. If someone can make and hold a pot, that's a much better connection than looking at a broken piece of pottery".

Susan chimes in, "We want to give everyone the skills to recognize the resources beneath their feet. In a pottery class, people may go to the local ceramic supply store and buy their materials, but if they know that, oh my gosh, clay is everywhere! Clay is right here, and it has been used for thousands of years to make things - wonderful things!"
If you are interested in learning about making pottery inspired by the Mississippian culture, Susan and Alleen are hosting another workshop, Wild Clay & Ancient Technologies, this April. The workshop will take place over four Monday evening sessions (April 8, 15, 22 and 29) at Susan's Edwardsville studio. The fee is $175 and all materials are included. For more information, contact Susan at
Carmen Alana Tibbets is Creative Director and Owner of Agosia Arts. Based in Illinois, Alana exhibits her one-of-a-kind fiber artworks locally, regionally and nationally.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

AISLE Project at SIUE’s Science Complex

by Carmen Alana Tibbets

Walking into the new Science West building on the campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), your eye immediately darts over to a large, hunched and "twangly" sculpture. The work calls attention to itself, both because of its unique shape, which is obvious, but also because, more subtly, it is in the perfect place. Within the context of a science building (housing the departments of Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Environmental Sciences and Mathematics), the object seems to gain an additional layer of meaning and come to life.

Laura M. Goematt. It Finally Fed, At Dawn. 1986. Steel, Wood, Paper, Tar, 69.5"x59"x67".

The sculpture is one of 30 newly installed artworks in SIUE's Science West and East buildings. Each artwork has a Bluetooth® low energy beacon, and with PhyWeb installed in your smart phone or tablet, you can create your own self-guided, information-rich art tour. The artworks are now part of the "physical web," objects of all kinds broadcasting a set of urls. With a free downloadable web browser, you can find the usual details (title, artist, date), but the artworks' beacons transmit much more.

The technology and its application to a museum setting is not new. A variety of museums (e.g. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and The Victoria and Albert Museum) have tested beacons as a way to enhance visitor experiences, follow traffic flow and send messages. The simplicity and flexibility of the technology means that an institution can tailor a beacon's transmissions to serve multiple needs.

To learn more about the new installations at SIUE, I interviewed Dave Jennings, a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, and Erin Vigneau-Dimick, Collections Manager at the University Museum. My preliminary chat with Jennings (who is a talented illustrator, as well as a scientist) made it clear he has broad, interdisciplinary visions for the AISLE (Active Integrative Synergistic Learning Environments) project, so I asked, why begin with art? Jennings replied with a smile and a laugh, "Art is obvious; people see it. And the new building had no art."

Jennings' initial concept was relatively small in scope: install artworks on the Biological Sciences floors and equip each with a Bluetooth® beacon. A key component of his initial proposal to the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) was that students would, as part of class projects, generate or find relevant information about each piece, integrating it across disciplines. The response to the proposal was positive. So positive in fact, the Dean of CAS, Greg Budzban, approved the funding and requested that the project be expanded to include the entire building, plus the newly renovated Science East building. The original timeframe of a two semester, student-based project was extended through this past summer to include the addition of art throughout two buildings. Vigneau-Dimick began selecting potential artworks from the extensive SIUE Museum collection, and Jennings recruited a small group of students to help make the final choices.

An important aspect of Jennings' original idea is to highlight artworks that have both artistic and scientific components. The student team was not provided with guidelines or instructions as to what scientific relevance might be; it was up to them to articulate a connection between a work of art and some aspect of biological study. For each piece on display in the Biological Sciences floors, they compiled information (e.g. scientific context, artist profiles, additional websites of interest) that was then used to create a webpage. Vigneau-Dimick worked with the chairs of other departments to find similar information for the art on their floors. 

Joseph Page. Flow Chart: Portal. 2016. Porcelain, Polystyrene, Vinyl, Wood, Steel, 42"x42"x8".

Vigneau-Dimick's curatorial goal was that there would be art in every departmental office (see detail of Joe Page's Flow Chart: Portal, above) and on every floor. She wanted to have multiple media represented and made an effort to find art that reflected animal, plant and inorganic subjects. The final collection includes some of the Museum's newest works available, but also historically important pieces. Many of the recent works are loans to the museum from current Art and Design faculty and reflect a desire to make a curatorial connection between the research practices of artists and scientists. Both buildings have challenging spatial issues. Vigneau-Dimick said she chose to avoid the main hallways because so much is going on there, visually and physically - lab doorways, poster displays, lots of people moving. Instead she focused on the curving corridors, intersections and corners, and as you move through each, you find thoughtfully placed visual enhancements.

Katie Turpenoff. Mothers Earth's Milk. 2014. Steel, Hardware Cloth, Baby Bottles. 69.6"x96"x24".

Most of the chosen pieces are from Vigneau-Dimick's selections, but others were requested by the student team. Jennings said one specific and enthusiastic request was for "the cow," a  large sculpture previously installed near the Engineering Building as part of the Sculpture on Campus program. The students remembered it, and wondered if it was still available. Vigneau-Dimick contacted the artist for permission to reinstall, the sculpture was refurbished and it now has a new home in the atrium of Science East.

An example of what Vigneau-Dimick considers one of the most successful sites is the new home of
Laura M. Goematt's It Finally Fed, at Dawn. (We all stopped to debate what "it' is: insect, fossil, monster...) She said, "The sculpture was in Rendleman Hall near an elevator, a dark spot. I got a complaint, 'why is this thing here, it's so ugly.' People are not always appreciative of the wide range of how art can be and look. It was always in the back of my mind to eventually move it to another place. As I was looking at spaces in this building, I said to myself, that's where I want to put it. It is better suited to the white walls around it, well lit, unexpected, right at the entryway. It changed the whole relationship of the piece to the public. The piece is a shocker - a great intro to art in the everyday world."

Clearly this sculpture has made an impression with students and they have incorporated it into their daily experiences. I mentioned that "It" had been wearing a pair of sun glasses for the past few days. Jennings and I laughed and pondered how the student decided where the head/face was. Vigneau-Dimick was more serious. She is rightfully concerned about the proximity of the public to many of the works on display and the addition of eyewear highlights her concerns. Except for a few pieces where physical damage is a real possibility, there are no barriers between artwork and the public. 

Bluetooth® low energy beacons used for the special AISLE exhibit at SIUE.

As we walked through the hallways discussing the art, I asked about placement of the beacons (they are not visible). It turns out the installation team had to be creative. In some cases beacons are tucked behind a picture frame, but others are placed above ceiling tiles, buried underground, or hidden by air vents. Because of the floor plan, some artworks are sited directly above one another, and when you stand in just the right spot, you can pick up transmissions from multiple beacons. Apparently, the browser also picks up Bluetooth® transmissions from printers. Jennings points out that, if someone is confused by overlapping icons on their phones, all the beacons include a link to a map of all the artworks and you can figure out what you are looking at.

I asked if there were plans to rotate more artwork from museum collections into the buildings. Vigneau-Dimick was circumspect. As in most institutions, staff time is limited, which means the collection of artworks currently installed will likely remain as it is for multiple years. Both Jennings and Vigneau-Dimick agree that to go forward and expand the project, staff and funding need to be allocated. They stress that the project was a huge amount of work. They had deadline for completion (the September ribbon cutting ceremony for the newly renovated Science East), a $1,400 budget that paid for the beacons and a tablet, but did not have extra staff allocated to the project.

For Jennings, art in the science buildings was a first step. He envisions incorporating the project into curricula across campus, having beacons for multiple types of objects, not just artworks, and having the bulk of beacon data collected and managed by students. Even so, faculty and staff are required to oversee class projects and the digital infrastructure. The beacons are inexpensive (less than $20), but many hours of work are needed to compile and upload information for each. Vigneau-Dimick is enthusiastic about the project and she would like to have beacons installed throughout the extensive SIUE public art collection. However, time limitations for everyone mean that even the newly installed beacons have incomplete profiles.

Laura Strand. Sea Foam. 2009. Woven Cotton, 25.5'x50".

Has the pilot program been a success? In one sense yes, and in others it is difficult to say. The installations throughout the buildings have been well received. The art clearly enlivens the space. The students have connected with many of the pieces (Sea Foam by Laura Strand is a favorite) and they have also requested space for their own artworks. One faculty member has given assignments to her biology students requiring them to use the beacons to find information and write a paragraph about their own scientific interpretations.

Exhibition signage seen in Biological Sciences with info about the project.

However, unless you have spoken with someone involved in the project, you likely have no idea that it exists. Currently there is only one relatively small sign in Biological Sciences with any information about the beacons and browser. When you are standing next to one of the artworks, there are no icons or indications that something extra is happening. The project seems like an obvious opportunity for publicity for SIUE and the Museum, but as yet, there are no defined goals for publicizing the project and there is no plan to move forward.

Jennings sees the project as an example of experiential learning that can be incorporated into all kinds of courses and he would like to focus on that aspect. But once a beacon is placed and information is tied to it, the beacon can be used for other educational and public outreach manifestations on campus: an outdoor sculpture tour, nature walks, field trips, campus tours, etc. The beacons could become a powerful form of public outreach and I'm enthusiastic to see the public learning more about the installation. It will be interesting to see how this project develops over time.


The new Science West building is located on the campus of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, 44 Circle Drive, Edwardsville, IL 62025.

For more information about this pilot project or further implementation of the AISLE program, contact Dave Jennings

For more information about curation of the artworks or the SIUE Museum, contact Erin Vigneau-Dimick


Carmen Alana Tibbets is Creative Director and Owner of Agosia Arts. Based in Illinois, Alana exhibits her one-of-a-kind fiber artworks locally, regionally and nationally.