The Joy of Starting Out

It can take many years for an artist to cultivate the necessary balance of craft and vision to create work that seems to spring directly from the artist’s soul.  In such cases, the artist’s early student work may be viewed as preliminary, as somehow less important; some artists are so embarrassed by their early work they may even repudiate or destroy it.

I’m always sorry when I hear about artists dissing their early work.  I love the freshness and honesty of student art, before issues of market and reputation and career have the opportunity to take hold of the artist’s mind.  I have been to comprehensive exhibits of major artists and have found myself more enchanted and moved by the youthful attempts, however awkward or unpolished, than by the glory of the later masterpieces.  Innocence tends to fall away like dead skin as we grow older.  I’m grateful when that innocence is preserved, on canvas, paper, wood or stone, as a reminder of the joy of starting out.

Two current exhibits offer the opportunity to immerse oneself in such an atmosphere of joyous beginnings.  At the MPC Art Gallery, Curator Melissa Pickford has installed a delightful collection of work by eighty-eight MPC students, with a wide variety of media on view, including sculpture, paintings, works on paper, glass work, mixed media and jewelry.

Some of the works on display stand out with especial depth and insight.  William Joseph Enus’s “Yesterday’s Catch,” a bronze sculpture of a fish skeleton perched on stone, delicately touches on themes of mortality and transience.  The fish skeleton swims through unseen water, a ghost of its former living self, yet still in motion, like a memory.

“Romp,” by Karl Schaefer, transforms a lump of slate rock with marine shell inclusion into a proud elephant, bejeweled and godlike.  “Bad Hair Day,” a sliver of kiln-fused glass by Priscilla Gilbertson, is also about transformation, as a woman with a rueful expression stares out from the pale amber glass, a boob resting on one arm, the inky line of her resigned mood settling into the lovely glass with something approximating acceptance.

Several works from students in printmaking classes are particularly strong, such as Diana Paul’s monotype “Indigo,” a sensitive and carefully thought-out study of texture, dimension and line.

Two mixed media works refer to harsh political realities outside the sanctuary of the studio.  In “Every 15 Seconds,” Sarah Morris evokes the violence inflicted on women.  A pair of high-heeled shoes, one fallen to its side, is encrusted with small shards of broken mirror and swathed in fake wig hair, making the point that beauty standards and physical assaults arise from the same impulse to violence.

Lucinda Andersen’s “Freedom for Tibet” is a moving depiction of the use of fire in the Tibetan quest for self-determination.  A clipping from the Monterey Herald about the self-immolation of a Tibetan monk is burned around the edges, a chilling reminder that the fires of suffering in distant lands touch us all, no matter where we live.

Two of my favorite works in this show look across to each other from opposite walls.  In “Franz: Sheep” (seen above), an oil on canvas by Danielle Ventura-Enus, the bold use of color balances a sweetness of form.  And in the ink drawing “Guitarosaurus,” Michael James Buckley fuses the animal and the musical to create an image of startling originality.  I love the idea of a musical instrument as a kind of sea serpent or dragon, transporting the musician, and perhaps the listener, to the higher realm of the imagination.

Other kinds of creatures, living on land or sea or in the air, are portrayed in a gorgeous exhibit at the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum.  Featuring sixty-three artworks and ten sketchbooks by the fifteen talented students in CSUMB’s Science Illustration Program, “Illustrating Nature” is a treasure chest of biological and creative exuberance.  The art of scientific illustration is generally focused on imparting clear and factual information to the viewer about a species or an environment, yet as this exhibit shows, there is plenty of room for the artist to tell a story and shape the viewer’s understanding with a sense of the artist’s personal design.

One example of this is in Kathleen Cantner’s acrylic painting “Mycelia of Pleurotus ostreatus Attacking Nematodes and Bacteria.”  A small grouping of oyster mushrooms lives on the bark of a tree, its mycelia penetrating the surface, reaching toward the tiny organisms that here are rendered in hot pink and demure green.  The angular, balanced design of this work creates interest and even suspense in the viewer, inviting him to peer more closely at those busy mycelia.  The creamy background colors of blue sky and tan wood further draw the eye into the kind of invisible biological drama that for most of us goes unnoticed.

Art, of course, is all about noticing.  Katie Bertsche’s “American Dippers at Yosemite,” offers a composite view of several elements—birds, rocks, sky, hillside and mountain, trees and tree leaves, water bug—that serve not to depict an actual moment but rather to tell a story of place.  The river’s waterline, reflecting the shifting sky above, bisects and transcends the borders of the picture frame, a perceptive illustration of the flow of life moving outside and beyond the boundaries of human desires.

Two works by Andrew Leach pulse with the raw energy of nature.  In “Animal Cicada,” the colorful magnified insect shines and seems to pop out of the picture with dimensional vitality.  Leach’s “Gull and Crab” (ink on scratchboard) is masterful, bringing the viewer down to the elemental level of biological struggle, while the calm lines of sea, sky and horizon offer the larger perspective: this too shall pass.

“MPC Art Students Exhibit” through May 25 at the Monterey Peninsula College Art Gallery, Tuesday – Friday, 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.  On Thursday, May 10, there will be a reception at 12:30 – 2:00 pm and an Artists’ Talk at 1:00 pm.

“Illustrating Nature” through June 17 at the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum, 165 Forest Avenue, Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.