wet earth

Painting with All the Parts

When Judith Swartz (left) was a theatre student at MPC, she would bring her young daughter Kirsten Clapp (right) to rehearsals with her.

“She was a theatre mascot,” Swartz says.  “From the age of two to six she would be on set with me while I was working.  She even helped me with lines.”

Today, the mother-daughter pair are engaged in a new collaborative expression of their love of theatre: together they have created the Stardust Playhouse, an intimate theatre in Monterey that opened in December 2011 with a production of “Rabbit Hole,” directed by Clapp.

Clapp, who studied Theatre Arts at MPC before transferring to CSUMB, where she is currently majoring in Teledramatic Arts and Technology, had wondered aloud to her mother, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had our own theatre?”

From there it didn’t take long for Clapp to locate a suitable site; after contacting the City of Monterey, the family took possession of the space, on Fremont Avenue, in October 2011.  They mounted their first show two months later.

“Overall the response has been very good,” Swartz says.  “We even have repeat customers who want to bring friends or family members to shows they’ve enjoyed.”

The Stardust Playhouse has thirty-nine seats.  Swartz’s father was involved in the construction of the stage and seating area.  He also indirectly contributed to the choice of the theatre’s name.

“Kirsten wanted to pick a name that evoked the glamour of 1930s Hollywood, an era she loves, so she came up with Stardust.  And I remembered how as a young man, my father had performed at the Pasadena Playhouse, so we used ‘Playhouse’ instead of ‘Theatre.’”

Since opening last December, the Stardust Playhouse has presented “Marijuanalogues,” directed by Clapp, “You’ve Got Hate Mail,” directed by Swartz, and “Pillowman,” guest directed by Breanna Donofrio.  Swartz enjoys directing but prefers acting.  Her favorite role to date was the Blue Fairy in a recent MPC Storybook Theatre production of “Pinocchio,” directed by Carey Crockett, in which the title character was performed by her grandson and Clapp’s son, Peyton Whetstone.

Clapp’s passion lies in directing.  “With directing, she’s painting with all the parts,” Swartz says.  “A director is really creating something.  She has a vision and sees the whole picture.  Set design, prop design, costume design—she really loves how with directing you are putting together an entire work of art.”

Their current show, running through June 10 and directed by Clapp, is “Den of Thieves,” by Stephen Adly (cast at right).  “It’s a dark comedy about criminals,” Swartz says.  “It takes place in New York City and the main characters are in a 12-step program for criminals who want to mend their ways.”  Upcoming shows this season include “Extremities,” “Zoo Story,” and “Speed of Darkness.”  For Halloween, they will present a murder mystery, “The Hilarious Hillbilly Massacre.”

As their first season reaches its halfway mark, Swartz admits she has been surprised at how much work is involved in putting on shows.  “It’s not just choosing a cast and rehearsing and having the performances,” she says.  “There’s all the administration, the marketing, the website—it’s quite a bit of hard work behind the scenes.”

Fortunately, the new enterprise has already attracted some young theatre angels who have quickly become part of the Stardust family.

“Timothy Samaniego, who was in our first show and was recently in “Prometheus Bound,” at the Paper Wing Theatre, has been very helpful and is a delight,” Swartz says.  “And Tiffany Torres, who was our stage manager for “You’ve Got Hate Mail,” is very capable and dedicated.”

Live theatre is a lifelong passion for Swartz, who has also studied art and holds a Master’s degree in education from CSUMB.  “Theatre is so magical,” she says.  “It’s all right there—the audience is right there in the room with you.  I love movies, too, but with theatre you can really transport people.  And as an actor, you can become someone else.  There is something uniquely special and creative about live theatre, something you can’t get anywhere else.”

The Stardust Playhouse is located at 2115 Fremont Avenue, Suite C, in Monterey.  “Den of Thieves” plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through June 10.  For tickets and information, visit www.stardustplayhousemonterey.com or call 831-402-8940.

In Light of Father and Son

In Warren Chang’s first self-portrait, executed in 2000, the year he decided to leave the commercial art world to focus on fine art painting, the artist’s eyes appear to be unfocused, in shadow.  There is a roughness to the work that seems not so much casual or deliberate or tentative as exploratory.  The sharpest edge in the image lies at a corner of the artist’s easel, as if to point the way forward.

Chang, whose paintings of the last dozen years have been gathered for a superb exhibit at the Pacific Grove Art Center, works in a precise, luminous style inspired by a lineage of painters going back to Rembrandt.  His paintings of people at work glow with empathy.  That glow is also present in his beautiful rendering of the complexities of light on the Central Coast.  Examine the gray, lowering sky in “Twilight in Santa Cruz” (2009; shown above), in which the heaviness of the fog above and the vastness of the field below are reflected in the weary eyes of a man who gazes out from the image: a lone man containing multitudes.  The painting speaks of suffering and toil, yet there is something resolutely alive in his face, an openness to connection, a desire to have his burden acknowledged.

Another self-portrait, this one with his young son (“Father and Son,” 2009), frames a scene of the artist and his child in a golden light.  Books, art, nature, the importance of family and the steady pursuit of beauty and meaning—these elements contribute to an atmosphere of focus and calm, making the painting something of an idyll for the viewer. 

That quality of focused calm is also present in a wonderful companion exhibit by Namgui Chang, Warren’s father, lending a spirit of generational resonance to both men’s shows.

Born in 1925, Namgui came to study at UC Berkeley as a young man; the onset of the Korean War prevented him from returning home, and he was soon recruited to teach Korean to American soldiers at the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey.  He settled there and raised a family.  A self-taught artist, his paintings reveal a kind of soft attention to the things unseen, to the deeper quiet under the surface. 

In the watercolor “Morning at the Temple” (1997), one of several paintings depicting Chang’s native Korea, birds fly to and from a nest against a gorgeous yellow sky.  It is a painting about home, the nests we leave and those we return to in our memories.  In “Rocky Hills in Autumn” (1988), another watercolor, the sky itself is liquid, as if the entire scene were underwater, a foregrounded red bush brilliantly aglow with reflection.

Namgui has also painted scenes of Monterey, including the striking “Deforestation; Tears of Pines” (c. 1960), which depicts how the land was gouged open to create the quarry in Del Monte Forest.  The furrowed rivulets of soil weep downward to a layer of blood-red earth, exposed and stripped-bare, still speaking to the viewer of its pain.

Warren Chang and Namgui Chang, at the Pacific Grove Art Center, 568 Lighthouse Avenue, through May 24.

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.