No one really knows what makes a person become an artist; talent apparently can sprout in almost any circumstances. Then again, if the seed thrives, it may well feel possible to discern how an artist’s work grew out of the particular events of her life. If there were a poster child for this autobiographical approach to art criticism, it might well be Marcee Blackerby. For her part, Blackerby, who only took up visual art in the latter third of her life, recalls once upon a time being told by a doctor, after she had survived another of several near-encounters with death, that medically she qualified to be the “poster child for everything.” Contemplating the contribution to Modernism made by the posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, with their collaging together of disparate graphic modes and representative styles, there does seem to be a direct line of descent from there to the assemblages of Marcee Blackerby.
So much in life is timing. Marcee Blackerby was born near the end of World War II, just as the nation was emerging from decades of economic privation, violent struggle, and self-sacrifice. Those who were there remember that time primarily as one of limitless horizons and idealistic optimism. Science, which had brought an end to the war — possibly to all great wars — set about bringing an end to diseases that had blighted countless lives: vaccines were dealing with smallpox and polio the way penicillin dealt with infections. But the polio vaccine came three years too late for Blackerby, who contracted a disease that, in addition to its ability to paralyze and deform its victim’s bodies, also had an unexpected power, seemingly one left over from the superstitious middle ages, to make its victims pariahs who, if not entirely cast out from society, at least bore the weight of suspicion bordering on paranoia. As if her physical condition didn’t challenge a child’s socialization sufficiently, she faced the anxiety of parents who, not understanding the mechanism of the disease, or unwilling to risk their own children on that understanding, regarded her as a menace and infected her classmates with their fear.
Blackerby, sentenced as a child to physical isolation in an iron lung — and to an arguably more pervasive social isolation — overcame a lifetime of impaired mobility by a sequence of stratagems. Some are as apparent as the wheelchair she uses to get around the handsome, art-filled bungalow on a tree-shaded street in Salt Lake where she lives and works with her husband, painter and sculptor Ric Blackerby. Others are recalled in various self-portraits, where she invokes her days on horseback as a cowgirl or on a chopped Harley as a motorcycle outlaw. Even her years as a hippie make sense to anyone who remembers seeing missing and bent limbs restored and made straight by their owners’ auras: those proofs that, as the contemporary wisdom held, what a person held inside counted for more than what could be seen on the outside.
It may now seem inevitable that Blackerby would find her way to art, but the journey proved arduous just the same. In her mid-thirties, having explored the fringes of American life and culture, she decided it was finally time to seriously pursue her lifelong interest in creative writing. She enrolled in community college classes that she took over and over for six years, honing her poetic and prose skills, and when finally forced to graduate, she began writing a novel. During those years she met and studied with Ron Carlson, who is probably Utah’s best-known and most respected contemporary contribution to the national literary scene. Their friendship established a pattern for the way her fellow artists would come to quickly recognize her as one of their own. But a novelist typically works on a single project that demands enormous energy, and so Blackerby’s dreams of publishing were dashed when her health suddenly collapsed, requiring open-heart surgery that left her incapable of that kind of sustained effort.
As she battled back toward health, Blackerby found herself a daily witness to an alternative example. Her husband, Ric, is a meticulous craftsman who has developed numerous outlets for his creative drive. His representational paintings simultaneously mythologize their subjects while they puncture the mythic dimension of traditional painting. One of his sculptures, a bird piloting an airplane, has recently been on display above the sidewalks of downtown Salt Lake. When not working on these substantial works, though, Ric sculpts wearable art and crafts jewelry that encourages as much thought as admiration. It’s a simple but real difference between the arts that, where literature rewards sustained effort, visual art works may move forward episodically, not only requiring fallow periods while the paint dries, so to speak, but profiting from being interrupted by other projects or set aside while the unconscious work gets done. Ric’s ability to turn from task to task may have showed Marcee a way of working that her fragile health could sustain. While he says, “She started on her own after watching me for thirty years; she just wanted to show me how it could be done,” she credits him not only with teaching her the skills of a fine artist, but imbuing her with a sufficiently high standard of craftsmanship.
Beyond the manual practice he taught her, Marcee credits Ric with something more important: protecting her ravaged heart from further, only partly metaphorical damage. Most young would-be artists give up when confronted by the all-but insurmountable rigors of art as vocation. But she says she knew better: “You make money by pursuing your art, getting attention, getting jobs” — by which unglamorized term she means commissions — “and in the process you get hurt, you get discouraged. But I didn’t get my heart broken because first I watched my husband go through it. I knew what to expect.” To her classic apprenticeship, learning how even the most ephemeral flights of imagination can benefit from a foundation of solid carpentry, and this lesson in what might be called ego-economics, she added a lifetime of countercultural living that gave her a uniquely slantwise vision of society, and a way of presenting that vision through its artifacts. Just two obstacles, one a matter of stylistic legitimacy and the other more practical, remained in her path to making an art of her own.
Most artists who work in the medium of the box must sooner or later come to grips with the example of Joseph Cornell, the self-taught New York artist who was admired and promoted by the Surrealists. Cornell, who stands beside the likes of Ed Kienholz as originators of Assemblage, the pivotal 20th-century art, may have set the bar for box art too high, simultaneously establishing the medium as legitimate even as he established a standard no one can hope to better. Fortunate for Blackerby, then, that her early art activities took her to Denver, where she met, and again was befriended by, Red Grooms. Grooms, a more demotic figure than the ethereal Cornell, uses found elements in such vignettes of American life as the walk-through, multimedia installation called “Ruckus Manhattan.” He builds his assemblages and graphic works from expressionistically distorted reproductions rather than limiting himself to the originals. His example lay much closer to Blackerby’s peripheral view of American life, and probably freed her to introduce representational elements to a medium that sometimes feels diminished by the factual identities of its elements. One of Blackerby’s early successful pieces, a giant sleeve of French fries made from men’s neckties, showed this willingness of hers to use assembled elements to simultaneously be what they are and play the part of something else.
Because her physical limitations have extended over so much of her life, and because her character has overridden them so decisively, it’s easy to overlook the particular difficulties that must have stood in Blackerby’s pathway to success as an artist. Fortunately, a vision of art as an activity that must be inclusive is fundamental to the project of VSA Arts and Art Access, where she has found a home. So long as art is seen as a market activity, a sport restricted to those who can afford to manipulate its value economically, gifted artists can be prevented from sharing something essential to the health and well-being of everyone. For Art Access director Ruth Lubbers and her staff, helping a polio survivor to participate in the gallery system is an everyday challenge. Blackerby gratefully credits Lubbers with enabling her to bring her private and personal vision to a wider audience. Lubbers, meanwhile, counts as Blackerby’s artistic breakthrough a piece that was included in Contours, an exhibit curated for Art Access by Laura Boardman in the summer of 2007.
For the exhibit Blackerby submitted a large Plexiglas box containing a fantastic scene that seemed to draw equally on circus dreams and bizarre, nightmarish transformations. On a trapeze sits a colorfully dressed figure with three legs, two arms, and two heads — each face having a single eye — that casts a shadow on a wall where no wall should be: too close behind to permit the perch to swing. On the ground nearby, posed in the same ambiguous space, at once shallow and vast, and circled by a ring that could also be the arc of a rainbow, a slender woman in a revealing costume and a winged collar holds aloft like a banner or flag a crow’s wing as large as her herself. The work’s title, “Searching For the Third Ring,” refers to the center ring that differentiates American circus practice from the single ring used elsewhere. To Blackerby, reaching that ring represents the life goal she learned as an isolated child to identify as fitting in or finding ones rightful and fulfilling place. “Everyone,” she says, “needs to spend fifteen minutes in there.” The theatrical setting connects that idea with our fixation on celebrity, and with Andy Warhol’s declaration that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes (or, as the title of this publication suggests, will receive fifteen bytes of recognition).
Of course the bird’s wing captures Blackerby’s ambivalence about ever really fitting in. Wouldn’t that require an end to her freedom? The life of an artist is only her latest, even if arguably the most successful, replacement for the sense of belonging she lacked as a child. In one of her self-portraits she shows herself with the body of a bird, while in another her face graces the body of Janis Joplin as drawn by R. Crumb. Can a place in society at this point in her life ever replace such freedom of imagination? Speaking of her next two upcoming exhibitions, she says, “This is about the most respectable I’ve ever been.” But she also has the insight and honesty to admit that all her experiments with the stylistics of life were driven by the universal desire to belong.
So then, what pattern emerges from looking over her growing body of work? Much of her time goes into searching flea markets and estate sales for eloquent relics of other, more familiar lives. Some of them become little characters that sit around her studio for a while, waiting to find a home. Others do not; they remain themselves and invoke their makers and users. In fact, her works don’t always appear as strange on first viewing as “Searching for the Third Ring.” More often, peering into one of her dense, tightly arranged shadow boxes, one first notices a few mundanely familiar, even sentimental objects. Only on closer inspection do strange, subtly disturbing elements emerge. Her paradigm is the classic fairy tale, with its sweet surface that melts away to reveal macabre lessons about life. Behind the confectionary cottage discovered by Hansel and Gretel, Blackerby remembers to show the bones stacked like cordwood. It’s not her intention to shatter anyone’s idea of reality, or to replace sunlight entirely with shadows. She just knows that the optical illusions most of society lives with and through are largely a product of a certain play of light, and that it’s worth the trouble to render them translucent enough to be seen through: seen through to the larger, stranger comprehension that her life’s accidents forced her to recognize as richer, more truthful, and entirely worth the encounter.
Marcee Blackerby is participating in two exhibitions this month. She has 28 pieces in the “October Invited” show at the Bountiful/Davis Art Center through November 7. She has 8 pieces in “Worlds in a Box,” a group show of box artists curated by Jacqui Biggs Larsen at Art Access until November 14. She is scheduled for solo shows at Finch Lane Gallery in February 2009 and Art Access gallery in July 2009.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.