Exhibition Review: Springville
Combining the Visual and the Verbal
The Art(s) of Teresa Jordan
Teresa Jordan’s newest book, The Year of Living Virtuously (Weekends Off), is, first of all, a collection of essays, beautifully woven together by a theme inspired by Benjamin Franklin. Just as Franklin sought to live his life according to those virtues he deemed important to living well, Jordan explores, with well-documented research and personal stories, what mindful attention to both virtues and vices may mean in one’s life. Rave reviews from local and national media, as well as 15 Bytes, might be enough to recommend the book (in fact, the first edition sold out). But for artists, I’d like to suggest another reason to pick up this book, as well as others in Jordan’s list of published works.
You see, Jordan not only tells stories with words, but uses her own visual art to enrich the reader’s experience. In her Field Notes from the Grand Canyon, published in 2000, watercolor sketches and her handwritten notes fill some pages, balanced by typeset essays on other pages. In Field Notes from Yosemite, published in 2002, watercolor studies sprinkle the pages. The most recent book, The Year of Living Virtuously (Weekends Off), includes Jordan’s monotype on the cover and a series of “bestiary” cut paper designs at the beginning of certain chapters.
How does a writer shift gears to create visually? How does an artist know what medium will best support the thematic content of the book? And what are the challenges of working with editors on content and illustration? These were some of the questions I explored with Teresa Jordan by phone as she and her husband were driving to Elko, Nev., for the Cowboy Poetry Festival at the end of January.
Jordan was first a writer and a teacher. This was after majoring in history and earning a bachelor’s degree from Yale. While teaching through the Northwest Writing Institute, part of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., she taught writing to art students at an art school. The students challenged her – “If we must learn how to write, you should learn how to draw.” And so she did, taking a drawing course here and there. When she set out with friends to raft and camp in the Grand Canyon in 1997, she self-consciously took along her sketchbook and some watercolors her husband had given her for Christmas. In the evenings, after setting up camp, she would find time alone to draw and make notes. And why not? For a writer who can express in words – “I found myself drunk with visual excitement, engaged in a gluttony of looking.” (Field Notes from the Grand Canyon) – drawing and painting is the perfect expressive complement.
“Visual concentration seemed like a rest for my mind,” explains Jordan. She wanted more art training, which eventually led her to take classes at the University of Utah. She was not after a degree, but she did want the depth of learning and the foundation that are part of the degree program. So she enrolled and completed a B.F.A. degree in 2002. While at the U, Jordan took some required printmaking classes. But it was when she went to Helper, to take workshops with Dave Dornan, that she was introduced to monotypes – a painterly printing process that produces just one print edition.
After graduating from the U, it seemed monotype printing was the best direction for Jordan’s art, partly because her basement studio accommodated a press better than an easel. Her monotypes of chickens and landscapes have been exhibited at Philips Gallery in solo and group shows.
Unlike the loose, painterly watercolor sketches in her illustrated field journals, Jordan’s newest book contains carefully designed, black and white graphic images of animals framed by a neat black rectangle with a word underneath. Like a medieval bestiary that associated animals – real or imagined – with moral values, Jordan’s creatures (or trees in one case) shed light on the virtues and vices in her book. Carefully cut from black paper with a mat knife, the 20” x 15” images are part of a series Jordan calls “From the Garden of Darkness and Light.” Once the entire 25-piece series is done, Jordan hopes to display them, perhaps in a traveling exhibit, at galleries, libraries, and other venues related to the humanities.
Jordan could have used monotypes for this project, but there were several reasons she chose cut paper. “I thought it would be interesting to work with imagery that is starkly black and white,” she explains. It relates to the stark difference some would see between a virtue and a vice, though Jordan takes a more Buddhist view of the middle way. “Any virtue taken to an extreme can become a vice,” she says.
“I love the tradition of paper cuts and the graphic quality you can get. On a metaphoric basis, paper is very fragile; a lovely metaphor for life,” she notes.
The idea for her creating art for the book came up in a meeting with the editor. Jordan doesn’t recall whose idea it was exactly, but once they agreed, the editor gave her free rein. The only surprise was the choice of artwork for the cover. “I had thought it would be a cut-paper tree of life image, but they chose one of my chicken monotypes – a chicken with an apple.” Though surprised, Jordan thought it a perfect choice because of its whimsy. Perhaps it suggests to the reader that this is far from a “preachy” book about morality. “It’s not the righteous preacher talking about virtue,” she says.
The book evolved from a series of blog posts Jordan wrote weekly over a year’s time. Though much of the writing was done by the time she began to turn it into a book, it was not an easy process. Some blog posts were shortened, rewritten, supplemented, or left out altogether. Other material was researched and added to create coherence through the book. It was during this process that Jordan began the cut-paper images, which was a respite from the work of writing.
She started with small sketches, blew them up on the computer, and printed them to size on black paper. Then the careful work of cutting the paper with a mat knife was meditative. “It took hours to cut one of the images, but the work was precise, rhythmic, and satisfying,” says Jordan.
Just as the art students Jordan taught how to write found that writing opened up their art, Jordan finds “beauty and pleasure in visual communication without language.” Perhaps this whole-brain approach to creative expression is something all of us should try.
Exhibition Review: Springville
The Truthful Surreal
Corinne Geertsen at the Springville Museum of Art
Narrative painting, in the form of history painting, was once the pinnacle of Western art, the zenith of Alberti’s 15th-century treatise on painting, and a prerequisite for anyone seeking access to prestigious academies in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the advent of modernism, narrative’s importance waned, while the notion of what narrative could be became more flexible, more malleable to new conceptual frameworks. In the past half century narrative has become an increasingly prevalent strategy for artists, so that today narrative is not only a common tool but also a common theme with which to explore the parameters of a post-historical context. When deftly employed by artists like Utah’s Corinne Geertsen, a BYU grad (B.A. and M.F.A.) who is showing this month at the Springville Museum of Art, narrative is a very effective way to evoke a sense of engagement, pushing a viewer to invest their sensibilities in the artwork. In her digital photo collages featuring 19th-century photographs of men in top hats and girls in frilly dresses mixing with a menagerie of animals against fanciful backdrops, Geertsen uses sensitivity, finesse and a droll sense of humor to create psychologically compelling narratives imbued both with a sense of nostalgia and a universal reach.
Geertsen’s strengths are clear in a work like “Picnic,” which is not really a picnic. It is as bucolic as any picnic should be, but takes place on an island so small it can barely fit one small palm tree and two inhabitants: the great lioness, gazing out to sea; and the young chestnut-haired girl in a pea-green frock, perhaps 12, who rests her elbow comfortably on the head of the lioness, her head in her palm as she stares with the gaze of eternity into the eyes of the viewer. Certain qualities about this image grip the sensibilities like a vise, taking hold and, stopping one in one’s path, causing the viewer to question who and what and where and why and when… and how? Most certainly the surreal element of the very lovely scene causes this line of questioning… it is nothing but impossible and only fantastical, and so much so that it causes a sense of detachment into its own reality that the viewer hopes to understand. The lioness is so at ease on her island, but how did she get there and why is she so content to stay? And why is this young girl, with a pale face and dark eyes in her Sunday best, sitting atop this lioness, and why does she have a look in her eyes so utterly tranquil that the viewer is sure she has been there since the beginning of time and will remain to see it through to the end?
Here Geertsen has created a surreal world from which the viewer is totally detached, but at the same time causes certain sensibilities to transgress this detachment; there is a curious feeling of “otherness,” a sense of something present yet at the same moment distant, a feeling of timelessness, yet without being able to catch hold of any fragment of it, confrontation so close yet with a displacement as distant as the sea itself, and a wanting to get a grip on the reality of it and knowing that is a fruitless impossibility, and ultimately, having to let it simply be so.
A lesser sense of the impossible is evoked in “Tornado,” but it is still imbued with a sense of the surreal and a sensibility of wanting to get a grip on the actuality of it possesses the viewer. A young girl in a dark violet dress sits restlessly in the center of a cushioned bench of teal green. Could she be a grandmother, a great-aunt, seen here in adolescence? Her historical presence is palpably felt yet genuinely brought to the present to incorporate the surreal space in which she, herself, has been placed. To her left is a painting — a large baroque gilded frame surrounds a composition with shrubs, a large sky, and a sinewy tornado. To her right is a much larger, white-framed window. It is closed, and frames in the distance another whirling tornado. Again, in this painting, there is a sense of surreal timelessness, of a duration that exists somewhere outside of time. Memory and recollection create meaning, filling in the canvas, giving life to the girl, and giving space to the sealed room by going beyond the window and connecting the phenomena inside the painting and outside the room. Again, it is the viewer’s sensibilities that respond to the indicators of the image, allowing for impossibility while acknowledging the possibility of the powers of cognition, of memory, of recollection, of attachment, connectivity, and the power over detachment.
If one approaches Geertsen’s pieces with a certain power of authority, realizing that one’s sensibilities are not powerless but have a place in her surreal discourse, that this surreality can come to life for sensible cognition, an entirely surreal canvas such as “Clouded” can become accessible, albeit distilled, as always, in its own reality and time. A woman is standing tall astride a flying carpet. She wears a Victorian black dress, and her head, quite literally, is in a cloud. The details are all wholly realistic, but their combination surreal. Yet as surreal as this image might be, as removed from one’s own reality, one may find a connection with the flight of freedom, and relate the Victorian sensibility of the woman who before the age of suffragettes has her shoulders bared, and her head in the clouds. In this light an image like “Grand Tour” — with its parasol-wielding baby astride a tiger walking on a tractor tire in a plowed field — need not be so foreign. Again, it exists in its own surreality, but the viewer need not question who, what, where, when, why, and how… but may join in the journey with this odd pair, feel the excited vigor of this baby who peers forward, and get “lost” in this narrative as one is intended to.
The individual elements of Geertsen’s works are very concrete, if for no other reason than that they are photographic. Their deft mixture, however, creates surreal narratives of mysterious attraction, which in turn open up for the viewer access to memory, to recollection, to meaning; they become immensely engaging, sending the viewer on adventures of wonderment and excitement, and become, if only for a few moments, entirely possible.