Imagined Possibilities Spring to Life
By Robin Johnson
Nearly a century ago, on the downtown streets of Omaha, a pair of kindred radios was delivered by night to the most esteemed department store in town. Constructed by the same hands, these machines were of similar cut, though each entertained their own unique character. Their polished buttons, golden speakers and intricate wood carvings shone as the morning sun grazed them through the newly decorated storefront window. Snow falling about them, viewers stopped to gaze at the latest technology. It wasn’t long before both of the radios were purchased; each delivered to opposite sides of town. For years following these radios filled their families’ homes with the pops and cracks of the evening news, the booming sounds of big band jazz and the laughs and gasps as families gathered around these machines listening to nightly stories. In their new lives, these machines remained connected through the airwaves and the sharing of stories they emitted to their respective families. As time passed, newer wonders appeared, catching the attention of these familes, and the radios were sidelined to the attic to make room for the new technological acquisitions. Over time the radios were dispersed through the generations, moving from attics to garages, until one day they found themselves side by side, united again in a small antique store in Claremont.
Messages from the Elders
It was on this day that they came to the attention of artist Charles Long, who brought them into the First Street Gallery Art Center. Looking around at his fellow artists in the studio he posed that these two old distressed radios were in their own way the ancient elders of communication coming back with a message for us today. With the turn of a knob, he championed, “Lets wake them up and find out what they are here to say!” Secretly pressing play on iPod docks inside the cabinets, a recording of buzzing radio sounds that slowly transitioned into wonderful jazz songs from the ’20s and ’30s echoed through the room. The studio was engaged, and it was then that Long invited everyone who was interested to play and explore, discovering what message these elders came to tell us. (Or so the tale goes, according to artist Charles Long.) This account of vintage radios became the basis for the extraordinary project that was about to ensue, “Found in Translation: A Collaboration with Charles Long,” a special art exhibit at the First Street Gallery Art Center in Claremont.
First Street Gallery Art Center is a program of the Tierra del Sol Foundation, a private non-profit organization whose mission is to create opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities to fully participate in the community. First Street Gallery provides professional art training and exhibition resources to 50 artists who are each pursuing an art career. Opening in 1989 with a grant from the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities, First Street Gallery offers a multitude of classes led by trained instructors and professional artists. The gallery offers five on-site and 20 off-site exhibition opportunities per year, while the artists also volunteer their skills throughout the community.
The evolution of communication
Long, an internationally exhibiting sculptor, professor and chair of the Department of Art at UC Riverside is well known throughout the art world as he has been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards and grants, in addition to participating in such select shows as the “1997 Biennial” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Approached by the First Street Gallery Art Center about a year prior to this “radio meeting,” it had been proposed to Long that he become their next guest artist to work collaboratively on a future exhibition with their artists. The show’s theme was to be the brainchild of Long, the possibilities endless. “The entire premise of the project,came about serendipitously. . . Seth Pringle, the director came up to me and said that he was just on the phone their friend at the antiques store across the way who was about to put two old radio cabinets on the street to be carted away and asked if we wanted them. I knew this was the beginning of the project, and the theme was going to be the evolution of communication.” describes Long.
Tirelessly and with great enthusiasm, this talented group of artists, and collaborator Charles Long spent weeks brainstorming on how to create works of art that embodied each participants perspective on communication, and their own personal interpretations of contextualizing the message that these radios delivered. Charles spent many hours in the studio working out ideas and problem solving with each artist, while in his absence the artists individually continued developing their projects. The First Street staff facilitated communication between Charles and the artists to keep everyone up to speed on each of the works progress.
A Single Light Bulb
Despite any limitations that these artists may have faced, as one walks through the exhibition, the results are staggering. This show has the air of an elitist contemporary space as the work is unexpected, and the depth of dialogue evident. A sculpture contstructed of a disfigured bicycle wheel and disgarded technological paraphenalia greet you upon entering the gallery. It monitors your entrance to the show and ultimately your own cummunication with the piece itself, as you realize you are being watched and recorded via satellite from a wire sculpture suspended from the ceiling in another corner of the gallery.
Moving deeper into the space you are met with the quirky and engaging sculpture of a Bruce Springsteen bust set amongst a hybrid interpretation of a pink Cadillac and stereo speakers, upon which you can hear his famous tune “Pink Cadillac” from headphones accompanying the piece. Across the room hangs colorful images which communicate stories and patterns of their own accord, while ceramic chimes sway with your movement through the space, encouraging you to go against all known gallery etiquitte taking in their tones as you move your hands accross them. In the center of the room you find one of the infamous reclaimed 1920s radios, hollowed out and filled with illustrations of Tesla and Marconi’s turmultuous relationship, highlighted by a single light bulb inside.
Communicating yet another element of surprise, this show transforms once again when you come to understand the above mentioned “limitations and abilities” that were set upon this group of artsists in creating their radio inspired works. The First Street Gallery Art Center is a space for adults with developmental disabilities such as mental retardation, cerebral palsy, seizure disorder, and autism. Some of these artists are blind, have little to no dexterity, or the lack of ability to communicate verbally. Given the complexity of the works and the overwhelming success of the collaboration, Rebecca Hamm, program coordinator at First Street Art Center explains, “Executing such a complex project with this philosophy is extremely challenging, both in practical and conceptual terms, but Charles’ dedication to not overshadowing our artists was unwavering.”
Touch Sensitive Paint
With the making and exhibiting of such art in mind, many might find themselves, as Long did at first, both excited and overly cautious in their interactions with artists with disabilities. At times uncertain of how to interact when the basic assumptions on what it means to communicate with another become suspended, and instead feeling hyper aware of an otherwise commonplace social interaction.
Charles felt inspired by the strength and creativity in these artists, regardless of their “limitations.” Each one approached the concept of communication in a unique and meaningful way. Narisa Somprasong, a visually-impaired female artist involved in the project loves to make art, even though she cannot see the work, she can feel it. “One day I was sitting with Narisa who was drawing with a white pastel crayon on white paper. This might have struck me as some John-Cage-moment in another context, but instead, I wondered how her expression here was manifesting to herself, or to a sight-abled audience. We discussed various things like where we were from, donuts and a love of Santana. I asked her what if we made a painting that she could make with touch sensitive paint and then we assigned different Santana riffs to those painted gestures. She said ‘That would be stupendous!’ After a lot of trial and error we made it happen! Touching various areas one can compose their own Santana song. Its loud and seems to match her painted gestures well,” Long recalls.
Steeped in Love
Throughout the work there is humor, intensity, depth, and layers of character embedded within a collective sense of happiness—a term not easily accepted in the contemporary art world. These artists have placed happiness at the forefront of their art practice, which is essentially revealed through the energy of the show. Everything and anything goes—that’s the message that is truly important. Steeped in love, creativity and acceptance, these artists have found so much more than just translation working with Long.
This particular collaboration has raised the bar for any future guest artist projects at First Street Gallery. The conceptual depth and creative vision that Long inspired in the studio was encouraging for everyone involved and led to an enriching experience and breathtaking exhibition. This show engages the space in an original way, with interactive elements, a myriad of sounds chirping, wires strung across the gallery connecting different works of art and ideas, reinforcing the theme of communication in the exhibition as a whole.
‘“Found in Translation’ expands upon definitions of community and authorship. It blurs the lines between the individual and the collective. It has challenged notions of how a work of art functions for our audience as well as for our studio artists. Our artists have opened their minds to new potentials when conceptualizing projects,” explains Hamm.
Looking around the gallery you will find a scattering of red dots, as many of the works were quickly snatched up and sold at the opening. Artists earn a 60-percent commission, though Nathan Murri, a participating artist exclaims, “I don’t want any money. I just want people to be amazed how talented I am. I just wanted to make this whole art show look as popular as any art shows at First Street Gallery.” So go visit, find yourself surprised, amazed and completely inspired. Splurge on some art and chances are you will leave feeling nothing short of fully impressed by these artists and the community which has supported this program for the past 25 years.
“Found in Translation: A Collaboration with Charles Long,” part of First Street Gallery’s Other Hands Guest Artist Program, at First Street Gallery Art Center, 250 W. First Street, Ste. 120, Claremont, (909) 626-5455; www.1ststreetgallery.org. Hours: Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm. Thru April 12.