Campus & Community

The proletariat rises up at the Carpenter Center

7 min read
Carpenter Center
Ten passionate part-time artists are showing their works at the Carpenter Center this summer. All of them are members of the Carpenter Center’s support staff, hence the exhibition’s title: ‘Staff Show.’

Think of Paul Gauguin, working as a stockbroker in Paris and painting on weekends. Or of Maurice de Vlaminck, supporting his family as a violin teacher while creating his incandescent landscapes.

Doing art part time doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of seriousness or a lack of talent. In fact, it may be that those artists who keep creating while holding down a day job are the ones who most convincingly prove their passion and persistence.

Ten passionate and persistent part-time artists are showing their works at the Carpenter Center this summer. All of them are members of the Carpenter Center’s support staff, hence the exhibition’s title: “Staff Show.”

The exhibition was arranged and curated by Melissa Davenport, a painter who works as coordinator of events and publications, and Mary Kenny, a sculptor who, as studio arts assistant, buys supplies for art classes.

It’s an idea that staff members have been discussing for at least two years, Davenport said. This summer, with nothing scheduled for the lobby exhibition space, they finally got the green light.

“The show has been great,” Davenport said. “We’ve always talked about our art, but most of us haven’t seen each other’s work. The first day I saw all the pieces in one place, I was psyched. For us to be given this opportunity is really terrific.”

Davenport, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, has contributed two giant oil paintings of her cat, Ivan, paintings that do for the domestic feline what Georgia O’Keeffe’s semi-abstractions did for flowers. Ivan the cat is a subject she has essayed repeatedly in recent years.

“When you do the same thing over and over again, you can work on painting issues,” she said.

Kenny, who graduated from another prestigious art school, the California Institute of the Arts, near Los Angeles, has also found inspiration in the animal world. An encounter with a brown bear in the California wilderness led to the creation of a miniature sculptural group in which a bear rises on its hind legs to confront a pack of snarling wolves.

“I used to dream about my encounter with that bear. This is a way of exorcising it,” Kenny said.

A second group of figures – human ones this time – emerge from an imaginative process that seems almost novelistic in origin. As Kenny fashions these tiny figures, their names, histories, and interrelationships reveal themselves to her. But she will not reveal those details to viewers, who will have to furnish their own story line.

Chris Frost, an alumnus of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and of the Parsons School of Design, Paris, has been working at the Carpenter Center for the past 12 years designing and installing exhibitions for other artists. He has designed and installed the “Staff Show” as well. The difference is that this exhibition includes his own work.

Frost is a sculptor whose pieces bear a superficial resemblance to architectural models. But while architectural models tend to be exquisitely detailed and so delicate that even breathing on them can be risky, Frost’s simplified plywood miniatures of famous buildings appear sturdy enough to withstand a brigade of frenzied toddlers.

In fact, Frost once created a hands-on piece for the Cambridge River Festival that proved beyond doubt how rugged his creations can be. His models of well-known Cambridge buildings were presented in a jumbled heap, and visitors were asked to identify the buildings and place them on a map of the city.

His piece for the “Staff Show” is not interactive in a tactile sense, although, like all good sculpture, it does invite the viewer to explore its three-dimensionality. Frost has created almost 30 buildings ranging from St. Mark’s Cathedral to a Quonset hut and mounted them on a large flat board hung vertically. The viewer thus has a bird’s-eye view of this fantasy landscape even though he is in the conventional position of contemplating an object on a wall.

Travis Kunce, a graphic artist and graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, works as a visual technician in the Carpenter Center, assisting film and video students with production and postproduction problems. His incongruously juxtaposed portraits of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Pope John Paul II, and a performer from a porn film derive an additional edginess from being printed on that humble and familiar material, colored construction paper. In another piece, Kunce has created a large portrait of Ronald Reagan from more than 5,000 tiny squares of construction paper fastened together with clear tape.

John Merrill, who manages the Carpenter Center’s photographic facilities, was a doctoral student in American religious history at Princeton when he took an introductory class in black-and-white photography and discovered the expressive possibilities of that medium.

“I almost jumped ship right then,” he said.

But Merrill stayed on the academic track, at least for a few years, working on his dissertation while teaching at a private school. In the meantime, however, his interest in photography grew, and he developed his skills by taking photography courses at the Carpenter Center with John Leuders Booth, Jane Tuckerman, and Frank Gohlke.

In the “Staff Show,” Merrill is represented by a series of large color photos he took at Arnold Arboretum. Each of these fields of sumptuous color contains a blurred element – trees thrashing in the wind, white flowers fluttering against a background of brown leaves and twigs.

“I wanted to capture the passage of time in a single frame,” Merrill said.

In contrast to the bright, diverse colors that characterize Merrill’s work, many of Steffen Pierce’s photos of Morocco tend to be subdued, at times almost monochromatic – a sprawling town of flat, box-shaped houses suffused by a pink sunset glow, women in white walking among the white stones of a graveyard. Even when he chooses brighter tones, a single color predominates, as in his portrait of a woman in a red jacket seated before a red window casement with a red-rimmed bowl at her feet.

Pierce is assistant curator of the Harvard Film Archive, and his fascination with Morocco goes back many years. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a film set in that country called “Marrakesh Inshallah.”

Another photographer, Julie Buck, works as manager of the Harvard Film Archive. A graduate of the film school at Brigham Young University, Buck has contributed two very different works to the show. One is a large-format portrait of a woman sitting at a table and returning the viewer’s gaze with a self-assured, almost challenging look. Based on a photograph, the image has been built up from layers of colored paper cut to shape with scissors.

A second work, a group of four photographs from a larger series titled “Self-Centered,” shows the photographer herself disguised as a variety of different characters – a beatnik sipping coffee in a cafe, a day trader nervously checking her watch, a mechanic probing the innards of an ancient car, and a sailor posing provocatively on the deck of a ship.

The title of this Cindy Sherman-like series was salvaged from the wreckage of a former relationship.

“An ex-boyfriend told me I was self-centered, so I decided to embrace that and create something out of it,” Buck said. “It’s very freeing in a way because there’s no copyright on you. You can do whatever you want with yourself.”

Other artists whose work is on show at the exhibit are Pete Grana, Mark Johnson, and Karin Segal.

“Staff Show” can be seen at the Carpenter Center through Aug. 4. The exhibition is free and open to the public.