Saturday, January 27, 2018

Solo Exhibition: UAF Museum of the North

Here's a follow-up to a previous post (just a brief announcement for the opening reception) about the exhibit of my cartoons up at the University of Alaska's Museum of the North. I kept a running commentary over the course of production and culled some notes and thoughts in retrospect to intersperse amongst random snapshots of the event.
(More below the fold)

First + foremost I'm always reminded of how invaluable training it was doing a BFA exhibit way back in the early days of my art career: managing to juggle multiple priorities is par for the course, as in Life Happens and will always manage to throw a curve-ball right outta left field, every time. Just when you think you have way too much to deal with and couldn’t possibly manage any more stress, bam. So you throw everything you have against the wall, and afterwards see what sticks and call it good. The workload will never ease up enough to where the time is right, it will always be an endless cascade of simultaneous priorities - my father always used to say "serenity does not mean an end to the storm, but peace amidst the waves" (though these days I prefer George Carlin's quote "As you swim the river of live, do the breast stroke. It helps to clear the turds from your path.")

And so there’s a lot of empathy with students who are currently undergoing similar pressure from the stress of another semester while entering finals, when everything is due all at once - including your art projects. Believe me, I can relate. And over the years you develop a real sense of the demands that will be made on your time, and your sanity, whether it's curating an exhibit or participating in one as a solo artist or as part of a group. It's another reason why critically reviewing other people's shows is a good habit, and regularly making the rounds for First Friday openings.

The practical logistics behind this particular event happened to coincide with working two part-time jobs this season as both an Interpretive Ranger with the National Park Service, and also as an Adjunct in the Art department teaching two studio courses (one of which was a stacked class of three different levels). This meant I was effectively unable to schedule many things that conflicted with 50-60 hours or more of blocked-out time, six days a week. Even with the inevitable overlap when artwork creeps into the regular, everyday duties, that only left one day a week to attend to the doodles piling up on the drawing board, in sketchbooks, and oozing out the ears onto miscellaneous scraps of paper scattered throughout the house (and car, and office, and in all your pockets). But first: Shovel the driveway and walkways, dishes, vacuum, make dinner, play with the kitties, talk with the wife, oh yeah, and then get this whole show put together. Some "day off." But this isn't for the sake of bitching about how busy everything was, it's offered instead as an example of how to persevere in the face of, at times, daunting circumstances - again, this is at the core of what you should ideally learn during the process of putting together your very first show. Some artists are turned off by all the attendant details or surrounding hoopla, or pay someone else to do the work for them. And sometimes it's enough to swear off all such extracurricular activities above + beyond the basic making of art, which unto itself can be more than enough to deal with. And sometimes you just simply burn out, which happened to me for the very first time just last year during another similar grand coalescing of events. In fact I took steps this summer so as to avoid this exact over-extension, and yet here it happened again. And sure enough, it was made a little bit easier having recently been through that ordeal, though I can only imagine what it's like having to undergo such stuff more than a handful of times a year. But there is a theory that is what it takes to achieve those big dreams... even if all one manages is a quick sketch to put aside for later.

So the freelance gigs were in the meantime backing up, with an another Artist-In-Schools residency scheduled during finals week, all of which took place immediately after getting this show together. And like I mentioned earlier, bam, add to the mix a family emergency that preempted the one week you had specifically set aside to prep for the show. All of the various components were rapidly coming together, as in pieces selected, re-edited, re-formatted and printed, mattes + frames on order (even incurring exorbitant shipping fees like $88 "next day" delivery which translates into two-to-three days for Alaska), assembling hardware and wires etc. Ill take a moment here and plug Dick Blick who really came through when push came to shove: I had picked up a few demo frames at the local craft store only a couple weeks before the show was to be installed (itself the day before the opening reception - so absolutely no wiggle room)

Oh but wait - just one more element: since I got back to Fairbanks the evening right before (six hours of sleep after flying for ten hours) everything was to be assembled for hanging the next day, of course that's when I finally succumbed to the crap that was going around getting everybody else in town sick. Between both of us being teachers, plus working in a visitor center, our cabin pretty much turns into a petri-dish of just about every damn infectious plague that gets passed around the Interior, and so we tend to develop a fairly resistant constitution, unless triggered and exacerbated by travel + stress. Go figure.

Which leads me to my next observation: when the fine print on the bottle of medicine says "non-drowsy" you can bet your ass that's exactly what it will do. But seriously, the show made for an outstanding background in which to meet with reporters. Special thanks goes out to Amanda Hanson with CBS Channel 13 News, who cornered me at the gallery for inclusion into a really spiffy feature they do called "Golden Art City" which showcases local talent in the arts.

Here's a link to the on-line segment via Webcenter 11's  version, which has close captioning + a partial transcription. The piece was, if not amusing on its own, also amazing in that over an hour of stream-of-consciousness rambling was edited down to around three minutes. Not having any reception out at the cabin, I rarely if ever get a chance to watch television, but after this aired I sure did get an awful lot of shout-outs in passing while running errands around town for weeks afterwards. Guess I didn't really need that 4-shot eggnog latte though...

Now on to the nuts & bolts of the exhibition: there were a few parameters in selecting the pieces for this space. 

I started out skimming over the archives for a first pass at cherry-picking the best stuff I had, beginning with last year's material - mostly contemporary “classics” (ie no Freeze-Frames). And yeah, about ranking: culling the archives was pretty much shooting from the hip, going off a gut feeling as to which ones made the cut. This meant I would avoid too much overlap between this show and the big Overflow XX exhibition just five years ago, and also give a cutoff for the annual retrospect at the distillery. After copying the files into a new desktop folder I would methodically repeat the process while working backwards in time, until I reached fifty works.

The span reached half a dozen years, from 2016 to 2010. This was in turn whittled down to thirty, as that was initially the number of possible spaces 11x14" frames would occupy in the allotted space.  Update: Due to constraints on the number of hangers, the total number of pieces was cut to 24 – which alleviated some financial pressure (materials were kept under a few hundred dollars), and made the editing much harder as it came down to choosing between some personal favorites. I was able to drop a few of the oldest panels and keep everything stylistically similar.

Another meta-consideration that was hanging over all of this was the hopes that it would provide the impetus for amassing enough material to coagulate into a new publication, or two, or three. I'm sorely behind collecting panels for a new book, and not only of recent works but there's a project that's been simmering away on the proverbial back-burner to release an omnibus "best of" edition that will be successful in selling to the visitor market and/or work outside of the state. As far as this batch was concerned, given the location, it had to cater to dual demographics: both locals and visitors.

Admittedly more than a few, as usual, go right over the head of a tourist, but then again, that’s what makes the feature different, if not unique. Also kept an eye cocked at the fact this exhibit would be up in the winter months, so subject matter would be a big aspect to keep in mind. Only six pieces were in full-color, and all but two were in a horizontal format. Each individual panels was resized to fit within an 8x10" opening, which greatly eased the mechanics of assembling everything into a cohesive whole. I often lecture to students about the relative importance of composition as it occurs within the real estate of an exhibition space. In other words, after one is done with each separate piece of artwork, there comes a time when you take a step back and arrange it aesthetically amongst the total show, as in the blank wall of the gallery is now a canvas unto itself.

Case in point being the surreptitious arrangement of text-heavy and/or detailed panels tended to line up along the bottom row so as to be closer to the viewer. Color pieces were intermittently placed just for variety's sake. Other than that it was completely random arrangement, and as mentioned in some interviews, one that I hoped suggested an impression of a comic strip wrapped around the walls of the gallery given the evocative and repetitive rhythm of the panels and frames.

The selected years just went back far enough to get into the last of the vectored art phase, when all my scans of the linework would be converted with Illustrator. Four panels were digitally colored, and another three were watercolor wash versions, with one shaded with graphite, all others remaining were shaded using the usual Photoshop. I didn't include any sketches, process pieces, straight-up pen + ink linework, nor any logos or commercial work either. They were all as seen as published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - with a caveat that when each panel was reopened in Photoshop I couldn't resist minor tweaking and editing.

Another factor here was I had made the command decision to leave off the “Nuggets” header + all other info (ex: credit bug) including the signature – which necessitated a bit of digital retouching when it dipped down into the actual panel and sometimes the artwork itself. Which in turn leads to observation #2: How goddamned dirty some of these panels are when enlarged on screen and picked over at 300%... all kinds of specks and blerbs, digital artifacts boogers and and cathairs. Pain in the butt, especially when it came to matching gradations, and called into question that peculiar long-running habit of dropping the cursive “J” of “Jamie” down into the image itself. Also it meant having to remembering to sign all the (digital) prints by hand, in pencil, so as to subtly set it off as a visual signifier of being a reproduction, as opposed to an original.

The heightened degree of scrutiny made for all sorts second-guessing too, and not just in a physical sense, but knowing they were going up in one of the most important institutions in the entire state. Being showcased at one of the leading cultural and artistic galleries lends another aesthetic component – context. As in not just my work but that of comics being given a higher level of legitimacy and credibility. So all the while this was coalescing, one single thought kept repeating itself in my thoughts: just don’t fuck this up Jamie. No stress or anything...

Speaking of swear words – there was only one that I agonized over (the word “Hell” in the “Cold & Distant” panel). Oh and a naked person – from behind – streaking on account of being in the final throes of hypothermia was dropped in favor of “No Pants” as two in the same show woulda been a bit too much. Same thinking went into yanking a couple middle-finger ones ("Single Digits" + unedited "Running Line"): what with the time and place it was better to keep the whole package as G-rated as possible. This wasn't a case of self-censorship by any means, as given the range of other venues my work appears in (including here), there's no shortage of opportunity to display different facets of appropriate and tasteless material.

Another interesting observation came about on account of there being show labels for each individual piece. This allowed for some nuance in titling the panels, and meant I could include one in particular that was always weak insofar as “getting it” - so juxtaposing the title “Porcupine Caribou” against “Meanwhile in The Refuge” was yet another excellent example of image + text. It was also unfortunately timely again what with the short-sighted greed of the current administration + Alaskan congressional delegation - whoops! No politics! Fake cartoons!

I’ve long held that there’s a correlating relationship between artworks in museums & galleries and their respective titles – in a way they are often just like a cartoon in how there is a relationship between the image + text. Sometimes it’s the last chance the artist has to influence the observer’s interpretation of the piece (unless they opt for the brilliant & insightful “Untitled”). On a related note, there was a tongue-in-cheek factitious title change for "The Beaver Wreck of the Hesperus," especially funny as long afterwards I realized I meant to infer "The Raft of the Medusa" instead. Once again, the joke's on me.

As an added bonus for readers of Ink & Snow, here's a definitive index of all the works with added hyperlink to their original posting:

1. “Chill-cat” 2016 pen + ink/digital
2. “The Beaver of the Hesperus” 2013 pen + ink/digital
3. “Alone In A Crowd” 2015 pen + ink/digital
4. “Arctic Entryway” 2015 pen + ink/digital
5. “AK Hansel & Gretel” 2012 pen + ink/digital
6. “No Pants” 2013 pen + ink/digital
7. “Got It” 2015 pen + ink/digital
8. “I Got This” 2014 pen + ink/digital
9. “Cold & Distant” 2012 pen + ink/digital 
10. “Storage Unit” 2012 pen + ink/digital
11. “Lead Dog” 2015 pen + ink/digital
12. “Minivan” 2014 pen + ink/digital
13. “Pellet Stove” 2016 pen + ink/digital
14. “Duck” 2016 pen + ink/digital
15. “Sue & Lou” 2016 pen + ink/digital
16. “Leftovers” 2011 pen + ink/digital (*Note: not yet posted)
17. “Banana” 2014 pen + ink/watercolor
18. “Nature Show” 2015 pen + ink/digital (*Note: not yet posted)
19. “Fresh & New” 2016 pen + ink/watercolor
20. “Lures” 2012 pen + ink/digital
21. “True Love” 2012 pen + ink/digital
22. “Porcupine Caribou” 2014 pen + ink/watercolor
23. “Shadow Reflection” 2016 pen + ink/graphite
24. “Pluto” 2012 pen + ink/digital

Another reoccurring mulling of mine is how when a lot of my panels all get put up together next to one another there’s an interesting critique that arises: how many fall into a repetitive composition and/or elements within each drawing. There's a big picture/gestalt effect: “two figures on a ground plane” is obvious – especially when situated on the snowy tundra or other horizontal setting, along with the usual big grin + pout-face (a friend refers it to a Jamie "dookie") expressions on characters.

Does this mean I’m in a creative rut? No, I honestly think it’s like a musician that utilizes a set core of notes but reworks the songs to be independent. Or put another way, there’s only so many letters and words out there, it’s just a matter of constant rearrangement to tell a different story, or in this instance, a joke. At times I can convince myself I’m getting funnier – though that is tempered by the objective assessment that after a little time has passed, in hindsight, some – if not most - really ain’t all that funny anymore. Humbling and sobering – it really can do a number on your self-confidence. I mean, you might be getting better as an artist, but the reality is that that’s not important when it comes to a cartoon. Shows like this provide an opportunity to stand back from your own work and cast a critical eye at the overall collective, and file those annoying little criticisms away to apply to work-in-progress or future pieces.

We had a couple big tables at the opening reception to accommodate supplemental work, especially as the show was advertised as containing originals, so having some sketchbooks and process pieces for folks to peruse or have me give a brief overview to (basically walking any interested attendees through the same portfolio show + tell that I employ in classroom presentations).

I aim to schedule additional educational events over the course of the next few months, as the show will be up through March, and really take advantage of this venue to engage other groups in the community. Another interesting aspect of the gallery is it is kind of a funky physical space what with the walls leaning outward, and together with the normal cafe setup with tables + chairs filling up the room, looking at the works during regular business hours of operation while folks are eating or drinking adds another dimension to the experience.

One last hope I have is to at the end of this run, pitch a local business to purchase the entire show at slightly above cost, which would reimburse the framing + printing in addition to compensate for the investment of preparatory time. Be a real nice one-stop-shopping opportunity to outfit an entire suite of offices, not to mention we quickly run outta room back at the cabin.

Special thanks to all of the hardworking staff who made this show happen: especially to Mareca Guthrie, Fine Arts Curator, who spearheaded the entire idea and herded cats on keeping me on task, and Tamara Martz, Exhibits & Graphic Designer, whose professionalism and experience literally put all the pieces together. And of course my wife, whose patience and support was invaluable as always.

Theresa Bakker Smith is the Marketing & Communications Manager at the Museum of the North, and she did some really exceptional work behind the scenes (see their official website listing here, the Facebook event post here, and check out their Tumblr site here). This is an unedited transcript of the interview questions she sent me about the exhibit, which, in contrast with the on-the-spot live coverage mentioned above, is a word salad bit more measured and thoughtful since I had time to mull over the answers:

Is there a theme to the artworks that you selected for this show?
Pretty much a random rock-skipping across half a dozen years of published work as appearing in the Sunday section of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Given the timeframe of the exhibit there’s a slightly seasonal skew, otherwise it’s the usual Fairbanksian foibles.

I understand some of the strips have been published and other pieces have not been shown in public yet.
(*Note: these have all been previously published: at the opening + upcoming events I will have on hand some sketchbooks and process pieces to show behind-the-scenes work)
One of the motivations behind surveying the field of works produced over the years is to assess how much potential material is available and suitable to publish in book form, and include in another upcoming collection.

Do they speak to each other in some way?
When viewed as a whole generally all of the cartoons in this series under the Nuggets title will touch upon some attribute of life in the arctic and/or the critters that inhabit it (including the people).
Individually they exemplify one of the unique aspects of the newspaper feature: the unpredictable and diverse range of subject matter I get to touch on, which mirrors my erratic, spontaneous attention span across eclectic topics of interest.

Why did you pick these particular works?
I cater to the demographics of my readership, which is a nice way of saying you won’t get it if you’re not from here. This limits my audience but retains a unique regional flavor that isn’t as homogenized as syndicated strips.
Many selections were culled from the archives purely on account of their popularity, some also highlight interesting scenarios, reflecting a love of basic drawing, and then there’s always the ones that are simply silly pictures. Admittedly there are a couple others included by virtue of the fact that I alone find them funny. You’ll just have to trust me on that.

Tell us more about your decision to exhibit them in two rows, one on top of the other. You mentioned that this might evoke a comic strip.
Even though the bulk of my work is in the form of a single-panel gag cartoon, one of the hallmarks of sequential art (the juxtaposition of image + text) is the gutter between panels in a comic strip. While hanging the pieces it occurred to me that the spaces in between the framed imagery link together a narrative both personal and about the lifestyle of the Interior.

What are you hoping the audience will take away from this exhibit?
These days in particular, what with current events and the normal, everyday struggles we deal with in our lives, everybody could sure use a laugh.

As an artist with a regularly published series, what does it mean to show your artwork in an exhibit?
Comics are enjoying an upswing in popularity and critical appreciation. As a unique artform it has an increasingly strong presence on the literary front in bestsellers lists, especially with the rise of graphic novels and more mature, sophisticated narratives gaining the public’s acceptance in the public.
Above & beyond the obvious, hopeful effect of amusement, comics – especially in a gallery setting - can also showcase all of the fundamental aesthetic elements of any drawing: composition, value, color, line and texture etc.
Also given the temporal nature of print and the short-term attention span of social media means these pieces can occupy space + time outside of the constant flood of imagery that saturates modern life.

How is it different from your comic strip?
On a meta-level, framing a piece and putting it in the context of an institution had the perceived effect of validating the work, which is an extension of how I try to approach comic art in the classroom: there’s academic, historical and aesthetic components to the field, and on a purely functional level they are certainly legitimate artforms unto themselves.

I know that you bring your drawing class to the museum, can you tell us a little more about how you use the museum in your teaching?
Ideas are everywhere, and every room is basically a big box full of stuff to mentally play with, not to mention what happens when people are added to the mix. Aside from the simple opportunity to practice basic drawing skills and gather reference sketches, cultural repositories such as museums are ripe, readymade sources of inspiration to literally draw from.

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