The Art of Now
The Dixon pulls out all the stops for this one-of-a-kind show.
Phyllis Boger Winter Thaw, 2004, oil on canvas, 22x28” Courtesy of the artist
Big things can happen when people share a vision. Just look at the exhibition that opened in early February at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens. Not only is it attracting new visitors and exposing traditional art lovers to unfamiliar genres. It’s also the largest exhibition in the museum’s 37-year-history, filling all the galleries, the original residence, and sections of the garden with contemporary works by Memphis artists.
By sending the permanent collection on tour for several months, planners have freed up plenty of space for “Present Tense: The Art of Memphis from 2001-Now,” which runs through April 14th. And what a range of art it covers — from watercolors, oils, drawings, and printmaking to sculpture, photography, videos, and installation art — all created by 83 artists working in Memphis since the dawn of the twenty-first century.
The seed was planted for such a show in 2007, when Kevin Sharp became director of the Dixon. “I’m always interested in the art of my own time and place,” says the Missouri native, “and I was really impressed with what I saw in Memphis.”
Just as impressed was Jim Meeks, managing partner of Northwestern Mutual Financial Network, which is sponsoring the exhibition. “Jim and I came to Memphis about the same time,” says Sharp. “We had the same newcomers’ curiosity about the place and he loves contemporary art. We’d talk about artists we knew and those we liked. His office is full of Memphis art. He came on very early as supporter and sponsor of the show.”
Indeed, after moving here from Louisville, Meeks sought a cultural connection to the city, and while forging a friendship with Sharp, he saw parallels between his company’s and the museum’s demographics. “It seemed a natural fit for me, Northwest Mutual, and the Dixon,” says Meeks. “We started talking about a show like this two years ago. Gradually the marriage came together and birthed ‘Present Tense.’”
Serving as guest curator of the show is John Weeden, former head of the UrbanArt Commission and now a fine-arts appraiser with Vita Brevis Arts Bureau. Though not a practicing artist himself, Weeden’s gift lies in advocating for the arts and building an audience for “all the talented people out there.” He grew up in Memphis, graduated from Rhodes College, received a master’s in contemporary art from Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London, and worked in curatorial positions for art organizations in New York, Paris, Scotland, and other European countries. Upon returning to Memphis in 2004, he started the blog, Weeden Arts Watch, “because I wanted people in other cities to see that here, in my hometown, we’re doing good things too.”
Approaching his role as curator, Weeden delved into archival research to answer these questions: What artists have shown consistently at a high level? Who has contributed or influenced other artists or made significant contributions to the visual arts landscape of the city? What have local writers said about the shows? Coming up with a whopping list of 1,000 works and 300 artists, Weeden then faced the task of deciding what to keep — and cull. “That was exhilarating, daunting, painful, even heartbreaking, all at once,” says Weeden. “We tried to be comprehensive in media, discipline, background, and level in the artists’ career stage. And I think we did a good job. It’s by no means an encyclopedic exhibition. It’s a curated project to show the wealth of creativity that the city possesses. I don’t think even I was prepared for such a complex, rich, and vibrantly textured show.”
Sharp echoes Weeden’s surprise and pleasure. “I knew it would be solid,” he says, “but I didn’t realize just how much we’d have. For someone like me, that’s absolutely fantastic.”
As for the artists’ connections to the city, Sharp explains that many were born and raised here, some were educated at local institutions before moving away, and others studied elsewhere and returned. What pleases him most is that “these individuals tend to have a real stake in Memphis and in giving back.”
Recalling the era of “the surly artist” who cared only about his work and nothing else, Sharp believes that attitude has changed. “Often now, artists are laser-focused on making a difference,” he says. “Instead of self-aggrandizement or creating a commodity they can sell, they care about building a stronger community. We see that again and again in ‘Present Tense.’”
On the following pages are profiles of seven artists whose work is seen in this exhibition. We believe they show the diverse array of talent and media represented in what Sharp describes as “a primer of Memphis visual arts.”
The daughter of a musician, teacher, and composer, Maritza Davila learned early in life to honor her creative drive. “I was always interested in art,” she says, “and people in the neighborhood would come to me if they needed something drawn. I would make paper dolls, I’d crochet clothes; I was always creating something.”
During her first semester at the University of Puerto Rico, she discovered the medium that has shaped her life and career. “I really got hooked on printmaking,” she says, “the process of it, the time it takes to build up to the final project. I love its sense of mystery.”
She contrasts that process with the “instant gratification” common in today’s world. With the latter, she explains, “you lose the magic. The technique of printmaking is like waiting to open a present, then seeing what you have.” But at Memphis College of Art, where she is a professor of fine arts and has taught printmaking since 1982, she urges students not to get lost in the technique, but to use it as their vocabulary. “What they have to say is more important than the process.”
From the first day of class, she stresses to aspiring artists the importance of honesty, discipline, and holding to principles. “I want my students to know that it’s easy to be swayed, to be seduced by so many things — money, what others think, all the externals.” With that in mind she pushes, warns, and challenges. “I tell them they will get frustrated because they will work harder here than in any course they’ve taken. I will push them places they didn’t know they could go. My job is to show them how technique can be used to express ideas and concepts. And the moment they have found their own voice and they know they can say things through their work that matters to them, they’re hooked.”
Davila, who earned an MFA from Pratt Institute, moved to Memphis in 1980 with her husband Jon Sparks, formerly an editor with The Commercial Appeal and now a freelance journalist. Her images, which have been exhibited in the U.S., Europe, South America, and beyond, often feature doorways, arches, windows, frames within frames; these represent passages that lead to other phases of life. Her art may also express family, womanhood, and her own emotional and spiritual growth. “We should always challenge ourselves, expose ourselves,” says Davila. “Life is a journey, there’s no standing still. Our experiences make us who we are.”
As a junior high school student in Amory, Mississippi, Greely Myatt had his first “show” at Elmore’s Five & Dime. “A friend made Batman,” he says, “and I made Robin — a life-sized papier mâché sculpture.”
Since then Myatt has fashioned countless works of art from anything he lays his hands on — metal and wood scraps, mattress springs and washboards, window frames and aluminum signs, most of them found objects.
“People will call me when a tree comes down so I can use it in wood carvings,” he says. “And they’ll give me stuff they see discarded, some of it handy, some not.” He likes objects with a history, “the idea that someone else has started it and I’m using it in a different way.” The more scarred and scratched an item is the better. “They’re more interesting than new,” says Myatt. “Not always, but often.”
Though he first studied history in college, he had always liked art and his inspirations ranged from comic book illustrations to the works of Benjamin West to impressionist jigsaw puzzles. “It wasn’t so much the art itself of the puzzle,” he says, “but assembling small pieces to make a large piece or whole.”
With an MFA from the University of Mississippi, Myatt came to Memphis in 1989 to teach at the University of Memphis. He appreciates his connection to the school, its students and faculty, and the exchange of ideas and fresh points of view it offers. “It’s not good to lock yourself in a room,” he says, then adds with a laugh, “though at times I like that too!”
Over the years he has garnered numerous honors and grants, and in 2009 enjoyed a 20-year retrospective of his work that was shown at various galleries around the city. The idea for the show came from Hamlett Dobbins, another well-known Memphis artist who is also featured in “Present Tense.” Dobbins took his first art class under Myatt and as a result switched his major from biology to art.
“That 20-year survey was very gratifying, with all the support not just from the art community but the whole city,” says Myatt.
While’s he’s best known for his sculpture, he emphasizes that “I make things because they need to be sculpted, not because I’m a sculptor. I am an artist. Collages, paintings, drawings — they’re all part of it. ”
Asked what he considers his best work, he says, “Whatever I’m doing at the moment. Right now I’m building shutters for my mother!”
Advocates can come across as too bold and abrasive, as if they are shaming people into change,” says this environmental artist. “What I try to do is give alternate views, and to ask them, at least for a moment, to see the world differently.”
Over the past decade, Catherine Pena has used photography, installation, and sculptural elements in her artwork that encourage viewers to consider their relationship with nature and how they manipulate it. Her series “Visual Green” — which was her master’s thesis project at Memphis College of Art — is both playful and probing, showing how cities “objectify” nature while adding, in the midst of traffic, such touches as tiny grass median strips. Other works explore the juxtaposition of nature and human development as suburban land is stripped.
In 2008 Pena designed a unit of two back-to-back seats to be fitted to bus stop poles and accommodate riders as they wait for the bus. “So many people take public transportation because they have to, not usually out of environmental concern,” says Pena. “Still, they are making a difference. This seat was a simple metaphor, my way of saying thank you.” Each seat included the statement, “You are a role model. You are actively improving the environment by riding the bus.” Thirty seats were installed on a temporary basis at bus stops on Union between Cooper and Cleveland. “I asked MATA about making them permanent,” says Pena, “but costs were a problem.”
The daughter of a forest ranger, Pena grew up in Santa Fe, an area that fostered creativity while stirring her interest in natural beauty: “I think all that drew me to environmental causes.” Inspired by other environmental and service-oriented artists, including Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Pena has shown at galleries from New York to Kansas City to Chicago, and she currently serves as coordinator of exhibitions and lectures for MCA. For the Dixon exhibition, her sculpture titled How Will You Treat Me? plays on humankind’s stewardship of the earth and is a project she’s been conceiving in recent years. “I’d been thinking about it awhile,” says Pena, “and when I knew it would be in the Dixon garden, this seemed the time and the place for it.”
While studying art at Appalachian State University, this North Carolina native had a show called “The Vessel Experience.” Mary Catherine Floyd smiles recalling how she and a good friend constructed vessels out of everything from hog-gut and wire to extension cords. So it’s not surprising that more than a decade later, her piece for “Present Tense” is called Vessel II, made entirely of stitched steel “cloth” and combining her early interest in fiber arts (in which she earned her MFA) and her current love of metalwork.
“Vessels let you experiment with different techniques,” says Floyd. “Even if one goes terribly wrong, you still have something to give your grandma and she can store her do-dads in it.” Speaking of grandmothers, Floyd credits hers for an early interest in sewing: “She made clothes for me and my dolls.” And her mother gets kudos for exposing her daughter to every form of self-expression, from singing and acting, to art and puppet-making classes.
Floyd learned metalsmithing under the late Charlie McKinney in Bucyrus, Missouri. Thrust into the architectural blacksmithing work as his assistant, she fell in love with the craft. “Building something big and structural is very empowering,” says Floyd, “and it was completely different than working fibers.” Through McKinney and his wife Marian, she was introduced to the Metal Museum in Memphis, and it was there she developed the technique of metal stitching apparent in Vessel II. Floyd was a resident artist at the museum from 2008 to 2011.
Now she lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she has a small downtown studio and her own jewelry production line, Color Block Jewelry. But what really challenges her is “prototyping work.” One such job she recently completed features bike racks in the shape of a cow, a chicken, and a fox. “They were for three establishments in one building,” she explains, “a burger place, a chicken and waffles place, and Fox’s liquor bar.” As a Habitat for Humanity project, she fabricated a light wall made of old pallet racking, and for a downtown company called Trophy Brewing, she’s constructing — what else? — a five-foot trophy. “I’m constantly solving problems and learning new skills, and it’s rewarding to see your work out in the community,” she says.
To hear Floyd tell it, most everything inspires her. “[Memphis metal artist] Jim Masterson, man-made and natural patterns and textures; Appalachian music and Dust Bowl ballads, my fiancé, parents, grandparents . . . and most recently honey bees.” As a novice beekeeper she sees great possibilities in hive forms. “Of course,” she exclaims, “another kind of vessel!”
As a resident of New York City for most of his adult life, Matt Ducklo often photographed seeing-eye dogs as they helped their humans navigate the metropolis. Then he heard about a touch tour program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that allowed blind visitors to “see” famous sculptures. A museum devotee himself, Ducklo was moved to capture these experiences on film.
“In many well-known pictures from the history of photography, blind people are depicted as poor and afflicted,” says Ducklo. But the people on these tours, he realized, were highly educated and eager to engage with culture. So he jumped through all the hoops required to bring a camera inside the museum, and his photographs have been shown at galleries in New York, Memphis, and beyond.
The participants know they are being photographed, Ducklo adds, and they hope the pictures might encourage more visitors. “This isn’t why I’m taking the pictures,” he says. “I’m interested in what not seeing looks like. But I am happy if they help increase access.”
A Memphis native who graduated from the University of Tennessee and received his MFA from Yale, Ducklo says what he has always loved about photography is “it gives you an excuse to wander around and be in the world. It’s an activity that makes looking more purposeful.”
Three years ago, Ducklo returned to Memphis because “I wanted a change. It’s my home and it’s an interesting place.” And he’s made it more interesting with a gallery he recently opened, Tops, located at Huling and Front in the South Main Arts District, which is currently showing works by Memphis sculptor Seth Kelly.
Ducklo’s eye is now aimed at sights few people would think about or perhaps even notice. “I’ve been photographing church vans that are locked up in barbed-wire cages” about the size of a parking space, he explains. “[The project] began with one picture, and I kept noticing these vans and now I’ve photographed close to 20. I use a large-format camera so people wonder what I’m doing.”
Asked what makes a good photograph, Ducklo first responds, “This sounds like Art 101, but it seems to be about some struggle between the form and the content.” Then he concludes that it’s difficult to answer the question, adding, “If I knew what made a good photograph, then there wouldn’t be much reason to keep making them.”
This Memphis native has too much to say to contain it all in one art form. So she often blends painting and writing, starting with a title and seeing where it leads her.
Recalling how she always loved art but was compelled to write, Lurlynn Franklin says, “I felt conflicted but I knew I could be good at both. I am a storyteller, a sassy, mouthy woman, very philosophical and opinionated.” Much of that was stifled as a child by her “fear and circumstances.” But there it was, ready to explode, she adds, “so I needed a word-loaded outlet. I start every piece with the thought of what collection it will fit into, and what I want to say visually, politically, about society.”
Her talent for art was cultivated by middle- and high-school art teachers, especially the esteemed George Hunt, whose work is also in “Present Tense.” He singled out Franklin to enroll in his advanced art classes at Carver High and later recruited her for a city-sponsored program to provide summer jobs for teenagers in conjunction with the Memphis Black Arts Alliance. She worked on a team that painted murals that were “thematically African-American, historically about Memphis, and large-scaled,” Franklin recalls. “I was the only female on that crew. I am grateful to Mr. Hunt to have been given such an out-of-the-ordinary paying artistic experience at such a young age.”
A teacher herself at Lincoln Elementary, Franklin — who holds an MFA in painting from Memphis College of Art — knows kids are “natural creators” and those from rough backgrounds have the potential to be super-creators. “They haven’t been totally tainted yet and will ‘get it’ if you [connect] on their level and then spiral out from their point of reference.”
Of her own works, which sometimes incorporate fabric or wallpaper, she takes special pride in “Fabled Truths,” a collection (shown below) of 40 self-portraits and 30 poems, and “Quick Chick Fixe$.” Although the shows looked finished, she says, “They were really works in progress, and were jumping-off points of the parallel direction I want my writing and art to take.”
As for the two media working together, she concludes, “My writing isn’t there to clarify my images and my art isn’t there to illustrate what I have to say. They just complement . . . to achieve the purposes of my content.”
Even as as a small boy, Jed Jackson was painting in oils. No wonder his mom dressed him up one Halloween as a French artist, complete with beret and goatee. Since then he’s established a name for himself for works that pulsate with life.
“I paint scenes where people are engaging and interacting,” says Jackson, “and I load the images with references to other events or times to create layers of possible interpretation.” Through the use of color and its “involuntary emotional associations” and images often drawn from the past, he creates “mindscapes” with open-ended morals. “The viewer will be influenced in a particular mode,” Jackson explains, “based on prejudice and wishful thinking.”
Growing up in Southern California and later Jonesboro, Arkansas, Jackson earned his BFA from Memphis College of Art and his MFA from Cornell. From 1999 to 2006 he served as chairman of the art department at the University of Memphis, where he is currently a professor of painting. His works belong in several corporate collections around the U.S., and a high point in his career to date has been a 2006 exhibit in Rennes, France, at the Franco-American Institute. “A number of my family members and friends came to the show,” he recalls, “and that will always be a great memory.”
To achieve the rich color and depth of his works, Jackson uses monochrome underpainting and over-glazing in transparent oil emulsions, methods used by early Flemish masters, pre-Raphaelites, and French academics. To create his “mindscapes,” Jackson pulls up the past in a transhistorical manner — “any period or topic is fair game,” he says. “This is commonplace in literature and film but less so in the visual arts,” he explains, “where there is enormous pressure to be ‘au courant.’” But Jackson, who has learned directly from “dead teachers,” likes risk-takers who “dare to walk on the edge that divides success and failure. Safe, accommodating artists don’t interest me.”
Pop culture inspirations for Jackson range from the “enhanced reality” of Technicolor, to 1920s cinema, to such directors as P.T. Anderson and Stanley Kubrick. The Sherlock Holmes movies of the 1940s inspired the painting above. But culture in all its forms — whether art, music, movies, or literature — is a gold mine for Jackson and he speaks fervently of its power: “When I stand in front of a [Jacques-Louis] David in the Louvre or sit in a dark theatre watching Grand Illusion, or listen to a Beethoven concerto or a John Coltrane solo or a Bob Dylan lament, the artists are equally valid and alive for me. They are alive in the present — vivid and pulsing and stimulating me to think more creatively. This is true immortality, and it is available to everyone.”
Marilyn Sadler is senior editor of Memphis magazine. For more information on “Present Tense,” go to dixon.org.