The Art Academy of Cincinnati celebrates the first and hopefully not the last 20 years of a program that is one of a kind in the Tristate. 20 Years/20 Artists showcases the work of artists who have received a city of Cincinnati Individual Artist Grant. With the city trimming its budget, the grant program met the axe. The program might be gone for now but the work lives on in the AAC’s Pearlman and Chidlaw Galleries.
Constance McClure applied for an Individual Artist Grant to fund a series of frescos she began in 1990. Working People illustrates the daily tasks of local men and women. McClure is fascinated by the triumphant murals covering the rotunda and concourse of Union Terminal. You can see that spirit of social realism in McClure’s frescos and in her drawing “Amy (Contessa)” hanging in the AAC’s Chidlaw Gallery. The drawing is part of McClure’s new work, which she calls The Walnut Hills Project. “Amy (Contessa)” is a glimpse into the life of a young woman working in John Haney’s frame shop in East Walnut Hills.
McClure became fixated on Amy’s curly locks. Speaking with me in the gallery, she explains that she almost always starts a drawing with the eyes, then the face.
“The face really scares me,” McClure says.
She works at portraiture with timidity, never quite feeling confident in her ability to capture a likeness. A perfect likeness seems inconsequential when you have McClure’s eye for fine detail. She works with silver, gold and copperpoint, a technique that dates at least as far back as medieval times. Each metal has a unique signature. As the metals oxidize, silver appears blue, gold turns brown and copper turns green, nearly vanishing. McClure covered the background in gold cross-hatching, which is now only visible at a close distance.
She rendered the soft expression in Amy’s lips and defined each stray hair standing up on her head. Amy is transformed into an Italian countess with a Mona Lisa smile.
Once a student of McClure’s, Kim Flora carries on another classic art. Her encaustic landscape paintings are informed by memories from her childhood on the Chesapeake Bay and by travels to the West Coast. In “Moody Landscape at 8 Degrees,” molten wax gives a foggy, atmospheric perspective to oil paint and collage. Flora mixes natural and urban environments. She paints turbulent seascapes crashing against a collage coastline. Her brush moves with the chaos of a Joseph Turner seascape and the mysterious beauty of James McNeill Whistler’s “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.” Flora casts a net of orange pastel onto “Earthscape with Net Hanging from a Boat.” Orange pastel vibrates against a blue background with the energy of a crowded city street.
Debbie Brod’s “Yangtze Lace Mandala” is rich with imagery and symbolism. The black silk mandala is a memorial to the Yangtze River dolphin, the passenger pigeon and all other extinct animals. It has the appearance of a papel picado, or perforated paper cutout, which in Mexico is displayed on holidays such as the Day of the Dead. While meeting with Brod in the gallery, she describes her mixed-media process, which combines hand drawing and photographs arranged in Photoshop and Illustrator. She used a dolphin toy, a piece of dragon jewelry and photos she took of swimmers as her source materials. These figures are laser-cut from black organza silk to form a mandala suspended by thread.
Silhouettes of animals, humans, dragons, passenger pigeons and gingko leaves spiral outward in counterclockwise rotation. The passenger pigeon once flourished in North America but is now, to our knowledge, extinct. Martha was the sole surviving passenger pigeon and she took her last breath in the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914.
The Yangtze River dolphin, the gingko leaf and the dragon are significant to Chinese culture. The fresh water dolphin is extinct from the Yangtze River. In contrast, the gingko tree is thriving. The tree is known for its longevity and ability to withstand the stresses of an urban environment.
As for the dragon, it is a benevolent force in Chinese culture, not the ravenous beast of the West. The ancient Chinese called themselves decedents of the dragon. They believed he had the power to control the great rivers.
It is surprising, then, that Chinese alligators, known as “muddy dragons,” were hunted almost to extinction. Juxtaposing the Yangtze River dolphin with the gingko leaf and the dragon with the Chinese alligator, we can see the complicated relationship between the people of China and the natural world. It is a world simultaneously revered and threatened.
The city of Cincinnati’s Individual Artist Grant has been threatened but is perhaps not extinct. In its 20 years, the program has awarded 320 grants and afforded the artists of 20 Years/20 Artists the opportunity to keep working. It might be gone now, but there is always the possibility that it will return in better times. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait until the year 2020 for Cincinnati to bring this program back.
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