“Place for me is the locus of desire.” – Lucy R. Lippard, The Lure of the Local
“God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December” – J.M. Barrie
by Andreana Donahue
Much like many contemporary artists these days, I find myself maintaining an increasingly nomadic and discursive practice, following projects and opportunities where they present themselves. The majority of the past two years I’ve spent outside of Las Vegas, most recently in Alaska, and previously for a Vermont Studio Center residency and a two-month long road trip for an ongoing project (Disparate Minds) with collaborator Tim Ortiz. We spent that time visiting twenty-five progressive art studios across the country – meeting self-taught artists, collecting work, and searching for a sustainable studio model within this field. We opted for tent camping as we traveled (with a few glamorous nights at cheap motels or on friends’ couches) while seeing as much art and local scenery as possible along the way.
The impetus for Disparate Minds initially began as a vehicle for documenting the work of artists living with various disabilities (that often wouldn’t be seen outside of their respective studios and communities), and introducing it to the broader contemporary art discourse. This interdisciplinary endeavor has expanded in scope over time to include curatorial projects, talks, essays, exhibition reviews, and advocacy for lasting social change (constantly pushing against regressive ideologies of numerous non-profits and policy-makers). Self-taught artists maintaining creative practices in these studios have influenced countless mainstream artists since the 1970’s, but have primarily been marginalized and unrecognized for their contributions. Only in recent years has their work been exhibited in and collected by prominent galleries and museums, such as Judith Scott’s 2015 exhibition Bound and Unbound at the Brooklyn Museum, Marlon Mullen at various galleries and museums, Jessie Dunahoo at Andrew Edlin Gallery, and William Scott at White Columns. With the categorization of outsider art now obsolete in an increasingly pluralistic art world, one of our primary intentions is to present this work critically in the context of contemporary art practice and eliminate the sympathetic viewer. With noted critics primarily focused on rehashing the fixed narratives of deceased self-taught artists or tired Dubuffet conversation, a consistent platform for discussing those currently making impressive work (Jessie Dunahoo being a prime example of this) was previously nonexistent.
Jessie Dunahoo’s complex installations serve as conduits for relating his personal history, which recall their practical genesis as navigational tools. Dunahoo, 83 (who was born deaf and also became blind as a young boy), began devising methods as a child to traverse his family’s farm in Kentucky; sewing bread bags together to span the length of his house later evolved to include networks of string, rope, and wire to follow throughout interior and exterior domestic spaces. His current work is composed of patchwork quilted panels; he diligently hand-stitches culled materials together by touch (plastic grocery bags, twine, and fabric remnants), constructing large-scale tapestries, site-specific shelter-like structures, as well as outdoor environments. Dunahoo’s meticulous works feel much like that of other contemporary fiber artists (such as Sheila Pepe or Judith Scott), but also reference the rich tradition and utility of quilt-making in rural Kentucky.
I’ve had a deep interest in work historically referred to as outsider or visionary art for many years, drawn to the highly original perspectives and staggering bodies of work created just for the sake of making – a refreshing detachment from trends, ego, opportunism, the market, and art-world politics. Initially I was introduced to the rich history of self-taught artists living and working in Chicago while attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; the appreciation for these artists gained momentum there during the 1960’s with the presence of the Chicago Imagists, who were heavily influenced by their work and championed their validity. SAIC professors Ray Yoshida and Whitney Halstead were largely responsible for generating interest within the art community, encouraging colleagues and students (including Roger Brown) to visit nearby self-taught artists and collect their work. The Roger Brown Study Collection features the comprehensive personal collection of the late artist in his former home, including work collected from unknown self-taught artists that are now celebrated, notably the impactful work of Jesse Howard, Henry Darger, and Joseph Yoakum. There’s a small, incredibly important room dedicated to 36 Yoakum drawings; I was immediately struck by his ability to convey the romance of distant landscapes (that he claimed to have traveled to in the past), while employing a sophisticated balance of memory and invention.
After our cross-country research trip, Ortiz and I were invited to Alaska as Artists-In-Residence, guest facilitators, and consultants by a progressive art studio in Juneau. Throughout 2015, we divided our time between working directly with staff and artists in the studio and focusing on our own studio practices. We had the privilege of working alongside many compelling self-taught artists there, some of which we’ve discussed in essays over the past year, including the nuanced minimalism of Grace Coenraad, Luis Hernandez’s intuitive yet complex abstractions, and the enigmatic text-based drawings of Jeff Larabee. Drawing from our experience as fine artists, studio managers, and artist facilitators, we introduced progressive studio methods (replacing a didactic approach to art-making with that of an open studio model) and cultivated an environment conducive to independent studio practices. Achieving this paradigm shift was a challenging, slow process, but ultimately successful. While reading Marc Dombrosky’s recent blog contribution, the description of Dowagiac’s glacial pace and relationship with change and communication was strikingly similar to Juneau; the challenge to adapt to limited resources or opportunities and a disconnection from contemporary art discourse can be simultaneously problematic and liberating.
Juneau is a small, isolated community – a de-facto island accessible only by boat or plane. There’s only one road, which ends abruptly after just 39 miles at the edge of an immense, uninhabited wilderness. The town is encompassed by dense, rugged terrain and an extensive network of mountains and glaciers. It’s a truly majestic landscape that has lured many to take up residence – a complicated history of Alaska Natives confronted by a long line of visitors and exploiters who have altered the landscape indefinitely (gold miners, traders, missionaries, explorers, oil corporations, commercial fishing fleets, tourists, etc.). There are undercurrents of lawlessness and conservativism, abundance and scarcity; Juneau culture is one defined by stark contradictions. It’s a place (heavily dependent on subsistence fishing and hunting) that’s collectively unwilling to let go of short-term financial gain from petroleum revenues, with a surprising absence of local activism despite the immediate effects of global warming. Last year Governor Bill Walker actually proposed an increase in oil drilling (including land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) as a “solution” to mitigating the fiscal consequences of relocating Alaska Native villages due to vanishing sea ice and coastal erosion.
Unlike the Interior, the southeast panhandle experiences extreme amounts of rain (approaching 250 days a year). During the relentless periods of rainfall and cloud cover, vague memories surfaced of Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer In A Day”, in which the sun appears for only an hour once every seven years. Much like the sun-starved children on Venus, Juneauites frantically abandon workplaces as that fiery “flower” emerges, to run up mountains, tend to their gardens, fish or forage in secret locations, and soak up as much Vitamin D as possible before the elusive sunlight disappears.
And then the rain begins to fall again.
That which is rare becomes more attractive, so these endless downpours inevitably lead to a more sensitive relationship with and renewed appreciation of sunlight (and consequently the place I had recently come from). Disruptions of time and space have the strange ability to restore a sense of mystery and wonder, transforming a tricky, familiar place. I was once again seduced by the memory of the high desert – the perpetual, xeric expanses, the brilliant, reliable sun, the stunning clarity of the night sky, and singular experience that is a Mojave sunset. I revisited robust artists who have harnessed sunlight through site-specific works at their respective desert homesteads, significantly Andrea Zittel (The A-Z Regenerating Field, 2002) and James Turrell (Roden Crater, ongoing).
In a 2001 Art:21 interview, Turrell recalls a pivotal moment in his quest for the location of Roden Crater and the impact travel had on his work:
“I was coming over the field from the west—actually, about this time of day, about four-thirty in the afternoon—in November. And the sun was just about ready to set, a little bit earlier in the winter. And I saw the craters in this field. There were two that I sort of looked at…and I saw this one. This is really beautiful when the sun hits it in the afternoon, because you really get the red and the black, that separation of the two craters from the west side…I spent seven months flying the western states, sleeping under the wing of the plane, and every third night staying in a Holiday Inn, to clean up. And every site that I saw that was interesting generated new work or new ideas. So, it was really a rich time for me.”
John Muir visited Alaska several times between 1879 and 1890, spurred by his keen interest in geological research and insightful glacial movement theories; Travels in Alaska remains an extremely detailed and accurate record of his surveys of the landscape. He essentially captures the transition from a long, dark winter to forgiving summer in the panhandle:
“The morning was clear, calm, bright–not a cloud in all the purple sky, nor wind, however gentle, to shake the slender spires of the spruces or dew-laden grass around the shores. Over the mountains and over the broad white bosoms of the glaciers the sunbeams poured, rosy as ever fell on fields…drenching the forests and kindling the glassy waters and icebergs into a perfect blaze of colored light. Every living thing seemed joyful, and nature’s work was going on in glowing enthusiasm, not less appreciable in the deep repose that brooded over every feature of the landscape, suggesting the coming fruitfulness of the icy land and showing the advance that has already been made from glacial winter to summer.”
Juneau has an extensive foraging community, mainly because of a lack of farmable land and astronomical shipping costs from “down south”; once the season arrives, gatherers set out to scour the muskegs, forest floors, river banks, and alpine slopes for wild edibles. The landscape during the brief summer is very generous, with the long hours of daylight resulting in a rapid propagation of flora and fauna – salmon, eulachon, halibut, lingcod, dungeness crab, grouse, ptarmigan, chicken of the woods, chanterelles, beach asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, spruce tips, wildflowers, and numerous wild berries. Muir observes:
“They are going to gather berries, as the baskets tell. Never before in all my travels, north or south, had I found so lavish an abundance of berries as here. The woods and meadows are full of them, both on the lowlands and mountains – huckleberries of many species, salmon-berries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, with service-berries on dry open places, and cranberries in the bogs, sufficient for every bird, beast, and human being in the territory and thousands of tons to spare.”
Fäviken is an intimate, secluded restaurant in rural Sweden (at roughly the same latitude as Juneau), fueled by Chef Magnus Nilsson’s obsessions and rigorous dedication to craft. Ingredients are foraged from the immediately surrounding landscape, with a menu intended to defeat the limitations of the seasons (without fresh ingredients for 6 months out of the year). Nilsson expands upon traditional methods for storing and preserving late spring and summer produce, developing new ways to transform ingredients. Nilsson often simulates or conjures the memory of a romantic experience with nature in his compelling dishes, such as potatoes boiled with semi-decomposed autumn Leaves, served with the good butter. Small new potatoes are eaten whole, after digging for them with your fingers underneath the bed of steaming, earthy leaves. Nilsson explains that he visualized this dish on a morning walk in a birch forest just after the spring thaw, encountering the aroma of wet, freshly exposed leaves that had been decomposing since the previous autumn.
Concepts comparable to those surrounding Lippard’s “lure of the local” directed my process and body of work in Alaska, reflecting a heightened connection to the land and longing for the sun specific to Juneau. The bulk of my time was spent working on sunshine and shadow (winter quilt), a hand-sewn and hand-quilted piece informed by the traditional Amish Sunshine and Shadow quilt pattern; the cotton was hand-dyed with wild Alaskan blueberries and wildflowers that I gathered during the summer months. This piece is a direct response to the desire to preserve and experience the essence of summer throughout the dark winter months – an immobilization of a point in time before the romance of place begins to fail. The quilt’s companion (a Seasonal Affective Disorder light) serves as a surrogate for the sun, simulating the practice of sunning quilts on clotheslines, fences, or barns outside.
In Journals: Captain Scott’s Last Expedition Max Jones writes:
“After successfully treating a depressed patient with bright light, Dr. Norman Rosenthal published his classic description of ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ (SAD) in 1984. The long winter night and paucity of plant life in Antarctica provide an ideal environment for the development of SAD. In 2004 the Amundsen-Scott research station at the South Pole began growing its own vegetables in a special high-technology facility…the symptoms of SAD are alleviated not only by the consumption of fresh vegetables, but also by the visual stimulus of plant life.”
During winter, SAD lights are used widely throughout Alaska to counteract symptoms including depression, excessive sleep, impaired memory, and hypersensitivity to rejection. As Turrell asserts, “We eat light, drink it in through our skins. With a little more exposure to light, you feel part of things physically.”
Andreana Donahue is an interdisciplinary artist, independent curator, and art handler from Chicago. She has organized and exhibited in group and solo exhibitions in Miami, Chicago, California, Nevada, and Alaska. Donahue is currently preparing for an upcoming spring residency at 100 West in Corsicana, Texas. andreanadonahue.com
Disparate Minds is the recipient of a Harnisch Foundation Grant and 2015 Puffin Foundation Grant. disparateminds.org
Title image: Granite Creek Basin, Juneau, Alaska. All images courtesy Andreana Donahue.