Good Stewards of God's Creation
© Grace Wiebe, EthniClay, 2003
by Steve Scott
Painter Gaylen stewart and I did a mix media installation
on same about 5 years ago (grant from Ohio arts council) it toured US galleries
and traveled in slide show/lecture form
to UK, Croatia and the People's Republic of China. I'm attaching an article I
wrote at the time that `explains' the working method and rationale....the
soundtrack CD with reproductions of Gaylen's paintings in booklet is stil
Here also is a link to a site dedicated to the minister/natural
John Ray - http://www.jri.org.uk/ray/index.htm
Good wishes/Steve Scott
+ + +
by Steve Scott
`God does not weave a loose
web' Hilda Doolittle
When I had volunteered my services as a poetry teacher
for my daughters' second grade class I and the kids worked extensively together
on poems about nature, animals, feelings and memories. We ended a series of
classes by having a discussion on the importance of poetry. . . . and to get
the discussion going I handed out copies of a poem by Robert Bridges that
mentioned over seventy different kinds of English wildflower (and the poem
rhymed!) I then asked everyone to imagine what it would be like if a third
of the flower types the poet mentioned no longer existed. Further, the only
evidence that they had existed was contained in this poem. Would that make
a poem like this an important one? What about art and poetry in general. .
. . in terms of 'real life' on our planet?
This, for me, was one factor influencing my desire to work on the mixed media collaboration `Crossing the Boundaries' with visual artist Gaylen Stewart.
Gaylen Stewart is an Ohio based painter and mixed media artist who has been building a reputation through numerous solo shows and group exhibits over the years. Our paths crossed regularly from the early 90s on at places like Cornerstone Festival where he would be exhibiting work, doing seminars and offering workshops and critiques for the `Artrageous' section of the festival. On the last day of the 1996 festival we began to discuss working together on a collaboration, and possibly pursuing a grant to that end. Gaylen followed up on this and the Ohio arts council did very generously make a grant towards this project.
When Gaylen and I began to make initial plans for this collaboration, in the summer of 1996, we wanted the working process and resulting installation to some ways echo the natural systems we were drawing our imagery from. Not only the working process and resulting installation drew influence from these systems, but also the different extensions of the work, including talks, lectures and descriptive articles like this one are influenced in this way. While the show was installed at Gallery W in Sacramento, we held some Sunday school classes in the gallery, and I interacted with the children about the ideas, images and sounds. We generated three metaphors for mapping the development of the work. Under the heading of `seeds' I talked about how Gaylen worked as an artist and how I worked as a writer/composer, and what ideas came up as we began to discuss this collaboration project. Under the heading of `Cross pollination' (or 1-4 grade equivalent) we discussed our working method together and how we communicated back and forth as the art work progressed. Under the heading of `layers' we discussed how Gaylen builds up layers of images in paint, collage, words and printed images on his canvasses, and I talked about how the poetry and music was put together and combined. We also saw how the resulting installation, as well as individual works had many layers to it.
I have found that keeping metaphors like this in mind is helpful in explaining Gaylen's art and our collaboration to different groups of people. Gaylen combines images, text, paint, mechanically reproduced images, collaged petals, wings and light boxes in what amounts to a ' confessional assemblage' that narrates his ongoing concern with nature, science, spirituality and art. The work is at once rich, evocative, multilayered, and allusive both to personal issues, as well as larger concerns involving art and 'Nature.' When I look at Gaylen's work I think of three interactive layers. Each layer represents a different concern. Gaylen literally brings `the real world' into his art by collaging plants, leaves, grass and dead butterflies onto his canvasses. However, he is not only concerned with direct allusion to natural processes, he is also concerned with redemptive imagery and metaphors.
For Gaylen aspects of the natural world, butterflies and honeycombs etc become metaphors for spiritual truths and processes. So both the material 'stuff' element, and the symbolic 'referent' element make their way into Gaylen's work.
Thirdly, Gaylen is not only concerned with the material and the metaphor. He is also concerned with the personal, confessional, autobiographical aspects of image making. Gaylen's own 'personal confession' of healing from cancer and allusions to his own spiritual growth are worked into the surfaces, both in choice of imagery and also in the collaging in of 'material elements' such as X-rays.
Over the past ten years I had been writing and publishing small chapbooks of poetry and prose based on my travels in India, South East Asia and Europe. I also began to perform and record some of the poetry over a background of sound textures and musical loops. Not only was I interested in exploring the possibilities of extending work through different varieties of print and recorded media, but I was also intent on exploring and learning from those cultures where art, life and spirituality were integrated in ways that seemed very different to some of our approaches to art in the West. I was to discover, however, that in our own tradition poets and thinkers such as William Wordsworth and John Ruskin, understood the need for an integrated, humanizing approach to art and culture. They also understood that such an approach needed to be rooted, not only in a sensitivity towards the natural world, but also towards the spiritual one.
Accordingly, Gaylen and I approached our collaboration `Crossing the Boundaries' mindful of the similarities in our working methods. We also shared the concern that our method of working together would somehow echo and reflect elements of our chosen subject.
As Gaylen began to draw upon his own resources for natural symbols and images, I began to manipulate textbook and encyclopedia entries on plant systems, animal migratory patterns and environmental concerns. I would fold and cut together some of these texts allowing the resulting word patterns and turns of phrase to form a seedbed of ideas for the poems. I would send Gaylen photocopies of manipulated text, drafts of poems and plant images copied from old textbooks, and Gaylen, in turn, would reproduce these words and images on his canvas, integrating them into the developing multilayered surfaces of his work. On one occasion he sent me photographs of several paintings in progress, and I was able to integrate my response to his images into a poem.
As the poems were being written, I tried to bring our working method to bear upon the way the music was put together, sending Gaylen rough mixes of works in progress so that he could listen as he painted.
Once the poems were finished I recorded them over a background of shifting sound textures, composed of orchestral sound loops and recordings of birdsong I had made one late fall morning with my daughters.
These sections of birdsong had been edited, looped, layered, and in some cases slowed down. The resulting sound patterns were woven through the orchestral and synthesizer sequences. Most of these sequences carried fragments and echoes of a `root' melodic pattern, sketched out in different voices and different tempos. We did this with computer programming, and also by mixing the completed tracks down in such a way that elements of other tracks could be heard `soaking through' in the background. This, for me, continued the themes of layering, process and pattern, that informed the poetry and the paintings. It added continuity to the album of poetry and music when listened to, in sequence, as a whole.
Further, it brought a sense of harmony to the overall installation which featured seven CD players, all playing different tracks at once. These CD players were installed among the fifteen paintings and they held the gallery visitor in an all-embracing gentle web of sounds and words. The overall sound would slowly change as the viewer moved from painting to painting. Again, the installation experience not only alluded in some ways to our method of collaboration, but also reflected aspects of nature itself.
This show has been circulating for about a year, showing in a variety of gallery and museum settings throughout USA. However, it is coming to the end of its `life' as an installation experience. Parts of it will live on, in a variety of secondary forms.
Many have walked away with their own compact disc, to listen to the tracks in sequence and contemplate the accompanying booklet of color reproductions of Gaylen's images. Many have visited Gaylen's website www.gaylen.com to read about the work, the artists, and to look again at the reproduced images.
Gallery talks, slide lectures and descriptive articles like this one continue to link people back to both aspects of the artwork and some of the ideas and concerns behind it. However, once the original installation has run its exhibition course all that we will have left are these myriad secondary forms, all referring back to an `original ' that no longer exists. These secondary forms, of course, have their own `identity' and also contribute something of their own to shaping of these different expressions.
When in Cambridge, England last year to participate in the C S Lewis centenary conference I was able to read one of the poems with its backing track, and show some slides of Gaylen's paintings. All this took place in an old Anglican Church where the sounds echoed richly off the wooden pews, and Gaylen's slides, their colors somewhat muted by the encroaching daylight, looked like faded ancient tapestries, surrounded by radiant stained glass windows and ornate brass fittings.
That weaving together of imagery and sounds from `nature'
with the highly wrought symbolic expressions of faith not only reminds me
of some of the potential and promise I glimpsed in cultures like the Balinese
one. It also reminds me that the Christian worldview was an important element
in the theories and practice of poets like William Wordsworth and art theorists
like John Ruskin. If their concerns for maintaining the vital links between
faith, nature and culture were important in the early years of the 19th Century,
how much more important are these concerns at the beginning of the 21st? Questions
like these bring me full circle to that classroom of children I began this
piece with. It was there that we discussed the value and place of art and
creativity in a world where a single poem might end up serving as a kind of
epitaph for an entire species of flower.