Friday, July 17, 2009

Stone Sculpture: Ken Campbell

The advantage of being an artist who works as an art handler is the continued opportunity for advanced study, especially if you can find yourself working inside your discipline on the job. For the stone sculptor, handling other stone sculptures offers us a glimpse not just how these pieces were made but how they feel. The reward becomes both aesthetic and technical in the execution of our own work. It’s a personal blessing to have been responsible for master work as diverse as ancient Chinese, Classical Western and modern sculpture.

Generally, artists find themselves as a result of systems/ schools/ teachers. Awareness of tools and aesthetics start from this exposure, along with going to galleries, museums, reading, listening and hanging out. If we're able, we travel, perhaps attend graduate school or an atelier, find a peer group and begin our careers. Sometimes we find work in a foundry or other Arts related business. Our tool box is filled with what we've been given and our individual creativity, ambition and circumstances finds the other stuff which defines our voice and art however we can.

I am a stone carver. I studied under a great teacher/ artist/ stone carver: Kenneth Campbell for about 5 years in the University system. He came from Boston/ Provincetown, lived and worked in NYC, maturing in the midst of what we now call Abstract Expressionism. He was @ the center of that era’s star formation. The “Club” use to meet, drink and hang out in his studio. He was a true believer/ practitioner. As a result, his method was abstract and non-objective and so was his teaching method. There wasn't much to talk about because for most it was nonsense with no real nouns except for the stone you're working on, to look at as an example. He wanted us to not copy anything and to find our own way thru the process of working/ being.

He didn't always carve stone. He was a draughtsman and a painter. In his forties, he told me, “The objects just popped out of the canvas." William de Kooning showed him that. To become a sculptor was the next natural step. However, because he started late, he was basically self taught. His technique, idiosyncratic and personal, is a pure expression of what Abstraction demands. I didn't know that until I got my first art handling job.

As an artist, most of the time, except for your own work, you're only allowed to look at other's work. You cannot touch it. If it's a painting, a photo or wall piece, you cannot look at the back of the piece to see how it’s made. If it's a sculpture put against a wall you can't get critical distance to understand the 3rd dimension. We learn to know Art mostly as a visual experience and that becomes a valuable virtual tool.

Stone sculpture does not exist only in the visual world. It can be heavy, big and dangerous. Injuries happen all the time. Handling it requires an intuitive reading of balance and weight. Damage usually happens on the first move. With the variety of forms we handle, from ancient to modern, the ability to adjust equipment, tools and personnel brought to the job, immediately, describes the quality of our efforts. Handling these sculptures in Museums, Galleries and Private Collections is an eye opener. You have to be perfect not just in the technical aspects of the project but also in the protocol with everyone involved. There's a lot at stake. Communication of intention and then it's execution defines us. Ambiguity equals doubt. As an example, generally, if you go to any collection with 19th century marble sculptures you will see that most if not all are chipped at the bases. It’s understandable for ancient sculptures to be damaged; visually the broken parts have been fuel for artists the last few centuries, but in more recent times the chipping is the result of failed moves and a reflection of the quality of the art handlers and their techniques. It is unacceptable now.

I remember on my first jobs moving stone sculptures as an art handler, what I learned from Ken Campbell didn't communicate well. On his own stuff, he used construction scaffold with a piece of galvanized i-beam cut from a highway girder. He wasn't a modern rigger with slings, trolleys and gantry's, he used ropes and knots, actual ship rigging, which he learned growing up in New England along with a lot of manual tricks: wood shims and balance. Bringing a similar tool bag brought a lot of ridicule and questions, especially when I was around professionals: museum staff, rigging companies, and collectors, who were dogmatic in what was acceptable. I had to adjust pretty quickly and learn to communicate in their terms, if I wanted to be included in that group. For a long time art handlers were only there to listen and assist. I understand now that that’s correct. There is a deep need to elevate skill sets and protocol, especially as the projects get difficult and participant responsibilities more examined. However, for the Artist,with practice and sensitivity, awareness/techniques discovered and nurtured in the studio can become unique, specialized tools, capable of complimenting and adding to, current professional Art moving standards, especially, when all the pragmatic choices seem to have run out: the Art in Art Handling.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

For Mark Planisek

The Washington DC arts community had hard, sad news this week. Mark Planisek: artist, art handler and friend passed away tragically, struck by a vehicle in a crosswalk near the Clarendon metro station after leaving an art opening at the Arlington Arts Center in which he was exhibiting, " Sparkplug: New Work."

I first met Mark while I was still driving a truck moving Art in a company I used to work for. We didn't work together often, I was an over the road driver and he mostly worked locally. However, every now and then we'd meet and in the small cab of the truck we became friends. He was a conversationalist, at night we talked about a lot of stuff but it always ended up @ art. He was a true believer and he had ambition. After a while he gradually decided to leave, it's a difficult job, the money's variable, every day can be different, with scheduling and plans often times impossible to make. He was fortunate to get a great job at the National Portrait Gallery where he found a living and the time to practice his art form.

The last time I saw him was in late March at the The Ritchie Avenue Cultural Center in Takoma Park, Md. where I was giving a talk on Art and Art Handling. I wasn't really expecting anybody to come but after they turned the lights on, there he was. He came up to me and even though it had been a while since we had last seen each other, wherever the conversation started, we ended up talking about Art. He reminisced about a project he helped me with @ the National Portrait Gallery and how much he enjoyed being part of the crew. The video shows that project. We were part of the group that de-installed " Grant and His Generals." It was a difficult de-installation. It is a large heavy curved painting hung in a stairwell. I felt fortunate to be asked to be involved as I love this kind of work. There was much concern about keeping the integrity of the curve as it was taken off the wall and then brought up the stairs. We were able to design a handling frame on-site that responded to these details. When successful, these projects can show the Art in Art Handling.

Mark, if you haven't met him, is wearing blue jeans and a blue shirt. He's in the middle of the group, on scaffold, in the first scene. It hasn't been easy to reflect on his passing, from the emails and messages I get everyday, I see it's been true for many others also. The news has hit me at a time where I have been in the studio, carving, unsure, wanting more from the form than possibly I can make, struggling for meaning. Mark has amplified the search.