Art of the Hills
Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA
June 2nd – September 3rd 2018
By Ryan Seslow
The Blind Jury Selection & Curating Process:
When the Berkshire Museum contacted me to jury and curate the Art of the Hills exhibition I was honored and excited. As one can imagine, the opportunity itself extends a vastness of interactions that go far beyond the selection of the submitted art and the placement of the works in the exhibition. All of my experiences as a curator have been diverse. The contrast with this particular exhibition is in the fact that I have always viewed well over 90% of all of the artist’s works in person prior. Meaning, in an exhibition, a museum, a gallery, a studio visit, in public space or via a screening. The process for Art of the Hills offered a new experience and challenge. The blind jury and curation process was a new one for me. I have juried shows in the past but almost always with at least two to three other jurors participating. This challenge would prevail to secure that I had no prior knowledge of the artist’s submissions as well as the physical space/galleries in the museum being reserved for the show. I felt confident about this as an idea. I felt proud to be a part of the message that the museum was sending out to its extended community. The Berkshire Museum continues playing a powerful role and taking responsibility for acknowledging its vast community of established and emerging artists by keeping its tradition of creating opportunities for them at the professional level. Museums are vital in so many ways and the discovery and promotion of their local, regional and community’s artists is by far one I most revere.
Art of the Hills, the title in and of itself suggests an array of visual references both literal, representational and subjective. It immediately transports me into the multiple realities of my past experiences in the Berkshires. My first memories are triggered as feelings before I can even contemplate which story to first share. I’m in the back seat of my family car, I’m six or seven years old, my younger brother sleeping next to me while the voices of my parents murmured continuously. I loved watching the landscape change from thick dense trees that surrounded us on all sides to open panoramic views that easily displayed the regions beautiful space. This visual multi-sensory experience repeated itself for hours. I also loved the rocky textured crevasses and the contour lines that worked their way up and down as we accelerated. I felt something. It may in fact be my earliest memory of emotions decided upon as my own. The drive through the northern east has always felt like a second home and it has always inspired me. New York City and Long Island residents always drove up north to escape the concrete and the crowds. “The Berkshires” seemed like an endless place to get to as a child, but I never minded. The car window was my portal and the moving landscapes were my friends. Though my work personal work as an artist may not seem to visually communicate my sentiments written here literally, the emotions are certainly present. These emotions have been activated tenfold from my duties as both juror and curator for Art of the Hills. As I write this, I know that I’m not only talking about the many childhood family trips driving through the landscape itself, but the many other ways to extend upon the show’s title as a context. Those contexts are relevant works of art, experiences in museums, galleries, history books, magazines and the synthesis of dreams and otherness that develop over time. Reflection and research. The reflections became meditations and a narrative vision took shape to communicate through the submitted works.
As juror and curator, it was important for me to create and construct a narrative based on the title of the show. Art of the Hills, I wish to communicate the sentimental, representational imagery rich with applied technical skills and various modes of execution. I also intended on expanding these displays with contexts, metaphors and dichotomies. Variations of the applied mediums of drawing, painting, sculpture, photography and mixed media would create a fluid challenge of how the works would speak to each other via their placement. Scale and subject matter would also intertwine and challenge the viewer to consider the tensions created between the subjective and the representational. Working with the museum’s chief experience officer, we began the process via a shared cloud folder over the internet. The artists were able to both submit their work via images and technical specifications about each piece. The only information I received was an image(s), title, medium and dimensions. Over 600 individual works were submitted. Artists were limited to submit up to three pieces maximum. The first step that I was intuitively guided to explore was the sheer appreciation for each submitted piece. With the discovery of each new work of art, I was also discovering a new artist. This propelled the selection process as I began to isolate the first draft of selecting works. The second step was an in person meeting with the chief experience officer. Before presenting my first draft of selections, we spent hours discussing each piece that was submitted. It was an exciting and invigorating discussion as we began to find connections and sentiments between works and contextual criticisms. Our meeting resulted in a two-week hiatus as the submission deadline passed. I spent those two weeks making the second revision to present to the museum’s exhibition committee for approval. There were three additional works in my selection that were disqualified due to the exceeding of size requirements but it actually worked to the advantage of the show by giving a bit more space between pieces for the selections to live.
Interior three-dimensional design software applications today easily allow for mock-ups to be made in a seamless virtual simulation of the physical space. We were able to communicate from afar and place the selected works directly into the virtual space and have a 360-degree perspective. This included using pedestals for the sculpture as well as the large cubes that were placed into the larger gallery to activate the center of the space. Several iterations were made and exchanged of the show’s composition and I relied heavily on the chief experience officer and his staff to assist. They made the process very smooth and were diligent in their professionalism and care. The final aspect of the jury process then anticipated my selections for awards. The titles of “best in the show” and the supporting second place, third place and honorable mentions brought on a greater responsibility. This is the part where I had to stand strongest in my commitment to the exhibition and decisions that would follow and why. There is a very unifying human sentiment attached to this process. Everyone seeks validation, attention and a sense of accomplishment for their efforts. The more time that I spent with the final selection of works the more I continued to see and feel from each piece and the show as a whole. I had a deadline to meet on this part of the process as well, but it seemed like the shortest one.
For the first place and best in the show award I wrote to the museum’s chief experience officer again. This time asking for an extension over the course of a weekend of my deadline. I’m was torn between the brilliant works of Jacob Fosum’s mind expanding surrealist style painting “An Archaic Revival #2” and Patricia Hogan’s spiritual and beautifully textured painting “Winter” for the final selection of the best in the show award. In theory, one would assume that the runner up would default to the second-place award but this was not the case. I had already made firm decisions about the second and third place awards, as well as the honorable mentions. This is a good example of my thinking process in general. I absorb, experience and feel before making decisions. I’m always looking for details, parts, pieces and fragments. As a deaf and hard of hearing person my eyes are also my ears and they over compensate by often reverse engineering things into visual and sensory solutions. I work backwards and often revise things until they make fluid sense. I find this to be a longer process than what one may normally experience but it is uniquely my own. I selected Patricia Hogan’s “Winter” for the final selection of the best work in the show.
The honorable mentions started the process and the first one went to Michael Boroniec and both of his wonderful ceramic sculptures. The two pieces were composed together on a single pedestal in the main gallery of the show. The pieces suggest movement and the process of how they open, fill and create negative spaces. The second honorable mention went to Michael Bufis and his stunning black & white photographs. The technical display and capturing of the contrasting landscapes, their compositions, and the use of lights and darks are simply stunning. The third-place award went to John Lark for his beautiful dry media piece titled “Tress by the Pond”. This piece resides as one of the first works visitors may have witnessed from a distance as they first entered the exhibition. The piece pulls you to it as you expect its imagery to become sharper rather than blurry and softened. This is not the case. The piece demands that you engage it and feel its soft and dream like sentiments. The second-place award went to the colorful painting titled, “Quilt for Baby” by Crystalle Lacouture. I connected to this piece right away. It is warm and vibrant with color. I see many complimentary elements to many of my own works. I see elements of 1980’s NYC graffiti as well as references to abstract expressionism. This piece continues to attract and demand my attention as I keep discovering new ways to see it.
With the exhibition and the awards established firmly the show opened in early June and was met with a fantastic response and showing of supportive people at the opening. I was proud to lead a series of “meet the curator” talks in late June to connect with the artists, museum community and its members. We completed four talks over the course of two days. The talks were engaging and full of energy. What I enjoyed most about the talks was the opportunity to share the process as it is written here in this essay. The ability to share and discuss the amazing works in the show and explain the connection through the narratives each piece demands. The public was gracious, friendly and full of wonderfully challenging questions. Each individual talk exceeded my expectations and their time limits. I am reflecting on the process as a whole and how much I am still learning as we speak.
With much appreciation and gratitude, I say thank you to the Berkshire Museum, the artists in the show and those who submitted their work. Thank you to the wonderful museum staff, community members and beyond.
Message to the Viewers of Art of the Hills:
Over 600 submissions were received for the exhibition. The submitted works of art were uniquely rich in creativity, craftsmanship, meaning and style. Each piece was carefully viewed and thoughtfully spoken about. Planned intimate time and attention is an absolute necessity for this task. As a visually sensitive person, I take on the emotion and the sentiments drawn from each piece. The most intriguing task was in the organizing and composing of the works. How the selected works would create a series of strong conversations between themselves in relationship to the physical space and how it would navigate the viewers through the exhibition. My intention is to evoke a series of emotions from the representational works and place them into the metaphoric and contextual aspects of the subjective ones. To also generate tensions between the mediums and applications of painting, sculpture, mixed media and photography.
Art of the Hills Artists:
Tracy Baker-White, Madeline Bohrer, Michael Boroniec, Michael Bufis, William Casper, John Clarke, Laurie May Coyle, Laura Didyk, Julia Dixon, Helen Evans Febbo, Jacob Fossum, Joe Goodwin, Robert Hill, Patricia Hogan, Crystalle Lacouture, JD Logan, John MacDonald, Ben Mancino, Jesse Tobin McCauley, Scott R. McClintock, Sean McCusker, Robert Morgan, Lynne O’Connell, Bruce Panock, Bryan Powers, James Singelis, Anne W. Smith, Nelena Soro, Ilene Spiewak, Paula Stern, Rose Tannenbaum, Barbara Shea Tracy, Joseph Tracy, Margot Trout, Katherine Ryan Waiveris, and Rachael Warnock.
More on the exhibition here:
Review of the exhibition here: