Three artists champion the power of expression with Hero or Non-Hero?
Hardship, grief and loss are universal experiences; inevitable moments of being that can be as heartbreaking and painful as they are life-altering and even transformative. Yet like their positive counterparts, such as joy, love and success, these times of change can redefine us and even make us stronger. Perhaps the people we consider heroic are in a sense those who can accept these unavoidable highs and lows of life with equanimity, practicing an almost uncanny acceptance of both the shadows and light that color our existence. These same heroes become an example to others and their epitaphs are ultimately inscribed on the lives that they touch.
In the past fifty years, the poet and meditation teacher Stephen Levine has collaborated with people as disparate as spiritual guru Ram Dass, beat author Alexander Trocchi and even hospice visionary Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In his book, “Meetings at the Edge,” Levine writes eloquently of a kind of humble heroism that defies routine categorization, of everyday heroes too busy with living in the here and now to be concerned about the limelight of mythology.
“Growth is measured by the gentleness and awareness with which we once again pick ourselves up, the lightness with which we dust ourselves off, the openness with which we continue and take the next unknown step, beyond our edge, beyond our holding, into the remarkable mystery of being.”
What Levine describes can be layered onto the realm of visual arts and the artist. It could surely be argued that engaging art champions these same concepts of growth, awareness, openness, the unknown and the beyond, and Levine’s “remarkable mystery of being”; the artist becomes the hero when they create works that point us in the direction of these very notions.
In the upcoming show Hero or Non-Hero?, artists Margete Griffin, Tim Hartman and George Cornwell explore similar ideas of heroic identity, perceptions of morality and even the possible evolution of one’s character. After settling through the shared experience of losing loved ones, Griffin and Hartman began culling through boxes of family keepsakes. Photographs, journals, clippings and memories of the past were recycled, rearranged and then rendered into a set of serigraphs expertly printed by Cornwell. The pieces feature animals, phrases and emblem motifs with some including the Hero or Non-Hero? graphic in place as a kind of branding. And while the initial inspiration of the series was one of loss, as Griffin and Hartman explain below, the end result was one of hope, humor and creative gains.
The reception for Hero or Non-Hero? is being held on Friday, June 28 from 7-10 p.m. at MetaCusp Studios, located at 2650 Rosselle Street in Riverside, across from Bold City Brewery and CoRK Studios. The event also features refreshments and live music by Nathan Smith. Following the show, prints from the series will be available for purchase directly from Griffin through her site.
I interviewed Griffin, Hartman and Cornwell via e-mail. What follows is a transcription of their responses.
Starehouse: What does the title Hero or Non-Hero? mean?
Margete Griffin: It means we should look deeper before deciding what is good or bad. Good acts and ideas can be found in some very unlikely places. It’s not only the finest institutions that have the answers. It may or may not be in the media … instead it may be on a poster you’ve overlooked on the street, or from the mouth of a child. The symbolism of the barking dog means perhaps it’s not the loudest voice that is right, although the freedom of speech allows him the right to bark it from the tallest building. Loud or quiet, big or small doesn’t equal right or wrong. Look deeper for the agendas or you may be surprised by the eventual outcome. It’s funny where that statement was found. It was scribbled on a crumpled old paper at the bottom of a box of Tim’s old school stuff that his dad had saved. We almost threw it out without reading what it said. I had no idea how I would use it at the time, but I saved it.
S: When did you begin the actual creation of these pieces?
M.G: About a year ago, after returning from an art adventure in NYC and a fresh perspective. Before that, it was stirring in my mind, and I had all the pieces … It took being away to decide on the exact statements I wanted to make with them. From the beginning, I had decided to use found elements with new illustration to convey things I wanted to say, using screen prints as the medium. After a much needed time away, it fell together. The editing of mountains of material into art that says something was the most time consuming part of the process. With screen printed art, there are many steps, all done in layers. I could think about the message as I built the layers and chose the elements that illustrated the point. Then I decided on a freshly painted sun ray pattern to tie them together visually as a series and mark the time period for me personally. The pattern signifies a new day.
S: How many pieces total do you think will be featured in the show?
M.G: With screen printing, you work in editions. Each paper is hand printed and handled by the artist and the printer for each separate color that is laid down by hand one, color at a time. The colors are custom mixed on the spot and squeegeed through a screen that allows the ink to flow through exposed areas that contain the art. Each individual print is considered original art for that reason. Being a handmade process they will have slight variances. They have a look and feel that can’t be achieved by an automated method. So, I’d say exactly 220 original handmade pieces. They are however, contained in seven main editions and assorted smaller pieces. The five largest prints are numbered limited editions, meaning those will never be printed again. Every single piece is signed original art. George Cornwell and I worked as a team, and enjoyed the printing collaboration on this long project. His participation ensured that each piece was to the highest standard. We all spent quite a lot of “shop time” in the making of the prints.
S: Your press statement explains that the series “was inspired and instigated by a common turning point … the loss of a loved one.” In a previous e-mail, you had explained that the impetus behind this show was actually put in place after cleaning out the home of your late grandparents. How did that experience directly inspire Hero or Non-Hero?
M.G: The end result is not at all about people who have passed … I’ve used it to say my own statements that any viewer could relate to. My work always seems to be a reflection of a time that I am living … in the present. After my grandmother, and then my parents passed within a few years of each other, it was my task to decide what to do with their belongings. My grandparent’s home of many years in Georgia was an interesting time capsule of our life as a family. The house sold rather quickly and I didn’t have time to carefully sift through everything, so I packed it up and brought it home with me. Suddenly, I realized that what I intended to finally be doing with my time again, was art. There I sat with 150 years of saved family junk and treasures. I had to go through things and sort it out, and as I did, I decided to do both as I was unpacking: using found, cool vintage stuff and making art. I think when I revisited the chapters in their lives, I had a renewed admiration for the things they had done during their lives. It made me start considering how I might be remembered one day. While I don’t think of myself as any sort of hero, I do have a talent and the drive to express messages through art. While there may be a story behind the things I chose to use, the viewer should be able to find some common experience of their own that crosses their mind. I deliberately left them open to interpretation. The pieces actually have lots of humor and aren’t at all about dead people. That’s one reason I borrowed some pieces from Tim’s family things too…and included new illustration … and some of my son’s sketches are in there too. I didn’t want it to seem in any way like it’s memorializing any particular people, just slices of life. I did include a code emblem of who contributed to the piece, whether living or dead.
S: The images of the work that you sent me seems composed of signifiers such as animals, books and scrolls, kings and queens from a deck of playing cards, etc… to me they seem like they are as much archetypes as they are simple graphic symbols. I guess I am wondering why you chose these certain images and what are they meant to convey.
M.G: The animals reflect how people act. By using them instead, like barking dogs, for example, or a horse galloping headlong in the wrong direction … well, we probably all know people who do those things. The fallen King and statuesque Queen also are symbols of mere common people who act as if they are queens or kings. My grandmother was a Queen … actually, a Life Master Bridge Tournament Player and that is the origin; from her very old card rule manuals. The flying books, posters and records have a pretty direct meaning in the Hero or Non- Hero? image … How much influence does a song, a book, or art have upon us in our decisions of what is good or bad? Should we only listen to certain kinds of songs, appreciate art only in museums, (the Met is there, too) or blindly believe every word in a book? I say look deeper … Heroes can be found in unlikely places if viewed with an open mind … and is it a hero at all, that might dictate how we should think?
S: Pieces such as Enlightened on a Serious Note and Oh Hell also feature the prominent use of text in the composition. Could you explain your decision to add these phrases into some of the pieces?
M.G: Both of those are taken directly from handwritten notes. In the first, Enlightened on a Serious Note, the copy reads: “Note: Don’t Take Life So Serious”…with birds and a cat way in the background. The words are from a tiny old love note by Tim in his youth. The Bird, again a symbol of a high flying goals of people not even noticing the danger of the soft, innocent-seeming pussy cat coming from behind. Not noticing the seriousness can be suddenly enlightening in the real world. The bird is from Swift Manufacturing, a textile mill my grandfather worked in for 50 years. They went out of business due to outsourcing fabric manufacturing cheaper overseas. The workers never saw that danger coming either, as many of us need to look at some things more seriously. It could apply to almost anyone’s personal story though. In Oh Hell, that is a line directly from my grandmother’s hilarious college diary in the 1920’s. The piece is open to interpretation … we have all had those moments.
S: You had told me that have had a long 35 year career in commercial art. I also know that you are very involved in the local art community. Could you give me a background sketch of your own beginnings as an artist?
M.G: Well, I left home at 17 and had to make a living. Some of my first jobs in the field were in picture framing and illustrating yellow page ads for the phone book. I worked my way through night school college. In both of those jobs I met friends I still have today, both in the fine arts with framing and commercial art in advertising. In fact, my favorite class in college was printmaking! I have several friends from that period coming to my show. After all these years, still friends.
S: You have worked in a variety of media including illustration, graphic design, printing and painting, as well as woodworking. You also have experience as a gallery manager and have worked at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. I’m curious about your journey that led you through such a rich exploration of the arts. Was there a kind of “chain reaction” effect that helped push you further into these various pursuits?
M.G: I was hungry! I just always worked hard. I have met many good people on the journey and they know I give more than 100% to anything I do. Most of that time I have been self employed as a freelance artist, so you learn to do whatever the job calls for. In the eighties, I was a part owner of a T Shirt screen printing company called Panda International where our designs were sold worldwide. That’s where my expertise in designing art for screen printing was developed. My seven years at the Cummer was during the time I was looking after my parents in their last years, and teaching homeschool with my son. Deadline driven commercial art was not feasible with others depending on me for help. I worked in the museum store and really loved the position. It gave me the opportunity to meet every interesting person who walked through the door and learned so much from the exhibits and the permanent collection. I sold my paintings there as well. I still have many good friends from my years there too, both customers and staff.
S: You explained to me that you lost “my grandmother, father and mother in recent years … but took time to care for all them through hospice and raise my family so I have been lying low for many years.” Do you feel comfortable describing your personal hospice experience and how it affected not only your art, but your life?
M.G: It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. It was not something I had planned to do, but my help was needed and so I just did it. At the time I was having a really strong career, but there simply weren’t enough hours in the day. I didn’t really want to stop with the great clients I had, but that is a business that is deadline driven, and so I couldn’t do both. Looking back, it was the right decision as my life is richer for having spent the time with my family; I had been working hard for decades.
S: Tim Hartman, who helped add elements to these pieces as well, also lost his father while you were dealing with your own loss; by your own admission that shared grief seemingly helped forge your friendship with Tim and brought him into the creation of this series. Could you elaborate on both your friendship with Tim and what he brought to the works?
M.G: It’s really kind of silly…we met on Facebook, and he was going through moving his mom here from Indiana after his dad passed. Having just gone through all that, I couldn’t imagine how this young guy was going to juggle that task! I’m not so sure it was really the grief; we just like to go have fun! We became fast friends as he told me about his father and many stories of his years as a skateboarder. That’s a world I’m familiar with as it’s my son’s passion too. Tim toured and was really good. He had a career in that field, some years ago. His art is reminiscent of the zines they sent back and forth. It’s all in the attitude. It brought a funny juxtaposition into the mix. We both have families to tend to so it’s nice to get away with a friend. Right in the middle of the project, George lost his mom as well … so maybe the stars just aligned for this time in a project shared.
S: Your artist statement describes how you strive for commonality and connection with others through your work and encourage others to “seek art that shifts them to a better feeling…” through hardships. It seems like your work is one of deliberate affirmation, of optimism and hope. Do you feel like the experience of working on Hero or Non-Hero? has fortified those principles in your own life?
M.G.: Absolutely! 100%. I can’t leave without special mention of thanks to Jeff Whipple and Liz Gibson, loaning their studio for the show… Donnie Dusinberre and Chad for the beautiful framing, Rob DePiazza for some decals … of course George and Tim, and my family Rick and Ben for putting up with my whims.
Starehouse: Margete explained that both your personal and collaborative relationship was forged in part by the shared loss of loved ones. Would you feel comfortable in describing how your own grief and loss inspired your involvement in Hero or Non-Hero?
Tim Hartman: I took it pretty hard, the unexpected death of my father, while also watching my marriage fall apart. After some time had passed where I didn’t focus on art or anything except working as a chef, I got a call from my mother in Indiana, wanting a fresh start closer to me. I went and packed her up and moved her here to Riverside a few blocks from where I live. I had been worried how she would cope with the loss of her partner of 48 years. With her she brought three big plastic tubs of vintage stuff my dad had collected through his life. It took quite some time to actually open them, but when Margete seemed interested in hearing the stories and talked of a project using her own found elements, we went through them one by one. It brought back lots of memories of my dad and grandmother’s early encouragement and I was surprised by the old art, photos and papers he saved. It made me smile more than sob.
S: Margete also explained that you directly brought some key elements into the pieces. What were some of the ideas that you contributed to this series?
T.H.: My dad built midget race cars for competition and we found the funniest rule book that some graphics were used from. Margete’s son builds fast cars too, so we laughed at how some of the crazy rules in those books could be used in the print Rule 47. Check Direction First. A sketch I drew while waiting for my missing friends in front of the Met in NYC was used in the print Hero or Non-Hero? That one was new from a trip Margete and I took last summer to New York. My dad had saved some of the old zines and papers from my teenage years and a line from an old love note I wrote a long time ago was blown up big to make a statement in Enlightened on a Serious Note. Margete cut a heart out that was part of an old drawing and blew it up to go in the emblem she designed. I had no idea what she was going to do with it but little things became big, old things became new. I had been feeling like my unrefined style wasn’t going to be appreciated when Margete came yelling at me, “I love that!” and she wanted to use some of my stuff. It gave me a new spark I hadn’t had in years and I hope that reflects in what she did.
S: She also described you as having an “interesting background.” I know that you actively support the local art scene. What is some of your own personal story that brought you to art?
T.H.: In the beginning when I was little, my grandmother bought me art supplies and encouraged me to make stuff. When I was about ten, I found a skateboard and I was introduced to another world of expression, and a raw form of art I loved. When finishing high school I passed up a scholarship to go to art school to travel and skateboard. After tearing my ACL, my art became a more and more important focus. After laying low through some uncertain times, I am working on new things. In recent years, I have the chance to be creative with food as a Chef for Biscottis. I’m getting back to painting some and enjoy doing my art again.
S: Did you feel a sense of healing of your own grief and loss after helping collaborate on this show?
T.H.: A sense of healing? More so a feeling of rejuvenation! After seeing all the things my father saved of my art and my career he followed with news clippings, I realized he only wanted me to find what made me happy.
Starehouse: I know that in the past you have created prints for artists such as Jim Draper, Shaun Thurston and Dennis Campay. Margete Griffin credits you with being a crucial part in the creation of “Hero or Non-Hero?” What is your philosophy and artistic approach in working with individual artists?
George Cornwell: My philosophy, approach with the artist is try and give them what they are looking for and provide them with the options that I can offer. This pretty much goes hand in hand with my own creative vision where I work with an open mind to understand what the artist wants to happen in his print.
This approach is completely different than my 17 year experience in commercial fine art printing in NYC. Here, the artist was completely removed from the process with the printers working solely with publishers. We were, for the most part, reproducing exact copies of art pieces, 99% of the time paintings, for the sole purpose of consumer sales. The theme was pretty much,” tell me what you want and I’ll tell you what I can give you”. As sterile as that sounds, (and it is) I was trained within the strict discipline of exact registration, exact color matching, and quick time production with many editions running over 1000 prints.
S: How much are the artists you work with directly involved in your personal process? I guess I am curious about how you navigate or even compromise your own creative vision with their direct demands, suggestions and input?
G.C.: Working directly with the artist today becomes a MUCH more pleasurable experience. The main appeal of the process is the artist individual participation. Most of the artists do their own color separations, approve the colors themselves and oversee the registration of the prints. In the case of Dennis Campay, I did the separations and mixed Dennis’s colors. Dennis thoroughly researched the screen printing medium and thought it ideal for his work. He trusted in me the process, which allowed him to concentrate on his painting. Nonetheless, it’s still a learning process that I’m going through in working directly, hand in hand, with the artist.
S: What led you to originally pursue screen printing? I know that you are a longtime veteran and participant of the local punk rock community. Did punk rock lead you into visual art?
G.C.: I originally moved to NYC to form a punk band with Noli in 1987. I applied for a job reclaiming screens in Manhattan for Chromacomp, the leader of fine art screen printing in the city. I was hired because I spoke English, so I was told. So I worked the days learning the medium of fine art printing and spent the nights performing, practicing, and writing in a punk band with Noli. I was fortunate that, for the most part, I moved forward in both undertakings to where I am today.
S: Are you as equally adept and enthusiastic about other fine art printing processes?
G.C.: My specialty is solely in screen printing. I have an interest in paper embossing which I’d like to use in my fine art, but I’m not too concerned in the other mediums. It’s up to the artist to choose the medium, mediums for their pieces. Staci Bu Shea has worked with screen printing and letter press to deliver some great pieces. I’m more interested in how to use screen printing to achieve the unique character that many of the other mediums offer. Aquatint is a medium I’m looking to duplicate and eliminate the toxicity that it involves. That being said, I definitely look forward to working with other masters of the fine art printing mediums! Vin Dolan, Barry Wilson and Patrick Miko, among others.
S: How was your experience in working with Margete and Tim? Were there any technical or compositional problems that you encountered during the creation of this series?
G.C.: Margete and Tim were great to work with. Margete’s experience in graphic art was a pleasure in that she knew what she wanted and was pretty adept in color herself. Tim was very open-minded and helped in keeping things simple and has the long shoulders of an accomplished print racker; taking the prints from the table and placing them in drying racks.
The only real compromise, or problems, was in dealing with the deckles along the edges of the fine art paper the Margete personally chose. But Margete was quick to reassure me to not be so delicate and exacting on whatever registration questions I had in mind. And she was right.
S: And I have to ask in an unrelated topic: how has the response been to the first “No Vaccine” gigs (the new “artist super group” of sorts that features Noli Novak on vocals, Cornwell on guitar, Clay Doran on bass and Jack Twachtman on drums)? Any plans on recording and releasing an album?
G.C.: The No Vaccine shows were so much fun and the response has been great. We are looking forward to starting it up again this fall. If Clay and Jack are up for it, Noli and I would look forward to recording all the material over time as we possess all rights to the catalog of songs.
Daniel A. Brown