Monday, September 22, 2008

A Biography

My love of painting, with its qualities of hand made materiality and human scale, and the energy of old churches have inspired my work for over twenty-five years.

I moved from Boston to Chicago in 1987. Hired as Assistant Professor of Painting at the University of Iowa in 1988, I spent over 6 years commuting between Chicago and Iowa City. Between 1990 and 1993, the performance aspect of my work dropped away in favor of painting based installations, such as, When Ready, Bear Fruit, at the Hermit Foundation's 1993 Growthrings International Art Symposium, in Plasy, Czech Republic. There I was able to realize my dream of visiting the country that elected the writer dissident Vaclav Havel to be its first president and to make an installation in a church environment. The site-specific installation I created in the Plasy monastery granary was based on a baroque cathedral floor plan and included sculptural objects and my first fresco painting.

In 1994, I was awarded a Regional Artists' Project Grant to create Mutual Borders, which took place at Community United Methodist Church in the Back of the Yards Neighborhood of Southwest Chicago. My first community-based work was motivated by my desire to better understand my relationship as an artist to a particular community. I also wanted to see my work in an actual church, since the influence of my Catholic upbringing in my work in terms of materiality and ritual was becoming more and more apparent to me.

At that time, members of the three distinct ethnic congregations mirroring the ethnic make up of the church community engaged in a heroic but ultimately unsuccessful effort to save their dying church by attempting to merge congregations. They invited me in to work with them, a relationship which lasted two years and culminated in my execution of a traditional fresco painting inside the church.

In order to directly involve the church community, I worked with two teenagers from each congregation over a four-month period. As they developed their artwork for the Mutual Borders artist book, we discussed my taped interviews with the congregation elders and how race and economics impacted their lives.

In 1997, I began teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I continue to teach today. I collaborated with artist Jeff Hilliard at Prairie Avenue Gallery, Chicago, to create the installation Illumination.Ornamentation.Collaboration.Decoration, consisting of wall paintings, oil paintings and artist books responsive to the history and architectural richness of the historic Prairie Avenue Mansion. This project lay the foundation for the next large site-specific project I completed in 1999 at the Chicago Cultural Center, Death, Dreams, & Heraldry.

The Chicago Cultural Center is Chicago's one hundred year old former library and war memorial. Fascinated by the omnipresence of the Civil War Memorial and its ideals of male heroism, I countered with notions of private, intuitive experience.

The architecture of the Cultural Center, its two glass rotundas, luminosity, the principles of illumination through knowledge and through public civic service, all influenced the forms of the project. I used the four shapes of cast glass Heraldic Emblems I-IV as the project's central image. Inspired by Baroque window architecture, I began making emblem shapes in 1993 when I first visited the Czech Republic for my artist residency. My emblems reference heraldic shields and their many permutations of symbolic and ornamental representation. The heraldic shield both protects and identifies. An infinite variety of forms are possible.

Of the many pieces I made for the show, the content of my artist book Picturing Death elicited considerable response from viewers. Picturing Death consisted of eight gouache paintings and accompanying writings, which functioned as a cathartic vehicle for my fears and experiences with death. Moved by the power of the stories people began to share with me, I produced the simple but effective structure of my next piece, the Picturing Death Project. The project traveled to numerous venues in the Midwest, including the Evanston Art Center's 2003 exhibit, Remembrance, in which I created secular/sacred environments that engage the architecture and culture of each location. The Picturing Death Project provides a structure for journal writing with four questions that help participants examine how we will choose to live with the knowledge that death is inevitable.

My work on the Picturing Death Project inspired me to curate an exhibition of artists' work responding to the theme of death and dying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Betty Rymer Gallery. Mortal, which opened shortly after the September 11 attacks, provided a forum at the school to contemplate some of the grief and loss of the time. The exhibition came to the attention of counselors at Horizon Hospice, Chicago, who were planning a conference on the culture of grieving. After including the exhibit as part of the conference, we began a fruitful and ongoing collaboration based on their use of the Picturing Death Project, which, presented at both art venues and community spaces, continues to the present.

In 2007, I produced two major installation projects, The Flux of Matter at the University of Indiana, Kokomo, and Studio Practice at Koscielak Gallery, Chicago. Looking for an equivalent to Romanesque church architecture in the American Midwest, and intuiting that Native Americans would have an analogous tradition of sacred architecture, I learned of the contemporary tribe of the Miami Nation of Indians of Indiana located near the gallery at the University of Indiana, Kokomo. My personal relationship with this community and my research into their history and culture became the focus of my installation and paintings.

Also inspired by eighteenth and nineteenth century French artist self-portraits, I made paintings of my studio workspace and explored my connection to other communities, most particularly with the Miamis, who had several centuries of intermingling with French priests and fur trappers, many of whom assimilated into the Miami tribe. Along with paintings, I made paper and cardboard forms based on eighteenth and nineteenth century paintings of artists' studios, heraldry (clan identification on protective shields) and architectural forms, such as traditional Miami Indian longhouses and French Romanesque churches. These forms engaged organic, decorative ornamental shapes with infinite possibilities of energetic, synergistic and symbolic representation. I activated the relationships of these forms in my animation Eulogy for Lost Worlds which symbolically chronicles the loss of identity and history through the intermingling of French fur trappers and priests with the Miami Indians for several centuries in the territory that is now Indiana.

For my exhibition Studio Practice, I presented a facsimile of my studio space, highlighting particular aspects such as my easel and palette table, shelves of books, both sketchbooks and research material, stacks of paintings both in progress and completed, and works by artist friends who inspire and influence my work.