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Art Review: 'Cranbrook Connections,' Studio Place Arts

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"Blue Heaven" by Marc Awodey - COURTESY OF STUDIO PLACE ARTS
  • Courtesy Of Studio Place Arts
  • "Blue Heaven" by Marc Awodey

Marc Awodey was a Burlington painter and former Seven Days art critic who died suddenly in 2012 at the age of 51. Ever since then, Sue Higby, executive director of Studio Place Arts in Barre, has been mulling over an exhibition that the two used to talk about presenting.

Awodey and Higby connected over their shared Michigan origins. Both grew up at a time when Detroit and the Cranbrook Academy of Art, located in its suburbs, were a nexus of innovation in art and design. Awodey earned his master's of fine arts at Cranbrook in the early 1980s; Higby used to visit friends there, and had an uncle who worked for General Motors. As it happened, the arts linked the school and the manufacturer: Architect Eliel Saarinen designed the 1932 Cranbrook campus, and his son Eero designed GM's technical center campus in 1949.

Over the years, a trickle of Cranbrook graduates, including Awodey, migrated to Vermont, and he and Higby envisioned a group show of their work. Now "Cranbrook Connections," further delayed by the pandemic, has come to pass.

On a visit back to Michigan in 2019, Higby was able to visit Cranbrook's campus, look up Awodey's thesis and meet with the head of alumni relations, who shared Higby's call to artists in alumni communications.

The show assembles nine paintings by Awodey (including two loaned by Seven Days coeditor Pamela Polston) and paintings, sculpture, photographs, woven works and ceramics by 12 other Cranbrook graduates.

With its range of mediums, the exhibition honors Cranbrook's Bauhausian interdisciplinary bent. In fact, "Singing Skyline," a grouping of stoneware vessels shaped like miniature high rises that twist and lean into one another, was made by a graduate of Cranbrook's architecture program: Aron Temkin of Montpelier.

A good place to start the exhibition is with Awodey's "Blue Heaven," an oil painting he made in 2005 of blue sky framing a gray house and attached carport. Three cars rendered in rough brushstrokes occupy the carport; a fourth, red car is parked alongside. A flat, Midwestern-looking landscape creates a swath of green beside the asphalt driveway. The latter sweeps up to the carport — practically knocking the house off kilter — and its form continues beyond in the dark mass of a tree.

It's hard not to read into "Blue Heaven," though Awodey once said that formal properties such as "textures, color and line" interested him more than narrative. The title does seem to sound a note of irony, given the Hopperesque isolation of the untenanted house and the possibly disused cars.

Awodey didn't shy away from figures; he just didn't individualize them. A fine example is "Mother and Child," which presents the figures posed on a floor in nearly flat forms of solid color. The mother's visage has the barest suggestion of facial features as she holds something for the child to eat or drink. Perhaps referencing the art-historical origin of this pairing in gilded religious paintings of Mary and the Christ child, Awodey's duo is set against a yellow wall that forms a unifying diagonal.

"Mother and Child"  by Marc Awodey - COURTESY OF STUDIO PLACE ARTS
  • Courtesy Of Studio Place Arts
  • "Mother and Child" by Marc Awodey

Louise Glass, who attended Cranbrook at about the same time as Awodey, contributed four striking works in fiber. For "Twins," the Piermont, N.H., artist covered two bowling balls in plaster, cotton, yarn and felted wool, connecting their podlike shapes with a felted wool rope that suggests an umbilical cord.

Glass' "Liquidities" consists of a cotton-yarn rope coated in latex that hangs from the ceiling and pools in a tangled pile inside the frame of a wooden box on the floor. This work, perhaps named with a sardonic nod to the fraught relationship of art and money, is beautifully paired with a number of other earth-toned, textured works in the same corner.

Among those is Vershire artist Andrea Wasserman's "Gold Cloth": four wood panels painted with gold leaf and white milk paint and hung with screens of woven brass wire. The piece combines the luxe and the natural with its forms of curving sun and flowing river. 

In the same corner hangs "Evening Tide," by Norwich ceramics artist Oona Gardner. It's made from black ceramic tiles, with cutouts shaped like draped fabric, a pair of breasts and a chain-link necklace. Both heavy and delicate, the composition brings to mind a woman's disarticulated evening getup.

The white chalk-marked surfaces of "Evening Tide" resonate with the adjacent photograph, "Underneath It All," by Walpole, N.H., photographer France Menk. An extreme close-up, it appears to capture chalky, wrinkled skin or veined stone. Menk's three photographs inspire guessing games: Is "Drink" a galaxy or bubbles in close-up? Is "Drink Again" a tongue or a pour of red liquid?

Elizabeth Billings, of Tunbridge, often collaborates with Wasserman on public art; currently, Billings is finishing up a solo residency with the Vermont chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Her 2011 work "Redpine," included in the SPA show, aligns two mirroring rows of pine needles in various shades of brown along the horizontal centerline of a piece of woven black fabric. It is nature organized.

Wilmot, N.H., painter Tom Driscoll makes highly textured oil paintings. Each on view here features a single, realistically rendered object — broom, ladder — enmeshed in a shadowy background. The canvases are thick with unexpected colors, brush strokes, scrapings and, in "A Child's Toy," pencil marks.

R.G. Solbert's 1992 graphic work in ink and ink wash, "Mi Dica," is the opposite of Driscoll's in style, with its single black Pinocchio-nosed figure in profile. (The title means "Tell me" in Italian.) Now 95 and living in Randolph, Solbert earned her Cranbrook degree in 1948 and is best known for her illustrations of children's books. 

"Liquidities" by Louise Glass - COURTESY OF STUDIO PLACE ARTS
  • Courtesy Of Studio Place Arts
  • "Liquidities" by Louise Glass

A small, traditional oil landscape in a gilt frame is a reminder of another Vermont artist who recently passed away: Ray Brown of Montpelier, who died in early 2020 just shy of his 80th birthday.

A third ceramics artist represented in "Cranbrook Connections" is Jenny Swanson of Cornish Flat, N.H., who attended Cranbrook at the same time as Awodey and now serves as director of the ceramics studio at Dartmouth College.

Swanson's three elegant vases, "Anew," "Asymmetrical" and "In the Palm of Your Hand," make use of refined techniques: They are saggar-fired — that is, placed inside a protective container before being fired in a kiln — and coated with a thin, lustrous terra sigillata (sealed-earth) slip.

A gallery binder contains artist statements, including Awodey's tongue-in-cheek one, but only Swanson mentions the impact that Cranbrook had on her.

"Studio practice was the essential educational model," she wrote of the school, "and it was an intense immersion into learning by doing. Many years later, I'm still very focused on the ceramics process."

It would have been interesting to know why the other artists, particularly Awodey, chose to pursue studies in the arts at Cranbrook — which only offers graduate degrees — and what they took away from the experience. Such testimonials might have been informative for New Englanders — whom Higby generally finds to be unaware of the significance of Michigan and Cranbrook in the country's history of art and design, she said. "Cranbrook Connections" at least demonstrates the school's reach.

Correction, June 4, 2021: This story was updated to reflect several clarifications from Sue Higby.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Motor City Mecca"

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