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Biggest Picture

An exhibit pays tribute to visionary artist Wes Disney


Published August 1, 2007 at 4:00 a.m.

The late Vermont artist Wes Disney did only one major public-art project in his lifetime, but it was a doozy. Called simply “A Wall,” the photographic installation covered the southern side of what was in 1981 the J.C. Penney building — now Borders — at the corner of Church and Cherry streets in Burlington. It was more than 143 feet long and 38 feet high, and its surface comprised 35,000 bricks. Disney’s vision, funded by the fledgling Church Street Marketplace Commission, was to cover this expanse with the black-and-white image of a road cut from Three Mile Hill, off I-89 near Montpelier. As one friend puts it, “Wes went to the mountain and brought the mountain back to Burlington.”

The 24 4x5 negatives of that rock face were ultimately transformed into 3561 feet of Xerox wallpaper — an unprecedented feat at the time — which was glued to the brick by some 20 volunteers. The paper was then cut to expose the mortar — evoking an uncanny merger of geologic specimen and manmade structure — and the whole thing was coated with a sealant. That protection proved no match, however, for the harsh Vermont elements, including fierce winds tunneling east from the lake. Within several years the paper rock face had begun to disintegrate, and finally it was removed.

“A Wall” was the most controversial example of Disney’s enormous creative output — public art was a stranger to Burlington at the time, and some thought its funding, $15,000, was an egregious waste of taxpayer money. Others complained that a viewer could not get sufficiently far away from the semi-abstracted image to make out what it was. According to some who worked on the piece, Disney hoped people across the street might meditate on the mountain while waiting for the bus.

Documentation of the project in all its erstwhile glory is the centerpiece of a new exhibit, "Wes Disney: A Retrospective,” at the city’s Firehouse Gallery. The opening reception last Friday occasioned a poignant reunion for a number of friends and relatives. Among them were some of the original workers on “A Wall,” who recalled their fellowship on the job and at after-work dinners or salons at Disney’s College Street apartment.

“It was intense and dynamic and fun and complicated,” says Marion Ettlinger, who at the time was Disney’s girlfriend and is now a renowned literary photographer based in New York City. Her role, she admits, was mainly providing “a chick retreat” for the women on the project. “I don’t think I ever wore a hard hat,” Ettlinger admits. “But I was involved in the process from the inception. Wes and I used to take these drives and he would take out the tripod and shoot rock face.”

The old friends reminisced, too, about the participants who were not there. One of those, of course, was Disney himself, who was 54 when he died from melanoma in 2000. But the maverick spirit of the artist seemed to loiter in the gallery like a mischievous, but benevolent, ghost. His friends surmise that this exhibition — a resurrection of sorts — would have delighted him.

“Wes Disney: A Retrospective” was curator Ruth Erickson’s final contribution to the Firehouse; in fact, the day of the reception was her last before she headed off to graduate school in Philadelphia. Her commentary on the show appears in its announcement card, as well as in text affixed to the gallery walls. “Wes Disney came of age artistically during a fertile period in American photography,” Erickson writes. “His approach in the early 1970s was characterized by an exploratory impulse in which the camera was seen as a divining tool for self-discovery as well as a way to explore meaning in the external world.”

The contents of the show are just a fraction of the “multiple thousands” of images and artifacts Disney left behind, says Janie Cohen. In fact, he left them to her, along with his somewhat ramshackle — but aesthetically charming — cabin near Lewis Creek in Charlotte. The director of the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum was a close friend who had a unique artistic collegiality with Disney. “Janie ‘got’ Wes and he knew it,” explains another old friend and fellow photographer, Roger Haile. In town for the exhibit’s opening, Haile now lives near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “I never met Janie until Wes was in hospice,” he adds, “but whenever I talked to him he mentioned this very interesting relationship he had to her.”

Haile believes Cohen is the perfect “executor” of his artistic estate. “What Janie has done has essentially been the vehicle for maintaining Wes’ presence in a way that is not often the case,” he says. “When people die the pieces often get taken apart and divided up.” Disney’s family thought leaving his possessions to Cohen “was the best decision Wes ever made,” Haile adds. “Here she is with a sensibility, and sensitivity, to work that she is in charge of. And then she took the initiative to create this trust.”

Haile is referring to the WED Art Trust. Cohen established it, she says, “to disseminate Wes’ artwork for the benefit of his artistic legacy and the benefit of the public.” She is adamant that the trust, whose directors include Haile, another close friend and Disney’s niece, actually own the work and remain collectively responsible for its fate. Cohen suggests that might include other exhibitions, loans and sales to private collectors. “There’s no money in the trust, just the artwork,” she says. “But if there are some funds in the future, from a sale or whatever, the trust might be able to give small grants to other artists with Wes’ vision to produce their work.”

What is that vision? “It could be interpreted in many ways,” suggests Cohen. “I wouldn’t call it a particular aesthetic, but Wes had a very strong vision of the role of the artist in society. He didn’t play by the rules; he followed his inspiration and his belief of how it was necessary for an artist to live to make his work.” And Disney’s photographs are, Cohen muses, “very beautiful work.”

“Wes Disney: A Retrospective” is arranged according to several themes or eras of the artist’s life. The “Wall” section, in the back gallery, features a partly unfurled strip of the infamous Xerox “wallpaper,” as well as the original permit Disney obtained from the city council to “occupy sidewalk,” dated September 3, 1981. In accompanying text, Jim McGinnis — a close friend and “Wall” volunteer — hints at Disney’s love of nature in general and geology in particular: “My guess is that the texture of the surface of the rock cut was, for Wes, a metaphor of what might lie within the rock.” Here, too, is the much-talked-about “scaffolding photo,” for which Disney and 16 volunteers posed (see below) on three tiers. The photographer of this image is unknown.

Disney’s own photographs line the front gallery — Burlington’s Light-Works printed the ones marked “posthumous.” Despite the social and historical interest of the “Wall” project, these black-and-white images ultimately define Disney’s artistic legacy. The technical skill evident in the mostly untitled works is so impressive as to be almost casual: the richness of tone, the detailed compositions, the interplay of focus and blur.

And then, of course, there is the subject matter Disney chose to capture with his ever-present Nikon. The photographs selected for this exhibit indicate a shifting visual interest over time. The 1970s images focus on the natural world and illustrate Disney’s dedication to “finding deepened meaning in simplified forms,” reads the text. One photo depicts a rock among reeds in water; each element appears to be in motion. This image, Cohen points out, was chosen for inclusion in a 1972 exhibition of mid-20th-century American photographers called “Octave of Prayer” and in a publication of the same name, with text by celebrated photographer Minor White. Cohen suggests the picture is one of Disney’s most important: It is one of two being reprinted for sale, which will benefit the trust.

Another compelling image in the Firehouse show further exemplifies Disney’s interest in grasses. Though frozen in time and presented in two-dimensional black and white, this sea of undulating grain is sensual and almost hypnotic. Several photos were taken on Disney’s beloved Charlotte property; others depict the Southwest, whose austere beauty fascinated him. His approach to the world around him is summarized in a quote from one of his journals: “To perceive creatively is to see everything for what else it might be. To behave creatively is to act on these insights.”

In a rare titled piece, “Twin Oaks,” 25 separate images of trees are presented, unframed, in an overlapping arrangement — three rows of three over four rows of four. Though Disney’s original prints have been lost, he made this reproduction possible by documenting the work in miniature, along with other unique “collage” approaches. Another is a vertical self-portrait, in which Disney stands against a brick wall on what appears to be the roof of his apartment on College Street. He gazes directly at the camera with a characteristic expression — both intense and bemused.

He later turned his lens to social subjects as well, seen here in straightforward portraits or intimate scenes of meals shared with friends. In one of Disney’s most intriguing “people” images, though, the human subject is averted from the camera. Squatting in what appears to be an urban plaza, the figure is painting a perfect white circle around himself on the concrete. “The man in the circle was a street performer in New York City,” explains Cohen. But the real focus of Disney’s attention may have been the circle itself — it was a subject he “turned to again and again,” she says. The trust is also offering prints of this photograph for sale.

The third section of Disney’s retrospective displays his ink and watercolor drawings from the 1980s — cyclone-quick scrawls of brushwork on large sheets of paper. He turned to drawing in his later years, frequently using habitués of his corner hangout, Leunig’s Bistro, for his models. Most of the subjects are unrecognizable — here, unlike in his photographs, Disney didn’t make realism his goal. In accompanying text, Jim McGinniss recalls: “He gathered sticks and fashioned brushes out of them — sticks and lengths of jute twine — and began a series of brush paintings that approximated the speed of utterance. This was an extension of the photographs he had completed years before.”

It was as if, Roger Haile suggests, Disney wanted to execute his paintings in roughly the time it took to click a camera. In fact, the artist’s journal reveals his models “stood for about half an hour.” Disney’s ink gestures are quicker still: violent, calligraphic slashes of matte black. With the hindsight of a retrospective, it is easy to imagine that Disney’s aesthetic instincts took on this urgency because he knew, at some deep level, there was not much time left.

Several short videos set up for viewing at the Firehouse document Wes Disney in the early ’80s. This footage is precious to those who knew and loved him. For those who didn’t, and for future generations, the videos provide a rare opportunity to see and hear a gifted artist, with face tanned and blue eyes blazing, when he was vital, articulate and passionate about the works that now hang on the gallery walls.

“The alchemical photographer seeks to find spirit in matter,” Disney once wrote in his journal. “I wish to portray that everything is alive.”