By J. Fatima Martins
Lisa Barthelson, who lives in Rutland, Massachusetts, and maintains a studio in Worcester, is a master mixed-media sculptor and printmaker, encaustic artist, experimental photographer and occasional curator and arts administrator. She is an Artscope Magazine favorite who has been mentioned and discussed in several past essays and was the feature, along with Carrie Crane, in a review of their collaborative exhibition “Here, Now” (2011).
Barthelson is now at a transitional point: having left the “emerging artist” stage long ago, she’s getting comfortable being within the “established artist” domain. Right now, she’s participating in five New England exhibitions — listed here at the end of the interview section.
In one of her most recent emails to me, Barthelson wrote a casually wise send off that captured poignantly the purpose of art making. Her words highlight why we do what we do: our work is legacy making; time moves quickly and experiences are fleeing. This is what she wrote: “My Nebraska time is rushing by, wow, seems like the older I get, the faster is goes. Off I go, back to the studio, so much to do!”
At the time of this writing, Barthelson was deeply engaged in finishing the last week of a residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts (KHN) in historic Nebraska City, Nebraska (Tree City — home of Arbor Day; childhood home of Joy Morton, founder of Morton Salt; population less than 8000; and situated on the eastern bank of the Missouri River in Southeast Nebraska).
KHN offers one of the best artist-residencies in the country attracting high caliber artists. While at KHN one of Barthelson’s fellow residents, the brilliant, Andrew Hladsky, a visual artist from London, Great Britain who works with mixed-media 3D painting – construction, was accepted into the exclusive and private artists’ community and home, Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York.
KHN has accumulated an important permanent collection of contemporary visual art (along with literary works, manuscripts, recordings and musical compositions) donated by artist-residents, which is on view throughout the facility. The visual collection is available as a traveling exhibition, as well. For more information visit KHN’s webpage: www.khncenterforthearts.org.
On permanent exhibition now, in the public areas near the main gallery space, is work by several artists who were, at the time of their residencies, from New England. I was able to view Abshalom Jac Lahav (Brookline, Massachusetts), 2004; Jake Galle, (Bowdoinham, Maine, 2007); and Shelby Head, (Madison, Connecticut, 2005).
Prior to KHN, Barthelson completed residencies at PLAYA, Summer Lake, Oregon (2014) and Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, Vermont (2013).
The purpose of these residencies is for Barthelson to test out and expand upon a purposeful art-making approach that she’s been building-up over an already long career: “Circle-Round,” her signature motto, personal catch-phrase and concept has blossomed to become her iconography. It functions as an inspirational idea; directive mode of working, and approach to art and life.
“Circle-Round” is a powerful blend of analytical processing of information derived from trusting the unquantifiable, “gut feelings” that rises up from observable data, material gathering and physical interactions with the tangible. Barthelson wanted to know if she could adapt it to diverse environments and situations.
I was privileged to be able to visit with her twice in Nebraska City during residency. One my first visit, in September, she was still acclimating to small-town living and expressed feeling like an outsider. Nevertheless, being the astute and productive artist that she is, she already had a number of prints in progress that reflected upon the Nebraska landscape, hanging in her studio walls available for viewing during a community open house.
The fact that she was able to quickly adjust to a new working environment and produce engaging and experimental images is testament to her incredible creative talent, skill, focus, maturity and confidence. She made it a point to tell me that to get things done, you’ve got to get to work and experiment; you can’t wait for that perfect inspirational moment, and — mistakes happen. When I arrived for my second visit Barthelson had another grouping that she was still processing and constructing.
The unfinished compositions are of two types: the horizontal prints evoke the grasslands of the prairie environment at ground lever; while the vertical prints suggest the man and woman-made geometric agricultural structures that have transformed the prairie topography into farmland. The color of the patchwork quilt-like aerial views reflects the atmosphere, tone and history of Middle America.
Following my intuition that Barthelson and I would talk in ever-expansive circles branching out into web-like tangents (we know many of the same people, and therefore, had a considerable amount of catching-up and circling-around to do), I emailed her “Three Questions” in advance of my second visit to direct our conversation. She emailed me her answers — presented here in the manner in which she wrote them with slight editing for clarity.
FATIMA MARTINS: WHAT NEW MATERIALS AND EXPERIENCES INSPIRE THE NEBRASKA COMPOSITIONS?
Lisa Barthelson: My historic connection to the landscape via family homesteading and farming roots; viewing Nebraska’s unfamiliar Midwestern landscape from above, and while walking and moving within; a personal response to the Nebraska landscape and community as a ‘throwback,’ reminiscent of my 1950s/’60s post World War II small town upbringing. In the effort and desire to develop the ability to work and print anywhere in the world, I experiment with the development of a portable art practice built upon simple basic nontoxic art materials, including gelatin plate printmaking, in combination with the incorporation of onsite found materials such as packaging and vegetative debris.
ANY PLANS TO EXHIBIT THE NEW WORK? (NOTE: AT THE TIME OF THIS INTERVIEW ALL WORK WAS IN-PROGRESS AND THE PHOTO PUBLISHED HERE REFLECTS TRANSITION NOT COMPLETION.)
The first pieces will be included in Fountain Street Fine Art’s Small Work Showcase that takes place from October 29 to January 10, 2016. I consider much of the current work to be ’starts,’ or work that will be reviewed, reconsidered and completed when I return to New England. With a bit of time and distance I’ll reassess; layering, editing, reconfiguring to create the Nebraska inspired body of work’s final compositions.
WHAT DID YOU HAVE FOR BREAKFAST THIS MORNING?
I’m making art in Middle America, so I started the day with a bowl of cold cereal and milk, in combo with my New England ‘go to’: fruit and nuts, and a big mug of hot strong coffee, breakfast of champions and jet fuel to wake up, and get my ass in gear and to the studio.
Barthelson’s work can be seen at these exhibitions:
Obsession, juried by Kristin Street, from September 17 through October 29, 2015 at the Pawtucket Arts Collaborative, PAC Mill Gallery, 560 Mineral Spring Ave., Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
The Art of Science, The Science of Art, juried by Nick Capasso, from October 22 through December 3, 2015 at the Mary Cosgrove Dolphin Gallery, Worcester State University, 486 Chandler St., Worcester, Mass. Opening reception on Thursday, October 22 from 5-7 p.m.
19th Annual International Art Fair from October 22-25, 2015 at the Fountain Street Fine Art booth at the Cyclorama, 539 Tremont St., Boston, Mass.
Small Work Showcase from October 29, 2015 through January 10, 2016 at Fountain Street Fine Art, 59 Fountain St., Framingham, Mass.