By J. Fatima Martins
Attleboro, MA – “A Long-Distance Relationship: The 26.2 Mile Journey” is a hybrid art invitational created to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings and celebrate the social importance of sport running as a unifying community activity. It also reveals human athleticism as a source of personal triumph with greater cultural relevance especially as it relates to gender and ability, and spotlights some ‘firsts’ within the sport, including Eugene Roberts who became the first unofficial wheelchair athlete to complete the Boston Marathon in 1970, crossing the finish line in a hospital-issued wheelchair; and, Robert Louise “Bobbi” Gibb, the first unregistered woman to run the entire Boston Marathon in 1966, as well as Sara Mae Berman, the unofficial women’s winner in the years 1969 through 1971. Women were banned from officially competing in the Boston Marathon until 1972.
Exhibitions of this type that honor and remember historic events and specific individuals present challenges in objectivity because of the emotive and connective aspects. They are difficult to judge as art exhibitions. “A Long-Distance Relationship” offers art with popular purpose; it’s about something real and tangible, and is an amalgamation of local and national historic vignettes, imaginative poetic interpretations and personal expressive voice.
The focal piece of the exhibition is the memorial assemblage “Boston Strong,” a wall tower of 110 running shoes on loan from the Boston City Archives. The exhibition label reads, in part:
“Before you are running shoes from the impromptu Boston Marathon bombings memorial, located first at the police barricade at the intersection of Boylston and Berkeley Streets and later at Copley Square. The memorial took shape almost immediately after the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. Nearly all the 110 running shoes on view contain heartfelt messages of comfort and compassion. All are symbols of strength and solidarity in the face of tragedy. Boston Strong was designed to serve as a tower of hope for all survivors and is respectfully dedicated to all those whose lives were lost or forever changed by this event.”
In its totality, “A Long-Distance Relationship” offers a duality of sympathy and alleviation. There are works that, when placed together, function as thematic duets leading to a natural expansion of the curatorial vision. “A Long-Distance Relationship” was organized by Mim Brooks Fawcett, Attleboro Arts Museum’s executive director and chief curator. Fawcett holds a personal connection to sport running. This fact adds an important layer to the exhibition’s point of view. The goal of the exhibition is “exploring the endurance and strength of distance runner and wheelchair racers.”
The exhibition statement reads: “A Long-Distance Relationship: The 26.2 Mile Journey” is about human potential. The works on view capture the thrill of movement, the breaking of barriers (self-imposed or established by others), and how the strength of the city can help populations heal. The road to the finish line is filled with countless stories that capture the ups and downs of a long-distance relationship.”
1. Michael Alfano’s “Running Wheel,” composed of faux bronze resin, and David A. Lang’s “Straight Eight” mixed media metal and paper work. These two works are kinetic sculptures that evoke the theme of danger and risk inherent in the activity of running. “Running Wheel” is an interactive sculpture depicting 26 realistic legs arranged like spokes. The viewer is invited to spin the sculpture to recreate the blur of running legs. Lang’s “Straight Eight” is a dangerous piece featuring eight school house scissors trying to cut white strips of paper; it’s a work that does not welcome touching and plays with the idea of ‘running with scissors.’
2. Abby Rovaldi’s “My 26.2 Miles,” composed of 20 etchings, and “Virginia Fitzgerald’s” rock tied ribbon dress installation, “Torqued and Tethered,” offer a conversation about struggle and endurance. To create the 20 dark etchings that depict her personal 26.2-mile marathon journey, Rovaldi attached a 5” x 9” zinc plate to the bottom of each of her shoes and walked 2.62 miles to create the aggressive lines necessary for printing. Fitzgerald’s beautiful cream colored ribbon dress in held to the floor with over two dozen found rocks of various sizes and weights arranged into a circle. This piece offers a puzzling shamanistic energy; it’s remarkably graceful and buoyant and yet contains a vexed tonality communicating a women’s struggle to break free from what’s holding her in place — she is twisting upward while fixed in place.
3. Jackie Reeves’ “Come to Light” mixed media drawing on Mylar and John Buron’s “Eugene Roberts” mixed media fabric/wall quilt banner both contain pathos and the power of the figurative form. In Reeves’ drawing, an expressive female nude form is shown running towards or away from an ambiguous place. Reeves wrote that it’s “not a hopeful image. But there is hope. She is emerging from darkness. The fog is lifting and the light is catching her beauty and strength.” In “Eugene Roberts,” Buron features a line drawing in paper and fabric of a hospital wheelchair onto which is an image transfer of a newspaper photograph showing the moment when Roberts fell from his wheelchair at the Boston Marathon in 1970. It’s a powerful image, of which Buron wrote: “My overall intention for this memorial was to offer congratulations in the form of comfort to Eugene, wrapping him in gratitude for breaking open the possibility for athletes with all types of disabilities to participate.”
Other thematic duets of note: Christina Zwart’s “Fearless” combined mixed-media assemblage fabric and repurposed material installation and Jeff Grassie’s “Invincible” mixed media wood sculpture can be read together in offering layered textures, volatile line quality and the feelings of courage, focus, recovery and accomplishment.
Alan Strassman’s “Watching the Marathon #1 & #2,” which photographically documents the Boston Marathon in color, presents a counterpoint to David Lee Black’s artful “The Courage to Begin” and “Imagine You are Winning” black and white photographs that show figures alone yet together, juxtaposed, in the act of play, dancing and running in a tranquil park setting. Strassman and Black have captured serendipitous arrangements which offer the potential for extrapolation and possibility.
Lastly, we have my personal favorite odd duet: Christopher DeRosa’s “1897,” a wood assemblage with an electric lamp, and Ann Strassman’s “Disconnections VIII,” an acrylic on cardboard painting. These two works appear as diametrically opposite to each other but are connected by a remarkable thematic similarity: time and history.
Strassman presents a large-scale dynamic figurative painting on repurposed cardboard, that was a refrigerator box, of contemporary people walking and interacting with each other at the Marathon. It’s a piece that pinpoints a moment, Strassman wrote “Let the paint do its work — form the jackets and the smiles — feel like the event… No metaphors, just the magic of paint.”
In DeRosa’s sculpture, he builds up a gorgeous work of vintage material that began as a factory crate and electrical component. The main motif is a torch — a symbol of harmony and goodwill. The numbers 97 represent 1897, the first year of the Boston Marathon. DeRosa’s sculpture lights the way back to the start line of the Boston Marathon; it’s a reminder that the past and present live together in the objects that we humans leave behind.
(“A Long-Distance Relationship” continues through May 5 at the Attleboro Arts Museum, 86 Park St., Attleboro, Mass. For more information, call (508) 222-2644 or visit attleboroartsmuseum.org.)