Back on December 4, The New York Times’ three top critics announced in print, “The Most Important Moments in Art in 2020.” Apparently, the 44th Waltham Open Studios on November 8 and 9 failed to make the cut. Yet this year’s 12-hour art-schmooze was a virtual first for its audience and artists.
The first Boston artists’ community to host an open studios, back in 1978, Waltham Mills has increasingly competed for visibility and attendance in an environment whose hubbub of commerce and entertainment seems to threaten an awareness of the deeper soul of art. But with the arrival of the coronavirus in March 2020, Waltham Open Studios coordinator Alanna Nelson saw the writing on the wall. There could be no live Open Studios in the coming fall. The only way to outfox the pandemic’s second wave would be to go virtual.
Granted, selling a socially distant equivalent to the artists might be difficult. Nelson says, “This year we had to think hard about what an open studios is for,” Nelson said. “Many artists didn’t want to participate because they knew they wouldn’t be having the contact they craved with people. We needed to create new ways for audience to participate.”
It was pulling teeth to bring the artists around. Their art-making habits had been deeply disrupted by the burdens of the pandemic. Many were avoiding the Covid risks of even semi-public workspaces. Still, over the summer, artists slowly trickled back in to work their studios. Some found ways to retrench while maintaining a practice at home. Not a few found, in their new limitations, new strengths from which they found the courage to get involved.
In the event, the online weekend proved successful. Compared to a live attendance of 2,000 and upwards in previous years, online metrics showed about 1600 viewers watched the live feed programming over the weekend, and at least 2300 visited the multiple formats of website, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. The backbone of the programming was the “Studio Snapshots,” video encounters recorded with 40 artists in their studios by videographer and puppeteer Sarah Nolen, which rolled out twice over the weekend. These were interspersed with the artist’s digital slideshows and still webpages of their images and writings. Live and recorded panel conversations and technical art demonstrations also filled the hours, covering the topics of mixed media art, collaborative puppetry, experimental film-making, creative survival during Covid and community building.
Painter Betty Canick mourned the loss of direct contact with art and with people. “The curtailing of experiences of engaging with art has felt catastrophic,” she said. “In ordinary life, I would go to a lot of galleries, museums and openings. It isn’t the same to look at some symphony orchestra on the computer screen. It isn’t the same to take an art class on the computer. Even though it’s nice to see somebody’s artwork, it isn’t the same.
“People would come in and talk about their own paintings, or their mother wants to paint, or their daughter wants to paint or can I look at something they did. I loved those kinds of things. The next year, I remembered them. One day, the mayor came in. And kids, too. Little kids, they’re an artist.”
Artists with less solitary practices have also suffered. Normally, the filmmakers of the AGX Film Collective in Waltham Mills Building 18 work side-by-side in their production studio, sharing tools and supplies, technical advice and other assistance. Their short, experimental black-and-white films that were screened over the weekend date from before the lockdown. In their group Zoom conversation, we overhead just how essential it has been for them to meet on online platforms in order to stay in touch, share movies and keep their interactions alive.
Sculptor Bobby Vilinsky’s webpage statement narrates how his extended convalescence from back surgery in January, which segued into confinement under Covid, guided him to an unexpected new body of work. Vilinsky spent a lot of time staring out the window of his Cambridge apartment at the bare branches of a tree sandwiched between the rooftops. He noticed how, as he approached, sometimes the tree and sometimes the rooftops became dominant. To study this, he pulled out his little Canon-110 digital camera. The 30 “portraits” he selected from over 600 images attest to the cityscape’s fickle light and moods.
Painter Pat Mattina of Artists West prefaced her page of minimalist square black grids with equally honed poetic language. Her repeated words, “sorrow” and “strength,” frame the reverberating phrase, “I hear my work into existence.”Alternating matte and satin, Mattina’s articulated paint daubs flicker like tiny fish in the gloom.
Light is also an essential vehicle and metaphor for Susan Siefer. She explains to Nolen that the golden gleams in her woven paintings trace back to her work long ago as an art conservator, re-gilding antique frames. Her choice to use gold leaf today, “has to do with the light that comes in and regenerates out. That’s what I want,” she explained. “I just want some light in this world. And if I can give it, that’s great.”
The external forces of intensifying political instability have caused object-maker Kathleen Volp at Lincoln Studios to alter the internal tensions of her scrappy constructions. Her disturbing assemblages of utilitarian structures, geometric forms and toys are funkily hand-formed of wood, wax, polystyrene, clay, cast objects, foam and acrylic mediums.
“After George Floyd, there was this unbelievable vortex of energy that was coming up… like a tornado going through our social structure,” she tells us, adding, “You can’t stay at that point of unbalance between total chaos and total control, it’s a very fine line. Being able to find that state of stability and still joy and excitement, right on the edge, that’s what I hope people can pull away from my work — whether it’s political and social commentary, or whether it’s geometry, that there’s that sense that things are falling apart — or they’re really being held together as tight as they can so they don’t fall apart…”
Marta Kaemmer, whose brilliant hues and strange shapes jump back and forth between her paintings, reliefs and sculptural combines, welcomes the video interview as a reprieve. “It’s been difficult, because I, like many intelligent people in this country, I’ve been getting very depressed lately. I haven’t done Open Studios in three years because I live and work in chaos. So, to clean this up, so lots of people can come through and look at my art? No, it’s just too much for me, normally. This is perfect, because I don’t mind sharing my work and my thoughts. But it’s just difficult to have an open door policy, because it’s a mess in here. And I like it that way!”
Surprisingly, the most important new audience of the virtual Open Studios may be the artists themselves. It’s a well-kept secret that the bustle and opening of boundaries at the Open Studios is a bubble that happens but once a year. For most of the time, the artists in the buildings conserve their privacy and scarce working hours, rarely sharing each other’s work or development. For this reason, painter Liza Bingham observes, “the old Open Studio is a kind of dinosaur. The actual experience for the artist is very myopic. You can’t move away from the four walls of the studio. Here, the walls were opened up. It was more intellectually stimulating, all about talking about things.” Bingham herself has fought the pandemic by recently instituting @doorway_a_gallery, a monthly Covid-responsive micro pop-up exhibition site on the first floor of Building 4 that is visible only through a doorway. The art appears on Instagram after each opening.
As a Waltham resident who maintains a studio in Waltham Mills, Susan Siefer chatted with four other artists in the wider community on the panel talk, “Building Creative Community,” organized by Waltham Cultural Council Chair Elizabeth Moy. They brainstormed on Zoom about bringing art out of the studios by linking window space on Moody Street and Main Street with other public spaces for a public “walk-through” audience. “This is a very creative community,” asserts Siefer. “There’s so much more going on around Waltham. Being more inclusive of a wider sense of community outside of our group in the studio buildings was something we were able to do because of our virtual approach.”
Painter Clare Asch, a planner of this year’s programming, agrees that online expansion can embrace a wider community. “As a virtual open studios, it can go anywhere if we can get the word out to people.” Even seven-year-old puppeteer Myla Nixon-Silberg gets the power of the Open Studios to meld artists and audience in an expansive community. Zoom-chatting on Sarah Nolen’s Puppet Collaboration Station, she informs her puppeteer and educator mother, Tanya Nixon-Silberg (founder of Little Uprisings, a performance group in Jamaica Plain that teaches children about racial justice through music and movement), “Getting your message across” doesn’t have to be very complicated. “You just need an audience and a bunch of people watching, and you just need a few phones to record it, and then kids can watch it over and over and feel the feelings you feel.” Anywhere.
As a final aside, I report on my own weekend contribution in collaboration with Tim Tsang, a Los Angeles music and performance artist. Loth to give up the give and take of human comfort of our Open Studios (even though I’d forsaken my studio since May to putter in my garden), I decided to advertise a virtual drop-in conversation on the second day of Open Studios. Relying on Tim’s technical skills honed in his own time-based practice, we agreed to host our “Garden Party” live for six unscripted hours on Zoom. Our 35 virtual guests were a serendipitous array of academics, artists, art-lovers, philanthropists and philosophers who celebrated and pondered their different takes on the question, “What Makes Your Garden Grow?” The blossoming and butting of ideas in one space got as close as I could imagine to the vibes of a “real Open Studio.” To my mind, it is hardly a done deal, merely a beginning. For many who joined in, it illuminated many points of mutual exploration, common inspiration and delight. Tim and I left hoping it will fertilize new ideas, innovations, and art-making for ourselves and others in the months — perhaps years — to come.
Already looking ahead to 2021, Alanna Nelson is hoping for a return to the familiar live format, while planning more hybrid programming with new content on the new Waltham Open Studios website, novel virtual interactions, and continued “Wider Waltham Artists” involvement. To those who missed the November weekend, she said, “Go to our website! And if you’ve got new ideas, reach out!”
The live stream of 2020 Waltham Open Studios is currently viewable on YouTube. In January, a condensed and sharpened version will appear on the evolving walthamopenstudios.org website.
(Waltham Virtual Open Studios 2020 took place on November 8-9, 2020 and featured artists from the Waltham Mills Artists Association, 144 Moody St., Buildings 4 and 18; Metalwerx Jewelry School and Community Studios, 50 Guinan St.; and Lincoln Studios, 289 Moody St., Waltham, Massachusetts. For details on how to see the visual content tied to the event, visit Walthamopenstudios.org.)