Thursday, April 12, 2007

Art Space Talk: Jerry Monteith

I recently interviewed artist Jerry Monteith. Mr. Monteith is the head of the Sculpture program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He received his MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1978.

Mr. Monteith's mixed media installations and works in wood have been widely exhibited, with images and reviews in Sculpture magazine and in the New Art Examiner. Large-scale interactive works have been included in sculpture tours and exhibitions throughout the country.

Mr. Monteith was awarded a Ucross Foundation Fellowship in 1996 and was commissioned by the Bi-State Development Agency’s Arts-in-Transit Program in St. Louis to produce Community Building, a permanent work, in 1999.

Q. When did you first discover that art would be an important part of your adult life?

A."When I arrived at UNC, Chapel Hill in 1969, I made a conscious effort to open up my way of thinking. The very first studio classes I took in the art department- drawing, probably- opened my eyes to possibilities I had not been exposed to. Before long, my notion of what might constitue art and the purpose, or role that art fulfilled, changed forever. That was when I realized I would always make art."

Q. How has society influenced your art? Are there any social implications in your art?

A. "One of the first fully developed series of work I did dealt with access to social systems. As I had just graduated with my MFA, my main concern was to become connected to a support system that would provide a modicum of reward for my efforts in the studio. This proved quite a bit more difficult than I had imagined, since art departments everywhere were overloaded and the market seemed flooded with people of my gender/racial category.

The baffling and often contradictory nature of systems, whether the job market or the telephone company seemed to supply a never ending source of subject matter to mine. My investigation of these things took the form of seemingly self-defeating mechanisms that were hand or foot-operated.

Most recently, the realization that a change is necessary if the human race is to continue to inhabit a rich and healthy environment is at the core of my practice. Until we are willing to value the things that support life over those that support deep pockets, I believe we are doomed.

I use wood that would otherwise be burned or left to rot in the effort to reassert its inherrent value and reestablish the non-human-made environment as the ultimate paradigm. As long as humans pay more attention to technology, money and living the life of ease, there will be little gain on the problems we face because of our diminishing attention to our natural environment. These are trully life and death issues."

Q. On average, how long does it take you to create a piece?

A."It varies greatly. Last year I finished a piece I had worked on for three years. I started planning it over twenty years ago. It had what would definitely be called a long gestation. Otherwise, since I have a full-time job, I'd say about a month. However, I always have several things going on at once, and rarely work from start to finish on on single piece."

Q. Can you share some of your philosophy about art and artistic creation?

A."While I enjoy installation and site work, I am at heart an object-maker. I think this comes across even in the former. I am most satisfied with pieces that require me to solve problems by conceptually and physically manipulating material. By conceptual manipulation, I mean that I have to analyze a material's relative appropriateness, appeal to ways I have used it before and solve problems that will allow me to convey the necessary content structure."

Q. Has your art ever been published?

A. "Yes, I have had work in Sculpture Magazine, a recent text titled, "The Sculpture Reference"by Arthur Williams, The New Art Examiner (now defunct), The Washington Review and newspapers, The Washington Post and the St. Louis Post Dispatch, for example."

Q. What was your most important exhibition? Care to share that experience?

A. "I'd probably demur by saying, "It depends on what context you mean". But generalizing, I'd probably say a show at the Forum For Contemporary Art (now Museum of Conemporary Art St. Louis) in 1995.
First of all, it was a great show in a great space. It was work that allowed me a well-needed breather from more refined and technical work I had been working on for five years. And it had a content structure informed by the recent deaths of two people I knew and loved.

It was called /"Carpenters And Other Good Men"/. My father and closest uncle had died of cancer and it seemed proper to use this as a point of departure for the show at the Forum. I ended up building three components out of common building materials, using basic carpentry skills I had learned from my uncle. Also, two of these components were about my father. One emerged from my memories of his role as a small town barber in western North Carolina. The other was a sculptural description of how I felt shortly after he died.

They were made as a carpenter would make a rocking chair- all of them could be sat in and rocked- in acknowledgement of my uncle, who had made several such chairs I have seen in old family photos. One was based upon the waiting area at my dad's shop, and could be sat and rocked by six or seven people at once. Of course they had to coordinate their efforts, which was the point."

Q. Do you have any 'studio rituals'? As in, do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps to get you in the mood for working? When I'm not working

A. "WhenI clean up and put things back. I listen to a lot of music. Right now I'm listening to classical stuff again, Bartok and Shostakovich, but I like old time stuff very much- anything that has an unproduced sound, the scratchier the better. You can't go wrong with Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams or Townes Van Zandt either. Hillbilly, folk, blues, you name it. Generally, I like stuff that sounds like its been around for a while and seen some miles."

Q. If you could pinpoint the characteristics of people who collect your art, what would they be?

A. "There was a gentleman who bought two or three pieces from the gallery I was with in Washington, DC. He worked at the Museum of American Art, in the library, I think. One of the little devices I mentioned earlier ended up in the collection of a hardware store chain mogul. I even traded one of the latter for root canal work.

I'd like to think anyone could appreciate that my work is made well, and has the capacity to release insight over the long haul. You'd have to be willing to listen, wait and live with sometimes being a fool. I guess people who acknowledge that life is more than a continual upwardly mobile climb might like it. They'd have to be ok with the fact that the beautiful and horrible can coexist."

Q. Discuss one of your pieces. What were you thinking when you created it?

A. "/VA Hospital Story/(image above) concerns a trip to a Veteran's Administration facility during my senior year of high school. A biology teacher carried me and two of my cohorts over there, I think as a lesson of sorts. In one ward was a man in a bed that could be flipped over. Most of his body below the waist was gone. I hadn't realized how accessible and perfectly formed this memory was until I started work on the piece.

I had been working with some walnut I had gathered. Walnut has a very light colored sapwood. When I put some dye on it, I thought, "This looks like an amputated limb." I was planning to save the leather from a pair of shoes I had worn out, and when I put the two pieces together, it made an interesting form, which would accomodate the wood "stump" through the opennings in the shoe halves.

Walnut has a clearly-defined pith that is easily drilled. Enlarging this aperture, I could thread a hanging string through it. Since the thread was too small to "read", I decided to put plastic beads on it. Then the idea of using text beads to spell out two sentences came about.

On one side it says, "His responsibilities were thankfully few. The other reads, "The bed could be turned like a spit." This seemed to capture the unfortunate circumstance of the man in the VA hospital."

Q. Where did you attend school for art? How did it help you as an artist? What can you tell us about the art department that you attended?

A. "MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art, 1978, BFA UNC-Chapel Hill, 1975. Cranbrook was a good decision. It really forced me to ratchet up my thinking and practice to the next notch. It was very competitive. The press of history and significance was palpable. On the other hand, there were certain psycho-social dramas played out that were way over the top. Living off campus in Pontiac, I had a more or less objective perspective. The rarified air could at times make you consider the handicap inherrent in a small gene pool. However, the gritty quality of Pontiac and Detroit provided a nice balance to campus life."

Q. Why did you choose the medium(s) that you use?

A. "There is something basically life-affirming about cutting into a chunk of found timber. Wood is a repository of information documenting a tree's growth and its response to the environment. The sheer amount of information is astounding. Cherry smells almost like wine. Elm is more like single malt scotch. Sassafras tickles the nose with an aroma associated with root beer. The tactile qualities of wood are unmatched by any material. Walnut has a way of growing over injury to produce form that is at once beautiful and quirky. Its grain structure in terms of detail and color is gorgeous. Ultimately, I hope that my work honors the tree it was made of."

Q.Where can we see more of your art?

A. "School of Art & Design website, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Also White Columns Online Curated Artist Registry, NY and"

Q. Are you represented by a gallery? Do you have any upcoming exhibits?
A. "No. Currently showing at i2i Gallery, San Antonio, Texas."

Q. What galleries have you exhibited in?

A. "I showed with Franz Bader Gallery, one of the first contemporary galleries in Washington, DC from 1986 until its closure in 1995. I also showed at Klein Artworks in Chicago. (They also closed recently) I am currently seeking gallery representation."

Q. What trends do you see in the 'art world'?

A. "I don't pay a lot of attention to trends. Most trends I've noticed don't appear relevant or interesting to me. I like H.C. Westermann's remark, "I look around to see what everyone else is doing. Then I do something else.""

Q. Any tips for emerging artists?

A. "Like Leon Golub said at a lecture I attended, "Just stay on the bus.""

Q. Has your work ever been censored? If so, how did you deal with it?

A. "No, but I did get back a packet of slides once with a note that said, "We had trouble with the content." I never understood what they meant, and didn't feel compelled to call and explain it to them."

Q. What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock-bottom?

A. "I had worked for the Washington Project for the Arts in Washington, DC. for 3-4 years and had finally resigned in exhaustion. We did a lot for artists, and I was the preparator. We moved three times and ended up back where we started in a newly rennovated space. It seemed a good time to hang it up. I then worked for a board member rennovating a building he'd bought in a marginal neighborhood in DC. I had applied for a lot of teaching jobs, got some interviews, but basically didn't feel like it was going to happen for me.

Working in a neighborhood where crackheads, whores and teenage shooters walked the streets was depressing. I went back to NC to talk with my uncle, who was sick with cancer, and he offered me his shop. I knew I could learn cabinet-making from him and make a decent living. I really considered moving back home and kissing the art world goodby but something just wouldn't let me. In 6 months I was hired at SIU-C, and here I am today."

Q. In one sentence... why do you create art?

A. "Art is a way of saying, "I was here" and "Here I am"."

Q. What can you tell our readers about the art scene in your area?

A."I live in Carbondale, a small city in Southern Illinois. The art scene revolves around the university and is fairly self-contained."

Q. Has politics ever entered your art?

A. "When Ronald Regan whipped Jimmy Carter, I was so angry that I made a piece titled, "Repubican Crusher" because it seemed that they misused world events and Carter's personality to skewer him."

Q. Does religion, faith, or the lack thereof play a part in your art?

A. "I have often considered the effects of growing up in a rural, Southern Baptist family in the south. On the one hand, it was smothering, but I have lived enough to value many of their accepted truths. In /Word of God/, a blank cartoon word bubble emerges from a mouth-shaped piece of wood. The mouth reminded me of Popeye, who said, "I am what I am and that's all that I am." In the Bible, the name for God, Yahweh, was supposed to translate, "I am that I am." Coincidence?"

Q. Is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the 'art world'?

A. "I don't think so. I've said too much already."

I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Jerry Monteith. Feel free to critique or discuss his work.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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