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February 9, 2015

One of the first really good self-published books the library bought—in 1997—was by Mel Strawn, “Transitions.” Another was also by Mel, “Drawings,” ten years later. Now, we find him in another fine book—this time as the book designer for “Responding” by Bernice Strawn and Sue Mills.

“Responding” is a lovely idea beautifully done. The book comprises images of sixteen sculptures by B Strawn with accompanying commentary by Sue Mills. The images of the sculpture are works of art themselves. I really enjoyed looking at them.

And if images of sculpture on the page of a book are works of art, then so must be the images in our minds—we participate in the making of art by taking it in and responding to it. The book becomes a manual of how to do this, by invitation and example.

How do B’s sculptures work so well as “paintings,” too? That’s essentially what they become in the book. I think it proves the excellence in composition and color that her sculptures also work as two-dimensional images.

This is telling, and perhaps instructive about how to look at sculpture. I suspect we are often uncertain about how to proceed, and maybe a bit impatient, and then settle our attention on aspects of construction or materials or craftsmanship before moving on.

“Responding” is an invitation to do otherwise, and Sue Mills provides examples of how. Her responses include thematic reflections possibly prompted by the title of a work, as well as more reflexive reactions—responses before the narrative begins.

Narrative is hard to avoid, since it’s how the human mind works. It takes a conscious effort, and practice, to experience any aspect of the world without narrative. I’m not even hinting that it’s something we “should” do in place of something else—just that it’s one approach to try to experience a work of art without privileging narrative (which can be so dominant and will have its say eventually, anyway).

B says upfront, “The artist should resist insisting on only her own interpretation of her work.” Indeed, it is a fact of life for any work of art that it is born and sent out into the world, at which point it is out of the parent-artist’s hands.

For example, there’s not much that Yeats can do about the effect of, say, his poem “The Second Coming” on a modern audience. Or Grant Wood about “American Gothic,” or Monet about “Bridge at Giverny.”

As B says, “When forces in the work seem to be in balance I consider it finished. Then it stands on its own.”

And then the ball is in our court. What shall we do with it?

The sculpture “Wings taking off” does certain things to you: it takes your gaze and moves it by both form and color. For me, it moved my eye from left to right, but who knows?, that could be a matter of culture and habit. But it invites meaning; it invites interpretation.

Sue had two thoughts: one, about fledglings leaving the nest, but then, two, the idea of aging and time advancing, but wait … there’s a third idea of molting and change.

Now that I’ve examined the pictures in detail, I hope to see originals at the Cultureclash reception Saturday at 7:00 p.m.

Both B’s fascinating sculpture and Sue’s responses are good preparation for the library’s 2015 challenge show theme, “Below the Surface.” Check out “Responding” and start considering what to enter in the show.


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