Into The Primitive
By Ellen Uzelac
In a farm field at Stepne Manor, Rae Ramos ’13 is gluing a mosaic of corn kernels onto a tree. Nearby, Gary Fenstamaker ’13 has created a semi-circle of tall branches that—if all goes well—will be strung in a few weeks in blue solar-powered lights. And, near the hole she has dug next to a copse of pines, Meghan Budge ’14 is foraging for briars and thorns that will serve as a rooftop for her earth art. She has titled her work “Shelter.”
“This is exciting for me. I have been thinking about this class for three years,” notes Alex Castro, Architect, Exhibition and Book Designer in Residence at Washington College, as he studies the sculptures that are being constructed directly from nature’s canvas. “To me, it’s kind of delicious to see how these students increase their focus, how they adapt, how they change. Often a result is static. This isn’t. This is the creative process.”
The launch in September of the course “Environmental and Public Art Studio”—avant-garde by traditional measures—offers a glimpse of an emerging Washington College initiative advancing the cross-disciplinary study of the creative arts and the environment. Castro and his faculty colleagues have dubbed the initiative “Sandbox” in recognition of the spirit of play at work when we explore beyond the boundaries of the traditional disciplines. (See sidebar.)
When the College acquired the 70-acre Stepne Manor at the edge of downtown Chestertown in 2009, Castro—a proponent and practitioner of environmental art—saw it as “the perfect sandbox.” And it has been just that for Ramos, Fenstamaker, Budge and 10 other students who spent weeks designing and creating sculptures that sprang from their response to the environment around them.
“Some are art majors, some aren’t, it doesn’t matter,” says Castro, who serves on the board of the Maryland Commission on Public Art. “What I’m looking for are almost primitive responses. I really don’t want someone who has developed an aesthetic to the point that they can then take that aesthetic and impose it on nature. It’s just the opposite, really. And I’m learning with them. They know I’m learning; they can sense that. I sense that they are learning. It’s like we’re on a little adventure together.”
Tools in this outdoor classroom include shovels, a saw, hammers, Elmer’s glue and bright yellow CAUTION tape (for Budge’s hole.) It is a creative process, and it is also a physical one. Castro, commenting on Fenstamaker’s piece, observes: “There’s some brute force going on in there. He’s going to make that work and it’s wonderful.” And this, emphatically, from Budge: “I dug a hole. I’m pretty proud of myself.”
No “living project,” as Castro calls it, is immune from threat and it’s no different with this one. Rain, wind, deer, birds and vandalism are all potential adversaries in a natural environment. Who would have thought that Ramos, who filled a backpack with husks of corn his first day out, would return a short time later to find the cornfield had been cut and the primary source of his artwork depleted? As he put it, “Time to rethink.”
And then there is Castro, who in the field and during weekly dialogues in the studio, challenges students to push their boundaries and step out of their comfort zones.
“Part of the learning experience is what you can’t do. There are natural limitations—certainly not limitations to your mind—but to what you can do physically,” he tells the class, parked now in mismatched chairs at the Constance Stuart Larrabee art studio. “It’s great to start out thinking as big as you can. Taking that big idea and scaling it down to what’s possible—that’s a lesson in life. Also, be willing to fail. If you’re not willing to fail, you don’t get to the edge of things.”
In Castro, students have a teacher who has gone to the edge of things in multiple ways himself. As the head of the former Baltimore-based Castro/Arts, Castro directed a studio focused on architecture, museum exhibitions, book design and film. He has designed more than 200 art books, including two for Mikhail Baryshnikov, and he has staged museum exhibitions worldwide.
Castro’s architectural works include two Baltimore landmarks: the award-winning American Visionary Art Museum and the expansion of the Charles Theatre, the city’s art cinema. He also taught painting and printmaking at George Mason University. Currently, Castro is at work designing two wings that will house three new theaters and a restaurant in the Senator Theatre, an iconic Art Deco movie house in Baltimore.
“There’s hardly a thing he hasn’t done,” notes associate professor Donald McColl, who as the former chair of the Department of Art and Art History hired Castro. “The College’s Kohl Gallery wouldn’t be what it is without him. He’s had a hand in every show since the first one. The thing I love about him is that he can talk as well about the latest theories in physics as he can about anything in literature, music or art. He’s created a really interesting atmosphere in the studio where many more kids from other disciplines are coming and working with him than I’ve seen in years.”
As part of the inaugural course, students viewed the environmental art at Adkins Arboretum not far from Chestertown and learned about earth artists like Andy Goldsworthy, Nancy Holt, Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer.
Later, they will weigh in on a hypothetical public art project that has social and historical implications. In this case, the social issue involves the legacy of the Custom House’s original resident, Thomas Ringgold, one of the largest slave traders in the Chesapeake region. Students will be called on to design a park next to Custom House on the Chestertown waterfront that acknowledges that past. Historian Adam Goodheart, who heads the College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, will provide the historical perspective.
But, for now, the focus is on environmental art—a form that Castro likes in part because it has the potential to make students more acutely aware of the environment and, along with that, its fragility.
“What has changed is how art is evolving out of the relationship between man and the environment. There is this new generation of landscape artists who are using their art to draw attention to the planet. They are dealing with our stewardship of the environment and how it impacts society,” Castro says. “Instead of placing a sculpture in a field, they are working within that field to make something much more intentional about nature and the relationship we have with nature.”
During one of the early student outings at Stepne, Castro talks about the impact of light (“We can’t know things without light; it’s important to understand how light will affect what you’re working on) and time (“Especially in environmental art, everything is ephemeral.”)
And underlying all of Castro’s instruction is the importance of the creative process.
“The importance of the work is the doing of the work and not the end result, really. That’s very basic to this,” says Castro, who has a bachelor’s degree in English and Spanish literature from Yale and a master’s in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. “Process is more important than the final work, especially for students because they are learning.”
Midway through the project, Jordan Cannon ’15 sets up a weaving board on a distinctive tree branch that she selected moments ago as her canvas. Next time she is there, she will begin weaving dried magnolia leaves and colored string into a tapestry across the branch. A new twist in Cannon’s thinking: Hidden within the tapestry will be a set of wind chimes. Why? “Walking here today,” she says, “I heard church bells. I heard them but I didn’t know where they were coming from. I couldn’t see them. I liked the idea—sort of a sculpture within a sculpture.”
Gabby Rojas ’13 is digging out a pathway, anchored with small stones, which invites observers into a secluded stand of trees. Ultimately, there will likely be an element as well that draws the eye upward. “I want it to be a place you stumble across that involves both ground and sky,” she notes. “I’m thinking fishing line maybe, and hanging something natural from that. I want to keep it natural.”
And Katie Kaestner ’13 is digging feverishly, carving out holes where she will position branches that are taller than she is. The branches are part of a large-scale sculpture that will include red embroidery thread symbolizing “rakhi,” the thread of love in Indian culture. Kaestner once lived in India.
This work is a departure for Kaestner, who in the past has pursued small-scale designs that are “important” but not “beautiful.” This time, she is going for big and she is going for beautiful.
“This place right here is pretty much my understanding of Chestertown and farms. Just looking for these branches, you really do get into the earth,” Kaestner says. “For the first time, I’m not married to the idea I started out with. I’m going for beautiful this time. I’ve never done anything of this scale; it’s outside my skill set. But Alex thinks I can do it, so I can’t not try.”
Chestertown-based writer Ellen Uzelac is a former West Coast bureau chief and national correspondent for the Baltimore Sun.