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Artists Under Glass: Touring UAB’s New Faculty Art Studios

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By Matt Windsor, “UAB MAGAZINE”

Last fall, UAB art faculty packed up their paintbrushes, cameras, and power tools and cruised across campus to new digs—in a former car dealership on UAB’s eastern edge.

The building’s former life as a showroom brings an added wrinkle: Most of the new faculty studios feature massive glass windows facing the street. Many of the artists say they had some hesitancy about being so visible, but the abundant natural light and outdoor views quickly won them over. They also love the fact that their see-through studios help connect them with the surrounding community.

Here, members of the Department of Art and Art History explain how their new studios influence and inspire their work.

Erin Wright

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More than Words: Erin Wright, chair of UAB’s art department and professor of graphic design, creates “social and political artwork” that is exhibited in venues around the world. His posters in particular have won international acclaim and currently are on show in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. He is on display himself in the new studio facility’s corner space, but he doesn’t mind. “When I am working, I get so wrapped up in what I am doing that I don’t even notice,” he says.

The sheer size of his new space aids the creative process, Wright adds. “The studio itself helps me to create art,” he says. “Just being there helps me with inspiration and concentration.”

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Poster Session: Wright’s poster “I’m no racist but…” is currently on display in Washington, D.C., in an exhibition related to the Civil Rights Movement. “The words ‘I’m no racist but…’ are in a gloss varnish on white Rives BFK Heavyweight printmaking paper,” he says. “Then I created a series of custom rubber stamps with coded racist language on them. Viewers will stamp the print, and as the ink from the stamps builds up, the words ‘I’m no racist but…’ will appear.”

Learn more about Wright and see additional examples of his work here

Sonja Rieger

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Point and Shoot: When it comes to work, Sonja Rieger, professor of photography, wants to clear all obstructions from the frame. “I like a clean space unencumbered with the rest of the things in my life so I can really focus,” she says. Rieger keeps her lights and backdrop set up all the time, “so I can just walk in the door and shoot,” she says. “Writers write at the same time every day because their subconscious is working when they are not writing, and when they sit down at their regular time to write, everything comes out. I think the same thing happens with a studio: Your subconscious is working when you are not, and when you walk in the door, the wheels start working.”

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Weather Report: “My most recent body of work, Rally, is a series of 60 x 40 photographs of a Ku Klux Klan rally I attended in 1979, which are paired with photographs of Alabama skies,” Rieger says. “The rally was held on a Sunday night,” she recalls. “I drove with a friend who was too frightened to stay with me; she had grown up with guns and could tell that the rifles the Klan members carried were shotguns and were held upright because they were loaded. Everyone was in full regalia, including children with vanilla ice cream cones.”

Learn more about Rieger and see additional examples of her work here

James Alexander

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Under Pressure: James Alexander, professor of sculpture and ceramics, says the new art studio spaces are “some of the best in the country.” His own studio is used for three purposes: to warehouse materials for future works, to provide space to safely employ  the equipment used to make new works and to store the component elements constructed for past works. But the sounds of construction are not the only sounds that fill the studio.

“I usually have music playing, but the type of music depends on what I’m doing” Alexander says. “If I’m mentally working on a piece I’ll listen to some cool jazz, like Miles Davis. During the construction stage, it’s more John Coltrane or Van Morrison. And if I’m under a lot of pressure to meet a deadline, it’s Eminem that keeps me going.”

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Art in Balance: “Most of my pieces involve the concept of the resolution of forces: chaos and order, tension and compression, or balance and imbalance,” Alexander says (“Equipose Amacord” is shown above). “When I was in college, the Vietnam War was on, so the concept of resolution playing a role in my thinking process may be derived from those collegiate experiences.”

Learn more about Alexander and see additional examples of his work here

Doug Barrett

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Style and Substance: Doug Barrett, assistant professor of graphic design, says he loves “being on the street, with the noises, the vibrations, and the people walking by.” The new facility also helps him bond with the rest of the department, Barrett says. “I really love the studio spaces because they create a community,” he explains. “It’s interesting to see people come and go and see what everyone else is working on. The studios definitely create an energy or vibe that makes you want to go there and do work.”

The natural light streaming in is another bonus, he notes. “You get a real sense of time passing that I think helps with the work.”

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Motion Capture: Barrett’s art follows two tracks. “I am very involved in the ‘Design for Good’ initiative and doing design work for small, underserved communities in the area,” which often results in pieces such as brochures or design documents that are used for grant-writing purposes, he explains. Recent examples include projects with Alabama’s Bibb County, the Cahaba River Society, and the East Alabama Tourism Commission.

“The second track is what people typically see in the studio,” Barrett adds. “I have always been very fascinated with how public spaces get constructed, specifically how things like signage, billboards, and graffiti point to the visual culture embedded in our surroundings.”

Learn more about Barrett and see additional examples of his work here

Douglas Baulos

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Spell Binding: The work of Douglas Baulos, assistant professor of drawing and bookmaking, is composed of “myriad layers of media, ideas, and associations,” he says. “I assemble and harness my feelings and my reflections on historical and autobiographical events by creating book objects and paintings that have the aura of those emotions imprinted on their surfaces. I begin with fragmented images, ideas, and materials, and layer seemingly dissimilar elements that trigger associations in complex combinations.”

The new studio space includes a key ingredient, Baulos says: plenty of shelves. “I keep lots of things around that are pure inspirations—a jar of wishbones, old spools of thread, and old bottles with sorted collections of fossils, antique needles, rusted parts, and more.”

Even though his work is intensely personal, Baulos says he enjoys his large windows. “It’s liberating to have a studio with sidewalk views,” he says. “It’s a much-needed light source for me, since I draw—and it allows 24-hour viewing by friends and the community.”

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Putting It All Together: “Most of my recent work reflects a multitude of interests, including body posture, meditation, vision, medical illustration, and spirituality,” Baulos says. “The process of piecing together an image is a kind of meditative exercise for me, having as much to do with duration as physical texture. I see it as a function of time, like the idea of chanting. I want to personify intangible experiences and feelings and make them tangible for my audience.  The figurative nature of some of my works stresses the idea of transformation and recovery over victimization. I’m interested in forms and images that accompany the body and in the traces the body leaves: a bed, a coffin, a funeral urn, and shadows.”

Learn more about Baulos and see additional examples of his work here

Christopher Lowther

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Burn, Baby Burn: Christopher Lowther, assistant professor of time-based media, is dividing his new space to carve out a darkroom “where I can develop my own Super 8 and 16 millimeter movie film,” he says. This will come in handy for his latest project, a series based in part on director Irwin Allen’s disaster films of the 1970s, such as The Towering Inferno.

The rest of Lowther’s studio isn’t dark at all. “The idea of ‘play’ and ‘fun’ are important to me when I’m working, and my space reflects this via vintage animation and visual toys that I’ve found on eBay,” he says.

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Disaster Waiting to Happen: Lowther’s new series, titled “New World Disorder: Disaster and Desire,” explores not only Irwin Allen’s disaster films, but also “the positive aspects of disaster” and “personal disaster in people’s lives and the way we use the metaphor of disaster to talk about this—saying that your ‘relationship is on the rocks,’ or you are having a ‘personal meltdown,’” Lowther says.

“The content of the project will be exhibited inside old clocks, vintage filmstrip viewers, and slide equipment from the ’60s and ’70s,” he adds.

Learn more about Lowther and see additional examples of his work here

John Powers

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Under the Influence: John Powers, assistant professor of sculpture, has many irons in the fire. “I am currently in the design phases for several large kinetic pieces while working simultaneously on a number of small cast and carved objects that explore the melding of Japanese Buddhist iconography with first-generation Nintendo video game characters,” he says. “I am also working on an ongoing series of abstract drawing and video projections.”

Working in so many different media “means I have a variety of tools around to accommodate different processes,” Powers says. “These range from a computer and video camera to power equipment and hand tools.”

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Field Work: Powers has created several kinetic sculptures that impress as both artistic statements and as mechanical marvels. “Field of Reeds” (above – click here for video) sways hypnotically, emitting a plaintive sound reminiscent of whale calls. “The allure of the unattainable and the passage of time have become central to my work, encouraging the inclusion of sound and motion as compositional elements,” Powers says.

Learn more about Powers and see additional examples of his work here

Derek Cracco

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In the Swim: “At first, it was a bit like making art in a fish bowl, but now it doesn’t bother me,” says Derek Cracco, associate professor of printmaking, of his window-filled studio. The “abundance of natural light and having clean, dust-free workspace” helped Cracco overcome his initial reservations. So did the ready access to “active and engaging colleagues.”

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Romance Language: “My works use collaged ephemera, such as romance novels, 1950s pinups, and men’s health magazines to explore society’s fantasies and fascination with romance,” Cracco says. “The imagery challenges the viewer to consider the ideals promoted by these pulp publications, and to compare them with the realities of their own lives and the concepts of romantic love.”

Learn more about Cracco and see additional examples of his work here

Gary Chapman

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Going the Distance: For Gary Chapman, professor of painting and drawing, the foremost benefit of his new space is scale. “I work on many pieces at one time, and having the ability to stand back from the work in progress and evaluate the work collectively is invaluable,” he says. And “having moved from a second-floor space to a ground-floor studio with a garage door has made loading the large-scale work safer and much easier.”

Chapman also says he values the fact that “my colleagues are so close by for support, critical feedback, and friendly exchange,” all of which “brings an additional energy to the environment that is palpable.”

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Realism Beyond Reality: “Though I make images,” Chapman says, “I am not a camera. I am a realist; however, I am not interested in the simple reproduction of an image. I am interested in a realism that goes beyond pictorial reality and recognizes a broader and deeper understanding of what real means. In this realism, feelings, ideas, and emotions are as tangible as an apple or a face.”  

Learn more about Chapman and see additional examples of his work here

The building’s former life as a showroom brings an added wrinkle: Most of the new faculty studios feature massive glass windows facing the street. Many of the artists say they had some hesitancy about being so visible, but the abundant natural light and outdoor views quickly won them over. They also love the fact that their see-through studios help connect them with the surrounding community. Here, members of the Department of Art and Art History explain how their new studios influence and inspire their work.

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by Suzanne Echols
04.10.2013