So much in life is timing. Marcee Blackerby was born near the end of World War II, just as the nation was emerging from decades of economic privation, violent struggle, and self-sacrifice. Those who were there remember that time primarily as one of limitless horizons and idealistic optimism. Science, which had brought an end to the warpossibly to all great warsset about bringing an end to diseases that had blighted countless lives: vaccines were dealing with smallpox and polio the way penicillin dealt with infections. But the polio vaccine came three years too late for Blackerby, who contracted a disease that, in addition to its ability to paralyze and deform its victim's bodies, also had an unexpected power, seemingly one left over from the superstitious middle ages, to make its victims pariahs who, if not entirely cast out from society, at least bore the weight of suspicion bordering on paranoia. As if her physical condition didn't challenge a child's socialization sufficiently, she faced the anxiety of parents who, not understanding the mechanism of the disease, or unwilling to risk their own children on that understanding, regarded her as a menace and infected her classmates with their fear.
Blackerby, sentenced as a child to physical isolation in an iron lung -- and to an arguably more pervasive social isolation -- overcame a lifetime of impaired mobility by a sequence of stratagems. Some are as apparent as the wheelchair she uses to get around the handsome, art-filled bungalow on a tree-shaded street in Salt Lake where she lives and works with her husband, painter and sculptor Ric Blackerby. Others are recalled in various self-portraits, where she invokes her days on horseback as a cowgirl or on a chopped Harley as a motorcycle outlaw. Even her years as a hippie |0|
make sense to anyone who remembers seeing missing and bent limbs restored and made straight by their owners' auras: those proofs that, as the contemporary wisdom held, what a person held inside counted for more than what could be seen on the outside.
It may now seem inevitable that Blackerby would find her way to art, but the journey proved arduous just the same. In her mid-thirties, having explored the fringes of American life and culture, she decided it was finally time to seriously pursue her lifelong interest in creative writing. She enrolled in community college classes that she took over and over for six years, honing her poetic and prose skills, and when finally forced to graduate, she began writing a novel. During those years she met and studied with Ron Carlson, who is probably Utah's best-known and most respected contemporary contribution to the national literary scene. Their friendship established a pattern for the way her fellow artists would come to quickly recognize her as one of their own. But a novelist typically works on a single project that demands enormous energy, and so Blackerby's dreams of publishing were dashed when her health suddenly collapsed, requiring open-heart surgery that left her incapable of that kind of sustained effort.
As she battled back towards health, Blackerby found herself a daily witness to an alternative example. Her husband, Ric, is a meticulous craftsman who has developed numerous outlets for his creative drive.|1|
His representational paintings simultaneously mythologize their subjects while they puncture the mythic dimension of traditional painting. One of his sculptures, a bird piloting an airplane, has recently been on display above the sidewalks of downtown Salt Lake. When not working on these substantial works, though, Ric sculpts wearable art and crafts jewelry that encourages as much thought as admiration. It's a simple but real difference between the arts that, where literature rewards sustained effort, visual art works may move forward episodically, not only requiring fallow periods while the paint dries, so to speak, but profiting from being interrupted by other projects or set aside while the unconscious work gets done. Ric's ability to turn from task to task may have showed Marcee a way of working that her fragile health could sustain. While he says, "She started on her own after watching me for thirty years; she just wanted to show me how it could be done," she credits him not only with teaching her the skills of a fine artist, but imbuing her with a sufficiently high standard of craftsmanship.
Beyond the manual practice he taught her, Marcee credits Ric with something more important: protecting her ravaged heart from further, only partly metaphorical damage. Most young would-be artists give up when confronted by the all-but insurmountable rigors of art as vocation. But she says she knew better: "You make money by pursuing your art, getting attention, getting jobs"by which unglamorized term she means commissions"and in the process you get hurt, you get discouraged. But I didn't get my heart broken because first I watched my husband go through it. I knew what to expect." To her classic apprenticeship, learning how even the most ephemeral flights of imagination can benefit from a foundation of solid carpentry, and this lesson in what might be called ego-economics, she added a lifetime of counter-cultural living that gave her a uniquely slant-wise vision of society, and a way of presenting that vision through its artifacts. Just two obstacles, one a matter of stylistic legitimacy and the other more practical, remained in her path to making an art of her own.
Most artists who work in the medium of the box must sooner or later come to grips with the example of Joseph Cornell, the self-taught New York artist who was admired and promoted by the Surrealists. Cornell, who stands beside the likes of Ed Kienholz as originators of Assemblage
, the pivotal 20th century art, may have set the bar for box art too high, simultaneously establishing the medium as legitimate even as he established a standard no one can hope to better. Fortunate for Blackerby, then, that her early art activities took her to Denver, where she met, and again was befriended by, Red Grooms. Grooms, a more demotic figure than the ethereal Cornell, uses found elements in such vignettes of American life as the walk-through, multi-media installation called "Ruckus Manhattan." He builds his assemblages and graphic works from expressionistically distorted reproductions rather than limiting himself to the originals. His example lay much closer to Blackerby's peripheral view of American life, and probably freed her to introduce representational elements to a medium that sometimes feels diminished by the factual identities of its elements. One of Blackerby's early successful pieces, a giant sleeve of French fries made from men's neckties,|2|
showed this willingness of hers to use assembled elements to simultaneously be what they are and play the part of something else.
Because her physical limitations have extended over so much of her life, and because her character has over-ridden them so decisively, it's easy to overlook the particular difficulties that must have stood in Blackerby's pathway to success as an artist. Fortunately, a vision of art as an activity that must be inclusive is fundamental to the project of VSA Arts and Art Access, where she has found a home. So long as art is seen as a market activity, a sport restricted to those who can afford to manipulate its value economically, gifted artists can be prevented from sharing something essential to the health and wellbeing of everyone. For Art Access
director Ruth Lubbers and her staff, helping a polio survivor to participate in the gallery system is an everyday challenge. Blackerby gratefully credits Lubbers with enabling her to bring her private and personal vision to a wider audience. Lubbers, meanwhile, counts as Blackerby's artistic breakthrough a piece that was included in Contours
, an exhibit curated for Art Access by Laura Boardman in the summer of 2007.
For the exhibit Blackerby submitted a large Plexiglas box containing a fantastic scene that seemed to draw equally on circus dreams and bizarre, nightmarish transformations. On a trapeze sits a colorfully dressed figure with three legs, two arms, and two headseach face having a single eyethat casts a shadow on a wall where no wall should be: too close behind to permit the perch to swing.|3|
On the ground nearby, posed in the same ambiguous space, at once shallow and vast, and circled by a ring that could also be the arc of a rainbow, a slender woman in a revealing costume and a winged collar holds aloft like a banner or flag a crow's wing as large as her herself. The work's title, "Searching For the Third Ring," refers to the center ring that differentiates American circus practice from the single ring used elsewhere. To Blackerby, reaching that ring represents the life goal she learned as an isolated child to identify as fitting in or finding ones rightful and fulfilling place. "Everyone," she says, "needs to spend fifteen minutes in there." The theatrical setting connects that idea with our fixation on celebrity, and with Andy Warhol's declaration that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes (or, as the title of this publication suggests, will receive fifteen bytes of recognition).