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    October 2009
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Katerskill Cove by Ryan S. Brown
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Exhibition Review: Springville
A Return to Grandeur
The Hudson River Fellowship at Springville Museum of Art
by Ehren Clark

This month the Springville Museum of Art presents the work of the Hudson River Fellowship, a group of artists devoted to investigating the nature of landscape by revisiting the 150-year old artistic tradition of the Hudson River School. The exhibit, which includes work by Utah painter Ryan S. Brown, is a documentary examination of the work of the project in progress: an intensive curriculum allowing the artists to revise and replicate with integrity this first American art tradition.

The Hudson River School is the historical moniker given to the 19th-century artistic movement that centered around Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church and was inspired by the Barbizon school in France and the poetry of American contemporaries Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. They were pre-Impressionistic artists who concentrated on the grandeur of the natural world, with attention to detail and naturalistic coloring. The founders of the first native tradition in painting, these artists were painters of discovery, exploration and settlement of the American frontier. One hundred and fifty years later, the Hudson River Fellowship, started by New York artist Jacob Collins, attempts to "build a new movement of American art, modeling itself after the artistic, social and spiritual values of the Hudson River School Painters." The artists of this new movement are themselves explorers, seeking to reanimate the integrity of landscape painting, revered in the 19th-century for its capacity to express grandeur and sublimity. With full integrity and analytical perspective, the Fellowship has established an academic program to examine the aesthetic fullness of the original movement, whose qualities have not been thoroughly explored since the 19th-century.

Each summer for the past three years the Fellowship has gathered in the Catskills in upstate New York to pursue their common interest: the revival of this 150 year old tradition and its incorporation into the contemporary artistic vernacular. The artists deconstruct principle elements of the original Hudson River School paintings and analyze these elements according to three areas of study to in turn construct the natural aesthetics with the aims of the original School. Field studies, theory, and studio painting are all utilized to arrive at the final result that is hoped to perpetuate a renewed interest and ignite an invigoration and new integrity for landscape painting.

Brown and his fellow students spend a considerable amount of time in the Catskill Mountains in field studies, sketching, drawing, and analyzing natural forms intimately, a methodology whereby these artist working academically hope to capture the fundamentals of the environment. The pencil studies, tonal studies and plein air oil sketches can all be viewed at the Springville Museum. Brown studied at the Florentine Academy and like a Renaissance master, his initial sketches and drawings form an essential element leading to a final result.|1| He is discovering laws of aesthetics that regulate how the original artists of the Hudson River School handled basic principles through myopic articulation of natural elements. In Brown's studies one can see the minutia and baffling detail that he has recreated while sojourning in the Catskills.

The second major component of this New Hudson River School of painting is a rigorous and thoughtful study of theory, enabling these artists not only to see the landforms with their eyes but understand them with their minds. They begin with an intensive art historical study to familiarize them with the manner of the original artists of the Hudson River School. In a very classical manner, the artists learn the essence of what they are seeing. Like an academician who studies Raphael, the artists learn not only surface appearances of form but principles that explain how natural elements are affected by light, perspectival construction, color and tonality. This is not a half-hearted approach to painting: in addition to studying the fundamental scientific principles that compose the forms they are articulating, the painters also receive instruction from professional botanists and geologists.

Evidence of this rigorous and thorough study of nature and theory can be seen in the small scale oil paintings on display at Springville.|2| In one, viewers might see how light pierces the dense foliage of a forest, or in another how the water is rendered to flow in a stream meandering along a rocky path.

A third component of this rigorous course of study is a holistic synthesis of accumulated learning brought into the studio for untold hours of intensive painting. Learned elements are galvanized in large scale canvases to bring together those qualities that have been assiduosly studied. The brush is brought to the canvas and the artist uses the preliminary drawings, the studies, and theory to address compositional factors that will ultimately lead to a final landscape that resonates with the original School. Brown's large scale "Kaaterskill Clove," which greets the visitor at the entrance of the exhibition, is a marvelous compositional experiment that justly calls forth its predecessors.|0| It leads the eye through the painting, adding a sense of volume, opening up the space or closing it off to the viewer's eye.

The visitors to this exhibit will be able to examine all phases of the Fellowship's program of study permitting them to follow the curriculum that leads to the finished product. Preliminary drawings are plentiful and the viewer will find in pencil how the artist challenges aesthetic limitations and finds aesthetic solutions. The show is also replete with small theoretical studies as the viewer sees what the artists saw in the Catskills on a path to discover the means by which Cole or Church may have handled certain aesthetic effect using artistic theory. And finally, in the classical manner, we see monumental compositions.

These painterly techniques establish a higher standard for the artists involved in the project, challenging them through intense effort, to reach a final artistic goal and philosophy. According to the Fellowship, they "will bring together the reawakening enthusiasm for the old American painters, the vigorous but unfocused scene of contemporary landscape painting and the urgent need for a renewed reverence for the land. By bringing back the skills and spirit of the pre-impressionist landscape painters the program will give much needed direction to a new generation of painters."

The Hudson River Fellowship will be on exhibit at the Springville Museum of Art through October 16.

Organization Spotlight: Provo
Traditional Technique

Utah County seems to be the gathering place for students looking to pursue a traditional, academic approach to art. Surprisingly this mustering is the result not of the instructors of the two Universities in the area, but of individual artists setting up their own academies. This approach brings art instruction back to its origins, before it was subsumed into University curricula; and may be a reaction to what is being taught in University art schools.

Provo's Bridge Art Academy, founded in 2008 by artists from Utah and Salt Lake Counties (see our October 2008 edition), continues to expand its programs, with an increased roster of artists visiting to provide workshops. Works by students of the Academy are also on display at the Springville Museum of Art through October 16.

Ryan S. Brown, a member of the Hudson River Fellowship featured above, has opened up his own Academy for art instruction in Provo. The Center for Academic Study and Naturalist Painting (CAS) was launched in January of 2009. To read Brown's opinions on the current state of art education, check out his blog.
Exhibition Review: Park City
Magical Metamorphosis
Nathan Sawaya's Art of the Brick
by Kimberly Rock

A favorite scene from the 1984 Columbia Pictures film Ghostbusters popped into mind at first view of Nathan Sawaya's all-LEGO sculptures. In the movie scene, when the ancient god Gozer, nemesis of the Ghostbusters, arrives, amid storm clouds and lightening, to destroy New York City he super-naturally transforms into whatever a hero first imagines. In Dr. Ray Stantz (played by Dan Akroyd) case it's the Stay Puft Marshmallow man—larger than life. Stantz explains his mental machinations. "I tried to think of the most harmless thing, something I loved from my childhood," he says, ". . . Mr. Stay Puft."

Perhaps it was the way that deep familiarity with the LEGO medium shifted memories, returning me to childhood, when every dream, even movie-like fantasy, seemed possible, when I, like Sawaya and thousands of his fans, spent hours creating with the famous toy bricks.

Maybe it was the magical transformation of the simple and whimsical into giant works, powerful and alive.

Certainly, like Mr. Stay Puft, Nathan Sawaya has undergone a major metamorphosis, from lawyer to artist, allowing him and his mind-blowing LEGO masterworks, to take America by storm.

The artist's exploding popularity has drawn celebrities, including real estate mogul Donald Trump, music stars Pete Wenz and wife Ashlee Simpson, and comedian Stephen Colbert, to collect Sawaya pieces. Along with the famous, hundreds of people from around the globe make commission inquiries every month and pay up to tens of thousands of dollars for each LEGO creation.

Since his first solo show in 2007, at Pennsylvania's Lancaster Museum of Art, Sawaya, with his grand-scale LEGO mosaics and sculptures, including a life-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex and a functioning air conditioner, has met amazing success. His exhibit, The Art of the Brick, featuring 29 of Sawaya's pieces, constructed from nearly one million standard-sized LEGO bricks, has been shown at venues across the United Sates, and is on display at Park City's Kimball Art Center through November 15.

Sawaya's relationship with LEGO toys began in his early boyhood. When he was five, he received his first set as a Christmas gift. Child's-play with the blocks quickly gave way to creative extremes as the blooming artist constructed entire LEGO cities in his parents' home. Skyscrapers rose from rugs, train stations stood beside plant stands, and passion pervaded: a boy and his blocks.

The artist's love of LEGOs stayed true through Sawaya's youth and early adulthood. But rather than pursuing an art degree, Sawaya became a lawyer. "I didn't have faith in my artwork to pursue it full time," he says. "I felt that society expected immediate success; and I turned to law school as a respite." Despite his primary, legal focus, Sawaya took multiple art courses and continuously created during his years as a law student and attorney. "I practiced law for a few years, while honing my artistic skills at night," he explains. "After a long day at the law firm, it was therapeutic to come home and be creative with my hands."

During this time, Sawaya experimented artistically before committing to his favorite medium. Says the artist, "I sculpted with more traditional media, but eventually turned to this toy of my youth and that's when I began to believe in my work enough to leave the law behind."

Art by Nathan Sawaya at Kimball Art Center
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Multiple facets of Sawaya pieces, including his LEGO fixation, reflect the artist's informed, self-examined experience. "Life is all about perspective," he says. "The beauty of using LEGO bricks is that up close one sees many corners, right angles, and lines. There is a cleanliness in the distinct lines and sharp edges. Everything seems to be clearly defined. From a distance, however, one sees something completely different. "Those lines and corners begin to blur into curves and a shape takes form that may not have been seen up close. This is where my art comes from."

Autobiographical energy infuses Sawaya's work. "Often my art is a reenactment of my personal feelings," he says. "I am inspired by my own experiences, emotions and the journeys I am taking. Many of my themes stem from personal struggles as I try to depict my emotional transitions in my sculptures. As I have changed in life, I think my art reflects this metamorphosis."

"I hope I can inspire others to look deep inside and find their own passion," Sawaya says. "I have received emails from some of the children who attended the Kimball Art Center opening [of Art of the Brick] telling me how they have been inspired to create on their own, which is fantastic."

Sawaya's life and work demonstrate the realization of fantastic dreams and magical metamorphoses--even better than the movies.

In conjunction with the Sawaya's exhibit, the Kimball Art Center will host a live Community LEGO Sculpture Building Contest Saturday, October 24, from noon to 5 pm. Finalists, consisting of eight teams of up to four builders each, will compete to create a winning LEGO sculpture in four hours or less. Judges will select three works to be displayed in Kimball's Garage Gallery. The contest is open to anyone in Utah, artists of all ages and abilities. Applications are available from the Kimball Art Center.

Nathan Sawaya's The Art of the Brick shows at Park City's Kimball Art Center through November 15, 2009. Visitors can view his installation weekdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.
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