A Soaring Assymetry: 4 Questions for Bruce Blanchette

Most of the pieces in Bruce Blanchette’s exhibition now at AVA are wall-mounted, yet you feel you’re looking downward on them. And you may waver between calling it collage or painting or sculpture.

Blanchette, one of AVA’s 2017 Juried Award Winners and whose work is up in the The Clifford B. West Gallery until August 24, renders the experience of an aerial view—of what could be cityscapes or cracked earth—in three-dimensional depth, forcing us out of conventional ways of interacting not just with art but with the world.

We asked Blanchette to let us into his process and singular point of view.

Tell us about aerial landscapes in your work. Whether it appears we’re looking down from great heights upon wending rivers or ancient symmetrical cities or cracked earth, where does this fascination come from?

Bruce Blanchette: We live today with technology that pervades every aspect of how we see the world. What was once unknowable, like viewing our planet from satellite photos, even the moon, has exposed us to the reality of the living earthly spaceship which provides us with everything we need to survive the hostile environment of the universe. Unfortunately, we have not treated Mother Earth very well in the past couple of centuries and are beginning to see the result of our careless disregard for the environment.

I first became influenced by the photos of David Maisel, which were aerial views of landscapes being ruined by industrial pollution and selfish greed. My 2008 low reliefs were a response to Maisel’s sightings from an airplane, which struck a chord with me. These works were my imaginings that incorporated wallboard compound, sand, adhesives and traditional painting materials to manipulate color and surface. Later, my continued fascination with images taken from space used laser technology to form an accurate topographic mapping of the earth by scientists and archeologists searching for ancient ruins—in the jungles of Central America, in Egypt, and other parts of the world. These new 3-D computer-generated images gave me much to think about.


And I pick up a tension in the fractured symmetry of these pieces. Even in the Glacial series, there’s a tendency toward balance in the riven surface. An even breakage. How do you understand this unusual symmetry—in nature and in your work?  

BB: This is not so much a desire for balance as it is a function of cropping my composition. I look at them as small sections of landscape that I have excised from the surrounding area of photographs, then converted to drawings in ink on panels. It is also my biggest struggle, because I feel some, like the Glacial Series, are too “perfect” and, perhaps, sterile as expressions. Attempting to eliminate the square and rectangular framed format is what I have moved toward in recent modular pieces. It bothered me, probably more than viewers, that my reliefs could so easily be mistaken for paintings… a little too “precious” for my current awareness of possibilities beyond the frame! My task, as I see it lately, is to use more asymmetry as a factor in my conceptual aesthetic.

You’ve said that your process begins with the material in hand, before any idea or concept has taken hold. What aspects of a chosen material do you consider, to give it the potential to be reshaped?

BB: Typically, I choose support materials first, and usually have something in mind beforehand that I want to add to it. I have a lot of experience working with wood or materials adaptable to woodworking techniques and tools. For a number of years, I have found hollow core doors to be a very lightweight and rigid substrate upon which all kinds of media can be applied. Formerly, I used MDF board for this purpose, but it is extremely heavy. Beyond that, almost anything that I can glue, screw, nail, or otherwise affix to the backing opens up creative possibilities for wall hung reliefs.


Your work seems to reside at the intersection of sculpture and canvas, and even slides between two- and three-dimensionality, depending on one’s angle of perspective. Is this a tension you feel yourself negotiating as you create?

BB: Absolutely! The best example of this is the fully three-dimensional “Ground Zero-Altar of the True Path,” which in its original form was a wall hanging maze, and devoid of context. It took me a couple of years, after putting it aside, to realize that it needed to be horizontal, not vertical, after which the concept grew into the piece that resides in the show. However, I am not adverse to reworking any artwork that has, in my mind, unresolved issues which this piece did; engendering a third revision this past year to correct a surface problem that didn’t satisfy me. In this case, the tension was aesthetic rather than structural.


Explore Bruce Blanchette’s exhibit, along with work by fellow Juried Award Winners Helen Shulman and Susan Wilson, at AVA Gallery until August 24.

Summer Starts with a Celebration—and A Lot of Thanks

By Tom Haushalter

The longest day of the year could have gone on forever, as far as we’re concerned.

A golden light and pleasant temps presided over AVA’s second annual Summer Solstice Party on June 21, as more than 150 community members joined us to celebrate several achievements and milestones over the past year, including the first anniversary of the Bente Torjusen West Sculptural Studies Building (affectionately the “Bente Building”) and the generous donors who made it possible.

With food and drink provided by Three Tomatoes Trattoria and Salt hill Pub in Lebanon, partygoers freely explored the Bente Building, moving among works-in-progress in the Kelsey Stone Carving Studio, getting up close to state-of-the-art equipment and live metalworking demos in the welding studio, and mingling on the adjacent open-air Terrace Studio.

Since its opening in Fall 2017, the Bente Building has welcomed 85 students into its new sculptural studies program, and 12 new sculpture instructors have joined AVA’s faculty.

Outside the building, before gathered onlookers struck in awe, ceramic artist David Ernster demonstrated a pottery-making technique called raku, which involves a rapid heating and cooling process that gives the pottery unique and unexpected colors and surface patterning.

Andrew Garthwaite, Chair of AVA’s Board of Directors, took to the microphone to honor and acknowledge the many donors, members, staff, volunteers, bequests and benefactors—“so many moving parts”—that came together to make the Bente Building a reality. The process from start to finish to this one-year anniversary, he said, “embodies AVA’s mission of ‘Branching Out, Deepening Roots’ in the community.”

Board Secretary Jill Mortali highlighted three significant legacy bequests—from the Middleton family, the Hollister Art Trust, and the Leede family—totaling more than $400,000 and going to support capital and operating needs as well as scholarship funding.

Capping off the many causes for applause, AVA Executive Director Trip Anderson publicly thanked the area individuals and organizations who donated equipment and their expertise to the new building. Special acknowledgment was made to the Osgood-Hilles Charitable Trust for donating the Terrace Studio, Bill and Betsy Peabody for the building’s solar panels, and to William Dunn for the lobby where anyone can “Enter and Create.”

A painting by Bill Peabody—an encaustic painting of a sailboat, titled “June”—was presented to the Bente Building’s architect, Stu White, whose other love is sailing.

Before the evening, too, sailed on along a light breeze and conversation, Anderson summed up the occasion with an important call to action: “Help us celebrate AVA’s vital role in our community. Help make Lebanon and the Upper Valley an arts anchor. Help make art part of our everyday life!”

Photos ©Michael Seamans

The Lives of a Mayfly: In Studio with Maggie Kundtz Joseph

By Tom Haushalter

Just through the door of one of AVA’s private artist studios, I find Maggie Kundtz Joseph in front of an oversize canvas adding brisk strokes of a watercolor pencil to a painting.

The studio is flooded with natural light through large windows, overlooking rooftops of historic downtown Lebanon. The high ceiling opens up dimensional possibilities for large works. And the wood floors are as creaky and pliable—as steeped in the history and character of the building—as you would hope. Simple and spacious, the studio naturally inspires.

Occupying this space since 2013, Kundtz Joseph has made it her own—an apparent reflection of the artist’s restless, diversiform vision. The large canvases lean three or four deep against the easel. The walls, too, are nearly floor-to-ceiling in painted works that she has decided, for now, are complete.

Kundtz Joseph’s interests are far from canvas-bound. She shows me a smattering of small sculpture objects placed throughout the studio. “They’re like my inner children,” she says.

The sculptures, a form called assemblage, are composed of various found objects—several include the eerily expressionless heads of miniature ceramic dolls—that Kundtz Joseph has gathered over time. “I know where all these objects come from. I have boxes full of random stuff,” she says. “My kids know it’s not beneath me to show up at the dump to search for interesting things.”

These assemblage, among painted canvases as well as clay-formed vessels and metal sculptures, begin to describe Kundtz Joseph’s resourcefulness and versatility as an artist.

She studied painting and photography at the University of Michigan, but it was for field hockey, in fact, that she was recruited and received a four-year scholarship. Athletics may have competed for her time and attention then, but, she says, “I knew pretty clearly that I was passionate about two things. Field hockey and art.”

After college, Kundtz Joseph traveled a bit before landing in Maine at the Maine Media Workshops and focusing more fully on photography. “Being immersed with the people there was just so great. And I ended up staying in Maine after I got my master’s, which somehow made my parents worry that I was off joining a commune.”

A hunger for more dynamic subject matter led her—and her camera—to New York City, where she was soon navigating the vibrant gallery culture down in SoHo, working as a freelance photographer, and brushing elbows with many of the idols of the art world.

“Ironically, I didn’t make much art in those years,” she says, reflecting on her typically 15-hour work days. “But I really learned the value of hard work, and it was so full of rich, visual experiences and fueled who I was.”

The art happened nevertheless, and something of an artist’s persona also took shape during Kundtz Joseph’s years making photographs in New York.

The alter ego mayfly was born. She explains: “A mayfly lives for two days. It emerges, it doesn’t eat, it reproduces, then it dies. And the life cycle continues. As an artist, I love the idea of impermanence. In a way similar to French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who sought to capture ‘the decisive moment,’ I try to capture those ephemeral moments that dissolve into time.”

She adds, “So much of my art is about transformation and transition, about the circle and completion. And mayfly encompasses all of it.”

Her prevailing themes followed mayfly into motherhood, all the way through her family’s transition, in 2009, to the Upper Valley. But as many artists come to know too well, the demands of raising children can quickly displace any chance at making art. For a period of a few years, her output slowed considerably.

“It wasn’t until my kids were toddlers that I realized, if I don’t make art now, I’ll no longer be me,” she says. “And if I’m not making art, how will they see me? I decided I have to honor and live into my persona, into my art.”

She remembers setting up a little room in her house with an easel. “And I just painted. I started small because I knew time was finite, so I could finish it. I felt like I’d accomplished something.”

Mayfly’s renaissance, let’s call it, has come with a fresh notion of what propels her art. “Now I’m more fed by the process than I am by finishing—or showing—something,” she says.

A studio at AVA has afforded her that luxury of time and space, and pieces need not be complete for mayfly to know progress. Each canvas, each little assemblage is a practice, and it’s done when it’s done.

Being at AVA has even inspired her to branch out beyond the studio. Every week now, mayfly leads toddlers and their caretakers in Community Arts Open Studio (CAOS), and she co-facilitates classes in the Senior Art Program. The great pleasure in teaching, she says, is “providing and nurturing that safe space where you can unfurl the authentic artist within.”

This year, too, she tried welding for the first time. Taking a class in the Sculptural Studies building, she says the new metalworking skills “have opened the possibilities for a number of pieces, which weren’t possible before.”

Taking her journey into account, having “cell-divided a billion times,” several iterations beyond even that restless New Yorker snapping photographs, mayfly feels like she’s just getting started.

“I’m so grateful to be in this space, practicing my art, which has been building up in me for years.”

Student “Art Detectives” Investigate the Masterpieces

By Tom Haushalter

In a class on the art of the tropical rainforest, it makes sense to want to work with a lush, aqueous medium like tempera. What you may not expect a group of fifth-graders to grapple with are notions of perspective and realism in a painting—or the lack thereof.

But Susan Davis Shimko, creator of one of AVA’s newest community outreach programs, called Art Detectives, has kids looking at rainforests—and art in general—in a whole new way.

Drawing on her own experience as an educator and her love of art history, Shimko developed Art Detectives to forge stronger connections between the grade-school curriculum and ideas in art. She schedules special visits to Upper Valley elementary classrooms and discusses with each teacher beforehand what subjects the students are learning. “Then we decide on a subject that lends itself to doing something enriching with art,” she says, “and I look for an artist and a piece of their work to integrate into their learning.”

Those fifth-graders were studying the environment when Shimko arrived one day with a print of Henri Rousseau’s “The Equatorial Jungle.” A lively discussion of rainforests and their importance led to observations about Rousseau’s painting and how it was made. “The class was very interested to learn that Rousseau had never actually been to a rainforest,” she says, “but had drawn his tropical plants from sketches made at the Paris botanical gardens!”

And they learned that Rousseau had such high regard for his raw, natural talent that he never took art lessons—which shows in his paintings’ overall lack of perspective and sophistication. Then out came the tempera paints, and Shimko asked the students to create their own rainforest paintings, following Rousseau’s style.

In another class studying the 1960s Civil Rights movement, Shimko introduced a piece by painter Jacob Lawrence, known for his vivid depictions of African American life.
For another she came with Picasso’s rooster, while the students had been hatching chickens in the classroom. “To be able to connect Picasso with actual chickens makes Picasso that much more engaging.”
Shimko is just as amazed by what the children say about these works of art. “You don’t expect a first-grader to look at a painting and say, ‘This shading makes me feel sad, and I think the artist was feeling like he wanted to show sadness.’”

Adds Shimko, “I tell them that there aren’t right or wrong ways to talk about art. It’s all about their exposure and experience of it, and I hope they begin to look at museums and AVA as places they aren’t afraid to visit.”

On Friday, June 1st, they’ll get their chance to visit AVA—and to find their own art on display. Culminating Shimko’s work with 19 classrooms in five different Upper Valley schools over the past year, the Art Detectives Art Show will feature an astonishing 298 pieces of student art. Visitors can explore the work exhibited throughout the hallways of AVA Gallery.

“It’s amazing that this program has had this level of success,” says Shimko, reflecting on the past year of Art Detectives. “And I’m excited to see how much further it can blossom.”

The Opening Reception is Friday, June 1, 4-6pm. The show is on view until June 9.

Parents and caregivers who are interested in Art Detectives should contact their teachers, and interested teachers should email ArtDetectives@avagallery.org.

Their Powerful Grace: Alysa Bennett’s ‘A Change of Horse’ at AVA Gallery

By Tom Haushalter

This spring, one section of AVA’s main gallery has transcended, you could say, into a paddock, and in it the majestic and meticulous representations of artist Alysa Bennett’s horses.

In sculptures formed of shimmering feathers, in chaotic charcoal drawings, and in photographs against the backdrop of Bennett’s father’s ranch in Arizona—the horses on display seem to belie their innate power by their very grace.

But that, Bennett assures us, is the point. To straddle a horse is to perceive both its exquisite contours and marvelous strength, and she finds in that spectrum virtually endless room to roam.

Bennett spoke to us about the versatility of her favorite creatures and their core influence on her work in A Change of Horse, her exhibition that runs at AVA through May 25.

What is it about horses—in your life, in your artist’s eye—that makes them an inexhaustible source of inspiration?

Bennett: Horses got under my skin early. As a kid, summers at my dad’s California cattle ranch, I could ride all day alone or with him. I would crawl all over my old paint mare, put tassels on her bridle, pretend she was some elegant Arabian. And I rode bareback often, where you feel the warmth of the skin and the muscles moving under you. I would run my hands over her, moving with the direction of her hair, smelling her all the while. It stays with you for your life.

I studied and then chose to be a figurative artist, but after a while I needed a subject that I had a passion for—and horses came back to me when Dad bought a ranch in Arizona. I spent much time there, and horses were abundant and close. I watched them as they played and interacted with each other, and I drew them all the time.

Horses have the ability to convey all the same emotions that people have, with their body language and the look in their eyes. That is what keeps them such a compelling subject for me. I try to make that come through by being true to both their large and small gestures. The possibilities are endless!

Let us into the process of creating the horse sculptures, and how it differs whether you’re working with feathers or straw.

Bennett: I first started making the straw sculptures then moved to feathers. For both I make a simple wire armature, fill it out with batting or rags, bend it until the gesture is right, and then wrap it in plaster to make it rigid. THEN I add the feathers ONE at a time.

Making the straw sculptures (though none of these are included in my AVA show), I would soak the straw in a medium by the handfuls and then mold them to follow the direction of the muscles. They were tied down and left to set in place and then refined with scissors. (Like a day at the beauty salon.) Both the feather and the straw sculptures have the delicate stick legs that I forage for in the backyard. They have to have the right turns and angles to represent the hock, knee, or just the angle of the leg.

In your drawings, as in the sculpture, I see a kinetic and formidable creature that is also quite delicate. Is this an equine duality you’re negotiating through your work?

Bennett: So you nailed the duality issue. It has been a major mover for me. Just the fragile legs on such a huge, heavy animal really captures it. In life, their legs are always the first part to get hurt and the hardest to heal. Also, their ability to use their strength at will, being a powerhouse under you one minute and then a gentle giant for a child the next—part of that duality and always one of the more intriguing aspects of life.

The kinetics of the horse I address a little more in the drawings. I started by using the chaos of the straw on the studio floor as an inspiration. Just as I tried to create form from chaos in the sculptures, I did the same with the drawings. Starting with a random stroke, then another, then seeing the horse and coaxing it out of the chaos of line. And, of course, going for the gesture. That really is the “overriding” challenge. If I can get that right then I feel I have satisfied my deep connection with horses and humans alike.