It’s a fool’s errand to put a limit on the number of artists whose work you’d urge people to dash out and see. Once you start naming names, someone will be left out, and that someone will be miffed. But who could possibly, in one story, write about every Arkansas artist who creates work of enduring quality? Especially in a newspaper.
So, for the sake of brevity and the cost of newsprint, I decided to limit myself to writing about five artists whose work, I believe, bears close attention. Why five? I don’t know. Maybe I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold.
To narrow down the field I decided not to write about emerging artists — though one profiled here has not exhibited in Arkansas yet. They aren’t laurel-headed either, like David Bailin or Anita Huffington or George Dombek or Warren Criswell or Robyn Horn. (Or Kevin Kresse or Aj Smith or Marjorie Williams-Smith or V.L. Cox or Evan Lindquist … see how much trouble you can get into when you start to name names?) They are not sculptors, ceramicists or contemporary craftsmen. They are not photographers, though Arkansas has an abundance of terrific photographers. They aren’t conceptual artists — I could have written about Rachel Trusty (her wonderful stuffed baby-faced chicks, for example) or Holly Laws (her dog-tag project) or John Salvest (a huge talent who deserves an entire book for his conceptual work), but didn’t. Other Arkansas artists will have their day in the sunlight this paper beams, but it’s not this day.
Instead, I have chosen five narrative artists. The South (and I’m not saying Arkansas is particularly Southern, but we share some characteristics of our neighbors east and south) has a strong storytelling tradition and the artists I write about here tell stories visually. It doesn’t matter if the viewer can read the artist’s mind; interpretation is welcome. One artist is a slight exception to the narrative theme, but his body of work, scenes of present day Little Rock, is creating a historical narrative that future generations will cherish. Let’s start with him.
John Kushmaul, 42, is well known to, he guesses, 2,000 people who live in and around Little Rock, those moving in the sphere of art and music. That’s too small a number.
Kushmaul has had a studio over Vino’s Brewpub for 16 years, where he turns out often large paintings of what he sees around him: buildings, bridges, the trolley, the River Market district. A fire escape. The skyline. The view of I-630 from Woodrow Street. Things we might consider banal. Thanks to his painterly style, his well-handled colors that may be scumbled here, saturated there, the paintings are not banal. Kushmaul’s not a new kid on the block; he sells one to two paintings a month, he says, and is affiliated with several galleries. He has made a living on his paintings alone, but bookending that time he has worked in television, at KTHV, KARK and FOX 16, sometimes as a producer, sometimes as a weekend assignment editor. He works in TV now because he was “burned out on the crushing poverty” of making a living on art alone. His studio — a true garret encompassing two rooms and a hallway with bad ceilings and worn, ancient linoleum — is packed with paintings in various stages of completion. The black-eyed pea aroma of fermenting hops from Vino’s below fills the rooms where Kushmaul is creating an urban narrative: Little Rock of the late 20th and early 21st century. Some structures he’s painted no longer exist. He is the only painter I can think of who has painted a demonstration at a congressman’s Little Rock office (Blanche Lincoln’s).
Kushmaul says creating a record is not what he’s after. “I’m not trying to create the story of Little Rock in paint,” he says. Nevertheless, he is painting pictures whose appeal to future generations will be more than aesthetic, in the way we enjoy not just the style of Impressionists but the beauty of their period in time.
Kushmaul’s thoughts are as varied as the colors of his palette. He says he’s a “little bit proud” of his work, and pleased that he’s “built a nice little life for myself.” But he professes insecurity and sometimes wonders if he is doing all he should be doing. He worries that he’s poor at promoting his work (he posts few images of his paintings on Facebook and doesn’t maintain a webpage). He is in, he says, “the midst of a great, wonderful failure.” But, Kushmaul adds, “all of life is failure eventually.” Yes, we’ll all shuffle off the mortal coil, but Kushmaul’s paintings will live on.
You can find his work at Gallery 26, the Butler Center Galleries and Stephano’s Fine Art.
When Delita Martin was a child in Conroe, Texas, her grandmother lived with the family, taking care of Martin while her mother worked. While Texana Williams entertained Martin with stories, Martin cut out squares of quilting fabric for her grandmother.
Some of the stories were about a little girl named Luna who lived on the moon. The Luna tales would change with the phases of the moon. As Martin aged, she came to realize that her grandmother’s stories were parables, a way of teaching her about life.
Martin, 41, pays tribute to her grandmother with her series “I Come From Women Who Could Fly,” now on exhibit at the Arts and Science Center in Pine Bluff. The large works mix multiple layers of inked linoleum images; handmade silkscreened papers are sewn to the surface to represent clothing. (Her grandmother taught her the stitch she uses.) The resulting works are complex, beautiful drawings in vibrant color. The series took her a year to complete (and took over the dining room floor, where, absent a big enough press, she stood on the plates to print the works). The exhibition embodies the “magical realism that happened to me as a child. … I’ve pieced together the stories like she [her grandmother] pieced together the quilts.” And because the time spent with her grandmother was often at night, many of the works “have a blue, evening quality,” the artist said.
One day after school when Martin was only 12, her father, a painter and carpenter, met her, packed up her drawings between two pieces of heavy paper — “a sad portfolio,” she described it — and drove her to Texas Southern University in Houston to meet famed African-American muralist John Biggers, who founded Texas Southern’s art department. “John Biggers gave me my first critique,” Martin said, smiling. She was thrilled to see Biggers’ images of African-American women. They were “wearing head scarves … like crowns. It wasn’t this mammy image,” but dignified, and it was something she had not seen before, she said. Biggers was “very animated,” praising her style and giving her advice she took to heart: “Do not ever miss an opportunity to uplift your people through your work.”
You can find Martin’s work at Boswell-Mourot Fine Art.
Guy Bell, 34, is a mostly self-taught artist who always enjoyed drawing and painting — T-shirts in high school and political cartoons at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He began to get serious, however, when someone put a gun to his head — literally — several years ago. It was a home invasion, a case of mistaken identity. One of the intruders aimed at Bell’s head and pulled the trigger. “The gun didn’t go off,” Bell said. “It was a turning point” in his career as an artist. “Over the next year I got my act together.” His first painting after the experience was an oil he calls “Solitude,” depicting a man walking away from a chair and a nearby skull and into the horizon. Bell has worked for a wine distributer and for UPS and other odd jobs; but he quit all that about a month ago to devote his time to painting. His formal training is limited to a couple of classes he took from neo-Renaissance artist Stephen Cefalo on mixing paint. Much of his work is what he calls “idealized landscapes” —not actually of real places — in which a bit of the always man-made intrudes, usually in the form of cell towers or other towers affixed with blinking lights — commenting on the loss of untouched nature. Not all of his work is narrative — though his dogs in the back of pickup trucks, the motion indicated by the dog’s flying ears, are a scene from our Arkansas story. And some of his narratives are hidden: He writes words into the underpainted layers, words he said he’d “better not” reveal. We’ll leave that to future restoration workers.
“Mostly I like showing a moment in dreams … the place between conscious and unconscious” where the impossible and the real coexist. He is a talented colorist, his skies pink and blue and orange, and he sees in his work an element of abstraction (a good example: “Hillside Vineyard,” in which a pink and aqua sky is separated from deep blue-green red fields below by a garish complementary horizon of orange and blue — a Rothko-like division of the picture plane into three).
Bell got a berth at Greg Thompson Fine Art by approaching painter William Dunlap after a talk Dunlap, also represented by Thompson, gave at the Arts Center. Bell showed Dunlap pictures of his work on his cell phone. Did the trick.
Neal Harrington, 40, and his wife, Tammy, “like a couple of geniuses,” he said, got the same graduate degrees — in art, from Wichita State University in Kansas — but lucked out. Neither had to give up art to maintain the marriage: Arkansas colleges had a place for both. He’s at Arkansas Tech and she’s at University of the Ozarks. Neal Harrington is a printmaker, using both linoleum and woodcuts, and his style is exaggerated and linear, jumping off from graphic art into fine art. As an undergraduate, he wanted to do cartoons, which he said was a “dirty word” when he went to college. “It was kind of a scarlet letter.” You can still see influences of R Crumb in his narrative series, such as his “Hard Working Man” and “Bootlegger Series.” If you went to the 2013 Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center, you saw a work from the Bootlegger series, “Snake Shaker’s Shack,” and two of what he calls his “giant naked ladies.” (“The Abduction of Europa” is 89 by 48 inches. Like Delita Martin, Harrington has to improvise to work big: He created a 400-pound drum by pouring seven bags of Quikcrete into a cardboard tube used for footings. He rolls his prints out on his basement floor.)
When you go to the 2014 Delta, you’ll see another Harrington, the 32-by-24-inch woodcut and India ink wash “Delta Oracle.” The oracle is a nude woman rising from a fiery still; the bootlegger has been knocked back by the vision. Nudes, stunned men — is this what Warren Criswell’s work would look like if he took to making woodcuts? “He’s a hero of mine,” Harrington said, if not a muse, and Harrington said he’s careful not to look at his stuff, which he described as “a lot of ladies doing supernatural” things. (Harrington and Criswell are friends and fellow members of the Arkansas Printmaking Society.) Harrington’s work can be played to music — American roots, Preservation Hall jazz, bluegrass, murder ballads. “I want to bring this visually to people,” Harrington said, by portraying “the human condition — just being alive, the love and hate in those songs, jealousy, drinking, fornicatin’ — I want my art to be a visual representation of the music.”
Cantrell Gallery represents Harrington.
Grace Mikell Ramsey
As a 29-year-old who has not exhibited in Arkansas before, Grace Ramsey might be called an “emerging” artist, except for the fact that she has emerged elsewhere, in Louisiana, where she got her MFA from Tulane University, and Alabama, where she has also exhibited. She was one of 15 national artists in 2012 to receive the Joan Mitchell Foundation MFA Grant Award of $15,000. Ramsey moved to Arkansas in 2012 with her husband, David (who writes for the Arkansas Times); she now teaches at the Arkansas Arts Center. Her work — flat, hard-edged and edgy — employs a highly symbolic, fantasy narrative for the viewers to work out. Raised Southern Baptist, Ramsey thought religion answered all her questions; it “provided me with stories” that explained life. But she lost her faith and then “I had to figure out new stories,” which she expresses with her art. On a three-month “art tour” of Europe, Ramsey found herself drawn to early Renaissance paintings about martyrs — “so gruesome and so powerful” — including depictions of the tortured St. Agatha, holding her breasts on a plate. That inspired Ramsey’s painting of a woman seated at a table across from her infant; her severed breast lies on a plate. For Ramsey, the work expresses a fear of motherhood, which, to a lesser degree than poor Agatha, involves a bit of martyrdom. Others have seen it as a portrayal of the pain of breastfeeding. “That’s what I love with narrative work,” Ramsey said. People bring their own stories to it. Another of Ramsey’s paintings, of a woman seated on a couch beside the severed head of a unicorn, its blood seeping into a corner of her dress, could be read as the death of girlhood dreams. But in either case — severed breasts or unicorn head — the work rises above storytelling thanks to the precision of Ramsey’s line, her unusual palette, and the juxtaposition of flat areas, like cutouts, against otherwise normal perspective. “I’m interested in seeing how far I can pull away from reality but retain a sense of reality,” Ramsey said.