Stowe’s West Branch Gallery co-founders, sculptor Chris Curtis and calligrapher/painter Tari Swenson, are partners in life and in work. The Stowe couple has collaborated to create art, curate a gallery, and raise a family. A self-taught painter and calligrapher, Tari has been using words as visual images since 1977. She releases her balletic brushstroke gestures onto rice paper, softly pulls oil skylines across canvas horizons, or drafts calligraphic collaborations that are made of or carved in stone. Chris’s majestic sculptures are frequently found as public or privately-owned art in city squares, businesses, parks, and plazas, on school campuses, as well as the lawns of patrons unafraid of sixteen-foot, 16,000 pound prismatic shapes of sinewy stone and silver steel.
“The first significant collaborative piece, except for our two children,” quipped Tari, “was a large calligraphic stone gesture called Hope. It was made following the 9-11 tragedy and the symbolic shape – an open suggestive spiral – was chosen to represent movement forward – nothing stuck or stagnant – and a whole world without end.
“So much of any artistic process is a matter of collaboration,” she continued. “First, the artist collaborates with the materials – paper, ink, brush, canvas, paint. It’s also a collaboration with the artist’s body and mind, along with the universe’s many moments of startling interruptions, such as when you’re mid-brushstroke and the telephone rings. You have to work with that, even though I might be yearning for a world of simplicity and calm. I think that my personal aesthetic and all of my work strives to express that.
“I love the words and work of artist/teacher Robert Henri, author of ‘The Art Spirit.’ He said to look for the spirit line in everything. If you look, it’s always there – the place that the eye is directly drawn to – that line means it’s full of emotion and that’s exactly why it caught your attention; finding that spirit line is collaborative too.”
“I consider the gallery an expression of our creative spirit too. I think it’s important. We collaborate with anyone that comes through the door and I want people who enter our space to feel a sense of calm and uncluttered acceptance. I hope they heave a sigh of relief when they walk through our gallery doors: Ahhh… I think that if they enter and exhale with a few moments of pleasure and relief, then that is the gallery’s spatial spirit line too.”
“Sculpture is different,” said Chris. “To make large public sculptures, you first have to deal with some very practical parameters and collaborators. These initial concerns and partners seem to have little to do with art: zoning boards and committee approvals, weather resistance, budgets, graffiti, weight, strength, permanence. Further, public sculpture can’t be considered an ‘attractive nuisance,’ meaning it can’t appeal or entice people to climb or throw things…and then you consider the process of a committee reviewing 200 proposals in combination with seeking all of the necessary board approvals – it can take a good two years. Public sculpture always has to please a whole lot of people. That’s a lot of collaboration!
“I make a 3-D digital model for these presentations because I think that you have to put something in their hands. People are tactile. Touch is a primal impulse and part of evolution – vision came much later in the evolutionary scheme of things. Blue green algae do not see: they behave in direct response to what they feel and encounter in their environment. Our tactile response to the world is ancient. I like that. I’d say that a great deal of my sculpture and artistic statement is about our place in the world in the context of time. Stone embodies materials one-half a million years old and will be around a long time after we’re all gone. Part of my artistic message is a celebration that we get to be around as sentient beings and human flesh when odds are better that we would just be carbon.”
Chris continues, “I love stones, but I also enjoy the contrast of working with ancient material and archetypal shapes along with newly-engineered materials such as steel or bronze. Some of the modern industrial materials and innovations are exciting because they have very useful attributes that allow me to make very large public pieces: durable, rustproof, non-porous, tough, and much lighter than stone. It helps sculptors to work big. Sculptors love big. Why? Something big happens that is unachievable small. Think of the pyramids. Easter Island. Small… now, think big…AWE! When you contemplate these places and stones and human’s anthropogenic changes to such ancient half a billion-year-old material, it’s incredible. It is an existential fluke that you stand here alongside these monumental ancient stones and breathe the joie de vivre of existence and of being alive. It lends perspective. You become slightly less concerned with this year’s police budget.”
To learn more about Tari and Chris’s collaborations, visit the West Branch Gallery at 17 Town Farm Lane in Stowe, call (802) 253-8942 or go to www.westbranchgallery.com.