Egg as Canvas

Unique Art 360 exhibition at Springfield Museum of Art

Art: Cody Heichel, “Protected From the Elements”, water color

By Paula Johnson

The egg is the primal beginning of everything—we’ve all literally been one. In art history, the egg has always held particular symbolic significance; it’s visual shorthand for new life and nascent potential. It references hope and purity and is a symbol of fertility and the circle of life. In some Asian cultures, the egg is seen as a symbol of luck and wealth. Eggs have particular resonance in the Christian faith where they have become associated with Easter and the resurrection of Jesus. Eggs take on an important role in the Jewish Passover holiday symbolizing sacrifice and loss. There is also an interesting contrast between the soft interior and the protective tough exterior, evoking ideas of protection and hidden secrets.

For Charles Bluestone, eggs did hold a kind of hidden fascination, sparking something in his imagination many years ago that has come to fruition in a most extraordinary way: the exhibition Art 360: Contemporary Art Hatching Across Ohio.

He treated the egg in the same way he would approach painting on watercolor paper, with an incredibly lovely result

Forty-eight ostrich eggs  were given to 48 Ohio artists to interpret in any way they chose. That’s the snapshot explanation for what you’ll see. Charles Bluestone’s amazingly circuitous, lengthy, and serendipitous path to assembling these artists to create the exhibition bears a lot more explanation.

But first, a little background on the intersection of eggs and art. Egg decorating is universal. Just about every culture attaches some significance and creates tradition around combining art with eggs in some way. The oldest eggshells, decorated with engraved hatched patterns, are dated for 60,000 years ago and were found in South Africa. Eastern European cultures, particularly Slavic ones, have a strong tradition of decorating eggs. Most people are familiar with pysanky, the elaborate highly decorative eggs made in the Ukraine. Persian culture also has a tradition of egg decorating during the spring equinox. (There’s speculation that from this cultural tradition the Christian practice originates.) In Egypt, it is a tradition to decorate boiled eggs during Sham el-Nessim, a non-religious national holiday. The renowned Russian court artist and jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé made exquisitely decorated precious metal and gemstone eggs for members of the Romanov dynasty. Today there’s even an International Egg Art Guild, which promotes the craft of egg artistry.

Breaking the Egg

A lot of what you’ll see in Art 360 has roots in these venerable traditions, with many artists paying homage to and incorporating traditional techniques. However, the influence of some of the eggs can be directly linked to more modern art movements like surrealism. Here’s a partial list of materials and techniques artists used in their pieces: glass, 3D printing, found objects, ceramics, LED lights, encaustic, photo transfer, pen and ink, gauche on fabric, grommets, corn (yes, corn), aluminum pop tops, and beads. Some artists directly reference the egg with playful titles like Rondle West’s “Get Your Head Out of the Sand,” Debra Joyce Dawson’s “Oeuf Couture,” or “Over Easy” by Paul Emory. For others, the egg as “canvas” was incidental. Cody Heichel is an artist who works in watercolor. He treated the egg in the same way he would approach painting on watercolor paper, with an incredibly lovely result. I was taken aback and delighted by the scope of what I saw—the sweeping range and depth of artistic expression that came out of each individual interpretation. So these aren’t your grandma’s Easter eggs, to say the least.

So how did all this hatch? Let’s go back to Charles Bluestone, circa 1990, when he was a young attorney living in Manhattan. Nightly he would walk his dog down East 58th Street through a neighborhood near the East River, where he would gaze through a certain street level apartment window at the interior, specifically at an elegant coffee table display featuring a bowl filled with large ostrich eggs. The image was like a spark and stayed with Bluestone. “I reacted to their beauty and simplicity, that they once housed a living organism,” he says. Later he noticed an Easter display of dyed ostrich eggs at a Whole Foods. He inquired about buying them, and they gave them to him. He continues, “I took them home and tried to scrub the dye off of them, but couldn’t.” The eggs languished in his basement for a year before he thought about transforming them into works of art. “I was on the board of The Ohio Art League, so I was friends with a lot of artists. I approached one and said, ‘Can you paint this?’ He said, ‘Beats the heck out of me.’” They both thought the paint might just slide off. The artist took about eight months to get back to Bluestone with the finished product. “I gave eggs to four or five others, and that was the beginning,” he recounts.

As the eggs were completed, Bluestone had an idea for a small show with maybe 10 eggs and artists. “After about six or seven were finished I ran into someone from the Ohio Arts Council. He loved the idea and suggested I expand to 20 eggs. Through that process, I coincidentally bumped into someone from the Southern Ohio Museum in Portsmouth who invited me to do a show there. I was then offered a four month show at The Columbus Museum of Art, and things really began taking off. I set up some scholarships for students to design a website and an exhibition catalog. The business community stepped up with extensive support to make the exhibition happen. Everyone wanted to be involved—the idea seemed to speak to everyone who heard about it.”

Looking All the Way Around

So the idea to make the exhibit larger meant finding more artists who were up to the challenge of working with an ostrich egg. I asked Bluestone about what that search was like, and specifically what he was looking for. “The challenge for these artists was not only the surface itself but the shape. It’s oval, it’s not two dimensional, the surface wraps completely around, so the image has to come together in some way all the way around. So the artist had to look all the way around, and my challenge was that I had to look all the way around too—around Ohio to find accomplished artists of the highest caliber from everywhere—Toledo, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton [Matt Kish and Amy Kollar Anderson]. And I also wanted a range of people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, ages, and orientations to be involved.” That pretty much explains the long and winding road; 11 years in fact, that precedes the opening of Art 360 at the Springfield Museum.

I spoke with SMoA curator, Erin Shapiro, about the coming exhibition. She had this to say:

“This exhibition truly encapsulates the wealth of diversity and creativity present in the Ohio arts community. While each artist was presented with the same ‘canvas’ their responses vary greatly not only in medium and style, but also in content. This range of ideas and interpretations allows for a multi-faceted viewing experience, and guarantees that every viewer can find a work that speaks to them. This is one of the main reasons we were drawn to exhibiting Art 360 at SMoA—the show has a unique ability to engage and delight viewers of all ages and backgrounds.” Shapiro was particularly excited about the museum’s programming around the exhibit, particularly the Member Egg Invitational at the Chakeres Gallery from Jan. 13, 2018-April 6, 2018. She explains, “We’ve invited SMoA members to create an ovoid piece inspired by the works in Art 360. Artists have been given no stipulations as to medium or size, and we anticipate a great diversity of styles, scales, and themes.”

Dayton Does Eggs

As previously mentioned, two of the artists are from Dayton, Matt Kish and Amy Kollar Anderson. I asked both artists about their experience with creating for the exhibition.

Amy Kollar Anderson: “Chuck contacted me after seeing my work, and I have to admit I was a little apprehensive at first—It was a pretty strange request! I contacted a few artists he mentioned were participating and immediately got on board after talking with them. Working on the egg’s surface was really a challenge. I didn’t know at first exactly what I was going to do or how I would do it. I started playing with a new technique using gel medium and transfer. I made an ink drawing and printed it out, then put the gel medium on it. It became sort of like a decal. I cut it apart and sort of decoupaged it onto the surface of the egg. My original intention was a sort of abstract bird feather theme. But as I worked a face began to appear so it morphed into something completely different. The title of the piece is ‘Marco Pollo’—a play on the Spanish word for chicken. I actually created two eggs. There’s a female version, a companion to the egg in the exhibition. A friend gave me an ostrich egg, so I had one to practice on. I really like them together but only one could be in the show.

It is such an honor to be chosen for this. I’ve been able to attend a few of the museum shows, and what I find so extraordinary is how each display is different, and I see something different each time. I’ve said more than once, ‘Oh, I don’t remember seeing that!’”

Matt Kish: “Chuck Bluestone himself invited me to be a part of this incredible exhibit, which was a real honor for me. Chuck and I met almost by accident at a gallery several years ago, and he’s become not only a great supporter of my work but also a friend. Working on this egg was truly one of the biggest challenges I’ve had as an artist. Typically I work on paper and in two dimensions so even just conceptualizing a work on a curved three-dimensional surface was difficult. I spent some time researching what other artists had done, especially when working on eggs or globes, simply to wrap my head around the possibilities. There is some incredible work out there and I am not sure mine rose to that level, but I am still very proud of what I created.

With my piece, I thought back to my lifelong personal and artistic connection to Herman Melville’s novel ‘Moby Dick’ as well as the tradition of scrimshaw, or etching scenes of sailing and whaling life on the bones and teeth of whales. There is a heavy narrative element to scrimshaw, and I wanted my egg painting to reflect that and to show a scene or a snapshot from my own internal, imagined, sailing life. Once I was able to understand that direction, the execution of the piece came more naturally. My work is, I think, very different from much of what is in the exhibit because it is perhaps rougher, less polished and perhaps even more ‘folky.’ But I think it fits and it really is an incredible honor to be included in a collection of work by so many phenomenal artists.”

Bring Your Chicks

I asked Charles Bluestone what the most important takeaway regarding the whole experience of creating Art 360 was for him. He said immediately it’s been the show’s potential to impact children. “Art can put people off sometimes. The average person spends just eight seconds looking at a piece of art in a museum. I’m even guilty of not really looking at times, and I go to galleries all the time. When children go to museums they often don’t have the understanding of what they’re seeing. But the eggs enchant children! It’s accessible—there is so much for them to discover. I’ve watched them go around each egg multiple times delighting in what they find. This is the kind of show that makes kids want to come back to the museum.”

Going Global 

The egg is the beginning of all things, and like the egg, the more than 11-year journey of this idea is still in the beginning stages of its life. One of the things Charles Bluestone is most excited about is that the show will be traveling overseas. The Columbus Sister Cities Organization is currently making plans for exhibitions in all 10 sister cities across the world. “I will visit a year ahead in each city to find six artists, so there will be six Italian eggs, six Brazilian, six Japanese—so when it all comes back we will have our 48 plus approximately the same number of international artists. All this will be 15 or so years in the making so not only will we be able to see the commonalities and cultural differences, we’ll be able to see the changing artistic influences in the art world over time.” That’s a long time to wait for a show, but if what will be shown at the Springfield Museum is any indication, it will be well worth the wait.

Art 360: Contemporary Art Hatching Across Ohio runs from Nov. 24 through March 18 at the Springfield Museum of Art’s MacGregor Gallery, with an opening reception on Dec. 2 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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