Last Friday I stupidly walked into Redbones looking for an art exhibit. Turns out it was next door at someone’s house and it was packed like a college party. I had to squeeze through the narrow hall ways and hordes of people just to find my way through.
The most endearing aspect of the Change is Good gallery was its effort to appear as another exclusive, sterile white, fine wine kind of exhibit when it actually emitted a strong sense of community and genuine artistic expression.
Gallery owner Michael Ahern understands the difference location can make in terms artistic culture.
“Now Newbury Street is known for its galleries, Davis square is known for its McDonalds. So can you equate Newbury street to Davis Square!? What are you kiddin’ me!? Look, look what we’ve got here! WOW! Ok big big difference.”
The best difference: this gallery is approachable. There was beer, music, the room was animated and full of stories. The work presented in the show created an eclectic body of voices ranging from themes of social and political commentary to intimately personal narratives.
Anya Smolnikova was one of the younger artists with work in the exhibit. She draws on her experience as an immigrant for content.
“This is a piece that’s called Immigrants Lost and Found it’s a study for a larger piece I did that is ten feet by eight feet. It’s a large oil painting. This one is a pile of old trash and leftovers in a Pieter Bruegel landscape. It’s about a memory in immigration and basically anything else you want to put into it.”
“So a lot of people see cities in it which is definitely there. I’m an immigrant, I came from Belarus when I was 12″
“I’ve been thinking a lot about cultural interaction and the way cultural ideals and images and idols just mutate and evolve and especially these days when ideas can travel so quickly across space.”
My favorite of Anya’s pieces was a painting of three boys in a dark messy space smoking cigarettes. I could see her constructive and deconstructive process in the deliberate facial structures contrasting with the more indiscriminate paint strokes of the surrounding space.
“This one is called Troitsa which in Russian means ‘the holy three’ so like the father the son and the holy ghost and I grew up in Belarus with a Russian orthodox kind of upbringing but then Buddhism and Judaism got mixed up into it.”
“This is based on an image I found of these three Russian boys, newspaper boys from the thirties smoking cigarettes outside so then I laid over this Greek youth celebration of immortality.
“And there is Russian graffiti written on the back. One says bullshit and the other says ass which is written all over the walls when I was there especially during the times of elections”
“There really are no elections especially in Belarus the president has been there for the last like fifteen years and it’s called a democracy but it’s not. So this is a country that I left because of that ridiculous contradiction. It’s like the last communist country in Eastern Europe. So I call this an icon.”
Anya’s last two paintings effectively use more primitive styles in order to explore dichotomies within nature.
“This one is basically an image of a sheep as an animal Love Labor and just playing with Marx and tribal marking on it and I’ve looked at a lot of African art but also traditional Russian art, or any traditional art for that matter really has a lot of bold specific marks are put down either on people’s faces or on decorations of houses and stuff like that.”
“Just thinking a lot about how we’re connected to our food sources and how we’re disconnected but we are still connected to it because we are still a tribe that eats food. It’s a huge dichotomy.”
“That’s the last piece I made in 2011 and it’s called a barn dreams of sunsets and it’s made in Vermont. This is a barn at dreams of dusk. And dusk is an important thing too because it is a time between two times that doesn’t last so my whole body of work in Vermont was based on painting the dusk and capture that changing light as it was changing and putting the change into the painting. It never looked the same because I was trying to show the change in the painting.”
Doug Howlett’s conte drawings came from a giant pile of other probably great drawings that were done with a drawing class he taught. Based on the two gorgeous sketches he put up for the show, I wish I could’ve seen more. Also on display was a mask he made out of raw hide that actually freaked me out a little.
“These are probably from the late nineties or early two thousands. Obviously you change but even from one drawing session to another I will change techniques.”
“I can either do all lines or all shading and no lines. These are a combination of the two. I like to switch it up just because I feel like I have to push my boundaries.”
“The mask however is really recent I made that about a month ago. I made it with raw hide. It’s very light and very solid raw hide dog chew. Someone said ‘my dog would like that’ and I said yea he probably would… it’s all natural.”
Next I found the talented Thersa Smith. Smith is a one-hit wonder with the lucky photograph “Romantic Embrace” she snapped on a casual stroll.
“It was taken in Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge just an ordinary everyday camera. An old camera with film, the new ones don’t take good pictures. My son and I drove off and he likes to go on bird walks and at that time last year we were watching an owl that had babies and the mother was in the other tree watching what was going on. And it had snowed a lot and we were riding through it was cold out.”
“I said I got to take a picture of that not knowing what would come out of it. Like in the sky you have a heart up in the blue sky then you have this man embracing her.”
“So when my son Bobby saw it last year even he said you’ve gotta put that in a show or something. I’ve always taken pictures but never thought much of them. When I took the picture I had no idea what else I was going to see and when I got it back I said oh my god look at the blue sky, look at the heart … look at it! Its as if there is a man there embracing her.”
Thersa’s son Bobby Smith aka “Smitty” is a popular guy amongst this group. He is responsible much of the art on display as well as inviting many artists into the exhibit. I met his artwork before I met Smitty: an old cow skull mounted on a rusted steel guitar.
“I lived in New Mexico and I had a great roommate who passed away his name was Will Powers and he turned me on to doing public art. And we used to go hiking sometimes we went to ghost towns found things and made art.”
“We’d sit at the kitchen table drink coffee and early in the morning start making art then go on our way. Well one day I was hiking and I found this skull. I was in New Mexico and wondered off the beaten path and along a stream I found a whole carcass of a dead animal and found a few of them but this one, the skull was in great shape and I thought, this is too beautiful to just leave here. So I put it in my bag.”
“I found this guitar it’s actually made out of steel. And it was in a trash barrel and I’m one of those people if I see something interesting I stop and take the time and think about it. And sure I can play a little steel guitar and put strings on it but I thought of it more as a piece of art and I left it in my back yard to get totally rusted out over a year. And then I took the skull off the dart board and put it on there as a rock and I thought wow that really fits. That is sage and cedar up there. I still have a strong connection to New Mexico.”
What was most impressive to me was the Bison sculpture outside made of random objects Smitty and his friend Nick scrounged up.
“A neighbor of mine gave me an old Harley Davidson gas tank and he said ‘this is broken can you make something from it?’ so we started working on it I had an antler and I stuck it in the gas hole and said it’s a unicorn bison!”
“So then it was up on a post for a year in my yard. Then Mike was having this art show and I was like ‘hey mike I want to make the body for this Bison, can we put it in your yard next to red bones’ and he was like ‘yea that’d be cool you can leave it there all winter.’ And then nick got involved and we built the base and then another week passed and we built the frame out of tables and pvc piping and then we thought let’s throw this rag coat to go on the top.”
“A friend of mine told me that a Bison herd was being sold out from under the Cheyenne River Sioux Indians. And I thought we should make a Bison in honor of them. They’re losing their Bison herd to Capitalism. It sucks.”
“So we made this and we said how much is it for the Bison? We said 25,000 and 20,000 is going to the Cheyenne River Sioux if it sells and we’re keeping 5,000 to bring it out to them.”
Apparently the guys had to roll through Somerville with a giant fake Bison strapped to the top of their jeep. Luckily they were able to catch a shot of the Bison on the car with a camera phone.
“We were by the armory and it got caught on the tree. It took the tree down. We had to get out of there. You know the Armory up on highland Ave? We were behind it and there are these low trees, and it kinda got caught and got smashed into the tree.”
“Nick and I were listening to music and driving and we were like ‘what was that!?’ and bang a tree and ‘oh my god there’s a bison on the roof of this vehicle!’ We just forgot.”
Nick Wyneken co created the Bison with Smitty and submitted a tribal mask into the exhibit.
“I’ve been doing these kind of things since I was a kid. Because where I come from Oakland, in a place called the Emeryville mudflats where the tide would bring in junk everyday”
“When I was a kid I’d go by there and see that people would build sculptures then the tide would take them away.”
“They’d build these great big dragons and Vikings fighting each other, just junk sculptures. The next time you went by it was gone.”
Local musician Asa Brebner of Family Jewels can do much more than play some mean rock guitar. He decorates them.
His sculpture was definitely a crowd favorite because of its size, intricate details and dark nature.
“One of the things I do is I find found objects toys various things. I go to a lot of yard sales flee markets.”
“I try to reflect the refuse of culture. If you arrange items in a way it reflects certain ideas in our culture.”
“It’s like a time line sometimes there’s a lot of pieces I do that make themselves. I did another piece that was smaller than it was Noah’s Arc with the representation of the holocaust because I found cool toy soldiers and barbed wire. I had enough pieces to make it so it had more diversity in the timeline. I had nice 1960s cars. I actually sculpted the world trade center at the top out of wood.”
Danielle Festa’s gorgeous work is less dark and more traditional apart from the fabric she incorporates into her paintings as a 3D effect.
“Most of my work is done from candid shots. I have a sneaky side lens with a mirror. But I like to focus on what people are wearing and what it says about them. I’ve been on this subject matter since 2006 and I figured if I’m bored of it I’ll move on but I have not been bored of it.”
“Everywhere I go I see people that interest me. And I raise the questions: are they wearing it for attention? Are they wearing it to hide or because they have to? There are just so many different elements to what we wear.”
“Every day we have to decide based on who we will be seeing and what it will say about us. Especially because it moves so quickly you have only a second to judge someone really. It happens all the time and we don’t really think about it so I’m just taking a moment to think about it.”
“So I use fabric to kind of pull out that its just fabric. It’s calling attention to the fact that just this material makes such a difference”
“The tie one for example, that’s actually my boyfriend. So sometimes I’ll paint people I know. He had to wear a tie to work one day and he said everybody treated him differently. And he said ‘it’s just a tie it’s so strange’. So it’s called Just a Tie.”
The exhibit was only a one night exhibit but the artwork may still be up for sale. Michael Ahern (firstname.lastname@example.org) is also looking for anyone who is interested in renting out this great space as a gallery.
Photography by Stephanie Goode
(excluding shots of Thersa and the Bull)