Ten minutes ago I was supposed to meet photographer Mariah Channing at Barsa, the stylish tapas place on King. I’m working on a project and don’t mind that she’s late- but when my phone rings, and its her, we discover we’ve both arrived early and have been waiting separately. Channing waves across the restaurant, and comes over carrying her laptop and glass of water.
With her winged eye-liner, bow shaped lips, cat-eye glasses and a scattering of tattoos winking out from under her charcoal colored tee, Channing could be one of those mischievous sylphs on the cover of an alternative magazine. Her cameo necklace swings on a long thin silver chain as she sits, looking dreamily distracted, like a cat that’s just woken from a sunlit nap.
“I’ve been working on website stuff all day at the studio. Then I was at the Orange Spot- have you ever tried their cayenne tea?”
“ I haven’t,” I say, and she tells me its to die for.
She places her laptop between us and shows me her photographs.
“This one here, with the magnolias, that was an adventure. I bought this kiddie pool without really thinking about how I was going to make it all work. On the day of the shoot, I had to blow the whole thing up by myself and then run back and forth into the photo room with a pitcher to fill it up before my model came- and all these art students are sitting around outside Redux, sketching away and staring at me, wondering out what I was doing. I picked all the flowers by hand from trees by the side of the road. The model was from Model Mayhem. She was great.”
Channing crosses her hands over the back of her laptop, resting her chin over them with a sigh. “This cameo shape is hard to fit a picture inside. The shape is just so busy to begin with- I think maybe it just doesn’t work. I’m going to move towards using a circle frame. But this one,” she taps a cameo, “was in the Piccolo Spoleto exhibition...”
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Fan whirring peacefully in one corner, the painter Erik Johnson moves around the studio, arranging wax paper palettes for his Monday night painting workshop. He is slender and graceful, with the reflective stillness of a Zen practitioner. Johnson, who is a gallery artist represented by Robert Lange Studios, has been teaching workshops at Redux for “about a year,” he says. “And I just finished up on a mural painting class at a high school. Can you imagine doing that for a class in high school?”
I shake my head, smiling. Johnson has the comfortable immediacy of a person who finds himself at home wherever in the world he goes, but he’s been in Charleston “about 18 years.”
I’m sitting in a plastic chair that is precisely the color of melty orange sherbet, my back to the burlap doors of the two smaller painting studios behind us; Johnson, wearing faded plaid shorts and periwinkle blue shirt, moves back and forth inside the horseshoe of folding tables, adjusting, rearranging.
He says offering this workshop has forced him to clarify his teaching. “I almost feel sorry for my early students,” he says, laughing.
“I met some of my favorite teachers when they were teaching their first class. I think sometimes it can make you more accessible. Because you’re less jaded, more open, maybe. But you say this class has clarified your teaching- what would you say are some of the core tenets to becoming a better painter?”
“Patience. I’ve spend 200 hours on a single painting. A lot of the work I do resembles my students’ in its early stages, but I just push on longer. Monday night classes are three hours long, once a week, for four weeks. And I offer an intermediate class after that for four weeks. But the thing is, a lot of people just keep on taking workshop after workshop. But they also need to paint on their own,” he says. “Working on your own is how you learn what you need to ask in class, so that workshops like this are really valuable. And you can read about painting, too. Independent study, that’s important.”
I scribble this down, then look up for more.
But Johnson shrugs, closing a drawer of paints. “That’s about it. You can teach technique and craft. Experience is really what does it, what makes you a good painter. But its most important that your art says something. And I don’t know that you can teach that.”
“Does your work have a message?”
“Some of it. I do different things, but I have some recurring metaphors. Like goldfish- you know, you look at a goldfish in a bowl. That bowl is its whole world, yet it exists in a much larger world. We all have our own bowls, our own spheres of experience. To me a goldfish is a perfect representative of the individual in the world.” He pulls out his ipad thoughtfully. “I like to put them into different scenarios, these beautiful scenarios, but when you really look at it, you see there’s something there-” he shows me a photorealistic painting of an old fashioned scale, balancing a globe at one end and a fishbowl at the other.
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Things Hollis Hammonds is Obsessed with:
1. Japanese Manga
2. Post Apocalyptic Narratives
3. Superhero Movies
4. Really Bad Action/Armageddon Films.
“I love seeing the explosions,” she says, leaning over the bar counter, peering around and smiling at me. Professor and chair of visual studies at St Edwards University in Austin, Texas: but with her black pageboy, smoke-colored glasses and clear gaze, Hollis Hammonds could be a character in one of her manga adventures.
A mad professor, an evil genius, doing what she can to reimagine the materialistic world.
In real life, Hammonds has 11 full-time faculty members, and “I don’t even know how many part-time members.” Although she teaches three classes a day and for a time also ran a gallery, she shows constantly. She’s had 10 solo shows all around the country just in the past two years. “I tend to be more productive in shorter blocks.”
We’re at Closed for Business on a steamy Sunday- on Mother’s Day, in fact, although as I write this, I realize I neglected to ask her if she has any children. (She doesn’t, although she does have a dog.)
“Can I get something really light and crisp?” she says. “I tend to like Chinese or Japanese beer.” The bartender amiably sets her up with a tulip of Hitachino. I order a Chocolate Rye Porter.
“I have a couple manifestations of the work,” she says. “Primarily, though, I draw. These piles, islands of objects.”
It started in April of 2011, when more than 200 tornadoes broke over the United States in a four day period. Watching coverage, Hammonds became interested in how “we, as viewers, are interested in the aftermath of both man-made and natural disasters.”
Also drawing on the aftermath of the house fire she experienced herself as a teenager, she began making charcoal sketches on white paper: “Dystopian, futuristic, kind of dark but seductive.”
“Destruction is seductive,” I say. “We’re drawn to what destroys us.” Chocolate rye, you’ll be the death of me.
So her work started as “documentation, homage. Of course, now I’ve turned it into this indulgent fascination with materialistic consumption. My father was born in the 1920s, my mother in the 1930s. So they hoarded everything. I mean, we had an entire room dedicated to plastic containers. They could not throw anything away.”
I’ve seen Hoarders. I asked if animal carcasses were ever found amidst the containers.
“That’s the defining line, isn’t it?” Hammonds said.
For the rest of the story, visit the Redux blog.
P.Z. West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is a Library Journal Self-e Selection, winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
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