Saturday, September 4, 2010

Wellsville artist adding to the Albright Knox

Early in my life there was an incident with a bobby pin as a scribble-device. Looking back through 55 years of cobwebbed time, I faintly see varnish dust fly from the broken tip of a black bobby pin. The scribble grew, intertwined and danced with movement and intricacy.

Unfortunately my creativity involved a treasured parlor end table. I remember my mother’s crestfallen face as she rubbed the table top in disbelief and despair.

Many of us likely have early life scribble experiences ranging from achievement to disaster. At the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo scribble lives as noun, verb and art as a team of artists, printmakers and architects scribble over walls bridging the 1905 gallery with the 1962 wing with the installation of the last, the largest and possibly the most intricate of the world’s Sol LeWitt drawings.

Sol LeWitt (1928-2007) created structures, drew, made prints and painted, showing his work at hundreds of solo exhibitions around the world from 1965 onward. He was interested in music, mathematics, architecture, line, process, communication and ideas. Over 1200 of his works were huge, architectural drawings executed by crews as is this Scribble Drawing at the Albright-Knox.

The team working now in Buffalo includes head draftsman Takeshi Arita and 4 assistants from the Sol LeWitt Studio in New York, 2 Albright-Knox Art Handlers and 9 apprentices including librarian/printmaker/mixed media artist Allison Midgley of Wellsville. For 8 weeks the crew will draw millions of layered, chaotic scribbles that will, over time and from a distance, become an ordered, precise drawing covering 2200 square feet.

Now, in week three, the artists enter a scaffold area covered in taped plastic sheets housing ladders. The air, filled with graphite motes – escapees from the process - is forced through a filtration system that drones during work periods. Zippers in the plastic allow entry and exit. Disposable booties over shoes trap some dirt and on either side of entry points sticky floor mats are tattooed with graphite footprints.

The plastic walls defining the work area were constructed weeks ago and the scaffolding held painters who covered the walls with 2 coats of oil based paint and then 5 more of latex – sanding between coats - giving the walls the look and feel of paper.

On the uniform surface, the artists measured out the drawing, masking areas with craft paper and labeling it in white chalk numbers with each number indicating a level of density of line. They had a short lesson in basic scribble technique and started turning graphite into the first of millions of lines. They created flowing curves, sharpening the lead by pulling it against the surface of the wall, bending and turning their hands over the lines, becoming ever more graceful as they worked and received individual coaching.

Like many huge undertakings this is not work for the faint of heart - or arm. They work 6 days a week/ 7 hours a day with lunch and an afternoon break. While at the wall, they are asked to be in the moment with intense concentration. “Be present,” Arita tells them. “Don’t be automatic. Each person is an artist. What you do makes the whole thing work.”

Could they cut the number of drawing hours from the estimated 5,000 if they used brushes? Sprayers? Chalk? Not if they want to accomplish the goal. To give the effect required, the drawing must be of many lines, layered and focused.

The apprentices and draftsmen draw crisp, even, whispers of graphite that build on each other to create the visual roar of millions of butterfly wings. The many lines give the drawing depth so that now, 3 weeks into the project, the densely filled areas look luminous. From one side, they are rich velvet and from another point of view they become huge pipes of burnished steel. The surfaces reflect light as if mirrors. All from a simple pencil.

Sol LeWitt began his drawing career in the 60s with pencil on walls – radical for the time and, according to Ilana Chlebowski, Curatorial Assistant at the Alright-Kinox, still radical.

LeWitt explored paints and colors, shapes and shadows, lines and angles over the decades. To give an idea of his stature, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (with Williams College Museum of Art) opened an exhibition of LeWitt’s work that will be on view for 25 years and offers 105 drawings covering nearly an acre of wall space.

Pieces for that exhibit were among the last works LeWitt created before his death in 2007. They were created with the materials he used in 1960 and returned to – the pencil on a wall. Now, this crew of artists is bringing his last huge graphite, wall project to the world.

Allison Midgley saw the notice of Scribble Wall Line Drawing while surfing the internet. She mulled it over reading through the criteria and applied for the position after learning that she could take a leave of absence from her job at the David A. Howe Library. She put forth her art with her willingness to commit to the 8 week task and after time was thrilled to be accepted.

Part II

The Sol LeWitt Scribble Drawing continues to advance with more than a hundred hours of pencil contact to the walls of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery each day. One of the people penciling this historic piece is Wellsville’s Allison Midgley, Technology Coordinator at the David Howe Library and mixed media artist.

Midgley’s on leave from the Library for 8 weeks during each of which she will practice 42 hours of precision drawing flowing from first one hand and then the other.

Midgley said, “The drawing is about our ability to collaborate, coordinate and communicate. Each artist works in an area for some hours and then moves to another area. In this way each artist has the chance to give the work a personal impression while we also blend the many styles into the whole.”

The drawing was commissioned in 2006 by gallery director Louis Grachos. Sol LeWitt (American, 1928-2007) finished the design, producing an artist sketch, computer generated plans and a maquette (model) before his sad death in 2007. Following his vision, work at the Albright-Knox began this August.

The process involves drawing chaotic, rounded scribbles across the 2200 square feet of wall to create LeWitt’s intertwined pipes. The piece is the largest of LeWitt’s 1261 wall drawings.

While working, the artists look closely, many of them holding a shop light in one hand and a pencil in the other. They lean forward moving the light and turning their heads watching and evaluating as they trail graphite over the wall. They stand or sit on floors or scaffold boards or reach through spaces to contact the different parts of the wall – in some places 22 feet tall.

They examine the work up close and from a distance. The piece is about chaos making precision - about small becoming great. The team of artists and artisans blend their hands into a single work of art. In the end scribbles become pipes bending, pushing out from and stretching across the 3 interior walls of the stairwell – including 2 inside corners - another unique feature for this work.

From a few feet, the lines present disarray but stepping back the lines advance with continuous gradations somehow changing into crisp divisions where the “pipes” meet at right angles and diverge with clear boundaries. Boundaries made of controlled chaos. They do it by always drawing with the same amount of pressure and the same line quality but by changing the density of the lines. The layered lines create texture and become reflective surfaces.

Midgley said that it’s been interesting to see how the lead use changes. “On the first days, each person went through several leads or pencils daily and then as the density of lines within an area increased, it took less lead to make more apparent change. It’s a study in contrasts.”

“Honored,” is the word she uses when she muses over her role in the drawing. Midgley received her undergraduate degree art from the University of Dallas in 1988 and moved to Wellsville in 1990. At the Library she coordinates computers with patrons, staff and materials. During off time she makes mixed media art, rides her bike and practices yoga.

“Yesterday,” she said, “I just looked around and thought, I’m part of this. I’m involved in this.”

So, is every line important? “Yes,” Midgley said. “If you pulled one out, you’d see where it had been. Each line builds on preceding lines. They are all part of the whole, part of the texture. We look at the small area but think of the large. Each line matters.”

It is estimated that the artists will put pencils down early in October and that, possibly, on October 12 clear sealant will be applied to protect the delicate graphite lines. Then the plastic will come down and scaffolds will be removed and the warren of steel pipes that seem to pull the walls into rounded, burnished steel forms will be open to visitors from around the world.

Until then, at the bottom of the stairs, there is a sign stating that the crew includes “painters, printmakers, illustrators, architects and one librarian.”

By mid October all of their names will stand proudly for decades as this industrial image shines in one of the country’s premier modern art galleries in this old, manufacturing city.

Elaine Hardman is a potter, member of the Allegany Artisans and friend of Allison Midgley. Elaine grew up on the corner of Hertel and Delaware Avenues in Buffalo, NY.

Support for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s exhibitions and installations are provided, in part, by the Seymour H. Knox Foundation, the John R. Oishei Foundation and the Margaret Wendt Foundation.

The Albright Knox Art Gallery is located at 1285 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, New York. Call 716.882.8700. Summer hours are noon to 5 Tuesday through Saturday. Admission for adults $12, Students and Seniors $8. Driving time from Wellsville is near 2 hours. Parking fees apply in the front lot but is free at the rear of the buildings.

More about the project at

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