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The Hills Are Alive

Roughly translated, a “utopia” is both a good place and no place at all. For centuries, pioneers and progressives alike have strived to create a perfect society reflective of the heavenly paradise promised in the afterlife, but alas, by definition, it’s not possible. Fast forward to a warm Friday night in late May 2015. Nestled [...]
Kevin J. Elliott

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Roughly translated, a “utopia” is both a good place and no place at all.

For centuries, pioneers and progressives alike have strived to create a perfect society reflective of the heavenly paradise promised in the afterlife, but alas, by definition, it’s not possible.

Fast forward to a warm Friday night in late May 2015. Nestled in the serene confines of the Hocking Hills, the Flaming Lips play to a throng of fans as confetti and balloons create a psychedelic rainstorm overhead. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, young, old, rich, poor, hippies and hipsters—they all trip the light fantastic with equal enthusiasm.

In the distance, the sky fills with Chinese lanterns. Wayne Coyne battles an inflatable monster 10 feet tall until it pops into the ether. Behind the scenes, volunteers recycle and compost nearly 95 percent of the waste left by the villagers, but they are just as much revelers as they are laborers. Local artists sell their wares in the thoroughfare. A campsite of thousands rages until dawn. All is right with the world.

Though a utopia in the strictest sense of the word is unattainable, the tight-knit crew responsible for the Nelsonville Music Festival has done everything in their power to make it a reality—at least within the scale of a four-day weekend.

But that was never the original intent. In fact, the festival was never meant to be more than a quaint one-day fundraising arm for the historic Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville’s quaint downtown. Built in 1879 during the Appalachian coal boom, the opera house served as a cultural hub for Southeastern Ohio, but in line with the hardships of the region it closed in the ‘20s and remained dormant and dilapidated for decades. It wasn’t until 1997 that Stuart’s was fully restored and returned to its former glory. Thanks to a community of dedicated citizens, it has thrived ever since. So in many ways, it was the opera house that is directly responsible for what the NMF has become.

“The mission of the fest is the same now as it was when it started,” says NMF marketing director Brian Koscho, “which was whatever profit that is raised goes back into Stuart’s, which is a non-profit, and it maintains our programming year round, as well as adds to next year’s fest. Over the years we’ve just been lucky enough to slowly introduce more elements and evolve organically.”

Now in its 12th year, the NMF has stayed sustainable because even as it grows in size and scope, the fest’s footprint on Hocking College’s picturesque Robbins Crossing historic village remains virtually the same. As do the personal touches—like yoga at dawn, a kid friendly area, and late-night campground dance parties—which have made it a destination for revelers looking for a one-of-a-kind getaway to signal the official start to summer. It’s an intimacy your average Coachella or Bonnaroo just can’t provide.

“It’s never been designed to be become a gigantic festival by purpose, so there’s a threshold there naturally,” says Koscho. “We can go a little bit bigger, but our vision is more to improve the quality of the product and the experience and make it something positive in every possible way for people. That being said, we never thought that we would have Willie Nelson and the Flaming Lips playing our festival. But we always thought, ‘Why couldn’t we find a way to make that happen?’ and we did.”

Another “utopian” feather that Nelsonville can boast is the sheer eclecticism of the music itself. It’s not particularly specialized or narrow in the way Dark Star Orchestra’s Jubilee caters to the great unwashed, or Rock on the Range to the tattooed and disenfranchised—it’s not even somewhere in that spectrum. Instead, the line-ups read like the favorite playlists of a diverse and ideal college radio station—where else will you be able to hear Randy Newman, Courtney Barnett, and All Them Witches? All of the aforementioned will be spotlight performers at this year’s concert.

“I try to sense that it can never be one kind of thing,” says Koscho of the line-ups that the NMF curates. “It’s very clichéd, but I often say it’s a festival for people who love music. But I go further to explain that no matter what you are into, there’s going to be something there for you and something there you have never heard of and has you completely surprised. There’s a lot of cross-pollination that happens in that weekend.”

So much so that by Saturday, the grounds become a unified community. Strangers become comrades. Band members become spectators. It will not be rare to see, hypothetically, a superstar like Gillian Welch take in local folk eccentric Michael Hurley waxing in the all acoustic No-Fi Cabin; or Charles Bradley enjoy a vegan burrito during All Dogs’ Porch Stage set. This year, NMF will add an additional stage, the “Boxcar” (quite literally a stage atop a refrigerated railroad carriage), and an increased presence of art installations—amenities that aim to not just give the crowd more to see and do, but to increase the communal flow.

“The mental setting that develops. It’s that feeling that happens,” says Koscho when I ask him to boast existentially about the intangible charms of the fest. “That’s coming from someone who works most of the weekend. It’s contagious. Tim [Peacock] always says because there are always really young kids and really old people there, it’s hard to act like a jerk in front of either of those groups of people. It mellows everybody out. You get it the moment you get there.”

Above all, it’s that vibe—that escapism from the urbane—that has leant NMF a distinction that sets it far apart from other music festivals, even those woodland-centric festivals that may rival Nelsonville. It’s an indescribable hum in the air that keeps pretension or mob ugliness at bay. Utopia? Well, again, that’s not possible. But Nelsonville is damn close.

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Maker’s Space: Kato Mitchell

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Following an initial disastrous experience with attempting to refurbish a personal pair of sneakers with acrylic paint years ago, a friend noticed Mitchell’s persistence, aiding him to perfect his craft. Though he began with primarily focusing on restoring his friends’ worn-down sneakers, Mitchell’s business, Work The Custom, has expanded to designing apparel in any range.

Just months after being highlighted as cleat designer for Braxton Miller’s Charg1ng summer football camp in Dayton, Mitchell’s clientele has accrued some big names in the sports world, and he has no intention of stopping. (614) caught up with Mitchell to learn more about Work The Custom, and his hope for reconstructing apparel in Columbus and beyond.

(614): When did you decide to transition from football to design?
KM: I’ve always had a passion for drawing and art, [but] I just lost my vision when I took actual art classes and didn’t like what we were doing. After college, I didn’t get any NFL calls, [and] I was trying to figure out what else I would love to do every day, and fell back in love with art.

What was your leap from “this thing I do” to the thing to do? How do you promote your work? After I realized how many people wanted to show who they really are with art, and I was someone who could help do that, that was my ironing point. I promote my work through Instagram and Facebook for the most part, but I do go to sneaker events from time-to-time to pass out business cards.

Is this your primary gig, side gig or hobby? How did it come to be?
It’s my side gig for the moment, but trying to grow and learn to make it my full-time career. I had a pair of shoes that were beat up and didn’t want to buy more so I painted them, but one of my friends taught me the game and how to prosper from it.

What life changes do you feel have propelled your work? How have your customizations evolved? Playing football for a place like Ohio State and doing work for Buckeyes in the NFL and for the OSU football team has helped grow my work faster and further. My customs have evolved just by me growing up and seeing different things, learning different things, practicing everyday, and being able to adapt.

Do you have a specific audience that you want to appeal to?
I want my work to be for everyone. My work can range from baby shoes to youth high school players of all sports, to walls of homeowners and businesses, to shoes for pro athletes.

What ingredients come together to make Columbus a fertile ground for makers, designers and creatives? Columbus is a growing market and very friendly. It has new businesses starting every week and everyone is trying to help everyone else.

What’s your six-word creative story?

Work The Custom is coming fast!

To get in contact with Mitchell, or to see more designs, follow him on Instagram at @katowork19.

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Gallery Space: Feeling emotion through Craig Carlisle’s newly-opened exhibit

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When approaching the canvas, the first thing that expressionist painters attempt to draw from their audience is emotion. Whether it stems from Disappointed Love by Francis Darby, where a forlorn lover is cast off into a forest to wallow in grief, or anxiety-riddled painting The Scream by Edvard Munch, painter Craig Carlisle has challenged his work for years to portray similar elements. After 30 years of creating thousands of paintings through the study of expressionism, Carlisle’s focus is generally based upon meditative habits as observed through his signature Big Head series.

“Evoking emotions from the viewer is one of the more important components of what I feel is an effective work of art. Is the artwork immediately drawing me closer or pushing me away and why? Possibly, [when] the colors chosen by the artist stir up my emotions, even in a minimalist painting, I feel that is possible,” says Carlisle, noting Agnes Martin as a ‘master colorist’ with a subtle tug at his viewers’ emotions. “Upon signing the painting and releasing it into the world, I truly believe [that] whatever emotional message the painting is meant to serve will be captured by those who need it. However, as the artist, I deserve to express what I am feeling without limitation. Every painting has its soulmate and eventually it will rest in the perfect hands.”

In his prime, Carlisle was deliberately fixated on creating optimistic paintings, with subjects depicting happiness, but later found that his audience gravitated towards honest interpretations. This also broke Carlisle out of the routine of being bound to artistic recurrence, having the ability to grow beyond his previous limitations. Intentionally leaving his Big Head subjects as genderless, as his subjects usually have oval-shaped heads and doe-like expressions, Carlisle uses the background of the painting to construct where the subject’s real emotion may be analyzed. These paintings often have neutral expressions, but the framework for each one is ever-changing.

“My personal relationship to removing gender in my artwork today is the same as it was with my first Big Head painting in 1992. If I choose to show gender, then the viewer immediately begins down the road of judgement,” Carlisle says. “Everyone deserves a stage to express their freedom, mine happens to be a canvas. For those defining their gender today, I hope they say let me choose, let me learn, let me grow, let me fall, for then I will succeed.”

Raised in Oklahoma in his formative years, Carlisle repetitively drew superheroes and made red clay sculptures, as his mother, also a painter, ensured that her son was always creating. Carlisle also observed his grandfather building furniture and even creating artwork with stones and gems. Building an aptitude for art, especially painting, Carlisle relocated to Columbus at 12 to further his art studies.

After graduating from CCAD in 1989, his original Big Head paintings in 1992 to 1995 were painted above subliminal messages on the canvas, regularly created at the former Buggyworks Studio warehouse. Steadily transitioning to different studios in New York, San Francisco and later, Los Angeles in the early 2000s, where he painted the Pink Monsters series as a response to the 9/11 attacks, Carlisle’s work became redefined as he adapted to each environment. With Nashville, Tennessee as the home for his 19th century farm and studio in the countryside, this month, Carlisle will be returning to Columbus for his first city-based solo exhibition in five years, this time, at the Sarah Gormley Gallery.

“I not only wanted a chance to reconnect with my many collectors in the city, but I knew Sarah’s gallery would give the opportunity for me to showcase my new larger paintings.

These works include hands overlapping the faces of the Big Heads,” Carlisle says. “In the early 2000s, I did a series of red gloves and began to understand more in depth that for me they symbolized protection. The hands, or gloves, were always placed in my paintings during times when I personally needed to feel a stronger sense of protection, especially from God. The paintings in this exhibition are not documented as “the hand of God” but it’s what I tell people when they ask. Think of it also as a guardian angel; maybe it’s there to stop something negative from entering, or it’s protecting me from myself.”

Choosing bright reds and oranges in a majority of paintings showcased at Sarah Gormley Gallery, Carlisle is challenging himself to push the extremes, considering all his work to be self-portraits. As a portrait technician, Carlisle also assumes responsibility as a provision for Columbus art, celebrating the city’s constant growth in tandem with an understanding of his own work.

“I was part of the art scene in Columbus in the 80s and early 90s, so I have seen many changes. One thing that has never changed is the incredible support the city provides for the arts community. Having lived all over the country I can easily say that Columbus is one of the most supportive cities in the country for artists, especially young artists,” Carlisle says. “For people who are just witnessing my work for the first time I wish for them to be able to experience emotions. I don’t need them to analyze what they think I was feeling at the time I created the artwork; rather I ask the viewer to listen to their own reactions or feelings and know that is why I made the painting.”

The Sarah Gormley Gallery is located on 988 N High St. Carlisle’s exhibit opened Nov. 1.

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Gallery Space: Maya Lin, Ann Hamilton and Jenny Holtzer: HERE

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Visual artists Maya Lin, Ann Hamilton and Jenny Holtzer have respectively crafted world- renowned legacies that have brought them back to their native state. Challenging viewers with an intentional focus on Ohio’s constant adaptation, both environmental and ethical, each artist will make visceral connections with guests of HERE, an exhibition that brings together three significant Ohio artists whose work has stood the test of time, and who have finally come together for the first time.

“While I and others at the Wexner thought about an exhibition that featured other Ohio-born artists, these three just seemed to make sense, aesthetically and in terms of their ideas and their potential relationship to the galleries of the Wexner Center,” says HERE curator Michael Goodman. “I started to think about this place in terms of the Wexner’s 30 years. About that time, I saw a set of Jenny Holzer’s benches from 2017 at Art Basel in Switzerland. This work used language by the Polish WWII-era poet Anna Swir. I was really moved by them, and it occurred to me that Jenny was from Ohio and that a good portion of her career matched the Wexner’s 30-year lifespan to this point.”

Along with Holtzer, Goodman had aligned his sentiments with the works of Lin and Hamilton, thus spawning the aesthetical collaboration with The Wexner Center. While each artist has their own personal style that is imprinted in their art, they have an interdependence that has lasted throughout their careers.

“While there is some commonality in why these three artists think about and use materials, what has become more interesting is how the accumulation of materials seems to have, at least in part, come to define how they all thought about this exhibition and about the galleries of the Wexner Center,” says Goodman. “All three have literally accumulated massive amounts of their chosen materials—posters, language, glass marbles, map pins, images—to create immersive worlds for our patrons to think about and, hopefully, to carry away with them into their lives. As viewers walk into the Wexner galleries this fall, this will be immediately felt. I think the exhibition feels like a world, and also like the world.”

Specifically addressing Ohio’s environmental issues, Maya Lin’s nail installation Pin River: Ohio Aquifers will represent Ohio waterways. In tandem with another piece by Lin, a glass-beaded “map” of the 2017 flood between the Ohio and Wabash Rivers speaks to the impact of global warming. As an in-depth look into familiar home objects scattered across Ohio, Ann Hamilton’s on view placement will be on the walls of the Wexner Center overlooking Ohio State’s campus. Her project when an object reaches for your hand, is a collaborative effort with The Thompson Library, a meditation on the perception of objects, and how they’re ingrained in our lives. Engaged with themes of universal humanity, Jenny Holtzer’s direct immediacy of Truisms and Inflammatory Essays will surround viewers with verbal adhesives.

“Choosing the work for the exhibition was largely about these three artists doing what they have consistently done well—thinking about the emotional and physical engagement that views have to an exhibition space and applying these concerns to the Wexner’s spaces specifically and then doing so in terms of what they are thinking now,” Goodman says.

For those who are unfamiliar with Lin, Hamilton and Holtzer, the significance of their work will be instantly recognized upon entering HERE. As Goodman’s curation relied heavily on emotional and physical engagement, his focus also opened a conversation of female visibility in the art world.

“Simply put, women have been under- represented in museum exhibitions. I think everyone at the Wexner Center feels a responsibility to not continue this myopic way of thinking and working. These three artists— who really have played a substantial role in defining what contemporary art is—happen to be women,” says Goodman. “We are happy to recognize all they have done to shape the contours of how we think about art because women really have done so much of this work; most of it, actually, over the last 50 years or so.”

Formatively shaped by the metamorphosis of home, the art of HERE defies both time and space, foreshadowing inevitable environmental changes and its effect on the community’s spirit. “One cannot help but feel the weight of what [the artists] have contributed. The importance of what they have done can quite literally be felt as you enter these spaces,” says Goodman. “As you feel this, you also know the importance of the Wexner Center, what it has contributed to Columbus, Ohio and the world. In this regard, these three artists and their ideas are a perfect match to this place and this time.”

HERE will run at The Wexner Center for the Arts from September 21st to December 29th.

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