Thursday, April 28, 2011
But as readers will see with the story I am posting on my blog today, there is really no way that I could not become part of this one. And I never, ever forget how lucky I am to be typing my blog right this minute.
To write the story that you see below, I had to face many challenges--and some I am still living with today, including the post-traumatic-stress-syndrome that accompanies a brain injury. PTSD never really goes away--as I have painfully discovered, you just learn various strategies for compensating for its presence in your life.
After all that, it was quite traumatic to be called "too artcentric" for the Herald after the very terrific publisher, whose support helped me accomplish so much at The Miami Herald, left the newspaper to lead the charge for setting in motion quite impressive initiatives for the rapidly evolving future of journalism, now that so many newspapers are in such tragic disarray.
But first things first. Artcentrically, I want to say it is very fab that the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, 1650 Harrison Street in Hollywood, has an opening reception tonight, April 29, from 6 to 9 pm for its "Fifth All-Media Juried Biennial." For more info see www.ArtandCultureCenter.org or call 954-921-3273.
This show will be up through June 5, and there are many quite talented artists in it, including Maria Font, highlighted in my May Critic's Choice for Art Circuits. See www.artcircuits.com But here are just a FEW others: Loriel Beltran, Julie Davidow, Felice Grodin, Susan Lee-Chun, Kerry Phillips, David Rohn. I am hoping I will be able to highlight at least one for my June Critic's Choice.
Another impressive event on Miami's artcentric horizon: "New Methods," a three-day symposium at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which will be "examining the practices of contemporary arts organizations providing essential educational and professional development to local artistic communities in Latin America," as the postcard I received at my home from MOCA says...still addressed to Elisa Turner, Miami Herald-Art Critic. It is May 4 - May 6. For info see wwww.mocanomi.org or call 305-893-6211.
I am so sorry that I will miss this, esp since the symposium concludes with a lecture by Dr. George Yudice, Professor of Modern Languages and Literature at the University of Miami. George offered me a very generous honorarium when I spoke to his UM class in 2010, and he has been to at least one of our ArtTable meetings. It was really a terrific class. They asked lively questions and applauded when I finished speaking.
I will miss it because I am taking a Memoir Writing Workshop May 4 - May 6, with the Writer's Institute of the Florida Center for the Literary Arts at Miami Dade College. As a journalist, I have to say I miss writing A LOT. I still have lots to say, and I am the kind of person who needs a BIG project to keep my mind stimulated, esp now that my newspaper days are over for good. Of course, I realize I am starting on a long and uncertain journey. I hope my readers will wish me LOTS of luck!!!
As every journalist knows, there is always a backstory. So today I am posting the backstory to the poem I posted on my blog last week. Via email, I have received very touching remarks about that poem.
Because I have made so many artcentric friends in Miami after this story was published on the front page of The Miami Herald, I thought it might be especially enlightening for them--for instance, Karla F and Jerome S, and, I believe, the fab mother-daughter duo of Emma G and Susan G. I also know that my terrific senior pastor Laurie H came to Miami after this was published, so she also might also find it interesting.
I really cannot say enough about how wonderful Coral Gables Congregational Church is for all of this community. Their music program is outstanding. See www.coralgablescongregational.org
And, because I always believe in giving credit where credit is due, I want to give a major shout-out to Associate Pastor Guillermo Marquez-Sterling. I will never, ever forget how he singled Eric and me out for a welcome from the pulpit when we came together to church for the first time after our dreadful accident.
This is my award-winning front page story for The Miami Herald, published April 18, 2005.
RECOVERING LIFE, SELF AFTER COMA
It was the water's spray that nudged me back, its warmth on my skin tugging me from the stupor that has robbed me of sensation, of my self, of everything. Though still only half awake, I realized I was sitting on a chair in a shower and that my close friend Iliana Garcia was washing my hair.
But the bathroom tile, a drab beige I never would have chosen, did not make any sense. Where was I? Why was Iliana washing my hair? I will never forget the weirdness of waking up this way. Then my dim awareness melted away, and I got very sleepy again.
Back on the morning of Aug. 20, my family and I were driving through heavy rain to take my son, Grant Smith, to begin his freshman year at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. We were on Interstate 70 near Terre Haute when a Corvette whirling across the slick median slammed into our rented minivan. The impact sent us spinning twice into a tractor trailer before we slid to a crumpled stop on the roadside.
My daughter, Margaret, hair full of broken glass, was cut on her right eyelid. My husband Eric Smith would be deaf in one ear for a few days. Grant suffered a lacerated spleen and ended up slumped in Margaret's lap, blood dripping from his bitten tongue. Riding in the front passenger seat, I was knocked into a deep state of unconsciousness that left me struggling to breathe.
NO BROKEN BONES
I had no broken bones and no obvious wounds except a few leg bruises, but my brain had been so badly jolted that the right frontal lobe had hemorrhaged, and there was bleeding in a few other places. A doctor likened the trauma to "shaken baby syndrome."
In her anxious phone calls to relatives, my mother-in-law Gerry Smith refused to utter the dreadful, hopeless word "coma," but there is no synonym for the state of utter blankness that engulfed me for those first three days. I could not respond to the simplest commands: "Squeeze my hand." Nothing. "Wiggle your toes." Nothing.
I had grown up in Shelbyville, Ill., about 90 miles from the accident scene, and as friends and relatives gathered at Terre Haute Regional Hospital, I became the surprising centerpiece of a strange family reunion. Only one person was missing: me.
Sometimes, I'm told, I lay with one unfocused eye open. I remember nothing of this period. If I were to walk into that intensive-care unit today, I would not recognize it. Nor would I recognize the doctors and nurses who treated me there.
Still, because I didn't have a lot of bleeding or swelling, my prognosis was said to be relatively good.
On Aug. 28, my husband, a family-medicine physician, arranged to have me airlifted back home, to Baptist Hospital. I don't remember much about the grimness that followed. Ten days after the crash, my hospital chart characterized me, with what now seems gloomy frankness, as "significantly stuporous to comatose."
At Baptist, instinctively struggling back into the world, I was often agitated, a good sign. I constantly jerked myself upright, and friends stayed with me in shifts to keep me from yanking out my feeding tube. One night Eric even climbed into bed with me to try to calm me enough so that I could rest. I lay quietly for about five minutes and then began to stir. None of this I remember.
I woke up in the shower about 15 days after the accident. I had been moved from Baptist's intensive-care to a regular hospital room. By this time I was able to hold brief conversations, but my voice was faint, flat.
A friend told me that after he heard a National Public Radio segment about an idiot savant who could recite the alphabet backward, he visited me and asked me to say my ABCs. I did it but looked puzzled when he asked me to say the alphabet backward. The next time he visited, with a doctor in the room, he asked me to recite it again. "Forwards or backwards?" I asked.
I don't remember making this little joke, a spark of cleverness I treasure now, and there were other glimmers of improvement I don't remember.
"You had small victories all the time," Eric says. Margaret and Gerry were encouraged when I asked for something on which to write, only to watch me scribble across the page and then across the bedsheet.
When Eric showed me newspaper headlines and asked if I could read them, I always said no. Then one day, pushing my wheelchair, he pointed to a sign over the door: "Neuropsychology," mumbled my small, flat voice. What a funny first word.
As my grogginess started to clear, I actually had to remember who I was.
"Oh, I'm this person," I actually remember thinking in a flicker of consciousness.
About the time I could swallow pureed meals, I started speech, physical and occupational therapy, but I was too sleepy at first to make much progress. My handwriting resembled a jumble of gray threads. My disobedient hand could not guide the pencil. It was shockingly hard to write my name.
This did not make me particularly angry or frustrated. Just puzzled. When I finally understood what had happened to us in the wreck, I absorbed the news as casually as someone listening to a radio traffic report: Oh? I was hurt in a wreck? I could accept the fact, but I could not quite connect it to me.
At first, I didn't even know I was in a hospital. I was just in a strange place. Even the concept "What am I doing here?" was too advanced for me. Within the peculiar logic of what was now my world, I don't remember being particularly frustrated by how slow and hard everything was.
I just found everything puzzling. Why can't I tie my sneakers, I thought as the blue laces sifted like straw through my fingers. When a social worker asked me if my house had stairs, I couldn't remember my home. Instead, the image that floated into my mind was of a white living room with hardwood floors, my childhood house years before my parents installed carpeting.
By the time I was discharged from the hospital on Sept. 23, I could read, tie my shoes and write my name. But my speech was slow, my stiff voice unfamiliar, and I couldn't laugh or scream. A glass of water felt heavy. When I tried to apply lipstick, I drew a clownish line of Healthy Lips pink across my cheek. The wooden pegs that seemed to be my fingers could barely type the most simple email message. Driving was forbidden.
LOTS OF PATIENCE, REST
I needed--I still need--a lot of patience and sleep. [This is still the case, even now. I know I am blessed to look as if all this had never happened, but as most of us have learned by now, there is a vast gap between appearance and reality. I HAVE to take a daily nap. Sometime just about every afternoon, I can actually feel my brain slowing down and shutting off, as if it is saying, "OK, Elisa, that is all the work you are going to get out of me now. Go to bed. Do NOT even THINK of driving." Of course, I have made huge strides, and I never lose hope that more improvement is possible. On days that begin with tons of rest, my stamina is greater than usual. But perhaps there are some things that just won't come back, just as my job as art critic at the Knight-Ridder-owned Miami Herald won't come back either, because KR-owned newspapers don't exist anymore.]
I had to relearn how to walk up steps, even how to walk in low-heeled sandals. [I even had to teach myself how to type again.] I was shocked to find that reading and walking at the same time made me lose my balance and lurch like a drunk. And I was so tired. Even now I have daily bouts of bone-crushing fatigue. I can sense when the gray, mushy weariness is coming, as if watching thunderstorms sweeping in from the Everglades.
After I came home from the hospital, I continued with out-patient therapy. I walked around the lake at Baptist and did exercises to improve my balance. I learned how to swallow coffee again, and therapists plied me with puzzles to perk up my sluggish fine-motor skills.
On Dec. 15, I took a driver's test offered a Baptist for patients recovering from brain trauma and was cleared to drive again.
Today, finally, my life is edging back toward the familiar. My doctor tells me most likely I will have a full recovery although it may take two years. I still haven't regained some 20 pounds I lost, and most food still tastes kind of blah. [Actually that's still pretty much true, except for desserts!] But I type. I'm writing about art for The Herald again. My signature seems a bit wobbly, but it looks almost as if it did before.
I still have some double vision when I look down--to climb stairs, for example. Because one of my optic nerves was damaged, my maverick left eye does not always follow up-down movements in sync with the right. Its pupil is a little smaller than normal, and for a long time the eyelid drooped, especially when I was tired. [This is still the case to although only people who know me really well, including Eric, can spot this outward sign of my increasing exhaustion. They understand then that it is time for me to sleep VERY soon.]
I've recently gone back to speech therapy to strengthen my voice. I haven't completely regained my sense of balance, so I am leery of riding a bike. [Still true today, but what is that to complain about? I NEVER ONCE forget that I could be dead or drooling in a wheelchair, and that my totally terrific family could be dead too. Yes, I know it often seems as if the McClatchy-owned Miami Herald is on life-support, but there is nothing I can do about that. It is a sad state of affairs, no question. But back to my award-winning story from 2005.]
These days, I shiver when I hear a siren and cringe when I see news reports of a bad accident. But today, my family and I all feel blessed to be well and walking. Two months ago Eric and I flew to Indianapolis. We rented a car and visited Grant at DePauw. His lacerated spleen has healed. I didn't want to commit a mom's cardinal sin of embarrassing her grown son by crying over him, but it was touching to see him happy and settled.
Almost eight months after I had begun the trip to see my son start college, I was so lucky to finish the journey.
Friday, April 22, 2011
Sunday night, on April 20, Eric and I went to the very fab opening at Bridge Red Studios / Project Space in North Miami, where I saw many wonderful "art buddies" from my old life as Miami Herald art critic.
Especially was glad to see terrific art by Barbara Neijna. Since I can't write about her for the paper any more, I am thrilled that I can include her work in the current show there in my May Critic's Choice for www.artcircuits.com Also it was great to see art by the exceptionally talented Robert Chambers and William Cordova in that exhibit.
And it was extra, extra fab to see William. I can't remember when I have seen him last! We gave each other a great big hug! We have been emailing recently, and I have told him about our fascinating ArtTable meetings. I am thrilled to learn that he hopes to come to our next one at Books & Books on May 10.
Then, on April 22, which is Good Friday and Earth Day, I feel so lucky that I was able to attend a most inspiring inter-faith breakfast at the home of the totally fab senior pastor, Laurie Hafner, for my always terrific church, Coral Gables Congregational Church.
That church has helped me through soooo much. Laurie and I are both daughters of the Midwest, and we both LOVE to speak our minds!
In honor of that church and the current O, Miami poetry festival, I thought I would start my blog today with poem I contributed to a booklet the church published for its congregation during Lent in 2009.
Lenten Devotional, inspired by Psalms 22:14-15
My skin was dead. My mind a prisoner
Stuck in a black hole of nothingness.
Sweet water blessed me back to this world.
Like liquid velvet it caressed the dead skin on my arm.
The steady, warm, soft spray of a morning shower
Tugged me out of the black hole.
A coma had captured my mind, killing
My skin and all sensations,
Brought on in a flash by a car accident that almost
Killed my beloved family.
A morning shower revived
The desert in my skin, kissing me back to the slow,
Sleepy path for a second chance.
My skin had been dead for days, it could send no
Sensory messages to my brain.
Simple messages I took for granted:
The wet kiss of water, the warm shine of sunlight,
The taste of coffee on my tongue.
Nothing came through.
The gift for shaping words with my tongue
Or sentences in my mind belonged
To another richly textured world,
Alive with sensations, still far beyond my reach.
Wet kisses of water and love brought me back.
They taught me to honor the gift of every minute in
Every day until we say
Good-bye to this life forever.
And so, in honor of the richness possible in every minute in every day, plus the richly talented group of artists now gracing Miami, I can actually write, as the TV journalists are always saying, "This just in..." !!
Just now I received this email press release announcing: "Prestigious West Prize for Contemporary Art Awarded to Billie Grace Lynn. Miami Artist to Use Prize for Cross-Country Ride with her Electric Mad Cow Motorcycle." For more info, see www.westcollection.org
Today I especially want to highlight the talents of Kevin Arrow. I also want to include his art in my May Critic's Choice.
I think it is quite fab that "Kevin Arrow: Amor Infinitus" is at the de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space, 23 NE 41 St. in Miami through July 9. According to the handsomely printed flyer that Rosa gave me when I visited there recently, for this show, "Kevin Arrow has appropriated a group of 35 mm slides to create a site-specific installation based on the travels of a mysterious couple." For more info, see http://www.delacruzcollection.org/
This brought to mind the time I wrote about Kevin and his quite remarkable slide collection for The Miami Herald in October 2003. So nice of Kevin to email me the year when I wrote about that! Knowing the year made it sooo much easier for me to find it in my own personal archive of all that I have written for The Miami Herald.
So I am blogging about Kevin today.
BRINGING ELECTRONIC ART TO LIGHT
Leaning over a light box in his studio, where finicky grade-school-era film projectors share space with 1940s Life magazines and thousands of old slides and photo transparencies gleaned from garage and going-out-of-business sales, Kevin Arrow lays strips of gray plastic film in fanciful patterns across photographs of boring office equipment.
He fits together bits of dirt-gray film on bone-gray film. They form a mosaic for the colorblind--or maybe a craftsy collage appealing to only the most geeky and demented of office cubicle hermits.
And yet this small photo collage stands out as inspired and anachronistic wit, especially when compared to the far more technologically advanced videos and laptop-powered installations that surround it in "Plugged In: New and Electronic Art," a new show at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood. Arrow's piece even slyly reminds us of the obsolescence that awaits technology spotlighted in "Plugged In."
Though South Florida museums have presented riveting shows by national and internationally known artists pushing the limits of video, DVD, and other electronic media, this exhibit is one of too few to take an extended look at the diverse talent here in this field.
The ambitious "Plugged In" focuses on mostly South Florida artists who haven't always gotten the attention they merit--like Michael Betancourt, Dimitry Said Chamy, Edward Bobb, and Elizabeth Hall. It also includes "Dynamic Ribbon Device" by Chicago-based artist Siebren Versteeg, which uses an Internet connection to meld live news feed with a video mimicking the Coke logo.
Better known for his experimental music, Bobb has choreographed "Gesture No. 4 (Multiple Peady)." In this cartoon, an impish troupe of plant and phallic forms cavort to electronic sounds, generated in part by thousands of simple drawings he sketched with his fingertips on a mouse pad.
One of the largest pieces in the show, Hall's chimerical video installation shows a woman who seems part bride and part extra-terrestial ephemera, breaking into a prismatic strata of frantic computer graphics. An emblem of information overload, it shimmers in a room swathed in pink tulle.
There's also a faux boardroom displaying a satiric motivational video skewering the art market and late-night infomercials. It's by a sassy group of anonymous, chiefly twenty-something South Florida performance artists who call themselves MSG--or "Multi-national Sales Group," explains one of the group's members, who calls himself Kenneth Cohen, but lets slip he also goes by Jorge.
And then there's the experimentally anachronistic Arrow.
"I think of myself as using old media for early 21st Century art," Arrow muses in his garage studio in Miami Beach, holding a well-read copy of the book New Media in Late 20th Century Art.
"Kevin is the antithesis of everything else in the show I was interested in, in the ideas of technology and how technology brings new tools to artists," explains Samatha Salzinger, the curator of "Plugged In."
But from the day in last February when she began visiting studios to find art for this show, Salzinger wanted to include Arrow.
"There's something so retro and intelligent and thoughtful about what he's doing," she says.
It's also a quixotic ode to 1950s TV Land that may suggest a bridge to more hectic and hi-tech pieces in the show.
"When I started curating I didn't realize how unapproachable art can be to some people," says Salzinger, an artist with a MFA from Yale. "Video is hands-down the most difficult for people to understand. I think it's because it's so much a part of our everyday life. Everyone watches TV. We think of this media as entertainment, and yet a lot of video art has no narrative--you can't watch it like TV. You have to be more open. A lot of the pieces are abstract, about evoking emotion."
There's no real story in Arrow's animated collage either, except what you project.
It shows a dated hulk of photo lab machinery originally captured in a photo transparency with all the yawn-inducing sterility of a trade show catalog, but now draped in mystery. In this altered picture, fat vines curl up walls and latch onto machinery controls. Slick and weird, these collaged vines recall the people-crunching flora in the fantasy flick Jumanji.
The plastic strips are actually 1950s relics, used to make early animation. When you look at them through a rotating plastic Polaroid filter Arrow has rigged up for a vintage film projector in his piece for "Plugged In," the strips make this boxy machine gyrate with eye-popping stripes. Projected by a beam of light on the wall, this image becomes a crazy optical delight on the cheap.
Think of a time machine whirring manically in an old cartoon.
Accompanied by a spoofy text claiming the piece involves declassified FBI documents, Arrow's work is called "Untitled (Hell)." It takes a cue from the machine's brand name of Hell, which is also German for "light," but doesn't totally avoid hints of a fiery apocalypse fueled by runaway technology.
Says Arrow, "I just love creating these small intricate things that you can project on a large scale with light."
He's not alone. Others in the show have wrought a flickering network of intricate details that unfold over time, like Chamy's dream sequence of pillows bathed in blue rainfall, but they are fashioned electronically on a computer screen with pixels rather than on a light box with hand-cut slivers of plastic.
Betancourt's films are a mercurial flow of mesmerizing geometric designs. They're built up with a complex process that plays glitches deep inside computers against the technology for recording outer space phenomena like sun flares. One work unfurls lush abstractions, another reinvents a travelogue of India.
Hall also works with glitches to push the language of video. And as a well-traveled curator who has staged innovative one-night festivals of video and electronic art around town, she maintains a website for fostering new art at http://www.experimentalshow.org/
Such work could be more visible in South Florida, says Hall. She'd like to see artists here have affordable access to the kind of costly technology that video and electronic work requires, like facilities in Boston and New York charging a fraction of some of Miami's rates of $1,000 a day.
But the underground quality of this art is also a plus. When there aren't a lot of commercial galleries bent on showing and selling high-resolution videos and DVDs, she said, it's easier to avoid highly polished paths.
"The good think about Miami is that there is a lot of freedom to experiment," she explains, "and not to conform to what a gallery would want."
[Blogger's Note: Although generally this artcentric week in Miami has been quite rewarding in many ways, I do have to say that this brain-injured and most definitely-not-dead-yet free-lance art critic and journalist is quite distressed and annoyed to ruminate about a recent phone conversation. During that phone conversation, as she recalls, she was encouraged to consider blogging about her ideas regarding the future of journalism. "Well, I never," as one of my fave characters in 1950s TV Land used to say. Who on earth would want to hear what this digital dinosaur, as I often call myself, has to say about THAT?? Doing this blog takes quite enough of my limited physical resources, thank you very much.]
Friday, April 15, 2011
Friday, April 8, 2011
It has been a glorious April weekend in Miami, when the glowing balmy weather is so pleasant that you hardly notice how late afternoon sunshine starts to betray the slightest trace of summer's relentless sizzle and sting. My artcentric weekend began early. On Thursday night I witnessed an affecting performance by Teresa Pereda at Alejandra Von Hartz Gallery, in conjunction with her exhibit "Earth, The Rite of Restitution." Too bad I don't have the time or energy right now to write about how this memorable exhibit has resulted from various journeys through the Americas.
Friday brought a charming lunch at Lemoni cafe in the Design District, where I had a chance to chat with artcentric friends I have known for ages. Tonight during Saturday's gallery walk Eric and I savored lively exhibits at Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, Dotfiftyone Gallery, and Diana Lowenstein Fine Arts, where we saw once again the accomplished Argentine artist Graciela Sacco. Friday night we had been invited to an absolutely splendid dinner party and spent much more time with Graciela. It was such a treat for me to meet this artist in person at last. We spoke about her work in Venice, which involved installing numerous photographic images of eyes throughout this fabled city during a Biennale I had covered for the Herald.
Tonight I want to tell my readers about the upcoming April ArtTable meeting for Members and Guests, on "Designing Artists in Miami: How They Make a Difference." It's Tuesday, April 12 at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Avenue, Coral Gables. Networking starts at 5:45 p.m. Panel discussion starts at 6:30 p.m. Those attending receive a 10% discount on food and drink. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org Of course, it is free and open to the public. As moderator, artist and designer Michelle Weinberg has assembled a dynamite panel. Miami-Dade public art maven Brandi Reddick will tell us about Robert Chambers' new installation of lighting and sculpture for South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. Other panelists are globe-trotting design expert Thais Fontenelle, product designer Laz Ojalde, and artist and designer Ernesto Oroza. (For more info about Ernesto Oroza, see my previous blog post, or see my April Critic's Choice at www.artcircuits.com).
Knowing that I am going to hear in detail about a new public art work by the absolutely remarkable Robert Chambers, I recall the time I profiled him for The Miami Herald in September 2002. So here is that story again. SCULPTING A MOVEMENT The bone-white flamingo with the red eyes isn't barking, and a man standing outside John Martin's pub wants Robert Chambers to get its bark back. And Chambers, a Miami-based artist known for richly peculiar sculpture that melds science, art, and sound, is only too happy to oblige. So as rush hour clogs Coral Gables' Miracle Mile, Chambers pulls a raft of tools from his black backpack and within minutes, the flamingo has not only gotten his bark back, but also the flash of its beady eyeballs. "I put a microwave sensor in it, so when you get close a tiny laser disc plays back the sound of two attack dogs barking, and the eyes glow an angry red," Chambers explains. "It gets a big jump from everybody." Even the bird's color--or rather, its lack of color--draws attention. "The flamingo came to me white, and I gave it back white," he continues. "It's like the anti-flamingo. They said, 'you forgot to do anything with it.'" While Chambers' anti-flamingo is an eccentric breed apart from the more colorfully predictable plastic birds around town, bringing things to life with unpredictable flair is the artist's maverick M.O. He has not only constructed art from unlikely materials such as hair gel, he has also been an unusually generous catalyst on the local art scene. Last year he curated two attention-getting shows, emphasizing the distinctive work of young and youngish Miami-based artists at The House and Bass Museum of Art. This month he has orchestrated several shows to raise awareness--and money--for SAVE Dade, an organization urging a "no" vote on the Sept. 10 referendum to remove the phrase "sexual orientation" from Miami-Dade County's Human Rights Ordinance. The shows will take place at Fredric Snitzer and Bernice Steinbaum galleries, at the home of Eugenia Vargas, and will include a performance in the newly minted El Solar Arts House in Coral Gables. "I like to create a happening that creates awareness either of artists or a cause," Chambers says. And this cause, he says, "reminds us that everyone's human rights can be threatened. People in the arts have always been at the forefront of alerting people about human rights." Adds Daniel Arsham, who grew up in South Florida and is now an art student in New York: "It's kind of our job. The arts community is a place where there's more openness." Arsham is among the 200 artists, including Paul Stoppi, Vickie Pierre, and Naomi Fisher contributing works to the "NO-Show," which opens Tuesday at Fredric Snitzer Gallery. On that night, all sales of the moderately priced--nothing over $500--artwork will benefit SAVE Dade. "Obviously, this issue is critical," Snitzer says. "It's good that we are having a stake in this campaign and saying, 'no, this can't fly.'
" Vargas came to mind because, in the past few years, she has organized a lively series of "Home Shows," in which artists have installed works in her home. Besides, Chambers says, "if you don't have your human rights it's like not having a home"--which inspired the name of the "NO-Home Show," a one-night event on Sept. 9 at Vargas' home that will include art by Pablo Cano, Maria Brito, and David Rohn. OUTSIDE THE BOX Momentum among artists to support SAVE Dade started nearly two years ago, but really raced forward this summer as election day neared.
Chambers exchanged so many e-mails and calls with artists that, by late August, the memory card in his cell phone reached its limit. Such rallying en masse is "something artists should do," insists Vargas. "I really think the Miami arts community is impassive; artists are kind of removed if anything is political." With a slight smile, Arsham describes the variety of events as adding up to, "a normal Robert affair. He thinks completely differently from anyone else who organizes things." The Miami household in which Chambers grew up in the 1960s seems to have been one that nurtured out-of-the-box thinking. Chambers' great-grandmother was a pioneering midwife on a farm near the Oregon coast while his father, Edward L. Chambers, taught biology at the University of Miami. Now professor emeritus at UM, his research there included fertilizing sea urchin eggs.
He's also the author of the classic textbook,The Living Cell. No surprise, then, that the artist's mother, Elenora S. Chambers, is an abstract painter whose lilting canvasses have sometimes resembled interlacing cellular forms. While his father would be conducting research in the Marquesas or on the Massachusetts coast, Chambers remembers how his mother brought along huge rolls of canvas that she tacked up to work on. "My parents led exciting lives," Chambers says. "They were always traveling. They went everywhere, from Cuba to remote areas in France, and my father traveled around Tunisia. Some trips I went along with them, and my mother just loved the diversity of all these places and meeting new people. " "That's how she met my father. She was discussing existentialism with several scientists, and she caught my father's ear and eye in Portland, Oregon." TWIN PASSIONS So it was natural that art and science would become passions for the couple's son. His parents frequently took him to art museums, and he also developed a talent for making horrific messes in his father's lab, stopping up sinks to create floods. At home, a family heirloom, a charming 19th Century wind-up bird that chirped arias from La Boheme, was one of many objects Chambers relentlessly took apart and reassembled. A burly man with a loping gait, black hair that explodes into ringlets in the summer humidity, and the demeanor of an intelligently manic Peter Pan, Chambers celebrated his 44th birthday in August on his great-grandmother's farm with his wife and fellow artist Mette Tommerup. "I wish I was stuck at 24," he says. "Then my brain would be matching my body." Not that the considerable variety of his art--which has been featured in solo shows at the Miami Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, as well as in galleries in New York, London, and Rome--ever suggests sluggishness. Instead, it tweaks the machine-like sculpture of Jean Tinguely with bravura invention and humor.
Over his career, he has moved from noise-making pieces made of cast-off industrial parts scavenged from Miami River junk yards to installations oozing with fluorescent chemicals once used to trace water pollutants and reconfigured to suggest bubbling abstract paintings run amok. Many pieces invite watchful observation or participation, such as the silkily inflating and deflating "Capes" in MOCA's permanent collection or the luminous "Ballship," a vast fiberglass globe that echoes and distorts ambient sounds, transforming viewers' speech into unearthly music.
"He's very inventive in doing things with different materials," Jeanette Ingberman, co-director of Exit Art, a non-profit venue in Manhattan, says of Chambers. "We did a show called 'Danger,' which suited him because a lot of his pieces imply danger." Chambers' piece featured "a huge kind of rotating blade that was quite difficult to turn and made an excruciating noise," Ingberman remembers. "As dangerous as it seemed, it was also quite inviting to use. He's created wonderful machines, and many of them are participatory, so he's creating in his art a situation that you can get involved in just as he does with his curatorial work." "Not every artist is as generous as a person," she continues, noting that Chambers has frequently recommended artists for Exit Art shows. "Not only does he come up with ideas for the shows, but he comes out with a truck to pick up the artwork." CREATING BY CURATING With his free-wheeling curatorial projects, including one planned to coincide with December's Art Basel Miami Beach, Chambers is moving into a new phase, an extension of the interactive style he adopted while teaching art from 1993-98 at the University of Miami. Then he took students to New York and introduced them to artists and other contacts he developed while doing graduate work and teaching at New York University in the late 1980s and early '90s.
"I always made sure my students would stay with artists and curators all throughout New York and New Jersey," he says. "We would spread out all over the place, and then we would meet together at a deli on Second Avenue. I was always mixing it up so the faculty regarded me nervously." Now operating in a less institutional framework, Chambers is generating an infectious energy that has been embraced by young artists here such as Jason Ferguson, Christian Curiel, and Brandon Opalka, who call themselves "FeCuOp." At Chambers' insistence, FeCuOp developed the "NO to Discrimination" banner, another work in the SAVE Dade campaign, now hanging outside Bernice Steinbaum Gallery. "Robert is a little frazzled sometimes," Ferguson says, "but he's really pushed us and helped us get our bearings. He's like a mad scientist." Mad scientist. Impassioned maverick. Those are just some of the names he's been called by bemused friends and associates. "He's a total original," adds Miami Art Museum director Suzanne Delehanty. "It is always an inspiration to be around him."