Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S9 E24 | FULL EPISODE

Artist Shen Wei, Photographer Steven Koppel, and more...

This week, international artist Shen Wei’s exhibition, “Painting in Motion,” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, an interview with Steven Koppel, founder of the EDI Institute about technology and using art to express feelings beyond words. Also, Nevada artists Joe C. Rock and Nicole Ashton.

AIRED: January 15, 2021 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,

WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture

from around the region and the nation.

I'm Jared Bowen.

Coming up onOpen Studio,

artist Shen Wei painting worlds you can fall into.

>> You feel like you're thrown into

maybe rushing water, or a cloudscape,

and you're kind of floating above it or in it.

>> BOWEN: Then when words fail, it's the pictures that succeed.

>> People who are dealing with illness,

also substance use disorder or cancer or dealing with stress,

they say, "I just can't really express what this feels

through words."

>> BOWEN: Plus, art from the heart.

>> Over the years I have come to realize that my passion

truly lies in interactive public art.

>> BOWEN: And murals for all.

>> A building that looks dilapidated

if you paint a mural on the side it becomes an attraction.

>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.

First up, he's not a magician,

but artist Shen Wei is very good at disappearing,

losing himself as he creates, conjuring ethereal lands,

and reimagining the human body.

His work is now on view throughout

the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which we visited

before the pandemic forced its recent temporary closure.

On the façade of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum,

a woman in red.

She is a figure of passion,

her writhing traced on the ground beneath.

Inside the museum, we see her on film,

a spirit gliding through galleries.

>> There's something kind of surreal about many of his films.

>> BOWEN: He is Shen Wei, a Chinese artist who mesmerized

an international audience of four billion people in 2008

with his choreography

at the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony.

>> That's about as public as you can get.

And he's, you know, celebrated worldwide.

He's, he's a cultural icon in China.

>> BOWEN: But in all the time he has been creating dance

and films for public audiences,

Shen Wei has been very quietly creating work for himself--

these paintings,

some on view for the first time at the Gardner Museum

where Peggy Fogelman is the director.

>> You can see that he was

thinking about cosmic forces, right?

And so many of these paintings in this, in this series,

because there's no horizon line, you know, you feel like

you're thrown into maybe rushing water,

or a cloudscape, and you're kind of floating above it or in it.

>> A lot of times, I felt all the paintings I...

it's more like a journal.

>> BOWEN: We spoke with Shen Wei from his parents' home

in Hunan Province, China,

where he's settled during the pandemic.

He says his towering paintings in the museum are less about

what he's painting than what he's feeling.

Although that never stops people from finding figures,

landscapes, and stories in his work.

Especially in this piece titled "Untitled, Number 8."

>> When I paint that one I really didn't think

I was trying to paint a human figure in the middle.

People think it's a human figure riding like a riding a lion,

flying, crossing a, you know, mountain or flying in the air.

When I paint I didn't think that at all.

I was just thinking that I want to use the black paint

more like, you know, energy.

>> BOWEN: One that consumes him.

Shen Wei insists on being alone when he paints--

sometimes for months on end.

Sometimes even he is not entirely present.

>> The large piece I've faint down twice.

I wake up in the middle.

I didn't even know when... how long I slept.

You know, didn't know I...

because I forgot to eat when I paint.

>> He's like in a form of meditation, deep meditation.

And so it takes him a while to get back on the ground.

And that was very interesting to see.

>> BOWEN: Curator Pieranna Cavalchini invited Shen Wei

to be an artist-in-residence

at the Gardner in 2018--

a stay that led to the inspiration for his film,

Passion Spirit.

It, along with his choreography and painting,

have an ethereal quality born, the curator says,

of his desire to connect to greater things.

>> He has developed this technique, which is where

you have this energy in your body, your heart, your blood,

this idea of being connected to the universe

and it's, it's... it's a very strong spiritual element,

really, in his work.

>> BOWEN: Shen Wei has been a working artist

since the age of nine, when he entered Opera school in China.

And as these early notebooks reveal,

he was charting choreography by age 14.

>> I thought, "Oh, this is something all the children do

at school and the teacher makes them do it."

No.

This is something he invented and for himself.

>> I was just thinking, "Oh my God,

"if I forget all of these things teacher taught me,

"what am I going to do?

I love so much."

But then I start to find a way

to write down, to make puppets,

and drawings to write down all the movements.

>> BOWEN: Some 30 years on,

he still maps out his dance and films.

But in his paintings,

he harkens back to centuries of art history.

From the ancient storied scrolls of the Song Dynasty,

to the dark, roiling images conjured by Dante'sInferno,

to 20th century American abstract expressionism.

>> He says, "I am made of

Eastern and Western ingredients."

And he also talks about,

we are all solitary and alone,

but we breathe together.

And it's a beautiful kind of coalescence

of different influences, different techniques,

different art forms.

But then, truly, he's forged his own style.

>> BOWEN: Next, as a photographer, Steve Koppel

knows the power of pictures.

But never more so than when he discovered that for many people

suffering from mental illness, cancer, substance abuse

and more, images can be vital means of expression.

Steve Koppel, thank you so much for joining us.

>> Thank you very much, really appreciate being here.

>> BOWEN: So I'm very curious to talk to you about

expressive digital imagery.

E.D.I.

What is E.D.I?

>> Yes, so Jared, again, E.D.I., stands for

expressive digital imagery, and it's this idea of being able

to create an image

that expresses a feeling or an experience or an emotion

that so often might be difficult through words alone.

And the idea is doing it on a mobile app

that just takes a couple of minutes to learn.

>> BOWEN: And so you have used this

for people dealing with substance abuse issues,

mental health issues, stress.

We'll talk in a moment about doctors

who are using this in this time of the pandemic.

Why does it work?

How how is this a good means

of therapy?

>> So the reason it works is because so often those feelings

like you talk about people

who are dealing with illness, also substance use disorder,

or cancer or dealing with stress,

they say, "I just can't really express

what this feels through words."

And an image allows such a deep and visceral connection

with those who are there trying to share these...

these feelings with.

>> BOWEN: So what are the some of the things that you've seen

communicated to you as people start with just one image?

>> So often it's stories, and that often what is

what can be so powerful.

So, for example, there's an image that

this individual with chronic Lyme disease created.

And it started actually as a photograph

of just a stark tree on a landscape.

In the first image that she created,

she took out all the color, and she added a distortion

and she entitled it "Still Life."

And her story was she was still living,

but it was such a difficult life dealing with the pain,

and the exhaustion, and the uncertainty as far as

whether this would ever end.

So that was the first image.

But then the story continued with the next image.

And, if you look closely at this image,

you can still see the outline of the tree.

But in this image, she's added a sense of peace to it,

and calming and flowing lines and shapes and colors.

And she shared this in a group with other people

dealing with the same illness.

And she said and she titled it "Re-emerging".

She said, "This is where I am now in my life.

"I'm in a whole different place.

"I can see where I'm headed back to the life

I always wanted to live."

And so these series of images tell the story

in such a powerful way.

And that's a very common way

that expressive digital imagery is used.

>> BOWEN: Do you often see an arc like that,

a really marked transition?

>> Often we see an arc, but we also work with people

who are really more in the despair stage of their illness.

And, for example, in this image

there's a title that talks about rage,

which started as a matchbox with matches.

And this woman who was dealing with mental illness

created all these flames around it, and said,

"This is really the first time I've been able to express

"this, this anger that I feel at this illness

that I... that I'm experiencing."

And so often that is therapeutic in itself, Jared,

being able to say this is how it feels, I want to be heard,

I want to share this with others.

And this image is what allows me to do this.

>> BOWEN: What are some of the things you've heard

from from clinical staff in terms of the awakenings,

the realizations they've had through through E.D.I.?

>> We hear from staff

that they have worked with patients who were

just at logjams, who wouldn't open up,

and wouldn't express themselves and couldn't.

So often what they've heard is,

"Don't ask me that same question.

"I've been asked a million times why I'm using drugs

"or why it... what it felt like

"when I started using again,

I'm sick of being asked that question."

The clinicians say once you allow that same person

to express those things through an image

that they take pride in, that they enjoyed creating,

that they can't wait to share with others,

it changes the therapeutic dynamic entirely.

>> BOWEN: This is becoming widespread it sounds like.

>> It is.

We really started in the Boston area.

I happen to be on the board

of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.

So that's where it began because that was

an easy first step for us to test this.

But from then, it's grown initially in the Boston area

of places like McLean Hospital and Boston Children's Hospital,

Tufts Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital.

But then we're national now as well at renowned organizations.

>> BOWEN: I can imagine some of the images

that people take themselves

are very revelatory.

>> They are.

In fact, in this example, this is a young woman

who has dealt with chronic mental illness

for many, many years.

And it begins with her striking a very poignant pose

with her head between her knees.

And she had somebody take a photograph of her in this pose

and then she took all the color out of it and added some effects

to make it look even more stark.

And her title on this image is

"Sick and tired of being sick and tired".

So, so powerful.

>> BOWEN: Do you recommend that people title their images?

>> Yes, we learned very early on that just a few words

as a caption with the image

add some very important context and power.

>> BOWEN: So what about you?

You're, you're not a doctor.

Growing up you weren't necessarily an artist.

I don't think you would call yourself that.

So how did you come to this?

>> So, yeah, I was a business consultant for my whole career.

So very, very different from what I'm engaged with now.

I had taken up photography as a hobby,

and then very unexpectedly, it became therapeutic

when we had a medical challenge in my own family.

And I began to realize how my own imagery was allowing me

to express aspects of my life

and things that I was going through in a way

I never could have anticipated.

>> BOWEN: So you have two books,

one just recently released.

You haveThe Brewster Flats, The Cape Cod National Seashore

is your second, most recently released book.

You definitely have an aesthetic, a tone,

I would argue.

Is that your ongoing E.D.I. process?

>> I think it is.

And the images that I create really are my own expressions.

And those images on the Brewster Flats, on Cape Cod,

or on the Cape Cod National Seashore

are really created in times when I am alone.

And the images that I create are really reflections

of what I'm experiencing in any given moment.

>> BOWEN: And, finally, I just want to end by asking,

I've been really struck to see

how doctors now are using E.D.I.

in what is this horrific, horrifically traumatic time,

especially now, especially as we see the hospitals so strapped,

people have been in this morass of a pandemic for,

for almost the better part of a year.

So how are they using it?

>> Yes, so you're absolutely right,

and while we began on the patient side,

our work has extended very significantly,

significantly to caregivers.

Probably the best example of that

is now in the, in the age of COVID.

And in this example actually, from Tufts Medical Center,

really is... really kind of shows

how this can be so powerful.

So this is Dr. Emory Petrack,

who is the chief of pediatric emergency medicine at Tufts.

And now with COVID, when he approaches patients,

in many ways, he looks like an alien, right?

So what he is done, as you see in this image,

is he has created images with E.D.I.

that he has now affixed to his gowns.

>> BOWEN: Well, Steve Koppel, it's such a,

it's so interesting to speak with you,

showing us the ever-expanding bounds...

boundaries of the power of art.

And we should also mention

that your two books that we mentioned benefit E.D.I.

They also benefit preservation of the seashore on Cape Cod.

Thank you so much for joining us.

>> Thanks.

It's been a real pleasure, Jared.

I really appreciate it.

>> BOWEN: Singer Lori McKenna and a comedic opera?

The new year is looking better and better--

at least we're trying for it, anyway--

as we plan Arts This Week.

Spring is coming to Concord early this year.

Sunday, see floral versions of works,

including those by Loring Coleman,

inArt in Bloom.

It's a collaboration with the Garden Club of Concord

and is open throughout the holiday weekend.

("Piece of My Heart" by Janis Joplin playing)

>> ♪ Take another little piece of my heart now, baby ♪

>> BOWEN: Tuesday marks

singer-songwriter Janis Joplin's birthday.

Thanks to hits like "Piece of My Heart,"

50 years after her death she is still

one of the best-selling musicians in the U.S.

>> ♪ I know you got mountains to climb ♪

♪ But always stay humble and kind ♪

>> BOWEN: See Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Lori McKenna

Wednesday.

She's performing hits like "Humble and Kind"

in a free virtual fundraiser for The Center for Arts in Natick.

Friday, catch photographer John Brook's

idealized pictures of the human body

in the Griffin Museum of Photography's exhibition,

Return to Riverrun.

Saturday, MassOpera streams a command performance

of "Beautiful Bridegroom."

The comedic opera features a twist on an age-old theme:

a mother with two marriageable daughters

trying to find a spouse-- not for them-- but for herself.

Next, in Reno, Nevada, multimedia artist Nicole Ashton

creates singular public art: large-scale sculpture

built for public interaction.

>> I certainly am an artist who works in all mediums.

But over the years, I have to come realize

that my passion truly lies in interactive public art.

It can reach the masses,

it is there and lives on, will outlive me,

and will still be making an impact.

Interactive public art

is something as small as a little painting on a wall,

something that grabs your attention, draws you into it,

or something as large as a monument,

something that you can

go touch, feel, get inside of,

be a part of it, move things around,

and anything that makes you feel like

you are a piece of that art.

Public art doesn't work without people.

Curiosity kind of opens up to their own dreams,

gets the mind going, and hopefully,

sparks something creative

in all the people that go to see it.

All of my sculptures, they always start with a dream,

and it's more like they're a machine instead of art.

If I don't take the time to sketch it out,

write things down when I wake up,

I'll have the same dream the next night.

That gets repetition,

so I finally just gave in,

I was like, "All right, I'm gonna follow this,

I'm gonna do this every morning,"

and that's how "Transcendent Souls" came about.

That was my first solo piece that I worked on

that was that large of a scale.

It was a crash course in structural engineering,

how to figure out

taking a model that's this big

to something that's 28 feet tall

and thinking about all of the structural engineering needs

and wind load.

"Transcendent Souls" really is about

the progression of own souls,

going through the steps and acknowledging our faults,

our strengths, and doing everything in a manner of grace.

As long as you believe in what you're doing

and just keep going, do it step by step,

that's the process that's worked for me.

"As You Wish" was the project

after "Transcendent Souls"

and it is all about going in with the intention,

knowing what your heart's desire is, what your wish is.

In that, I was kind of pulling from myself all my doubts.

The fear of not having funds

to buy the materials

and how it's going to work,

but when you're in that process and you've gone that far,

you'll do anything you can to make it happen.

"Dreamcaster" is an opportunity

to look into all of the "what ifs."

So it's really important

when you're doing a large-scale piece,

to do a maquette,

so you can get a better idea

of what your build process is going to be.

I have become the person that thinks about

things like shipping and building.

So, how do you make it fit into a box?

Where are you gonna separate it? How is it gonna get loaded?

That part of the process

is really a good... a good place to start.

The pieces all are going to be all reclaimed

with the exception of structural steel.

Inside the framework of those hexagons

of the dome will be individual dreamcasters.

They're meant to all be different.

The top of the dome will have another crystal,

and this time, we're gonna go dig it out ourself.

Anybody can do this,

it's all about just having the drive

and the will to do it,

and I hope that that's what everybody who experiences it

walks away with.

Public art, for me, it's meant to inspire,

it's meant to excite, it can even be meant

to get you angry,

meant to push you to make a change.

Hopefully, it just gets their wheels turning

and they go off and they do amazing things.

>> BOWEN: Staying in Reno for a moment,

artist Joe C. Rock does rock it.

A quick note, this piece was shot before the pandemic.

>> My name is Joe C. Rock,

and I'm a muralist and artist here in Reno, Nevada.

I create all kinds of art,

but I definitely tend to

more of a street-style of graffiti art,

but then figure painting's my favorite,

but muralism would be like the biggest key point.

The idea of like, urban or grittiness

really appeals to me,

just because that's like who I am.

I listen to rap music, I spray-paint,

these are all things that are very urban.

I love graffiti, I love, you know, buildings,

and I love just that chaos of just traffic

and people walking and honking of horns.

And that's the other part of it is,

if you look at my painting,

I love just making a mess, too, you know?

Like that crazy chaotic mess,

and then the beauty on top of it.

If you look at this painting that same idea.

This door is just gross, old,

but then there's the girl inside

who is just very soft and pristine and

painted very nicely.

And it's just that counterplay of ideas that is also great.

I've been drawing my entire life.

My mom taught me how to write really young,

and I always just had a pen or pencil

or crayons in my hands.

So I just really always had it in my blood.

When I was, you know, two or three,

my mom, she had to like

line the house with butcher paper

as far as I could reach 'cause I was like painting,

so I guess I've been doing murals

since I've been, like, three. (laughs)

Starting a mural is different every time.

I don't really ever know how I'm gonna actually start like,

putting paint to the wall first.

It just really depends on the finished product as well.

Like the one at... that one,

I chalked the drawing in first

because I wanted a lot of the blue

showing through the entire time.

And then from chalking it in,

then I went into spray paint and doing that.

Then going back and cutting back

with the wall color, fixing my lines up,

then started doing shading

and doing the different layers of shading.

It's really hard to judge

on how long a mural's going to take.

It can be anywhere from five hours

to 50 for the same mural.

So sometimes, if I'm on it,

I can bust out a portrait really perfect in five hours,

and have it be the same that it would take me 50 to render it,

because you just sometimes make mistakes,

and it goes, but sometimes everything goes well

and it just lines up right from the beginning.

I love when people come up and tell me

what they think about it.

'Cause I love that,

when I'm painting something

and I never thought about that,

and someone comes up and they're like,

"Oh, is that Marilyn Monroe and JFK?"

and, like, you know, you just hear these things,

and I'm like, "No, but it could be."

Like I'm not saying it's not, so.

And I love that about it.

I would love for people to come away from my art feeling happy.

Like, that's one thing.

Or like, moved, or just people taking notice of it

is great, you know.

And I think art in a public space is,

just, it's great for anyone.

I mean it just livens up a dead wall,

you know,

it gives someone something to look at.

Reno is full of murals.

There's murals all over.

If you walk from Plum all the way downtown,

it's just this corridor

of murals everywhere.

It's an easy way to change an area,

and that's kinda what happened here,

was we started painting murals on a lot of businesses,

because younger people started opening businesses.

A building that looks dilapidated,

if you paint a mural on the side,

it becomes an attraction, you know.

It becomes where people are sitting there,

taking pictures in front of it, selfie-ing.

People tend to congregate around them,

so it's just an...

it's an easy way to change something.

>> BOWEN: And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.

Next week--

from dressing Mary Todd Lincoln to Coco Chanel,

it's the women who revolutionized fashion.

Plus, Tony Award-winning actor Denis O'Hare

takes the crown as he breaks downKing Lear.

>> What a massive revelation to say,

"I was lied to. I am not a good human being.

"I am not all-knowing.

I am not all-powerful, I am nothing."

>> BOWEN: Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.

Thanks for joining us.

And as always, you can visit us online at GBH.org/OpenStudio.

And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,

@OpenStudioGBH.

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