Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S9 E13 | FULL EPISODE

Mayflower II, Aspen Golann, "Otherworld," and Amy Sherald

The restoration of the Mayflower II, a replica of the tall ship that brought the pilgrims to Plymouth in 1620 and its reopening to the public. Artist and furniture maker Aspen Golann who received the Mineck Fellowship, one of the largest prizes in the furniture and craft field, an art installation, “Otherworld,” from Ohio and former first lady Michelle Obama’s portrait painter, Amy Sherald.

AIRED: October 09, 2020 | 0:26:46
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
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,

we make our way toMayflower II.

>> Come on board, Jared.

Let's go aboardMayflower II.

>> BOWEN: I'm sure it never gets old for you.

>> Not at all.

>> BOWEN: Then a furniture maker

furnishes her own seat at the table.

>> On one level, you can look at it and just see

a nice piece of antique American furniture,

and on another level, you start to see

this completely different conversation about gender.

>> BOWEN: And where all the Otherworld is a stage.

>> When a visitor walks in,

our goal is for you to be completely overwhelmed.

We really want you to not be able to predict

what's around every corner.

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

First up, somewhat lost in this pandemic era

is the fact that this is the 400th anniversary

of the Pilgrims landing on these shores,

arriving from England aboard theMayflower.

As part of the commemoration,

its full-scale replica, Mayflower II,

recently returned to Plymouth after a massive restoration.

In Plymouth Harbor,Mayflower II is the embodiment of promise,

a full-scale replica of the ship

that delivered Pilgrims to American shores,

where they expected to establish religious freedom.

>> It was a Greyhound bus of its era.

It was just a ship that a group of people had hired

to get them to what they thought would be Virginia

and ended up being New England.

>> BOWEN: Today, though, it's an indelible part

of this nation's founding.

And on the 400th anniversary of that famous sailing,

Mayflower II has just undergone

a three-year, multimillion- dollar restoration.

What do you see when you look at theMayflower II?

>> The American story.

That for me,

Mayflower is a memory device and it is a symbol.

For someone that has direct family ties to that ship,

it may mean one thing.

For an Indigenous person, it may have another meaning.

>> BOWEN: The ship is operated by nearby Plimoth Plantation,

where Richard Pickering is deputy executive director.

The historic site recreates life during those first

precarious years as the Pilgrims settled here.

Although Plimoth Plantation's name is changing.

>> We wanted to make certain

that the Wampanoag voice, the Indigenous voice,

was as important as the English voice.

So we have become Plimoth Patuxet Museums.

>> BOWEN: Back to theMayflower II,

it gleams once again, and, more importantly,

it's staying afloat, says Captain Whit Perry.

>> When I first took the job before we did the restoration,

the bilge pump would be coming on seven or eight times a day

to pump out the water coming in.

And of course, the first, first rule of any boat or ship

is, keep the water on the outside.

>> BOWEN: The ship's restoration happened

at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut,

where a team of shipwrights and artisans

restored the ship's sails, wood, and metal parts,

sometimes even using 17th-century tools.

>> No one was just coming to work to punch a time card.

Everybody took a vested interest.

Come on board, Jared, let's go aboardMayflower II.

>> BOWEN: I'm sure it never gets old for you.

>> Not at all.

>> BOWEN: Like a kid still excited to show off his new toy,

Perry took me around the ship, pointing out the paint colors,

bright combinations chosen so sailors could identify

ships from afar.

And the tween deck,

where more than 100 Pilgrim passengers were relegated

for their 66-day crossing.

>> It's kind of like... no umbrella drinks

and a Carnival cruise for those folks in 1620.

>> BOWEN: So quarantined, but no social distancing.

>> Exactly.

>> BOWEN: Perry points out where restoration has happened,

like on this windlass, which hoists the anchor.

And where whole sections of the ship have been fully replaced,

an expedition all its own, with wood sourced

from around the world.

>> We actually started coining the phrase "from tree to sea."

We would start right with the log in the woods,

and one of my favorite parts was going out in the woods

with a spray can to pick the trees right out of the forest.

>> BOWEN: Steering theMayflower was nearly as complicated.

>> You can see that we can't really see much out here at all.

So how do you steer the ship?

Certainly, they would have had a magnetic compass,

and the helmsman would be down here.

But if you look at this hatch grating,

the officer of the deck would be giving steering commands

from up on the half deck.

>> BOWEN:Mayflower II was gifted to the U.S.

by England in 1957,

a thank you for American support during World War II.

It crossed the Atlantic then,

and set sail again on the open sea this summer,

as it returned from Connecticut.

Perry captained the ship with a crew of 27.

Is it peaceful?

>> Oh, yeah.

Yup, it's all of those romantic sounds

that we all know and love from movies,

of the creaking of the rigging,

the wood working against each other as the ship moves

like a living thing, and twists and moves,

which it's meant to do.

>> BOWEN: There's one sound, though,

which Perry saves for the occasional visitor

who also happened to have emceed

the ship's launch ceremony in Connecticut.

>> Jared, thank you very much

for showing an interest in Mayflower.

I think you should ring our bell for us,

the Mayflower Bell.

>> BOWEN: I would gladly-- do I get down at all into it?

>> What we're going to do, it's about 1:00.

So that would be two bells on the sailors' watch schedule.

So if you'll give it a ding-ding,

that will let the sailors know that it's 1:00.

>> BOWEN: All right, here goes.

(bell rings twice)

1:00 and all is well, and as it was.

When Aspen Golann started making period furniture,

she was shocked by how male-dominated the field is.

So she began making what could be called feminist furniture.

Her unique approach paid off.

She recently won one of the largest prizes

in the furniture and craft field, the Mineck Fellowship.

Aspen Golann, thank you so much for joining us.

>> Thanks so much for having me.

>> BOWEN: Well, congratulations on your fellowship,

but first, to start off,

describe for me how you describe your furniture.

>> I was trained in traditional

17th- through 19th-century American furniture.

So everything is made with hand tools,

you know, the typical adornments and curves

that you associate with period furniture from early America.

Um, a lot of that manifests in my more contemporary work.

So it's an interesting crossover, I would say.

Between traditional and contemporary.

>> BOWEN: So what drew you to it to begin with?

>> To woodworking, furniture? >> BOWEN: Yeah, yeah.

>> Oh, yes, I think...

A lot of people talk about,

um, the material itself, just being obsessed with wood.

And for me, it's not that-- for me, it was the scale.

I like the thought of being able to make something

that I can then sit on or stand next to.

There's something so incredibly empowering about it.

And I think also about making functional work.

I also know that a lot of artists

are inspired by wide open plains.

And for me, I actually like constriction, I like rules.

And so I love having freedom

within those constrictions.

I find that to be the most empowering

sort of, like, design situation.

>> BOWEN: You say that, and yet we see how,

how you can break those boundaries and... you know,

I guess maybe it might not be epic in how

you can make it contemporary, but it's pretty dynamic.

>> Yeah, I mean, I think that once I started learning

just the, you know, the how-to of traditional forms,

you can't help but falling in love with those shapes.

And then once you start to fall in love

with the shapes, at least, for me, the question became,

can I divorce that aesthetic from the time period

in which it was popularized?

So is it possible to make old-school American furniture

without talking about race and gender and class equity?

And in my experience, no,

because I think that every, every aesthetic object

projects a series of values.

And so for me, it's like, once I started seeing

the texture of those moral implications,

I started playing with them.

And then that ended up creating an entire new body of work.

>> BOWEN: Well, you have really brought your notions

of being a woman into your furniture making.

How, how do we see that manifested in your works?

>> I think that it started creeping into my work

when I became aware of how isolated I was

in the field of furniture making.

Um, there are very few women active

in the furniture making field, and I started to realize that

the experience of feeling isolated was pretty much

a one-to-one experience with making furniture.

And so the experience of isolation and of being a woman

and feeling the fact, like, recognizing my own identity

at all times of day became part of woodworking for me.

And that was when I began to notice also

the relationship between furniture itself

and the female domestic experience.

That furniture is made to be looked at.

It's seen, it's not heard, it bears weight.

It welcomes, it makes the domestic space comfortable.

And all of those things started to really tally for me

and make me realize that furniture itself

was playing out a very similar, um, role

that I was expected to as a woman in my field.

>> BOWEN: You've not been doing this for very long,

but you've already made your mark.

How, how have you seen

you have been able to change form

with your distinctly feminine viewpoint?

>> Um, so, interestingly enough,

a lot of the work that I submitted

for the Mineck Fellowship was made

while I was still at school.

And so I had to find a way, while making traditional forms,

to start talking about what mattered to me.

And so you'll see that much of the form is, let's say,

of my clockA Clock Body,

is taken from a traditional 19th-century iconic clock form.

And then simply by adding this sort of

subversive glass, enameled image in the bottom section,

you start to make these plays on the body

and on the piece of furniture.

So the clock face becomes a woman's face

and the clock body starts to become a woman's body.

And the relationship between those two things

and the relationship between female, like women in power

and women in the role of furniture makers,

all start to work together.

>> BOWEN: So in what little bit I know about furniture making,

I know there, there are accepted traditions in teaching

and to some degree rules, so as you've broken out of these,

what's the response been like,

especially in this very male-dominated field?

>> It's been interesting.

Um, I think that about half of the people,

if not more, who see the work just see what they want to see,

which is a well-fabricated piece of antique furniture,

and that the rest, the rest of the impact of the piece

is only available to people

who are interested in engaging with it.

And to me, that was part of the feminist conversation

that I was trying to have.

The feminism of my work is not an empowered, loud feminism.

It's the, it's more talking about the experience

of being a woman in a space where you don't have power,

and where you need to be quiet,

and where you need to be yourself in order to, you know,

live and be happy, but at the same time,

you have to assimilate in order to function.

>> BOWEN: Do you feel like you're,

you're going to be a standard bearer going forward,

as you begin to, to make this work and talk about it

and do something very different?

>> You know, I mean, I hope that there are so many people joining

that I am merely one in a crowd. >> BOWEN: Yeah.

>> I mean I think that's most,

most people who are isolated in their fields,

all they want is for more people like them to join

so that there's a sense of critical mass

and so that there's more equity.

And that's a big part of the project proposal

that I had for the Mineck,

and, I think, a big piece of why I won.

>> BOWEN: So tell me about what

you would like to do going forward.

It came with a nice prize, and, yeah,

this, this expectation that you'll,

you'll turn around and you'll,

you'll be a guiding force in the community.

What do you want to do with it?

>> Yeah, the goal is to figure out a way

to learn how to make Windsor chairs more effectively,

and so the first part is to go and be mentored

by an incredible furniture maker and chair maker

in Southern New Hampshire named Peter Galbert.

And the second piece is to slowly build

a set of Windsor chair tools,

and these are some of the weirdest tools

that you've ever seen.

(both laughing)

They're hard to find and they,

there are very few people who make them.

And so one of my goals is to try

to create more equity and inclusion in the field

by actually reaching out to marginalized makers

and seeing if people are interested

in producing these tools for me.

The idea being that not only will I be purchasing the tools

directly from them, but that anyone who I teach

is likely to give them repeat business.

So to try to circulate this money

throughout the field of tool making and furniture making.

>> BOWEN: Aspen Golann, congratulations on everything

you achieved so far.

And thank you so much for joining us.

>> Thank you so much for having me.

>> BOWEN: It's time now for Arts This Week,

where we find tours galore.

Saturday, take the Cape Ann Artisan Tour.

Now in its 37th year, the tour takes you

to the studios of artisans creating works from pottery,

painting, and prints to jewelry and sculpture.

Take an art history class Wednesday.

The M.I.T. List Visual Arts Center

offers a virtual public art tour

of the works on campus.

Check out the art and architecture,

which is all part of this year's Boston Design Week.

How about some music with your art?

On Thursday, the MassArt Art Museum

and the school's illustration department

presentNoodle and Doodle,

a free live and virtual music drawing event.

Friday, head to the FABRIC Arts Festival in Fall River.

It celebrates artistic creation

and the fusion of Portuguese and American cultures.

(orchestra playing)

Have a soothing Saturday, when New England Conservatory

streams a concert like this one, complete with 20 string players

and a conductor, live from historic Jordan Hall,

and all for free.

We move to Columbus, Ohio, now,

for a 32,000-square-foot installation.

It's an immersive art experience calledOtherworld,

whose wide web is tantalizing visitors.

>> Well, this is Scott Sliger over here, he's sculpting,

he's sculpting right now a spider creature head?

We're in East Columbus.

This is going to be

the site ofOtherworld.

It's a 32 and some change- thousand-square-foot

interactive art installation that we're building.

It's kind of a combination of, like,

a children's science center

and an escape room and a haunted house

and an art gallery,

so we're kind of mixing and mashing a lot

of different genres of art and entertainment.

(grinding)

We're hoping that it can appeal

to people of all ages and backgrounds.

So when you arrive here,

you're actually arriving at the headquarters

of Otherworld Industries.

It's a company that is... they've kind of been doing

this alternate-realm exploration.

They sort of stumbled across this dream realm.

That's kind of, like, the base reality of it.

But once you go into this, this other world,

there's all sorts of these little mini adventures almost,

so almost like different choose-your-own-adventures

that are loosely intertwined.

>> So when a visitor walks in, uh,

our goal is for you to be completely overwhelmed.

We really want you to not be able

to predict what's around every corner.

It's almost like a page turn of, like, a graphic novel or a book,

where you turn that corner,

and just get like the (gasps) moment.

That's our goal.

This is the church.

So what you're kind of seeing is

the reaction of our sodium light.

What this does is, it takes the color spectrum out of the room.

So part of the room scale activation

is going to involve bringing that color spectrum back in.

So if we take a normal light,

then it kind of brings back the color.

So kind of putting these scenic changes

in the hands of the viewer.

>> Every single piece here, we fabricated in house,

we designed and fabricated on our own.

So there's nothing that's been bought

off the shelf from anywhere else-- it's all custom,

one-of-a-kind pieces.

So there's people with all sorts of different skill sets here

to make, you know, something like this come together.

>> So kind of entering into

the focal point of the space is their tree.

This is where we're kind of flexing the most muscles.

We have welding, scenic, tech, textiles.

There's also going to be some interactive elements

that can change the color of it,

so pretty much everything that's makingOtherworldOtherworld

is rolled up right in our center.

>> Almost every single surface

is interactive in some way.

There are a ton of L.E.Ds.,

there's a lot of interactive projection mapping.

We have some interesting new concepts

I'm trying out with projection mapping.

So we have a lot of, like, laser tracking.

We're tracking people throughout rooms using Lidar,

which is the same technology used in self-driving cars.

We have this 3D infinity room

that has a three-dimensional array, floor-to-ceiling,

of, like, L.E.D. noodles, inside of a room

where all the walls are mirrors.

>> So kind of what we're in right now

is a giant three-dimensional L.E.D. pixel grid

that is then mapped by our tech team.

So upon opening, there's actually

these large-scale 3D animations

that we can put in this room and put to music,

so it's not just kind of this ambient effect,

but you can actually have, like,

light physically traveling in 3D space through the room.

This is also the standard selfie room.

>> This isn't an escape room.

This is more like

a children's museum, so, you know,

you have to think about, how is this going to be used,

how is it going to wear over time,

how can we reduce the number of mechanical elements?

If we have to use mechanical elements,

what kind of materials can we use,

and how can we make sure that the electronics stay nice

and nestled and don't get damaged?

>> So I'm the production director.

My role is to make sure that all the things that we design

on paper get built in real life.

And then my favorite part is the creative problem solving,

where it's just, like,

weird challenges come up when you're making things

that no one's ever done before.

>> It's been really great to work with people

who specialize in, like, the physical world,

so that way I can focus on, like,

electronics and code, which are the things that I'm good at.

(ambient music playing)

>> Another thing is, we have

this interactive harp, this spiderweb harp device

that we're figuring out how to rig up into the air

12 feet up, so you can still pluck it

and there's not too much vibration going on the sensor

that it keeps tripping,

but there's enough vibration that it trips the sensor

and then kind of creates the harp effect.

>> So this is the seamstress room.

This is another one of our many narratives within the space.

Without revealing too much,

there is this seamstress character

who has a bunch of spider children and is creating

these kind of fluffy animals to feed to the spiders.

Or is she? We'll find out.

So all of this webbing was hand-webbed, hand-glued.

All the spiders were welded together custom

and then upholstered.

So when it's fully operational,

when you pluck the colored threads,

you get a room activation

where it actually becomes a giant harp.

>> I think this project has been able to bring together

a lot of creatives and has given them the opportunity to speak up

and have their ideas be heard

and have them communicate and challenge each other.

And I think we're showing a production model here

where kind of everyone gets to play to their fullest,

and I'm just hoping that later,

that we can set an example for that

in more creative spaces around the city.

>> Just come check it out, it's going to be sweet.

>> This is what I want to do forever, so...

(laughs)

>> I mean, yeah, there's nothing else like it anywhere.

>> BOWEN: Finally, Amy Sherald shot to international fame

with her commissioned portrait of former first lady

Michelle Obama, which now hangs

in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

And last month, she delivered a serene,

almost glowing portrait of Breonna Taylor

for the cover ofVanity Fair magazine.

As you'll see here,

Sherald describes her work as "American Realism."

>> I paint portraits because, growing up,

it was what I considered art.

I mean, it was what I saw

in encyclopedias of what represented art,

so becoming an artist meant being able to render the figure.

I knew that I wanted to be an artist

around the time that I was

in the second grade.

I'm not sure I knew what that meant,

but I knew that drawing was something that I liked to do

and I knew that I would rather do that than be around people.

It found me.

Yeah, I, I did not find that style, that style found me.

I don't really have a descriptor for my style.

I loosely attach myself

to the genre of American Realism.

Being that I consider myself mostly self-taught,

it's just how I paint.

It's how I see, it's how I paint.

My subjects are people of color because

I choose to paint and put out in the world

idealized versions of myself,

also realizing that if you look at the art historical canon,

there's a lack of representation

of people that look like me,

and that was enough reason for me

not to want to paint anybody else but myself.

I don't place my figures within a context

because I want the viewer to have a singular experience

with the person that's in the portrait.

The person that's in the portrait,

they're aware of the viewer

and they're aware that they're in this painting,

if you, if you will.

So since my work is a meditation on photography,

a lot of the images that were taken of African Americans

at one point in time were anthropological,

so it's also a critique on that frontal position.

It's a soft confrontation,

and I also hang my paintings a little bit lower

than they would normally be hung,

because I want them and the viewer

to actually have a real interaction.

For me, Michelle Obama's portrait,

beyond the professional and the historical aspects of it,

I think it changed who I was as a woman.

I think it gave me permission to ask for more of myself

and ask more of others.

Success has not changed me.

It has given me more agency to do things

that I want to do in the community.

It's given me social leverage.

I don't consider myself an activist,

but I consider myself a humanist and somebody who

is aware of what I have,

and what other people don't have,

and to share what I have gained with other people.

I see myself evolving

as a painter at this point mostly because

I have a bigger budget,

and so it's going to be easier for me to make

some of these larger paintings that

I've been wanting to make for years,

but just didn't have the money to make them.

And I'm not putting any pressure on myself

to become a different person.

I just am pursuing my practice

in the same way that I would,

but with the ability to fund

some of the bigger ideas that I have.

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

Next week, Boston Lyric Opera is taking the show on the road

in a tricked-out RV.

Plus, artist Adam Pendleton joins us

as he takes stock of the Gardner Museum.

Until then, I'm Jared Bowen, thanks for joining us.

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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