Open Studio with Jared Bowen


Wifredo Lam and Israeli Stage

Jared takes a closer look at Imagining New Worlds, a retrospective of artist Wifredo Lam’s work, on view at The McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College through Dec. 14. Jared also speaks with the founder of Israeli Stage about bringing Israeli theater to Boston.

AIRED: October 17, 2014 | 0:26:46

>> 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, the misplaced master--

rediscovering the forgotten painter Picasso favored.

>> He became involved emotionally and intellectually

with different movements, and from that emotion he painted.

>> BOWEN: Then the founder of Israeli Stage brings

a global view to Boston theater.

>> I think what's interesting about Israeli theater

is that it's really loaded with a lot of different issues.

>> BOWEN: Plus, we learn how a sculptor fell into claymation.

>> I feel like art picked me.

>> BOWEN: And a visually impaired photographer

finds a new way to look at light.

>> It's just liberating for me in terms of being creative.

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

First up, there's a movement right now to rescue

one of the great modern painters from the crevices of history.

There was a time when the Cuban-born artist

Wifredo Lam was on the precipice of promise.

Picasso considered him family.

The great art patron Peggy Guggenheim adored him.

In advance of some major international shows,

Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art reminds us why.

Simply put, it's staggering.

From beginning to end, the career of Cuban-born artist

Wifredo Lam was robust, vigorous, and wildly disparate.

He traveled the world, inhaled the works of the greats,

and steeped himself in the cultures that moved him.

>> He's difficult to categorize.

He's a complex man.

>> BOWEN: With an equally complex beginning,

says curator Elizabeth Goizueta, who spent ten years

assembling this Lam retrospective

at Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art.

Born in 1902, Lam immediately had four continents

in his blood.

>> I don't think he could... he had any choice but to remain

open as an African Spanish Chinese man

born in the Caribbean.

His godmother was a Santera priestess, his mother

was a devout Roman Catholic.

That was his normalcy.

And I think that he kind of had a quest and a hunger

for that, and continued to explore that.

>> BOWEN: Starting in Spain, where he studied at the Prado

and was spellbound by the Surrealists.

>> I don't think he had an agenda per se.

I think he became involved emotionally and intellectually

with different movements, and from that emotion

he painted.

>> BOWEN: The Spanish Civil War forced Lam to Paris

in the 1930s, putting him in close proximity to the artist

he held above all others.

>> In an interview he says, "Seeing Picasso's work was much

like a pervasion of the spirit."

it just kind of infused him with inspiration.

>> BOWEN: By the late 1930s Lam had what he'd yearned for--

a letter of introduction to Picasso.

>> And Picasso puts his arm around him and says,

"You remind me of somebody I knew long ago-- me."

So, you know, it's classic, quintessential Picasso.

But I think that endorsement gave Lam the ability

and the power to continue to explore these motifs

that he was very interested in exploring.

And as a black man it gave him more credibility

even than Picasso.

>> BOWEN: Did he struggle with race in his own identity?

>> Before 1941 he never experienced racism,

either in Spain or France.

It was upon his return to Cuba that he became very familiar

with the Negritude Movement, and a champion, if you will,

of those causes to raise the black person to a level

of dignity that all men have.

>> BOWEN: It was World War II which had forced Lam

back to Cuba and then on to New York where he took up

with the abstract expressionists.

He was, Goizueta says, a sponge.

>> What is so extraordinary about his work is

he doesn't get stagnated in one particular period,

but yet he's always compelled to move forward and to look

at the next period.

>> BOWEN: For the next 40 years, until his death in 1982,

Lam continued to push himself, to explore.

But as much as he thirsted for artist circles,

more than anything, Lam identified with poets.

>> He says that himself,

he would have liked to have been a poet,

but he says, "I think painting can be just as eloquent."

It's more as if you would approach poetry

with a very open mind and to try to absorb

what he's trying to tell the viewer.

>> BOWEN: Perhaps for his insatiable quest for the new,

Lam has long been beyond the full grasp of critics.

But thanks to the McMullen show and upcoming European ones,

that is all about to change.

>> There is a shift.

Lam has in the past been maybe pigeonholed

as a surrealist or as a Latin-Americanist.

But I think now he is truly staking his claim

as one of the great modernists of the 20th century.

>> BOWEN: As you see here.

Oh God-- that is the play staged this week

by Israeli Stage-- an intriguing title by an equally fascinating

theater company.

Its founder has made it his mission to scour Israel

for shows he can bring to the United States

for a fresh and decidedly international flair.

Guy Ben-Aharon, you're the founder of Israeli Stage.

Maureen Keiller, you're starring inOh God.

But Guy, what did you see?

Why bring Israeli Stage here, the Israeli Stage here,

in essence?

Did you find that there was a vacuum

in the Boston theater scene?

>> Yeah, I found that though Boston has a lot

of different kind of theaters, with lots of great missions...

>> BOWEN: A lot.

Probably more than we've ever known.

>> Right.

I mean it's amazing, right-- at the expo, 70 theater companies.

But not one has a mission towards an international angle.

And so that was missing for me.

And having been born in Israel, I really wanted to share

my culture here with an American audience.

So I founded Israeli Stage five years ago

with that sort of mission.

>> BOWEN: Well, Maureen, let me... we'll talk about

Oh God in a moment, and your role there.

But when you go dive into these scripts and you see

the viewpoints and the perspectives

of the Israeli playwrights,

does it seem and feel very different to you?

>> It does feel different.

I've done two readings with Israeli Stage.

And in the first one I was playing an Arab woman

who was buried up to her waist while her lover...

she was a professor.

Her lover is collecting stones to stone her,

because they are adulterers.

And, you know, that kind of theater you don't really see

a lot of here.

And what we're doing withOh God is... it's a lovely story.

It's a woman who has lost her faith along the way.

And God shows up, this patient, who...

>> BOWEN: She's a therapist.

>> I'm a therapist.

I'm a therapist with an autistic son.

And, you know, having had a really difficult life, has

sort of lost her faith.

And God shows up needing help himself, because he is also,

like, having a crisis.

He's lost his powers, he feels weak.

And they both realize that they very much

need each other, and they find their own faith back

through each other.

And it's lovely.

And there aren't a lot of plays like that here.

It's very different.

>> BOWEN: And the title sounds so glib, but this is

obviously a piece with a lot of heft.

And I would imagine coming out of Israel and the Middle East,

as you just mentioned,

so charged by the political situation there,

that that is most of what's coming out of Israel

at this point, sort of filled with these kinds of, you know,

very full voices.

>> Yeah.

I think what's interesting about Israeli theater is that

it's really loaded with a lot of different issues.

So not a play that tackles one thing, but rather, you know,

encapsules a whole world.

So the theater there is very distinctive in that sense.

The voices are very varied, from diverse, different backgrounds,

a lot of female playwrights.

And that's something... you know, we're very proud

thatOh God has been our sort of hit show and a milestone

for us by Anat.

And she herself always had this element of faith

in all her plays.

She battled with faith as she was battling with cancer.

And for 15 years,

she was a part of a secular Bible scholars group.

So she was really battling with these issues of the land

where she was living in through a modern lens,

and I always think it's fascinating.

>> BOWEN: When you hear that this huge population

in Israel goes to theater on a regular basis, I mean,

what do you make of that?

I mean, is that at all comparable here?

I mean, how does that feel here?

>> It's very different.

I mean, those are astonishing numbers-- let's face it.

It would be great to get more people into the theaters.

It's a very small group of people who go.

Like, you tend to see a lot of the same people

at all the same shows, and it would be really nice

to get some more diverse audiences in there.

So that's kind of what I like about doing Israeli Stage, too,

because the audiences are so smart, and they see

everything you do.

I mean, it's kind of amazing.

And it's not just that it's a... because it really isn't

just a Jewish-centric company at all.

It's really more about Israel.

And the talkbacks and just the people who are responding

to the work, it's so amazing how engaged they are,

and excited they are about it.

It's really great.

>> BOWEN: And how much is it also about

getting your voice out?

Obviously, theater in some... theater comes about

for a number of different reasons.

You know, it can be pure entertainment, it can be

to get at our psyche.

But how much in Israel is it about sort of churning

through the strife and everything that people

are enduring in the Middle East?

>> It's interesting.

I think that those shows tend to be in the black box.

You know, I think people want to go and have

a great night at the theater, just like they do here.

So we have sort of the kitchen dramas

and the shows that are more about laughing

and getting something up.

But I think that even a show likeOh God... you know,

it played the bigger theaters

and toured to all the municipal theaters in Israel.

And there are moments of it that are very light and funny,

but it has a real poignancy that I think...

>> The humor's great.

>> The humor is great.

It helps with this struggle for faith, which I think,

you know, one in that political climate would have.

>> BOWEN: So Maureen, I do happen to know you

a little bit, so I know your personality.

But how does one access being God's therapist?

>> Well, you know, God and I have a personal relationship.

No, it's just... working with Will Lyman...

>> BOWEN: Who plays God.

>> ...who plays God...

>> BOWEN: Who is God.

>> Who is God.

> BOWEN: And who also, for our PBS audience,

the voice ofFrontline here at WGBH.

>> That's right, that's right.

Working with him just one on one is just such a gift.

He gives you so much, and... what was the question?

I digress.

>> BOWEN: How you access being God's therapist.

Given you have a pretty great personality,

a pretty dominant personality already.

>> Well, she's pretty dominant in the play, too.

She's tough.

She's really tough.

She's got a lot of issues behind her.

But I understand how people have a need to share with each other,

and just how important it is to have that kind of connection

with someone else, and someone who is listening,

and someone who will understand and not judge.

So that's it.

Is that right?

>> BOWEN: Well, I'll tell you after I see it.

But Guy, you're obviously the one who chose it

and programmed it into your season, your stage.

What about the show really resonated with you?

>> It was... well, first of all it was for a while

that we were thinking, "What are we going to do by Anat Gov?"

Anat... this December it will be two years since she passed away.

And during her lifetime we were already talking about when...

you know, she knew it was coming to an end.

So the first show we did by her was calledBest Friends.

And I knew that our 2013-2014 season

should start with a comedy.

I wanted to start something with a laugh, and I was really

drawn to this piece personally, and have been personally

moved by it, seeing it so many different times with so many

different audiences and the reactions, is that...

even, you know, somebody who's secular... I think before

we did this show, I was more adamant about saying,

"I don't believe in God."

And now, after, you know, watching the show, experiencing

the show, you know, doing all this table work,

being in the car with, you know, you and Will together

and talking about it all the time,

this idea that we don't know.

You know, maybe there is one, maybe there isn't.

I think that's really appealing, this idea that it's

more ambiguous.

And I think what the show offers is that God is the little gift

that we give one another.

And I think that's a beautiful message.

And if that is what God is, then I'm a believer, you know?

>> It's also interesting that God is a very flawed person

in this.

>> Yeah.

>> And you think that God is this all-perfect being.

And just to have a God presented to you that has doubts

and fear, and... like fear of abandonment,

it's just a really interesting way to look at God

in a different way.

And it makes a little more... the connection with God

more understandable and more real because, you know,

you just want to connect with each other.

>> BOWEN: It sounds fascinating.

Oh God is playing right now.

Guy Ben-Aharon, thank you so much for joining us.

Maureen Keiller, if I ever need to talk now,

I know I'll call you.

>> Jared, we can talk.

I'm listening.

>> BOWEN: Thank you both for joining us.

>> Thanks.

>> Thank you.

>> BOWEN: Next, we profile animator Seth Mittag

in his Texas home, where many of his claymation fantasies

take shape.

His fascination with cartoons dates back to childhood,

but Mittag's career as an animator was pure happenstance.

>> Yeah, Conner the Barbarian!

>> Thanks, Dad, right?

>> Yeah, rockin'.

>> As a kid I studied cartoons, of course, like every kid.

My brothers and I, we would copy, drawing cartoons.

We would drive my mother crazy

by speaking in cartoon voice all day long.

>> Go ahead, rub my face in it.

>> You know, I had this, like, background in knowing a lot

about cartoons and things, so...

My wife was at a party in New York.

And she was hanging out with some producers and things

like that.

And I had, at home, been making these little

claymation cartoons.

And she found out that one of the producer guys

owned an animation studio, and she told them that I was

an animator.

Which in the business means, like, you have an agent,

and you get, like, lots of money, when in reality

I'd just been making these little cartoons.

And he was like, "Great!

"We're shooting this thing, I need some more animators.

Can you have him come down?"

And so I ran down to the studio to do the animation test.

And I was like, "Well, I don't really do this,

but I'm a sculptor."

And so they stuck me in the sculptor...

sculpting department, and that's how I got started.

I've worked on commercials for Howard Johnson,

Progresso Soup.

I did something really cool for the Globetrotters,

which was really great.

And a television show on Nickelodeon.

I worked on the pilot.

I make animations.

I also make the things in and around animation.

So I'm really interested in this idea for gallery

or fine art shows to have the feeling of an animation studio.

So I usually show sets and characters

and short spots of animation.

And to me it relates to the time that I spent working

in an animation studio.

>> Good afternoon.

The worst is apparently over for the area around Brownsville

as Hurricane Alan makes its way farther inland...

>> The hurricane project started when I found this film footage

of 1980 Hurricane Alan on YouTube.

I took the audio from it and then reanimated the newscast.

And part of the story talks about this tornado

that hits a trailer home.

And so I decided, well, I needed to build this trailer home.

So the trailer home's in the tree, and then we have

the animation.

And so it builds kind of a whole story around that event.

Eventually in the story the family decides to continue

to live in the trailer home after it's in the tree.

And so they become

this sort of redneck Swiss Family Robinson thing.

So anyway, it's just kind of my own little funny take on it.

>> We ran into the bathroom

and then it soared just like that.

>> I feel like art picked me.

I've always made things.

My family, we all make things.

And it's just something I'll always do.

So I can't really imagine not making things or making art.

Two can play this game.


>> BOWEN: Finally, on any given afternoon, you can find

photographer Craig Royal perched over the railing

beneath his favorite Florida bridge.

By snapping photographs of rippling water, Royal says

he has liberated himself from his constricting

visual impairment, and has found a new way to look at light.

>> I have optic nerve damage, or optic atrophy it's also called.

I've had it since birth.

My left eye is corrected to 20/350 and my right eye

is corrected to 20/450, which averages out to 20/400,

which means I can barely see the top of the eye chart.

My central vision is a white blind spot.

The blurred peripheral vision has an impressionist quality

about it, like an impressionist painting.

I don't see a lot of detail.

In particular, my visual impairment abstracts

are specifically about my visual impairment, my blurred vision,

and the blind spot that I see.

Trying to figure out what to do creatively,

and I bought a Nikon D40 and started taking pictures

with that.

It's a really nice process to go through,

and very accessible for someone who is visually impaired.

I take the photos in rapid succession.

I use... the camera will shoot six frames per second.

So I'm just continually firing as the water ripples

in front of me.

And I'm using a 7300-millimeter lens.

So it's a telephoto lens.

And it picks up the detail of the reflection,

something you really wouldn't see from where you're standing.

And I use a slow shutter speed, about an eight of a second

or less.

And that allows the reflection to expand and slow down a bit

as it moves across the water.

And it creates some really fantastic shapes.

Back in 2008, I was under the bridge photographing

the reflections of the understructure of the bridge--

the pylons and the lintels and that whole form reflected

into the water, and was interested in that,

and how the ripples would affect that.

And one shot, it showed this band of white light

which comes from this narrow gap in the center of the bridge.

And I looked at it, and then I saw this other band of light.

It was yellow light.

And that was a band of direct sunlight

hitting the water, so that you have the reflection

of the direct sunlight and the reflection of the sky,

so there are two different bands there.

And so I was real curious about that once I noticed it

in the photograph onscreen.

Started photographing those bands of light

and how they are activated by the rippling water,

and the abstract forms

the light would take due to that rippling.

It brought the reflections into the third dimension,

and it just created some fascinating forms

and shapes that really captivated my imagination.

Reflections suggest something-- say, a face.

And I feel like it's not quite complete, you know.

I'll alter it to make it more obvious, the face.

And I've done that in particular with a series

calledPersistence of Memory.

See, this gap here creates this reflection,

and that's where it all happens.

I've described the setting as the water being a canvas,

reflection being pigment and the wind as the brush,

and that these three elements come together and are able

to create abstract art or an image

that's more suggestive, say, like a face.

The technical term for that is pareidolia,

where the human mind tries to make sense of abstract stimulus.

Like, people will see animals in clouds and things like that.

I find that in these reflections

and that will create a story around it for me.

It just resonates.

I was surprised to find this piece of wood

floating inside a reflection

when I got the image uploaded to the computer.

And the reflections interacted.

Like, they will touch it, like, delicately,

and I'll move back and they'll touch it in different areas.

It's really an interesting interaction

between light and form.

I enjoy the immediacy of photography so much

and the ability to use a camera as a paintbrush

to create abstract art.

It's just liberating for me in terms of being creative.

It's just been wonderful.

>> BOWEN: That is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.

Next week we dive intoSwan Lake as Boston Ballet reimagines

the most classic of ballets with new costumes, sets

and choreography.

Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.

Thanks for joining us.

As always you can visit us online at

And you can follow us on Twitter, @OpenStudioWGBH.

>> It's a pretty interesting landscape in Israel,

and it's very different from here.

Because we have repertory-based companies.

So we have three huge theaters, and our biggest theater

sold 1.5 million single tickets last year,

in a country that is 6.5 million people.


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