Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S9 E9 | FULL EPISODE

Playwright Paula Vogel, Artist Blane de St. Croix, and more

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel on her new startup playwriting series, "Bard at the Gate," a conversation with artist Blane De St. Croix on his exhibit at MASS MoCa, “How to Move a Landscape.” Nevada artist Ken Hines and his neon creations and the metal sculptures of California-based artist Pat Blide.

AIRED: September 11, 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 onOpenStudio,

if the show must go on, for Pulitzer Prize-winning

playwright Paula Vogel, that means it must go online.

>> For me, theater is still something that is important

for me to do, but I want to do it as a producer.

>> BOWEN: Then, theIceberg cometh.

A new exhibition at Mass MoCA

reveals the ravages of climate change.

>> We have to be responsible to nature

in how we participate and take care of this planet.

And, uh, I think it's all related together.

>> BOWEN: Plus, if Paris is the City of Lights,

one artist is making sure Reno is the City of Neon.

>> My art is hot glass,

electrodes, and neon gas.

And fire is my paintbrush.

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

First up, Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning play

How I Learned to Drive

was going to have its Broadway premiere this year.

Then came the pandemic.

While the fate of that premiere remains unknown,

Vogel has been putting her energies

into the worldwide stage: the internet.

She's launched Bard at the Gate,

an online series of play readings

featuring works that have been largely overlooked.

>> James Killingworth appears.

He moves with purpose, but he is yet jovial and radiant--

the prime actor.

>> Always the midnights, isn't it, Margaret?

>> The plot to rob me of my slumber.

Soon I'll look as old as you for the want of it.

>> Oh, come now, Margaret,

where's your sense of excitement?

>> BOWEN: Paula Vogel, thank you so much for joining us.

>> Thanks so much for having me, Jared.

>> BOWEN: So you have created this series,

presenting us playwrights who have been, who haven't very--

been properly looked at, or after,

until you've entered the fray here

to give them the exposure that's their due.

How long have you been wanting to do this?

>> About 30 or 40 years.

Uh, actually with the first play that I presented.

I wanted to do this in 1978.

>> BOWEN: Wow.

What was it about this moment

that you thought this, this was the time

to bring these artists forward?

>> Everyone in my community loves what they're doing,

making theater.

And just the kind of ache that I felt

not being able to go into the room,

be with other people, watch a world being made,

um, is, I think, as hard, almost as hard as the financial worry,

as, uh, the health worries.

And so, for many, many reasons, for me,

theater is still something that is important for me to do,

but I want to do it as a producer.

It seems to me that that's more important.

>> It's just that being stuck in this aide role

doesn't give me much of a chance, see?

Even though I'm supposed to be one of the sane ones.

One of the ones close to authority, and yet,

that's just it-- so close, yet so far away.

Kind of like I exist only in limbo,

only in transit, like all I can do is look at the script

from the outside.

>> BOWEN: Well, speaking of what you've done,

the last time I spoke with you on this show,

we were talking aboutIndecent, which...

It becomes truer and truer to our time every second.

>> I'm afraid so.

I'm afraid so, and...

You know, I, I know that there are a lot of casts

that are very disappointed.

There are a lot of companies

that had to close their productions,

or never got to open their productions ofIndecent.

It is this moment in time

where theater provides

the canary in the coal mine, I think.

And in that sense, I think art becomes an essential...

One becomes an essential worker in this moment of time.

>> BOWEN: Now, going back to your series,

what I think is so fabulous about it is that

we have seen over the past few months this call

to American theater to look in at itself,

to look deep inside itself, uh,

about all of the stories it hasn't been telling for decades,

the stories of people of color, not casting people of color,

not hiring people of color,

not tapping into them to share their stories.

And yet here you come,

and in just a matter of months present a whole season.

I know that you're not staging all, these are online.

But you, you were able to do it very quickly,

which I think is telling.

>> Um...

I think all of us who love theater

love theater because of its diversity.

For a very long time, I have been...

tired of...

upper-middle-class whiteness.

Seeing it and hearing it again and again and again,

when we watch television shows.

So for a very long time,

I thought, "Oh, my gosh, I've, I've got to go down

"to the Off-Off-Off-Broadway to find these voices

"who do astonishing things on almost no money

for two or three weekends," and I came back completely filled.

Um, and one does not see that in institutional theaters.

So, when I founded my playwriting program,

somehow or other, I was very lucky with my colleagues.

We raised money so that it was tuition-free

and everyone got a stipend.

>> Were you and Frank ever...

...lovers?

>> Uh, lovers?

You mean, as in... >> Yeah.

Now, don't get me wrong...

>> I don't think I'm getting you wrong.

>> If you were, it's okay with me.

>> But we weren't.

>> Now, I look at theater

the same way we look at our public libraries.

The same way we look at schools.

It should be free for everybody,

and there are ways that we can make theater pay

through outreach and education.

But we've turned our back on that.

They've come to a point

where they can't raise the money for a new play anymore.

>> BOWEN: What kind of confidence do you have

that this is going to change?

That the theater-makers,

while trying to balance capitalism,

uh, with the audiences who might not go to see something

that doesn't have X big-name actor,

what's your level of confidence that

it's going to be able to change in the way

that so many people want it to change?

>> We're in an empathy crisis right now.

We really are, and we're recognizing that.

And that empathy crisis has led to incredible racial injustice

that we're watching now every night on our television.

How do we form empathy, regardless of one's skin color?

You form empathy

through participating in the arts as a child.

You learn to draw.

You learn to play an instrument.

You learn to listen.

You learn to play imaginary characters.

You learn to write.

So, you know, always, I think, being a teacher,

it gives me kind of long view,

and maybe it's a delayed gratification,

but I'm sure that we will be gratified

as this younger generation gets empowered.

>> 25 years I've lived the life of action

and I have felt the theater bend.

Now it feels like to break.

>> Mark me well, William.

There is no end to theater.

You must have faith.

>> BOWEN: Next up in your series is a play by Eisa Davis.

Tell me quickly about that. >> Yes.

I read Eisa Davis'sBulrusher.

I've never seen this play.

This is why I have to do this series, Jared.

I read it when I was on the Pulitzer jury,

and it just blew me away.

I felt so happy and hopeful, um,

and that there is a healing that can happen

in terms of racial division.

By the time I got to the end of the play, I was weeping.

She makes me walk in someone else's shoes.

And to learn that love, to learn what it feels like

to be perhaps the only young Black woman

in a small logging town is an extraordinary gift.

And I think she does all three things, uh, in an amazing way.

>> BOWEN: Well, and we have to thank you for your part in that.

Paula Vogel, I always love talking to you.

Such a pleasure.

>> Thank you, Jared, for everything you're doing.

Seriously, every time I just, you know,

I just want to get on and bless you.

>> BOWEN (laughs): Well, thank you so much.

Well, again, I appreciate it.

Have a great day.

>> Thanks so much.

>> BOWEN: Artist Blane De St. Croix

has been to the edge of the Earth

to witness the Earth pushed to the edge.

From the glaciers that will be a thing of the past

to the not-so-permanent permafrost melting away,

he's seen the ravages of manmade climate change.

But these visions are not for his eyes only.

They're for ours, too, by way of his new exhibition at Mass MoCA.

It's monumental in scope,

minimalist and maximalist in scale,

with a message that's deeply moving.

Blane De St. Croix,

thank you so much for joining us,

it's a pleasure to have you here.

>> My pleasure, thank you for the interview.

>> BOWEN: So to, just to start,

what's the experience that you want patrons

to have at Mass MoCA?

That's the fun of Mass MoCA, is that the exhibition itself

is an experience, because of the cavernous size,

and then given the scope in which you work.

Uh, what is it that you're telling visitors?

>> Um, the focus is around land and landscape,

and it's driven with a message and content,

which is about climate change.

Specifically, uh, I'm focusing on the high Arctic

and what's happening to the permafrost.

And my vision is through research,

through international scientists up there and what's going on.

So there's two-and-a-half-story, three-story, uh,

large landscapes.

Various materials.

I want to make things people-proportion.

I want to take the viewer to the landscape.

I'm talking about landscape that's sometimes

a-mile-and-a-half long or larger,

maybe three miles in circumference.

And so I need to blow it up on these kinds of scale.

And I want the viewer to go on an adventure visually,

to transport themselves to that space,

that landscape, that environment.

>> BOWEN: Well, this is so much born out of your travels,

your experience, your encounters.

What fundamentally did you begin

to discover about our planet and,

and what was happening to it,

that, that motivated you to tell this?

>> You know, my work, early on,

has always been about humankind's invention--

our desire to conquer and control the landscape or nature.

Um, and a lot have been complex geopolitical,

political issues about border issues

and what's been going on.

But I think climate change affects it all.

The future refugee populations,

the ability to feed the populations of the world,

what is coming is unfathomable.

And I feel, um...

a commitment to put a strong voice to it.

>> BOWEN: I'm really struck by your travels,

I'm struck by the conversations that you've had.

You're not just relying on what's written.

You're relying on that firsthand material.

You're having these direct conversations

with the scientists.

That's taking it into a realm

that you didn't have to, necessarily.

>> Yes, well,

early on, I used to do what most people do:

internet mining, Google searches, finding.

But I'm taking on difficult, complex subjects.

Not breaking them down to a singular soundbite.

So I have a level of responsibility

to truly understand as best I can the complexity

of what I'm trying to visually talk about to the public.

I also find a level of inspiration

when you go to these kinds of landscapes, the high Arctic,

and you place yourself there.

And you have a responsibility as...

I want to say the storyteller.

And that's inspiring and also a commitment on my part.

So I have a need to be...

Not to be abusive, but a research visual artist,

one that goes into the field to find out what's going on.

You know, historically, painters used to do this with plein air,

a lot of them-- they used to go into the landscape

and document what they visually see.

I'm just loading a little bit more, very important content.

>> BOWEN: What is the process

in between those conversations,

those observations, versus

what we ultimately see

in exhibitions like yours at Mass MoCA right now?

Do these ideas germinate with you for a long time,

or, or do you leave those conversations

with a pretty clear idea of what you want to do?

>> What I'm trying to do is pinpoint conversations

visually through the land and landscape

that won't escape the psyche of the...

the global perspective of the American consciousness.

And I think climate change

is as powerful,

more powerful than those kinds of issues.

Sometimes in a lecture, people would attack me and say,

"You're not a visual artist, you're an activist."

Well, visual artists are the documenters

of what culturally is happening in that historical moment.

And that's their responsibility.

>> BOWEN: How do you reach people with movement

in your pieces, especially in this show?

>> Some of my pieces I wouldn't say are stagnant,

but they're still landscapes.

But what I do do is do architectural intervention.

In other words, the pieces are jammed in very precarious.

They look like they're going to fall down upon you.

Um, they're wedged into the architecture.

So there's a level of visual discomfort

that I'm trying to, um, draw the viewer in unconsciously.

The majority of the materials I'm using in these projects

are recycled, are, uh, sensitive to the environment.

And so, it's not just the materials,

it's the visual language.

It's the narration.

I'm trying to come at it in many different directions

to engage the viewer.

>> BOWEN: And finally, people are able to see your exhibition

in this moment of a pandemic.

They might not necessarily equate pandemic

and the environment and climate change.

But why is this probably a really apt moment

to see your work

and understand what's happening to our planet?

>> I don't think the virus is separate

from what we're doing to the environment.

I think there are correlations,

and most scientists believe it's directly related.

And this kind of tragedy that has, with this virus

and the global pandemic, is going to return again,

they say in ten years or plus, or another form.

We have to be responsible to nature

in how we participate and take care of this planet.

And, uh, I think it's all related together,

without a doubt. >> BOWEN: All right,

well, thank you again so much for taking the time,

and hopefully people will pay attention through exhibitions

and work like yours to understand it's changing.

>> Thank you very much for the time.

I really appreciate it.

>> BOWEN: Let's make a date.

It's time now for Arts This Week.

New York City's High Line is the inspiration forGo Out Doors

at the Umbrella Arts Center in West Concord.

Head to the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail Sunday.

Tuesday is the anniversary of one of the moments

that made Marilyn.

>> (wolf-whistles)

>> BOWEN: It's the day her famous skirt scene

was shot 66 years ago

for the movie The Seven Year Itch.

>> (playing gently)

>> BOWEN: Seeking soothing music during a tough time?

Listen to Boston Lyric Opera's Bedtime Lullabies Online

Wednesday.

Cape Ann Museum's new Green campus opens Thursday.

It combines historic buildings

with state-of-the-art exhibition space.

Saturday, Boston Theater Company

presents a preview of The Gay Agenda.

It's a new documentary play based on interviews

with people who identify as LGBTQ.

Next, let there be neon light.

Artist Ken Hines has been electrifying the Reno skyline

for more than 40 years with his glowing,

vibrant, colorful signs.

>> My art is hot glass,

electrodes, and neon gas,

and fire is my paintbrush.

My name is Kenneth Hines and I am a neon tube bender.

I've been doing neon in the Reno area for 38 years.

I am the last full-time neon tube bender in Northern Nevada.

Neon tube bender is

the craft that you take a glass tube

and you shape it to a specific pattern.

Then you put cold cathode electrodes on each end,

pull a vacuum on it,

and back-fill it with neon or argon gas.

The term neon is the red neon gas.

The majority of reds, pinks, oranges are neon gas mixed

in with the other-color phosphorus in the tubes.

Argon is a blue, a little drop of mercury goes in,

and there's fluorescent phosphorus in the tubes,

and that's what makes the colors, with the argon

and a little drop of mercury vapor.

I have a fire that's adjustable up to 16 inches,

and I have a blow hose that I keep in my mouth at all times,

so when I make a tight bend, it collapses,

and then you just give it a little puff of air

and blow it back out

to the original diameter.

Hot glass looks cold,

so you've gotta be very careful with that hot glass,

'cause it burns down to the bone,

and getting cut with glass, it really bleeds a lot,

'cause it makes such a clean cut.

We do deal with high voltage, as well, pretty serious things,

but you get used to it,

and you're mindful of it all the time.

It's about a 10,000-hour process to really learn it,

to really get it good, where you can do anything

that comes in the shop.

When we go to create a neon sign, the first step is design.

Somebody says, "Hey, I'm interested in a neon sign,"

so what we do is, we put them in contact

with the designer, Dennis,

and Dennis is a old sign painter

that started in the vinyl business

when the computers came out.

And I went to him to make patterns for me years ago,

and we've been good friends for the last 25 years.

>> I will make a pattern for Ken in reverse.

He will bend all the tubes,

I will create a cabinet out of acrylic

or whatever we are doing the cabinet from.

When the neon is completed,

Ken and I will put everything together on the cabinet

and then we will wire in the transformers

to complete the project.

Nowadays, we've been actually including remotes

for the neon, so that people can actually turn them on remotely

without having to go up to the sign.

>> We not only create new neon signs,

we do restorations, as well.

This sign right here, the dice,

they're a flag mount, which means that they're hanging out

over the sidewalk-- you can see it from both sides.

They were originally displayed on the Paradise Motel

in Sparks, across from the Plantation Casino.

It got taken down, so I stripped them and had them powder-coated,

and totally rebuilt all the neon, new transformers,

put it on that piece of expanded metal

and hung it on the wall,

and it's been quite the conversation piece

for a couple of years now.

>> I've been a graphic designer for about 40 years now,

and neon is my passion these days.

I love designing neon

and seeing it come to fruition.

Working with neon is quite unique,

because it takes me to a place where

I'm really happy with what I'm doing.

It's not like work.

I enjoy the creativity and the finished product

and the satisfaction of creating these beautiful pieces

that people will have in their homes

or in their businesses for years to come.

>> I think people expect to see it, especially in downtown Reno,

or downtown Las Vegas, it's just part of the overall awe.

>> When you're driving down a highway, or an old road,

and you see a bright neon sign in the distance,

it's kind of alluring and it kind of attracts you.

Neon's been around for about a hundred years,

and Ken and I are working hard

to keep that art form alive and well in Reno.

We just want to keep it going.

>> BOWEN: California-based artist Pat Blide

turns scrap metal into precious metals,

using discarded materials to make his signature sculptures.

>> I am a metal sculptor.

I learned my trade through being a metal fabricator.

I worked on a lot of farms in the Midwest.

I came to California, started working at ski areas

doing the same thing, and started from there.

When they say artists pay their dues,

all that is is learning your trade.

I got so much better when I became a full-time artist,

and then that's all I did.

So I had eight hours a day to come up with art and do art.

Whole different world than coming home

from an eight-hour job, and then doing art.

So when you're immersed in it all day long,

it is amazing how much better you get

just because you're doing it all the time.

I like working with reclaimed objects,

because I do a lot of traveling

out in the desert, and I see a lot of it.

I live in a big ranch valley,

and most of the ranchers have a big metal stockpile

that I ask to go through,

and they have all kinds of sprockets and gears,

and you name it, all kinds of metal.

One of my number-one pieces of metal I like to use

are the railroad spikes,

because they're quite plentiful.

They're all railroad spikes that were used

on the Transcontinental Railroad,

so they got quite a bit of history behind them.

I used to walk the tracks with a pickle bucket

until my arms dropped off, and then I found out,

after 9/11, that it's a $350 fine

for trespassing on the tracks.

So, now I buy them from a railroad salvage place.

Apparently there's 10,000 spikes per mile of track.

So, I figure I'll have spikes for the rest of my life.

As far as using the spikes,

I have to use two big fans blowing on me,

because there's still creosote oil in the spikes,

so when that heats up, it lets off pretty noxious fumes.

I'm working in a wind storm pretty much all the time.

(chuckles)

When I first started, I kind of got the basic Da Vinci man.

You know, I found the feet, the hips, the shoulders,

and a lock washer

that they used to bolt the tracks together,

I used for the head.

At first, I didn't know you could bend the spikes

as easily as you could, and once I learned

to be able to tool the spikes

and bend them this way and that,

it made the figures just come to life so much more

by putting little nuances of movement into the sculpture.

Like a downhill skier in mid-air,

tips just crossed a little bit.

Little things like that,

that, you know, before, I didn't pay that much attention to.

But now I'm refining the movement more and more.

The reason I do all the sports figures mainly is because

I am a partner of an art gallery in Truckee,

and people buy the stuff that they do.

So all the skiers,

mountain climbers, I mean, you name it,

any sport that happens in Truckee--

mountain biking,

paddle boarding,

people who do that stuff are just,

they're just drawn to those sculptures

because it is what they do.

And I guess they see a bit of themselves in the sculpture.

Which is awesome, 'cause the more sports that get invented,

the more I get to challenge myself in making stuff.

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

Next week, the American Repertory Theater's

Tony-winning Diane Paulus joins us to talk about how,

in the face of charges of racism,

the theater is addressing inequality.

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,

@OpenStudioWGBH.

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