Artists At Work ... And Not At Work

Chris Randall PhotoFrom a vacant Audubon Street storefront window, three images greet you in a row.

•An 85-year old sculptor wields her torch and looks straight at her work. She’s been doing this before you were born. Frankly, she doesn’t care if you’re looking at her or not.

• An actor peers at himself in the mirror. He might be running lines with himself, goofing to reduce tension before or after going on stage. Or the invisible balloon over his head might read, “Why the hell am I in this crazy profession?”

Chris Randall Photo• A married artist couple. The graphic designer supports the artist, who earns nothing from her work. Only together do they make a viable economic duo. They stare out at you with hard-earned confidence, like an artsy “American Gothic.”

These large-format images—of sculptor Ann Lehman, actor Steve Routman, and designer/artist team George Corsillo and Susan McCaslin—are all by photographer Chris Randall of Inside Out and I Love New Haven fame.

They make the most interesting ensemble in an Artists at Work exhibit now on view through March 16 in otherwise empty windows of unrented stores on the north side of Audubon Street in the arts district.

Chris Randall PhotoIt’s the Arts Council’s contribution to a charm bracelet of local shows inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling photo display The Way We Worked, which appeared at the main library in January courtesy of the Connecticut Humanities Council. Click here for that story. And click here for a story about a show by the Greater New Haven Labor History Association about the old Winchester Rifle factory. And here for one about being with police on patrol, culled from the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series.

Thomas MacMillan PhotoRandall’s unframed photos are affixed on the inside of the windows, along with the artists’ thumbnail resumes and answers to a short series of questions: What inspired you? How did you train? Do you earn a living from the art? How long does it take you to complete a project?

His subjects range from Pulitzer-prize winning biographer Debbie Applegate to spoken-word artist Frank Brady to violinist Colin Benn to flamenco guitarist Val Ramos, nine artists in all.

Click here for the Arts Council’s online version of the exhibition, which contains the pictures and bios but not the answers to the queries about the artists’ life.

I found the latter indispensable to give depth the images. I learned that Benn, in order to support himself, has worked as a teacher, as many of the subjects do. He’s also been a baker, a data entry clerk, and done time as a gutter repairman.

Chris Randall PhotoI would have liked to learn much more about the gutter repair. Or how the earn-a-living work of painter Gordon Skinner —helping the mentally handicapped—figures in positively and/or negatively in his artistic life. Is it inspiration or impediment, or both?

By my anecdotal calculations, six of the nine artists said categorically they do not earn a living form their art, while three and a half or so said they did, from art or art-related teaching. The artist team made it happen because they form an economic unit. At least two of the nine are financially fortunate enough not to have to worry about earning daily bread. In general I would have liked all the elements in this exhibition—the photos, the bios, and especially the questionnaire—to have drilled down deeper into the artists’ experience: What it’s like to lose faith in yourself when you don’t have monetary reward or any of the eyes of the world on you? How you keep going; where’s the inspiration for times of self doubt and crisis?

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