On the most recent version of a new Westville Village art crawl Second Saturday, the artists working in West River Arts — a warren of second-floor studio spaces nestled amongst galleries, cafes, and commercial buildings on Whalley Avenue and Blake Street — threw their studios open for conversation with the community.
As I walked up the stairs from the street and peered around the hall, Mohamad Hafez’s pieces claimed a huge presence. Responding to the ongoing war in Syria that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, his art evoked religious imagery, home, and beauty in the midst of destruction. There were messages of strength, survival, persistence, faith, and unexplainable horror. Without answers, Hafez’s work initiated the conversation: how can art engage the community?
Wandering down the hall led me into the studio of Alex Epstein and Elizabeth Barton. “We’re Iron & Walnut, an industrial design company” Elizabeth said. “Alex makes these beautiful walnut pieces.” Alex chuckled and Liz showed me around. Their wooden furniture pieces, despite their bold color and strong grooves, are smooth and modern. Among softened glows of amber, detailed wooden faces, and an array of citrus and floral candles, the studio resembled different parts of a living room. In Epstein’s and Barton’s studio, I got a better grasp of the passion and intentionality they put into each of their pieces (no, really, touch the furniture).
Around the corner I found Susan McCaslin’s studio. From the doorway and into the studio was an arrangement of seemingly fragile and delicate pieces: a trail of porcelain plates, hung portraits, paper sculpted paintings, and newspaper armory coats. McCaslin explained her work as a process of experimenting with layers. She invited me to touch the layers of paper; they were light, durable, and crisp from dried paint. Her open studio was friendly and naturally participatory, just as her work highlighted a great deal of collaboration, visual strength, and fortitude. The materials themselves provoked conversation, but in the studio with the artist, talking about her work gave greater weight to her responses to the news, vulnerability, and ideas of protection.
Later that day, in a panel discussion at Kehler Liddell Gallery, Semi Semi-Dikoko emphasized community and art. He asked the visiting artists to speak about themselves, but also to talk about the ways in which their art interacted or engaged community.
“It’s about them too,” Dikoko said.
Yet there should be more community at Second Saturdays, as the audience in Kehler Liddell was a room of familiar faces — an engaged but small group of people. Even as the arts and humanities face budget cuts, in an open studio, visitors can wander, admire and perhaps find a middle ground to begin large, difficult conversations, creating spaces and connections to community. Second Saturdays at West River Arts is open for discussion and we ought to start.
West River Arts is located at 909 Whalley Ave. in Westville. The next Second Saturday is Aug. 12.