Thursday, August 16, 2012

Incredible Night at the Catbird Seat!

On August 13 at 7pm, I had an unforgettable experience. My wife, Shanna Wheelock, and I were invited to lead a discussion in Eastport, Maine at the Catbird Seat. The flyer for the event included a picture of one of Shanna’s powerful works of art--a pomegranate merged with a grenade--and announced:

a poet & a potter
Chris Crittenden and Shanna Wheelock discuss war and peace at The Catbird Seat.
(#3 Dana Street look for the big clock opposite the Tides Institute)

Shanna and I had never presented together, which alone made the night a new kind of adventure. Add to that the incredible ambience of the Seat, which enveloped us in good vibes as soon as we walked through the door. I had never been inside, and felt like a bibulous bard stumbling upon a trove of the vine.

The Seat used to be a theater; and I’m not talking one of those boring boxes that pepper our fast-food nation today. Imagine a real ol’ time vault, nestled luxuriously in a semi-Victorian townhouse. Venerable floors with broad hand-cut planks. Ceilings of baroque enameled tin. The owner and host, Heidi Reidell, marvelously furnitured the entry room to include velvety couches and chairs. Can you say maximum comfort? To me they were like low-rider motorcycle seats: nice and easy and free.

After the entry room, you go through a short hall containing a honky tonk piano, which surely has sung many a sociable song. And then suddenly you are in a towering space, both hospitable and commodious, at least forty feet up, and who knows how long and wide. Everywhere I looked there was art and sculpture, not crowded but positioned so as to allow each piece its own special aura.

Ms. Reidell indeed has an fine eye for spatial aesthetics.

And the artwork itself was stunning. The voluptuous gallery harbored giant kiln-fired sculptures wrestled into being by the recently deceased Donald Sutherland, clay wizard of Eastport. I have no idea how he mustered the physical strength to fashion these Picasso-esque behemoths, each an harmonic congeries of suggestive shapes. They were grand, primordial, and absolutely original. I sensed animals moving in the collages of abstract contour, yet also sometimes machinery. And ghosts.

On the wall were mesmeric oil paintings that somehow twined liquid and solid in an interplay of color and shape. The canvasses simmered and flexed yet maintained an underlying armature of the recognizable. Crowning it all, surrounded by small meek spotlights, was a formidable painting by artist Arthur Cadieux. I stared at this painting (whose name I don’t know) off and on for most of the night. It was, according to Ms. Reidell, worked into its fierce gang of frightening faces just after September 11, 2001. I could feel on my skin the palpable rage and angst and despair and violence. Amid the spearhead of fearsome visages crept a brocade of small black tanks, marching like ants.

Cadieux’s painting was a paragon of antiwar expression, and surely affected everyone as the presentation commenced. Ms. Reidell started off the night with a bold statement of her own, which included stories about courageous resistors in Nazi Germany. She was incisive and articulate, and throughout the night continued to catalyze the discussion with her intellect.

After her presentation, she introduced me, and I was a little unsure how to proceed. The format for the evening was vague, perhaps intentionally to keep it conversational. It had been decided beforehand that I would introduce Shanna, since I was familiar with her style and work; and that was a task of major importance, eclipsing all else in my mind.

Although it made sense that I should introduce her, I felt awkward being given the stage first. We were equal presenters, after all. I found myself fumbling and gushing in an attempt to describe Shanna who, honestly, is the most important person to me in the world, and who in addition is fabulously gifted, and flourishing as an artist. She deserves, and is starting to generate, widespread praise.

Two of Shanna’s artworks were brought with us and sat on a table during the entire presentation. They are some of my favorites: "Totem," which adorns the cover of my chapbook “Rebellion,”; and also "Grenade," which combines twenty-five life-sized grenades, sculpted by hand out of clay, along with a melon-sized pomegranate, also clay-sculpted. The pomegranate sits on top of a wooden square with sub-compartments for the ordinance.

You can see both these works at Shanna’s blog, along the right side of the screen. Or visit her new website:

I’m running out of time, so I will wrap this up: I read three poems and then a discussion commenced, starting with many questions for Shanna about her art, philosophy, technique and process. Then the discussion continued, on and on, with the audience getting very vocal and remaining attentive for at least an hour. An incredible exchange of ideas took place, enhanced, as I mentioned before, by Ms. Reidell’s smart comments and prompts.

After the official talk ending, the conversation spilled into the whole of the Catbird Seat, and continued on far into the night. What a magical time it was, full of art, architecture, poetry and a cornucopia of brave ideas.

I offer my most full and fervent gratitude to Heidi Reidell, gallery-keeper and artist extraordinaire. The twin bright lights of her mind and heart took us in the company of truth through the darkness of the topic.



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