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A review of Eight: grappling with the realities of making art in Northampton

By Kate Nadel

The Shoestring spoke with Max Handleman West, Samson King, and Kevin Pomerleau, three queer artists, about what their experience has been working in this area and the importance of community support in making this area a viable place for young queer artists to work. All three of these artists are currently showing works in a group show titled Eight, on view at 33 Hawley Street in Northampton until August 28th, 2019.

Eight is located on the mezzanine and lower level of 33 Hawley. Along with the three artists interviewed in this piece, the show includes works by Beyon Wren Moor, Valentina Sarfeh, Madeline Chmielinski, Esther White, and Jae Matthews. The show ranges from photography by Matthews, digital paintings by Chmielinski, etchings by Pomerleau, textile work by White, drawings by King and Wren Moor, and paintings by Sarfeh and Handleman West. The works are connected by the artists’ shared relationship to Western Massachusetts, and the aesthetic experience of evoking real and fantasy narratives about identity and place.

About the Artists

The Shoestring spoke with three of the eight artists showing work in Eight. Max Handleman West is a self taught artist living in Hadley, MA. They recently had their first show, titled many skies / many selves, a solo exhibition of oil paintings, watercolors, and altered clothing, at the Easthampton City Arts Gallery in the Flywheel Arts Collective building in Easthampton. Max’s work explores themes of identity, visibility and joy, queerness, and utopian visions of the future.

Four works by Handleman West are on display on the lower level. Three of their works are oil on paper, and the fourth is oil on canvas. This series of work is inspired by Cuban queer and aesthetic theorist José Esteban Muñoz’s book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There Queer Futurity. Handleman West’s oil paintings depict genderless (or genderful) bodies resting on what is possibily a telephone wire (“Above the Street”), embracing in a field under a sky of dense clouds (“From the Ground”), and floating through the sky (“Ascent”). The largest piece on canvas, “Flock,” depicts figures looking away from the viewer, up and out into the landscape of rolling hills, clouds, where more figures are ascending, floating, through the clouds. The painting is ethereal, it imagines scenes beyond reality that still feel deeply real and personal. “We can only really free ourselves if we allow our brains to go to a place where we can imagine being free, and imagining what that would feel like,” Handleman West says. Max’s work is a conscious exercise in building utopian futures from our imaginations.

image4“Above the Street” 2019 (left), “From the Ground” 2019 (center), “Flock” 2019 (right), Max Handelman-West

Samson King moved to Northampton after graduating from Montserrat College of Art where he worked primarily with oil paints. He currently works at a bar in downtown Northampton and has been exhibiting the series Daydreaming, a series of works of pencil, marker, and pastels on paper, most recently exhibiting the series at Red Frame Gallery located in the Flywheel building.

Samson King’s four works in this show are all located on the mezzanine level. His works depict scenes that represent home, that question one’s relationship to the environments they pass through. Without using stereotyped depictions of “haunted houses,” – the classic cobweb, deeply contrasted black and white tones, ominous shadows – Samson’s works aim to evoke the unknown emotions and lives of the physical spaces we see and exist in every day. “They [these works] are usually influenced by the idea of home. Which can mean belonging, it can mean your body, it can mean safety…. They’re based on the chaotic, overgrown, landscapes we see everyday. They all have a haunted feel, and that doesn’t always come across with loud colors or bright landscapes around them, but they’re based in that haunted feeling.” Samson describes his works as “gay landscape paintings,” with the intentional irony of calling his works paintings when he uses markers, pencils, and pastels.

image1“Maine Moon” 2019 (top left), “MASH” 2019 (bottom left), “Graves” 2019 (right) Samson King

Kevin Pomerleau is an artist living in Northampton. Kevin has been making art since studying printmaking at UMass Amherst. Printmaking has been a way for Kevin to explore themes from his personal life, moments of anger and vulnerability that give the viewer intentional insight into his life. While Kevin is both queer and an artist, the relationship between those two identities are a point of interest for Kevin. “More recently I’ve been making more sexually charged art, and it’s more obviously queer and gay, because I am both of those things… I mean it’s great to be a queer artist but does it pigeonhole the artist?”

Kevin’s etchings are all meticulously detailed, imaginative, and technically successful. His work considers the tensions between familiar, intimate relationships within spaces that have intense and complicated histories. Many of his works, and all that are shown in Eight, use a rug or tapestry to set the scene. Along with serving to highlight Kevin’s mastery of intricate detail in his prints, the rugs serve another function as well. “A lot of my work are snapshots of what I want the audience to see, but I also leave a lot of negative space to retract what I don’t want them to see. Some of it is about happy moments, moments of intensity, of anger, of feeling unsafe.” Where there isn’t a rug or figure, Kevin leaves the space blank, serving to intensify the images he wants the viewer to see.

image3Detail of “Grey Composition” 2019 Kevin Pomerleau

In addition to being a printmaker, Kevin has stepped into the role of curator. Kevin is the curator of the show Eight; this will be the second show he’s curated in this space.

Artmaking in Northampton

Max discussed with the Shoestring how creating art and taking this work seriously is in and of itself a radical and rebellious act against the constant monetization of the individual, identity, and time that occurs in a hyper-capitalist society. We discussed how it is easy to doubt yourself when you’re living in a country that historically disdains the arts, during a presidency that routinely proposes extreme austerity toward the arts–as well as the immediate question of whether you can afford to pay for both rent and materials.

When asked how they were able to overcome some of these doubts, Max responded, “It felt empowering to say to myself, I deserve space and resources. Taking up that space feels important even though it’s hard. But that’s not just for me, everyone deserves that, and not enough people are told that they deserve that.”

Pursuing an interest, realizing that your ideas deserve expression, and dedicating time, money, and energy to that exploration is an intimidating and costly pursuit. Deciding to create large oil paintings, Max notes, was particularly challenging because of the economic restraints of using good quality materials, and using enough of them. “I realized at a certain point that I wasn’t getting the effect I wanted because I literally wasn’t putting enough paint on the brush because oil paint is so expensive.”

The affordability of materials is an obstacle in Samson’s artistic practice as well. While in school, Samson worked primarily with oil paints to create large scale abstract paintings. When asked why that practice stopped after graduation, he notes, “Oil painting is hard, toxic, and expensive.” When he moved to Western Massachusetts, and was looking for housing, there was no place for him to work on oil paintings. His process moved to “tiny lines in a sketchbook,” which evolved into the larger scale drawings he is currently showing.

“Graves” is one of King’s two larger works in this show and it invites the viewer into a scene of littered cigarette butts, flowers and shrubbery, traffic cones strewn about. The eye of the viewer is drawn in, past the litter and foliage, past the trees and imagery of urban planning, into the whimsical but sturdy world that King depicts in his works. The title itself plays with the audience’s understanding of the space depicted in this drawing – is King representing a literal cemetery, a scene on Graves Ave. in Northampton, or is the title a critique of how we treat our environment, that we treat the land with brash carelessness represented by the cigarette butts?

In addition to the cost of materials, time, and energy, finding a community that supports and challenges is another significant factor in how one engages in making and displaying art.

Kevin spoke with the Shoestring about the need for finding, encouraging, and maintaining supportive artmaking communities. Kevin is a monitor at Zea Mays Printmaking, a studio cooperative which has become his artist community. Kevin notes, “Cooperatives and member based studios are great and how art can be funded, but not everyone has the means to participate.” The cost of membership at Zea Mays ranges from $60-$175 and depends on how many hours one plans to be at the studio. Rust Temple, an artist-run space in Easthampton, is another example of a shared artist space that offers membership and workspace at various prices. Before Zea Mays, the academic community at UMass Amherst motivated Kevin to consistently create new works, by requiring consistent production and development of work, offering feedback from professors and peers, and the ability to use the equipment and resources available.

Kevin Pomerleau has three works in Eight. Two of these works are on the mezzanine level, while one work hangs on an adjacent wall to Max’s work on the lower level. This third work, titled “What do you own,” hangs next to a tapestry made by Esther White. Kevin’s print depicts two figures examining a tapestry hanging on a clothesline. The tapestry the figures are gazing at in the print is Esther’s “Red Work,” neighboring the print on the gallery wall. This playful hanging is self-referential to the tapestry that is depicted in “What do you own,” but is also a testament to the influence and inspiration that many of the artists in the Northampton community find in each other’s work.

Community is crucial

Samson recounts being part of an artist workshop (known as a “crit”) when he first moved to Western Massachusetts, and how the group motivated him to create a body of work which he was then able to show. When an opportunity arose for a show at the bar he works at, as part of Northampton Arts Night Out in the winter of 2019, he was prepared to fill that space with his art. “If I don’t do this, I’m never going to. It felt like a safe space to hang [my work] because I’m in that space all the time and those are my humans.”

Access to resources and a supportive yet challenging artist community have been instrumental in these artists’ ability to create, display, and engage with their communities about art, life, and identity. Without an academic community, one way that Max has been able to make their interest in artmaking a material reality is by splitting a studio with other artists in the area.

Kevin spoke to the self organization of artists in the area. “The future of the art community in this area will be organizing with other artists, creating shared studios, sharing resources, fostering entrepreneurship among artists, renting spaces at sliding scales… we already are seeing that with spaces like the Rust Temple, and the Florence Arts and Industry building.”

While there has been incredible self-organizing among young queer artists to make their artmaking possible, the Shoestring asked what the challenges were to being a queer artist in the area.

Samson noted, “Art is another job for me. If there is another show that I’m producing work for, I will work as many hours as I work to get paid to get that done. It doesn’t feel like a hobby at all.” He continued, “When you think about the rent prices, I don’t think that Northampton is doing enough to support even just queer and young people in this area, let alone artists. It’s harder to get a job as a queer person, it’s harder to get a job if you’re trans, and if you don’t want to or don’t have money to legally change your name… it’ s even harder.”

Max notes, “I hope to see more artists pooling resources, and for more publicly funded residencies in this area.” Publicly funded residencies and open and free calls for submissions to publicly funded shows, like the 2019 Western Massachusetts Visual Arts Biennial, are opportunities for young artists to get their foot in the door, and to have the support needed to build a portfolio and show works in a public setting.

Kevin reflected on the use of this particular space to display works by young artists in this area. He notes, “Building this space has been a huge dream for years to highlight the arts of all kinds — made for us, for generations to come, and it is great to be able to gear that to queer artists in the community.”

image6View of Eight from mezzanine of 33 Hawley Street

Eight opened on July 15th and will be on view until August 28th. Located at Northampton Center for the Arts building at 33 Hawley Street, this space is funded by the Northampton City Arts Council to provide gallery space, dance studios, a black box theatre, and more to the Northampton community.

Kate Nadel is a political activist and community member in the Pioneer Valley.

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