By Staff Writer Eric Sousa
The New Bedford Art Museum/ArtWorks! caught me by surprise for two reasons. One, I was surprised to find it was a street away from several of my favorite downtown NB eateries, but somehow I never entered it before. Two, nobody warned me that the exhibits presented by the museum start the very millisecond you walk through the door.
I was greeted by three astronomically large lilies, blooming and created from yellow industrial plastic. These floor-to-ceiling behemoths were a pleasant way to promise the newcomer that something unique, creative, and stirring was about to be revealed to them. After experiencing the exhibit, “Some things we can do together,” by Megan and Murray Mcmillan, I can affirm that the promise was fulfilled tenfold.
The exhibit started strong, with warm smiles and a diverse populace coming through the doors. It was ‘AHA! Night’ at the New Bedford Art museum, which means free entry and unique showings every 2nd Thursday of the month. With a continuous rotation of art, there is always something new to be seen there.
As a person who does not have an extensive background in art (i.e. none at all), I was not sure about the experience I would have. However, although I’m sure that my more artsy friends would have caught references that zoomed over my head, the pieces still engaged my attention. I did not feel as if I missed out at all, but felt only as if I had gained.
One particular piece that immediately caught my eye was Fragile and Unbreakable. A small depression in the wall held a screen about the size of a large photograph. A video started to play of two blurred individuals having a conversation. The video was focused on a level of water that covered half the camera, as if the scene was being filmed through a half-full fish tank. Slowly, scraps of paper began to fall from some ethereal space and land on the water line. They floated, almost threatening to collapse into the bottom of the tank. However, the paper held. More paper was sprinkled, then rained, then deluged onto the water line. It all held, and the couple was almost hidden from view.
I was fascinated to see physics being played with like this; the water tension looked so close to breaking, but it held this mountain of scraps. I blinked for a second, and suddenly it all was aflame. The screen darkened, the pieces collapsed through the water, and the video ended. I didn’t identify the substance that lit the fire, but the impact was made regardless.
The area was filled with a plethora of video art projects like this, none of which were explained outright. It was a part of the experience to come to your own conclusions; the only wrong answer was, “I don’t know.” There were videos that made me experience an array of emotions; nostalgia for childhood, warmth for past romances, and contemplation towards death were a few of the many. There was no narrative other than the visual piece itself and the title that introduced it. It led to a situation where the viewer had to construct their own interpretation.
As I discussed this with the curator, Jamie Uretsky, I found out I was right on the money. “If you were to be reading these, it’s better to approach it as poetry and less like a paragraph. That’s the best way to enjoy the videos,” she said with a smile. “They’re short like poetry, too… which is perfect, because my personal attention span is that of a small woodland animal.”
The videos did not spoon feed you meaning, but instead tugged you into the direction of your own conclusions. The joy of those eureka moment, when you find the meaning for yourself, was very fitting for the “Aha!” theme of the venue’s event. It focused on high production value and immersion. There was plenty to be immersed in, as Mcmillan’s exhibit is the largest video exhibition done at the New Bedford to date.
Another highly popular video, the one the exhibit was named for, was some things we can do together. This video featured a bird feeder with a motion-sensing recorder, showing scenes of a backyard that would normally never see the spotlight. Two birds chattered over a raspberry in the ambient scene before being chased off by a pair of squawking blue jays. A squirrel landed on the bird feeder with a scattering crash, grabbed a handful of nourishment, and then fled. It was like a microcosm of a dinner setting, except for woodland critters.
Finally, I was able to snag a few moments with one of the artists, Murray Mcmillan. He had a calm demeanor, but was clearly passionate about his work. It was clear that he loved the synergy of art with his partner, but I wondered how they landed on video as their current medium. “My native language is space,” he said, gesturing to the elaborate structures decorating the venue and materializing inside the videos, “and her native language is writing. Video art was a natural meeting ground of that.”
The deeper we discussed his projects, the more I understood the magnitude of meaning hidden in every video. One of the videos, In what distant sky, had many allusions to a Japanese tea house, complete with distinct Japanese ‘stepping stones’ lifting a woman to greater heights. It was impressive to draw my own opinions from, but hearing the creator’s intention breathed a new layer of depth into it.
And as it turns out, there were hidden secrets to my personal favorite, fragile and unbreakable, as well. The material that lit the paper aflame in the water was molten glass. This was to pay homage to the name, which describes a certain technique of glass making where it is both durable and precarious at the same time.
“The head of a lightbulb, the part first poured with this technique, is one of the hardest substances we know. The density of it has been known to break hydraulic presses. It’s really intense. But the tail of the lightbulb is so fragile, it shatters easy like- well, I’m sure you know how easy they can break. That’s where the name, Fragile and Unbreakable, came from.”
He smiled in a way that wasn’t gloating over knowledge unknown, but was purely enthusiastic about sharing it. It was less you should know this, and more I know… it’s awesome, right? His passion towards him and his partner’s art was infectious. He was quickly swept up by the upswing of fans and friends, and was rushed away with an apology and a smile.
One of the interesting parts of the New Bedford Art Museum is the amount of local talent that passes through the doors. A large majority of their work is pulled from local artists. As I discussed the Museum with the executive director, Ashley Occhino, she informed about the multifaceted nature of her workplace. They house several major studios, strived to work with the local library in addition to outreach programs to support art in the community.
There is even a one-of-a-kind ceramic studio with a plethora of scholarships for those who could use them. “We want to engage as many people and audiences as we can, in a genuine way,” Ashley Occhino spoke confidently.
When she looked out over the crowd of people, something in her eyes shone. “It’s really about breaking down the barrier, opening doors to people who would never come in here normally.” I looked out as well. I saw students mingling with people who were clearly here intentionally, and those who wandered in with curiosity. I saw old friends and new-made ones greet each other.
If the goal of the New Bedford Art Museum was to blow down barriers and open up doors, I would say they’re knocking it out of the park. But don’t take my word for it; go see for yourself.