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John Lawson: Curator's Essay


One morning in Maine, John Lawson took a dingy from the island where he and his wife were vacationing to the mainland to fetch the morning paper, and learned that his home and studio were under six feet of water and that his adopted home city of fifteen years was in a state of chaos.  It was six weeks before they were allowed to return to New Orleans and sort through their personal belongings.  Everything was damaged.  From his studio drawers Lawson pulled out twenty-five years’ worth of soaked sketches and drawings.  By pulling the paper carefully apart he laid what was still intact onto the porch of a friend to dry in the sun.  The piles of photographs though were less salvageable; in some the subject was still discernible, but for most the colors had bled into one another, creating abstractions in brilliant colors, which melted and crept eerily across the faces of family and friends.   With these remains, about a third of his life’s work, Lawson began his journey of understanding the disaster that had changed his life forever. In this exhibition we are witness to Lawson’s mourning, healing and ultimate discovery of acceptance and hope.

Fragile, Lawson’s first exhibit in the Berkshires, consists primarily of three bodies of work: beading and tattoo drawings, explorations with digital photography, and flood-salvaged, reworked drawings with encaustic wax.

Before Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, Lawson’s primary medium were his trade mark Mardi Gras beads, picked up from the streets of New Orleans in the early mornings after the parades and parties. The creative and unique ways he used the beads is exemplified in War of the and Icarus.  These works not only show Lawson’s meticulous and labor-intensive beading method, but also speak to his view of materialistic consumerism and his full-blown immersion and fascination with the under-culture of the city.

Soon after Katrina, Lawson began Floodline in a borrowed NYC studio.  Using solely beads and photographs salvaged from his studio, he placed a long horizontal row of family snap shots six feet high (the floodline in his home), covered them in wax  and then vertically placed hundreds of rusting strands of beads over them.  Relieved to be safely out of New Orleans, but feeling displaced, Lawson needed to create something that captured the essence of the city for him.  He used the beads as a memorial to its Mardi Gras fame, and the photos as a memory of an everyday life there.  However, the “everyday” is now so changed and damaged that it must be approached carefully through a curtain, each image a fragile icon to discover and revere.

After using his water-damaged work to memorialize his now “lost” past, Lawson began to explore ways to transform those remains into new work.  Embracing the photographs that the flood waters had altered out of his control he went back and manipulated the images himself.  Through the digital photograph, a new medium for him, Lawson focused and enlarged areas of water-soaked, color-blurred photographs. In Beneath the Skin (I-II) he zoomed in on particularly striking sections of colors melting into one another and then, in defiance of the chaos, he mirrored the image with itself.  In this simple act Lawson created balance and thus the perception of order.  From the ruins he has pulled out harmony and invokes serenity.

Lawson most deeply explores his sense of loss and memory through looking at his past in a large piece entitled Tempest.  A recent work created during a summer residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute, Lawson painstakingly retraced hundreds of salvaged sketches and drawings after pasting them in a collage onto nine panels. Lawson quite literally “connected the dots” of his life by not only redrawing each line but by embellishing the sketches and connecting one to another. With each piece of paper he encountered, Lawson relived a memory.  His work on this project was so captivating that a colleague filmed Lawson drawing for eight straight hours during his residency in Santa Fe (the whole retracing took over one hundred and forty hours).   Finally, using the encaustic wax process Lawson sealed each panel in several layers of translucent brownish wax, first outlining the sphere of the moon, then filling in each circle to represent a different phase of the moon.  The moon here not only symbolizes the rebirth of New Orleans (often called the Crescent City) but also Lawson’s own acceptance and growth since the disaster.  The phases of the moon quietly move across the pages of his life, rhythmically and predictably.  Tempest is a testament to the persistence of time propelling us into our future where, ultimately, healing will begin.

Margaret Grant, Curator, October 2007

About the artist:

John K. Lawson was born in Birmingham, England, in 1962 and raised mostly in the countryside until his family moved to South London when he was a young teenager. He first came to America on a student exchange program in engineering at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.  There his artistic abilities were encouraged, and he returned to England two years later to concentrate on landscape painting.  Eventually, Lawson was drawn back to the Deep South, and soon became part of an underground art culture in New Orleans that included working in tattoo, T-shirt and mural designs long before these mediums became mainstream. Lawson also became known for his unique drawing style and creations using discarded Mardi Gras beads.  He covered mannequins, pianos, and drums with intricate bead work, including a fifty-three-foot- long bar top at the notorious artists’ haven, the Audubon Hotel. Since Hurricane Katrina, Lawson divides his time between studios in New York City and Great Barrington, where he lives with wife Aimée Michel and their five year old son, Sebastian.

The Simon’s Rock Exhibitions Program oversees a series of changing exhibitions of professional artists, faculty in the arts, alumni artists, and art students on campus within the Library Atrium Gallery, the Daniel Arts Center, and the Gallery at Liebowitz.  The program seeks to have an academic and curricular component where students and artists are engaged through artists talks, workshops, and installation participation.  All the galleries are open to the public, handicapped accessible and free of charge.

The Curator would like to acknowledge those whose collaboration and support made this exhibition possible: Danae Boissevain, Lauren Crispell, Joan DelPlato, John Lawson, Juliet Meyers, Judith Monachina, and Dan Romanow.

Bard College at Simon’s Rock
84 Alford Road
Great Barrington, MA 01230

Exhibitions Curator, Margaret Grant, 413-528-7389

The Gallery at Liebowitz is open daily 12-5

All photos courtesy of the artist