Today marks the 200th birthday of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. A group show at Spokane’s Chase Gallery, in conjunction with the Spokane Symphony’s Lincoln Festival, is part of a national celebration in his honor.
“A House Divided: The Legacy of Lincoln” features six local artists chosen by the Spokane Arts Commission to create contemporary artwork relating to the life of Lincoln: Greg duMonthier, Rhea Giffin, Tobe Harvey, Scott Kolbo, Garric Simonsen and Joe Tomlinson.
In hundreds of Lincoln statues standing in cities across the United States, rarely do you see him smile. He most often appears absorbed in deep thought, if not somber, as he contemplates the difficult decisions he faced during the Civil War.
While some of the Spokane artists explore core issues surrounding Lincoln’s lifetime, others tie in lighter, unexpected subjects – from Lincoln’s favorite foods, to Lincoln Logs, to birthday candles.
The exhibit becomes more of a celebration of Lincoln’s life and legacy, as the artists project their own personalities into the works they’ve crafted, bringing this historic man of greatness into the here and now that he so greatly influenced.
•A larger than life ceramic bust of Lincoln by Greg du Monthier, assistant professor of art/sculpture at Eastern Washington University, gazes reflectively from the back of the gallery.
While employed at a small bronze foundry, duMonthier once worked on a casting of Lincoln by the great American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), who was known for sculpting Civil War heroes.
“You have to learn the artist’s hand to go through the process,” said duMonthier. “From that experience it was interesting to make my portrait and see the differences.”
Even when duMonthier works two-dimensionally, he tends to construct his digital drawings in a three-dimensional, sculptural way.
His triptych “To Build a Campfire” is composed of 18 different drawings of logs and branches, representing debris from the aftermath of war, floating down the river along the Mason-Dixon Line.
“The problems that confronted Lincoln were as large as nature … as large as a flood, or a fire,” said duMonthier, who created the work in reference to Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire.”
“There’s also a pun in there about Lincoln Logs,” he said.
•Garric Simonsen is exhibiting an untitled work consisting of nine small hemlock panels, carved, chipped and scarred to resemble school desktops from 1955-1968, during the Civil Rights Movement.
The surface marks are symbolic. Roman numerals reference Lincoln’s birthdate; an X refers to Malcolm X; a diagram indicates the illegal bus seat of Rosa Parks.
“It’s not very specific, but more based on signs and making connections,” said Simonsen, who is working on his MFA at Washington State University.
Like the connection between the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Lincoln in 1863, and the inauguration of the first African American president, Barack Obama, this year.
“I see Lincoln to Obama to Lincoln as a circular thought,” Simonsen said.
•Spokane artist Tobe Harvey’s still-life paintings of off-colored, typically highly processed food make his work easily recognizable, with bright colors, yet a strange quality of darkness.
He describes his painting “Lincoln’s Favorite Meal” as “a little more wholesome,” with Chicken Fricassee and seasonal fruit, which he said he researched to confirm that it was indeed linked to Lincoln.
“Top Hat with Hard Tack” depicts the last stovepipe-style top hat that Lincoln wore, along with hard tack – survival food consisting of flour and water that was carried by Civil War soldiers.
Harvey, a drawing instructor at Spokane Falls Community College, includes the studies for his oil on panel paintings in the exhibit.
•Joseph Tomlinson is a ceramicist who fires satire and irony into his pieces.
“Still Divided” presents the United States in flat, map-like pieces. Sorted into two boxes, the Republican, red-glazed states rest on a bed of blue gravel, separated from the blue-glazed Democratic states on red gravel.
Because they resemble puzzle pieces, you see the irony in their separation.
•Scott Kolbo, an associate art professor at Whitworth University, has created ink and charcoal works on clayboard that depict issues of the Civil War, slavery, and historical aspects of Lincoln’s life.
In his artist statement, Kolbo writes, “(Lincoln) was a complex and difficult individual living through some of the most complex and difficult times in our nation’s history.”
His “Lincoln Contemplates the Intractable” depicts the president in his most familiar pose – seated in his armchair – but placed directly in working cotton fields, storm clouds brewing behind him.
•On a lighter note, Rhea Giffin has two large mixed-media works in the show, constructed from papier mache.
The Coeur d’Alene artist said she created “Make a Wish,” a huge cupcake topped with a towering, neon-lighted candle – almost as tall as Abe himself – “to wish President Lincoln a happy birthday and to make it fun.” She worked with Spokane artist Ken Yuhasz on the lighting.
“In the Blink” is a copper-painted papier mache bust of Lincoln supported by lettered stacking blocks that spell out “Abe Link,” and incorporate Giffin’s poetic wordplay.
She wrote acronyms from the name Abe onto the blocks, including “Act by example,” “All being equal,” and “America bonds eventually.”
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