Catskill Made Summer 2015 Issue: June 21, 2015
Liberating the Exquisite Corpse
FOR SOME ARTISTS, GIVING UP CREATIVE CONTROL OVER THEIR ARTWORK IS THEIR WORST NIGHTMARE. BUT IN A NEW COLLABORATIVE ART EXHIBIT CURATED BY ELLIE AND AKIRA OHISO, CALLED EXQUISITE CORPSE OF THE CATSKILLS, CREATIVE CONTROL WAS TRADED FOR CHANCE, HUMOR, AND SURPRISINGLY PROFOUND RESULTS.
The concept was adapted from a surrealist parlor game developed by artist André Breton. Though exquisite corpse was originally intended as a way to pass the time at French cafes, it became an integral part of the Surrealism art movement, and of the way that period in art history is now explained. So the goal, says Ellie, was to “take an idea that, in its inception, was meant to be a game among friends [and was] turned into taught art history, back to its roots.” And in returning the game to its original form, she and husband/creative partner Akira transformed the normally “extensive” and editorial process of exhibit curation into something spontaneous, democratic, and fun.
Freaks and geeks
The Catskills is crawling with ‘em, so I fit in pretty well these days. Oddballs, loners and folks who march to the beat of their own drum (as my mother was fond of saying) are holding their heads up high, as well they should. Showcasing unique music, art and entertainment has long been a tradition in the Upper Delaware River region, and now that warmer weather is upon us, it’s easier to chauffeur the Wonder Dog around town to check it all out.
Long before it was de rigueur, I was labeled a geek, mostly based on outward appearance. Thick glasses and sporting a yarmulke didn’t win me any popularity contests, so I was forced to develop a (debatable) personality and study less than my bookworm sister, who wore the report-card crown in my family. Early on, I made a decision to pursue my dream of entertaining schoolmates as a way of making friends and influencing enemies, mostly to avoid being beaten up (for being different) on the playground. I’m reminded of an old song from “A Chorus Line” (www.broadwaymusicalhome.com) that states that “different is nice, but it sure isn’t pretty—pretty is what it’s about,” but I beg to differ. From my vantage point, different is the new pretty, and I had the opportunity to explore that concept a few times over the last week.
Finding myself in Livingston Manor, I ducked in to CAS (www.catskillartsociety.org) to check out the newest Elevator Gallery art exhibit, dubbed “Exquisite Corpse of the Catskills,” which (I discovered) is based on an old parlor game designed to “help artists break from reason.” Co-curators Akira and Ellie Ohiso (www.ohiso.com) brought this concept to CAS, and 30 local geeks (I mean artists) joined them in creating multiple conjoined works of art that “Corpse” rules dictate. The reception, touted as the big “reveal,” featured many of the artists themselves unveiling the collaborative pieces to which each had contributed, but had yet to see the final result. Each artist was given a “panel” on which to draw portions of a body with each having access to only an inch of the other’s work from which to continue the piece. The result is a fascinating peek into the individual artist’s imagination, and each completed triptych is wildly interesting and a great example of what is defined (by the exercise) as “happenstance art.” I can’t draw but admire those who can, and “Corpse” (on display through August 2) is fun, captivating and different. So be sure to check it out.
Crossing “geeks” off my list, I set out in search of “freaks,” and having heard that the circus (I mean Cooper Boone) was in town, I put a bow (oy) in Dharma’s hair and followed her lead to Boone’s “Sideshow,” which had made its way to Sullivan County (www.forestburghtavern.com) following the show’s acclaimed debut in New York City. Being greeted at the door by a bearded lady was just the tip of the freaky iceberg that awaited guests inside the tavern, which had been transformed into Boone’s vision of the inner workings of his disturbed, demented, and (IMHO) wildly talented mind. Serving as a launch for his new CD of the same name, “Sideshow” is a three-ring extravaganza, giving Boone an opportunity to explore his multi-faceted ability to entertain the audience with powerhouse vocals and innovative style, which serves as a showcase for his ability to engage.
Far beyond a simple concert, Boone’s show (www.cooperboone.com) takes the audience on a journey of self-discovery laced with beautiful harmonies, gorgeous arrangements, stunning visuals and true originality that sets him far apart from the rest of the madding crowd. Supported by a talented cast and band, Boone manages to sweep the casual observer into his dizzying world, while performing future hits off the album like, “Other Side of Crazy,” “You Make the Ugly Go down Easy,” and the memorable “Typical Saturday Night.” As the sideshow itself paraded through the venue, Boone plumbed the depth of varied emotions and his new spin on the Village Peoples’ anthem, “YMCA,” was a surprising, moving interpretation of what has heretofore been labeled as a camp classic.
Boone’s talent for storytelling shone as the evening progressed and as “Sideshow” performer Lady Teak Wonders (Mark Silverstone) sat in the spotlight literally removing her layers of illusion, a hush fell over the crowd as Boone sang the plaintive “Circus”—which, combined with Silverstone’s moving performance, caused more than one tear to fall in the tavern. Three years in the making, Boone describes “Sideshow” as “throwing caution to the wind” and “trusting his instincts to grow as an artist,” and the prowess he displays is exemplified with every nuance, every gesture and every crystal clear note that soars. With several local appearances upcoming, check out his schedule so that you, too, can be dazzled. Freaks? Geeks? Vive la difference!
Watershed Post: April 7, 2015 Exquisite Corpse of the Catskills
A Surrealist art project: Exquisite Corpse of the Catskills
"We spoke with the Ohisos about the game, and about life as creative instigators in the Catskills."
Calling all Catskills artists: You’re invited to come play a Surrealist parlor game this spring.
Exquisite Corpse was an early 20th century favorite pastime for the likes of André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy, Joan Miro and Man Ray. It’s the visual equivalent of a freestyle jam session: A folded piece of paper passed between participants, each of whom adds their own contribution. When the paper is unfolded, a hodgepodge of “happenstance art” is revealed.
In collaboration with the Catskill Art Society, Ellie and Akira Ohiso are putting together a round of Exquisite Corpse that will feature Catskills artists. The Ohisos, the duo behind the recently folded (and much missed) Green Door Magazine, are inviting artists to enter a free public lottery to be among the teams working on the art project.
Twenty-one artists, to be paired in seven groups of three, will be chosen randomly at the lottery at the CAS Arts Center on Saturday April 18, 2015 at 2 p.m. Then the teams will work together on their portions of the exhibit, completing the work of other artists.
Selected artists will then be paired into their respective groups of three, and the first seven artists will leave with two pieces of paper: one paper to be completed in its entirety, and the second paper to be started slightly and left to be completed by the next set of artists. The second set of artists will pick up the started work. They will be required to complete the previous artist’s work and start a third paper, which the last set of artists will complete, finishing the triptych.
On June 5, the resulting artworks will be unveiled at the Catskill Art Society’s Elevator Gallery, where they will hang through July 24. The contributing artists will split sales three ways.
To get in on the fun, artists from Sullivan, Ulster, Orange and Delaware Counties in New York and Wayne and Pike Counties in Pennsylvania are invited to submit their names via email to firstname.lastname@example.org by April 15, 2015. For more information, visit ohiso.com.
We spoke with the Ohisos about the game, and about life as creative instigators in the Catskills.
Watershed Post: Is the Exquisite Corpse game widely known in the art world?
Ellie Ohiso: We both learned it in art school. It became part of our general unconscious art education. You’re not the first to ask us this question, and perhaps this type of creative experiment is not more widely known.
Q: How exactly did the idea of bringing it to Catskills artists germinate and bloom? Has anyone involved ever "played" it before, or is it a matter of reviving the corpse after decades?
Ellie: Over the early winter, we started doing our own art again. Something we hadn’t done in a while. Working alongside Akira, seeing him collage what I would never have the guts to do, or even conceive of, had me thinking. You produce art differently if you’re creating with another artist. The collaboration, inspiration, whatever actually changes the artistic process. What if we did something like this on a grander scale, without taking ourselves too seriously? Exquisite Corpse, as conceived by the Surrealists, was played outside the institutional art world. It was an exercise in relaxing.
Akira Ohiso: We had to create an Exquisite Corpse for the press release (see above). When I tried the Exquisite Corpse exercise all my reflexive artist choices kicked up, yet didn't work with the constraint of using just an ink pen and having to complete the work of another artist. There was also the pressure of having one chance to create my part, until I just decided to draw and not think about it. Then I created something I wasn't sure I liked or disliked but it was different than what I would usually do with my go-to medium.
Q: You say the method “pulls artists out of their comfort zone.” That sounds potent.
Ellie: We’re intimately familiar with the Catskills and Hudson Valley art community. I can walk into a show and immediately recognize an artist’s style and work. The aesthetic is what makes the artist powerful. But, as artists, we know what it’s like to actually produce the art. It’s a challenge, at times. Putting an artist in a box of constraints can sometimes help you break free, in a weird way. To say “You must finish this other artist’s work on paper with ink only.” There’s something totally terrifying and liberating at the same time. Is it going to be a challenge? Hell yeah! Can I use it after the winter we’ve had? Hell yeah.
Akira: Constraints and working with others is an exercise in compromise.
Q: Do you find the arts community in the region cohesive? Scattered? Mixed?
Ellie: I think it’s really hard being a working artist in general, and more specifically in the Catskills. And the rub is that the Catskills is fodder for all this really great artistic inspiration. So while it’s harder up here, it’s also more possible. For about three to four months in the winter, we can theoretically be producing much of our work in isolation. But we’re all producing in the same place. And we know what it’s like to be producing art in these conditions. And so, yes, there is a unity in that.
Akira: I guess the question would be what does it mean to be an artist in the Catskills? Sometimes it feels like there are these pockets of artists in small Catskills towns doing great work, but with little dialogue between each other. Not that it always has to be a Kumbaya moment, but if young people are getting the message that they need to leave in order to be recognized or appreciated as artists then something needs to be addressed. I also feel a real disconnect between local residents and transplants. I would like to see the arts do a bit more to bridge this gap and create more understanding.
Q: How have things been since Green Door Magazine closed? How's life around your part of the Catskills these days? Are there any future dreams in the works you care to drop a hint about?
Ellie: It’s a blessing and a curse to have an opportunity to reinvent myself after our success with Green Door. After shuttering the magazine, someone told us that Green Door was a three-year public art experiment in what was possible for our area. What I’ve missed the most is the opportunity to attempt grassroots change through constant experimentation. It took me three years to learn that an idea deemed not feasible can likely be done. The Catskills have been getting a lot of mainstream media attention of late, and I’d like to see some of the spotlight shining on Sullivan County in particular. Exacting positive change here can still feel very pioneering, and it’s a daunting prospect, but there’s a sense of infinite possibility too. Whenever we come up with an idea for a community-driven project, there’s a moment in time where I think ‘Why am I doing this?’ but usually the ‘Why not?!’ ends up canceling that out. I’d like 2015 to contain more unconventional positive projects like Exquisite Corpse of the Catskills.
Akira: Whenever you end an artistic project it is natural to feel a bit lost. Transitions are always difficult, especially during a long cold winter. But that is part of the creative process, to say goodbye to one thing in order to discover the next. I live in Sullivan County where there is long-standing poverty and myriad social issues which continue to create suffering for many residents. "Art for art's sake" does not always work when there are these kinds of issues in plain sight. Any future projects are keeping this in mind.
Hipster to Hickster: The Future of Art Is Rural
Artists are being priced out of New York City and other large urban centers. Some are moving to Detroit where houses go for a dollar; others are finding refuge in the suburbs.
The problems surrounding gentrification are larger than the fate of artists, such as families and economically disadvantaged populations being pushed out of Brooklyn, for example.
But urban renewal was led in large part by artists who moved into abandoned factories to set up studios, theatres, galleries, and apartments. Few could have predicted that loft living would become all the rage when cities were vacated for the suburbs, but that's what happened.
Whether artists will once again set demographic trends is an open question, but that artists struggle to cope with current real estate prices will certainly affect how the American culture, as created by the Artist, is portrayed.
Sharon Zukin, CUNY professor of sociology, argues that despite occasional, but somewhat specious, counter-culture movements, New York is rapidly becoming home to an exclusively wealthy population and endless rows of bland chain stores, both of which are destroying the city's "soul."
It should be mentioned that the main stream media is following a trend that began with bloggers and even print publishers, in identifying this 2-3 hour remove from, particularly, Manhattan and Brooklyn, as THE get-outta-Dodge destination for the stylish and hip. Green Door Magazine, alas, closed its doors last year, but covered the colorful and creative people and places populating the Sullivan County area. And they coined the frequently used phrase "Hickster," which really does accurately portray that Brooklyn cool meets Upstate flannel population of weekenders who are buying and visiting in increasing numbers.
To promote the march, event organizers ran a month-long advertising campaign throughout New York City’s subway system. One of the two posters selected from hundreds of entries to represent the campaign depicts the Statue of Liberty submerged up to her armpits in water. Along the horizon, where an ominous ocean meets an overcast sky, big white letters declare: “The Next One Won’t Be Biblical.” The poster is bleak, a clear allusion to the flood in Genesis that only Noah, his family, and several pairs of lucky animals survived, while the unrighteous perished.
“We wanted to make something that was powerful enough and scary enough to get people to look at it,” says Akira Ohiso, who, together with his wife and design partner, Ellie, created the apocalyptic graphic.
“When I share the image on social media, I’ve had cousins of mine who are still quite religious say things like, ‘Oh, please, that’s such hyperbole,'” Ellie says. “And then I’m like, ‘OK, yes, it’s hyperbole. So let’s talk about exactly how high the water has to get on Lady Liberty before you start having a discussion about what’s really happening.'”
Mom's Clean Air Force: September 2014
PEOPLE’S CLIMATE MARCH SUBWAY POSTERS: A RAY OF HOPE, A SCHMEAR OF FEAR
Tickets to a Broadway show can cost hundreds of dollars. But, as any New York City subway rider knows, $2.50 gets you a front row seat to an ever-changing cast of characters delivering monologues, dance routines, musical numbers, and other diversions to liven up your morning commute. With a daily ridership of 5.5 million, we’re a massive captive audience, a potential goldmine for the panhandlers, hip-hoppers and doo-woppers who compete for our spare coins.
But what if you demanded a sea change, instead of spare change? This month, a trio of artists is doing just that, with a pair of posters that ask New York City subway riders to open our eyes, not our wallets. The vivid graphic designs by the wife-and-husband team of Ellie and Akira Ohiso are the winners of a poster design contest sponsored by Avaaz, the global civic organization, to promote the September 21st People’s Climate March.
Huffington Post: August 20, 2014
THESE INSPIRING POSTERS WILL REMIND NEW YORKERS WHY THE PEOPLE'S CLIMATE MARCH IS SO IMPORTANT
The organizers of what may become the largest climate-change march in history have just announced the winners of a poster design contestto promote the event in one of New York City’s most visible locations.
The two winning designs, which were chosen by a panel of judges including Shepard Fairey, Barbara Kruger and Moby, will appear on one out of every 10 train cars on the New York City subway from August 25 until the People's Climate March on September 21.
“The design plays against popular catastrophe film stereotypes to bring fantasy into possible reality. The commercialized design is meant to target a larger audience that likely wouldn't be interested in traditional eco-messaging,” Ellie Ohiso said.
Motivating Millions: People's Climate March Poster Design Winners August 2014
In the summer of 2014 the People's Climate March design contest lined up a jury panel of art, ad world and activism stars (Shepard Fairey, Barbara Kruger, Swoon, Moby, DJ Spooky and more), and drew submissions from artists worldwide to find a killer design that can help get hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of NYC for the People's Climate March on September 21.
Art News /
ArtNews Magazine: July 1, 2014
INSIDER’S GUIDE TO THE DEER-HUNTING, PIG-FARMING, MUSHROOM-FORAGING HICKSTER ARTISTS OF THE CATSKILLS
As Akira Ohiso, a neighbor who until recently ran an arts magazine called Green Door, explained, “people come up here to opt out of the mainstream, to find space to roam and do whatever you want. That’s the frontier, and it’s a tough go, but it’s not about hiding out; it’s about searching for something, and out of this desolate environment springs all these amazing creative things that are about the beauty of a brief experience, about something that is alive.”
Hickster and Narrowsburg Not Williamsburg mention.
Decades after the Borscht Belt’s heyday and an extended economic slump, the western edge of the Catskills is reawakening. Following the rush of New Yorkers who bought up property in the ’80s, a new crew of city dwellers are heading here for the utter, rural remoteness (thanks, in part, to the fact that it’s unreachable by train; on a good day, it’s about a two-hour drive) and to join the growing, tight-knit community of expat “hicksters.” Though obviously tongue-in-cheek, the “Narrowsburg Not Williamsburg” T-shirts sold here aren’t that far off.
Liberty builds an artsy image
LIBERTY — Can the Village of Liberty become the new cultural hub of the Catskills?
The former Sullivan County resort mecca may have a few empty storefronts.
But this village flanked by the green Catskill mountains also has a colorful palette of two-story shops offering everything from Mexican, Chinese, Italian and health foods to gourmet coffee and cutting-edge art.
“Why not Liberty?” said Ellie Ohiso, publisher of another thing Liberty has — Green Door magazine, which calls itself “A Journal of Comfortable Living.”
“Liberty has the potential to be like a Saugerties, with its mom-and-pop shops and art. It can be anything it wants to be,” Ohiso said.
Ohiso and a group of business owners calling themselves ArtLib hope this village of some 4,400 residents takes a major step in that direction at 6 p.m. Sunday, when it unveils a giant sculpture that’s sure to attract lots of attention.
It’s called “Ed” and it’s a 10-foot-tall fabricated, welded steel rendition of a big guy with a giant head made of such found objects as an ax and a bicycle tire.
The sculpture is the product of another thing Liberty and Sullivan have — talented artists like Zac Shavrick, a Liberty High School graduate who has shown his steel sculptures in galleries ranging from Chelsea to California.
Shavrick, 26, knows that the open spaces of Sullivan have become a hub for artists who’ve shown everywhere from the Museum of Modern Art to the Smithsonian — especially artists from New York City who need open spaces like the Catskills provide.
“It’s not easy to fit all this art (in a space) in the city,” he said, gesturing to sculptures like a larger-than-life version of 7-foot-6-inch basketball great Yao Ming on the 15 acres in Ferndale where he lives with his father, Barry, also a sculptor of welded steel.
“The city’s moving up this way, too.”
“Ed” will be unveiled next to another member of ArtLib, Floyd and Bobo’s Bakery and Snack Palace, on a tiny slice of the Main Street lawn of the Town of Liberty government center — itself unique since the building is an old home set on a tree-lined lawn.
And when you ask Floyd and Bobo’s co-owner, Louie Petraglia, if he thinks Liberty can become the next cultural hub of the Catskills, he answers with the same question Ohiso asks:
People pour out wishes for empty Liberty building
LIBERTY — Bland sheets of plywood stretched across the entrance of the former Liberty Theater and connected storefronts in the center of Main Street.
Where others saw a row of depressing closed storefronts in the heart of their village, Akira and Ellie Ohiso spotted an opportunity.
They painted the dull white wood black, lettered “I would like to see this storefront become ”»” in Spanish and English, and left colored chalk behind for people to scribble away their ideas.
Akira is the president and editor and wife Ellie the publisher of Green Door Magazine, a Sullivan County-based journal dedicated to responsible living in the Catskills and Hudson Valley.
The Ohisos say the project extends the magazine’s mission, to get people thinking about their community and making positive changes.
But they also say they did it because they live in the village and don’t want to drive or walk past boring blank boards for the next several months.
“There is some type of psychological impact to walking past vacant stores every day,” Ellie said. She said people grow apathetic and tend to get used to seeing closed buildings.
“Art,” she said, “has a way of making a psychological impact for the positive.”
Stephanie Eisenberg owns the property on South Main Street. She plans to renovate the former movie theater into a performing arts space, and create retail stores.
It is unclear, however, how long that project will take to get going.
Akira Ohiso said the wall will stay up for at least six months and possibly the duration of the construction project.
They finished the wall on Jan. 13 after obtaining the owner’s permission. Within a couple hours, people were scribbling away, Akira said. It has been a hit with young people.
Most of the wall is covered with comments in multicolored chalk. A skateboard store, youth center and game room are the most repeated requests. Others wrote: “hair shop,” “teen pregnancy prevention center,” “semi private youth pool hall,” or simply “something amazing and unexpected.”
Ellie Ohiso said once the wall is filled with comments, they’ll erase them so people can keep writing. They monitor the content to ensure no foul language is on display.
The idea was based on artist Candy Chang’s “Before I Die” series, where people have expressed their feelings and aspirations in public spaces. Chang created the first wall on an abandoned house in New Orleans, after she lost a loved one.
Liberty’s wall has been featured on the Web page beforeidie.cc with other walls in the series as far flung as Australia and the Netherlands.