The Harrison Center for the Arts doesn't do easy internships. And if you're a mature-beyond-your-years world traveller, a big thinker who also happens to be highly organized, you might just be able to put together a brand new program, one consistent with the center's philosophy of engaging the community, both on a local and international scale.
We're talking here of the center's Global Art Exchange, an intercultural artist residency program that in its first year welcomed two artists from New Delhi's Reflection Art Gallery to collaborate with three Harrison residents on a show, No Place Like Home, premiering Friday. And the intern we're concerned with - now the program's coordinator - is Melanie Hall, who happened to intern at the Harrison Center last summer, just after she spent time at - and this is not un-coincidental - the Reflection Art Gallery.
After the arrival of both Indian artists included in the program was delayed by visa troubles - the exchange got underway this June, with participants beginning by picking the theme for this weekend's show. Moumita Ghosh and Prittam Priyalochan are the two visiting artists; Quincy Owens, Elizabeth Guipe Hall and Jonathan Frey are the locals involved.
I stopped by the Harrison Center Monday to see how work was coming along - and I wouldn't say the mood was frantic, but some of the artists said they had never worked so quickly before this project. Ghosh, who arrived in Indianapolis June 13 (her first visit to the States), was twining together sticks in a corner of Owens's studio, the rest of which was occupied by (noisy) kids and teachers involved in the Harrison's art summer camp. She had already completed the core of her contribution to No Place Like Home - 14 works, including collage and drawings - and was putting together these natural accoutrements to add another layer to her already many-layered work.
Ghosh says she's interested in creating a space where there "are no boundaries between religions and cultures"; her collages incorporate Indian pillars and temples, alongside newspaper clips about Ghana and photographs of cultural figures like Charlie Chaplin. She says she tries to avoid using specific symbols, opting instead for dream-like imagery - one collage is a sort of "dream house," with a woman floating in the top right corner - as well as elements from early childhood, which were incorporated into her work after she interviewed "everyone she could find" in Indianapolis about their early years. For instance, one person told her about an obsession with tadpoles and frogs; and so a frog features in one of her drawings for the show.
One reason she may be interested in surrealism - and its attendant transience - is that she feels that she has no fixed home. "Where you work is your home," she puts it, noting that because of the way she's traveled consistently - from her childhood home to Calcutta, from there to Delhi, now to the States - she tries to make a "comfortable zone" for herself wherever she happens to be. And she's found Indianapolis perfectly hospitable; she says she's impressed by the quantity and quality of public art in the city, and that she's been able to communicate through the common language of art.
Ghosh and Elizabeth Guipe Hall ended up bonding early on in the process - partly because they're both women, says Hall, but also because Hall feels a profound connection to India that plays into her sense of home. Hall's mother grew up there, and Hall has visited on a Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship, making a pilgrimage to her mom's childhood home, as well as other sites with significance to her family (including the boarding school her mom attended, Woodstock School).
"It's a subject I like to visit a lot," she says of her Indian background. "It was a big part of my upbringing, even though I had never been there." She recalls time spent in Indian communities in Chicago and trips to see Bollywood films in a theater in South Bend. And she appreciates the way being a missionary kid complicated her mom and aunt's sense of home.
Hall was feeling the time crunch in a particularly intense way on Monday, nicking away at the wax that covers one of her pieces (Hall's medium is encaustic, and there aren't many shortcuts to preparing a piece). Her work incorporates photographs, both historic and contemporary, of her family in India, as well as of the family home and other sites; these are then obscured by the wax that covers the canvas, as well as colorful strips of paper and other designs that have a kind of Mondrian-goes-to-India feel.
Hall ended up working with Ghosh on a piece that had languished in Hall's basement since her trip to India, with Ghosh adding drawings to the top and bottom of the piece. Downstairs, the two other participants in the program in the building that day - Quincy Owens was out for the week - were hard at work on their respective contributions to the show. Jonathan Frey's head was buried in his computer preparing a series of photos, Prittam Priyalochan at work on a sort of self-portrait. Priyalochan's arrival was significantly delayed, so he's been playing a sort of catch-up since his arrival. His work includes portraits of people from his neighborhood, as well as pictures of peacocks (an animal which he's particularly compelled to paint, and which he finds to be a big seller in Delhi) and more abstract pieces that employ splotches of paint and ink.
Priyalochan was trained as a printmaker (earning his bachelors and masters), but has since gravitated toward painting, partly because it's easier to find resources and make space to paint. His paintings for the show tend to include images of India - including a man eating a candy that's worn, thimble-style, on each finger before being eaten. His self-portrait shows him carrying a village bible, to represent, in part, the way in which he carries his village upbringing with him through the world.
Frey did much of the work on his photo series last week, grabbing anyone and everyone to serve as models. They all donned a thobe - a robe-like, typically white garment typically worn in Arab countries - for the series. The garb makes for a certain cognitive dissonance, because the photos are taken, documentary-style, on the streets of Indy; and the models are often people who you wouldn't expect to be wearing a thobe. Not that anyone complained; given the heat, Frey says, they tended to find the outfit rather comfortable.