Saturday, September 29, 2012

Remembering my friend Tom Roberts

Art by Norman Kelly copyright 2008
Context for the Art-ifacts 
Sat., Sept. 15, 2012

Patti asked me to offer some context for the art and objects placed in the auditorium and the atrium area. So, a little background about 3 things: the artifacts, the cubes, and the phrenology heads.

The artifacts. Early in 2008, Tom asked me about commissioning a collage that would riff on his brain scan films, which he found to be very cool and very interesting. Which I found to be creepy and overly scientific.

We kept talking and more material surfaced: in addition to the films showing lateral and vertical slices of his brain on grids, we had dark spots in the brain, MRI beeps that sound like Steve Reich or John Cage, the book A Journey Round My Skull by a Hungarian writer describing his own brain surgery, holiday seizures, books by Oliver Sachs, a horror movie poster, zipperhead scars, 16th and 17th century wonder cabinets, the man with the face tattoo, Tom and Patti’s collection of phrenology heads and brains in various media, and a lot more.

It began to feel like this story called for something bigger than a two-dimensional collage—something that spoke to the brain function and illness, but also to family, community, and adaptability, and that would illustrate an irreverent sense of humor and quirky aesthetic. So, to our idea palette we added a shipment of plastic “fourth quality” medical teaching skulls, then contacted a slew of artists and family members, and, stirred. In the end, we created a sort of walk-in Wonder Cabinet of curiosities and named it Cranial Vault—a multisensory, mixed-up media, intergenerational, very alternative, multiple artist exhibit that we installed in the gallery upstairs and later at a café in Silver Spring.

We’ve brought in some of these items today as remembrances and reminders—a set of beautiful and odd souvenirs to surprise and amaze you.

The cubes. This is a brand-new piece that Tom envisioned and described to me a few years ago. He asked his dad to have the open boxes fabricated in rebar. And he left it to someone (well, me I guess) to figure out how to procure and place glass globes inside. These are handblown glass fishingfloats made by an artist (Ana Willow Obermayr) in Portland.

The phrenology heads.  Phrenology was a Victorian-era psuedoscience that involved measuring the skull and mapping sections of the brain to correlate with specific character traits. Tom’s cancer was in the left parietal lobe, which is strongly associated with disorders related to language processing and speech. For our exhibit in 2008, Tom and Patti’s friend Norman Kelly created a coloring book image and we made a zillion copies of it for visitors to Cranial Vault to fill in. These pages were later bound into a handmade book.

Norman has created a new Memorial PhrenHead—there are copies in your programs and in the atrium area afterwards—and we invite you to fill in these brains today with memories, thoughts, ideas and leave them in the baskets.

So, here I want to close with just one of the many passages Tom and I marked together in Frigyes Karinthy’s book and then a reflection. The passage is about the life-affirming connection between science and art and it feels like a fit for our creative partnership:

While I am a great admirer of science, I claim the respect of its representatives for what I must call my ‘artistic’ conception of life. Art is a complimentary source of truth, for it enlists the help of the imagination to carry mankind beyond a mere observation of facts. Real achievement is possible only when both work in association.”

After the service, I invite you to rediscover some of the “artifacts” and hope they might serve as conversation and connection points. As I reflect on the items we’ve collected and made over the years, I feel like they stand in for the weird and wonderful, cool and terrible, surprises we each can discover in the journey around our own lives. Our challenge is to greet them with an open mind and with flexibility, quiet courage, humility, and a willingness to embrace changing circumstances and a dynamic cycle of life’s new normals. Tom showed me that.

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