Belfast — The downtown Chase’s Daily has reopened from its winter break, but it’s not yet the season for the indoor farmer’s market. That’s a good thing, since the year’s first Perimeter Gallery show needs the extra space.
“The Wrack Line, Images from the Periphery,” a solo exhibition of some 25 prints, sculptures and drawings by Simon van der Ven, will open Thursday, April 3, with a 6 to 8 p.m. public reception.
“I’m hoping for a big crowd,” the artist said the last week of March. “It’s going to be a real party!”
Lincolnville’s van der Ven is best known for his ceramic vessels, but “The Wrack Line” eschews artfully worked clay for something quite different — sculptures made from jetsam and works on paper inspired by, and sometimes incorporating, the same. The materials, gathered from what several disciplines call the littoral zone, are rich and beautiful in their own way, he said … and he’s not alone in recognizing that.
“Look at any windowsill or shelf around here; everyone has a collection,” he said.
While some may be drawn to sea-smoothed glass, rocks and shells, van der Ven has long been pulled towards more industrial debris. It just took him awhile to recognize the attraction. When he first came to the Maine coastline, he found a piece of painted copper on the Deer Isle shoreline. It was a fishing boat patch and something about it spoke to him.
“Do you know, I’ve been carrying it around with me for 32 years; it’s always been in my studio,” he said.
When he started working on what would become the paintings of “The Wrack Line,” he began with bottom paint. While he soon realized the need to use something less toxic, van der Ven also found the bright look of it wasn’t quite what he was after. When he finally did find the hue he wanted, it looked oddly familiar.
“I pulled out that old piece of copper and there it was,” he said.
That something in the periphery of his studio should turn out to be seminal should not have taken him by surprise. Van der Ven’s college major was printmaking and he studied painting in France. In 1999, Maine College of Art faculty member Katarina Weslien was looking around his grad school studio and noticed some ceramic cups van der Ven had tucked onto a side shelf.
“She brought them over to me and said, 'this is where it’s going on,'” he said.
She was right. Van der Ven’s cups, vases and other vessels have received critical acclaim, including winning a record three awards at the 2012 Strictly Functional Pottery National. It’s certainly still going on in his Lincolnville studio, where the artist has been creating work full-time since retiring from the art department of Camden Hills Regional High School. He teaches ceramics at Unity College and will serve as technical facilitator in the Haystack Residency clay studio May 25 through June 6; participate in the Blue Hill Fine Craft Show, which will come to the Samoset Resort in August; and is tentatively scheduled to have a late summer collaborative show with Mark Kelly at Rockland’s CRAFT gallery. But he said he thinks the “Wrack Line” work is having an effect on his ceramics.
“I think the process has deepened my practice overall,” he said.
While the copper boat patch might be the genesis, the journey that led to the Perimeter show was initiated by the Center for Maine Contemporary Art’s “The Gleaners” found objects show six years ago. Van der Ven and fellow artist Jesse Gillespie, a former student and curator of the CMCA show, went out to the island of Matinicus to see what they could find in the wrack line there.
“They don’t clean the beaches, so we found a lot,” he said.
He was particularly intrigued by the “bridges” they found, folded wire mesh panels used to give lobster traps rigidity and strength. Van der Ven thought they had an architectural quality and brought home “bins and bins” of them.
“The first thing I did was build ‘skyscrapers’ with them, looking for the space between construction and destruction,” he said.
That place-between nature is built into the wrack line, marking as it does a place that is both and neither ocean and land, he said. And there was something about the bridges that made him think of Venice, Italy, a man-made city that is intimate with natural elements. He said he found beauty in the way nature “involved itself” with the plastic and wire he found.
“Tom O’Donovan told me once that things that are truly beautiful remain beautiful throughout their decay,” he said, referring to the Midcoast goldsmith who owns Harbor Square Gallery in Rockland.
The Perimeter Gallery show includes some of the skyscrapers, which also show up in photographs, prints and paintings. The photos were taken by Todd Watts, part of a small community of artist colleagues who helped van der Ven create “The Wrack Line.”
Also among the colleagues van der Ven has worked with are Belfast artist Dina Petrillo, on whose press he did some embossing, and graphic artist and former student Tyler LaFreniere, who converted files as part of the silkscreening. Those silkscreened images are big — really big, pulled from machines donated by the College of the Atlantic to Waterfall Arts and currently stored at Liberty Graphics.
“They’re huge, much bigger than they use for the T-shirts, and they didn’t work, needed tuning up. I said ‘I can do that,’ even though I didn’t really but I figured it out,” van der Ven said, crediting Liberty Graphics’ Jay Sproul with helping make the screens for the large vacuum table.
“And Al Crichton [of Waterfall Arts] and Chris Polson [of Twin Brooks Stretchers] … the support has been phenomenal,” he said.
Also supportive have been Perimeter’s Freddy LaFage and Karen MacDonald, whom van der Ven credits with showing “some really amazing work” at Chase’s Daily. He said the response thus far to his “Wrack Line” pieces, from a wide range of people, has been positive.
His own response is positive, too. The artist said he can tell it is informing his clay work, which got a needed jolt by a residency at the Anderson Ranch in Colorado two years ago.
“My biggest influence is where I live and my family and studio, so the residency really shook things up,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of “The Wrack Line” is that it’s hard to see what happens at the edges.
“You can’t focus on the periphery; once you turn to look at it, it becomes the focus! So it’s a real paradox,” he said.
It makes itself known in less direct ways, perhaps. Van der Ven said that, in retrospect, it seems clear this work has been incubating a long time. There’s that cherished boat patch, of course, and other things that reflect a long-held connection to what the sea tosses up on land. The artist’s bed, for example, was constructed years ago of things he found along the shore.
“I used to think of myself as a quick study, but I guess I’m really a slow learner,” he said. “This process has been amazing … it feels like an opening.”
“The Wrack Line, Images from the Periphery” will continue through May 18. Chase’s Daily restaurant is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sundays, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information about the artist, visit vandervenstudios.com.