The substance of shadow

By Dagney C. Ernest | Feb 21, 2018
Photo by: Dagney C. Ernest Warren Seelig examines some of the plastic discs he has been creating and experimenting with of late in his Rockland studio.

Rockland — Under the Syndicate Block in downtown Rockland, workbenches, electric and hand tools, vises and boxes of materials — from stone, glass and wood to fishing line and ping pong balls — fill the basement studio of artist Warren Seelig.

The southeast corner is a bright contrast to rest of what the American Craft Council artist and educator calls his “cave”; mounted on the three drywall-white walls that surround a table with a laptop are various Seelig Shadowfields sculptures, some still bearing labels from their return trip last summer from South Korea. The shadows are cast by slate, granite, Lucite balls and colorful acrylic plastic discs — or, in the case of what Seelig calls "shadowfield drawings," thin stainless steel sculptures painted red, black and white. The latter are an example of a direction the artist has been headed in for some time.

“It started with Haystack, doing the stone, just being up there, the natural materials. I was really interested in shadow and loved the idea that the object — stone or birch, whatever — was still dominant and the shadow secondary, but there’s some kind of ambiguity between the two … and I like that,” he said on a February Friday.

“Then I started thinking, what if the object itself becomes less important and the shadow becomes more important? I’ve done work with polypropylene where you can hardly see the object. It’s mostly all about the shadow,” he said.

The Maine grounding of the Pennsylvania-born and -bred artist began at Deer Isle’s Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, many years ago. He and his wife, Sherrie Gibson, ended up moving to the Midcoast. A full-time job teaching at the prestigious Philadelphia College of Art, now University of the Arts, brought them back to Philly, but they still returned to Maine during the summer. It was tough going, financially. But the pull to live on the Midcoast year-round was strong; the couple purchased the three-story building on Rockland’s Main Street in 1995, and Gibson opened the street-level The Black Parrot shop, opposite Second Read, while Seelig continued to commute to teach full-time.

“And about 10 years ago, I gave up rank, I gave up benefits, I gave up tenure, which is a big deal,” to teach part-time and really live in Rockland, Seelig said. “But what helped a whole lot, it was just about the time [daughter] Ashley went to college. I gave up my job and she then got accepted at the Cooper Union.”

The East Village art school still had free admission at the time, “and that was like a gigantic gift, even though she was living in New York, where the rents are about the same as the tuition anywhere else in the world. But it’s a great school,” Seelig said.

When they first made the switch, Seelig and Gibson lived on one of the upper floors, in a space now occupied by Ashley Seelig and her boyfriend, Josh Cardoza, visual artists who run FOG Bar & Café in the former Second Read space (that business, which had become Rock City, moved a block down Main Street). Now, Warren Seelig and Gibson live in Hope, although they have retained the small apartment that was there when they bought the 1893 Classical Revival building. It comes in handy, especially during the winter. A couple of days earlier, Sherrie had returned from a Black Parrot buying trip just after a snowstorm and stayed in the city instead of attempting their Hope home’s icy driveway.

Seelig weathered the same storm in Philadelphia, where he still teaches. A typical week finds him flying from Portland to either New York or Philly on a Monday; teaching at the university — his classes include drawing and Constructed Surface — on Tuesday and Wednesday; and flying back to Maine on Thursday. Fridays through Sundays, he is hard at work in his subterranean studio, which, this day, was filled with music. FOG, directly overhead, was testing its sound system for that night’s Winter Salt concert.

“I bought those speakers like 20 years ago, bought them used, but still paid a lot of money, and the sound is phenomenal! When Josh heard them for the first time, he said, 'Oh my god, I didn’t know it came from a speaker like that,'” Seelig said.

In recent years, the artist has been seeing a similar reaction in his art students as they discover the power of working with their hands, wielding non-digital tools and materials. He teaches in the Fibers + Textile Studies department of what has become a very interdisciplinary school. Students can migrate across curriculae … and many do to take Seelig’s classes. Textiles are of interest to all kinds of people, he said. And students are embracing historic processes, such as tapestry-making, more than ever in his long teaching experience.

“In the old days, you had a woodshop in the basement and a sewing room in your home, but no longer; they’re all filled with electronic gear. When they come to us, they experience that hand-to-hand world and it’s a revelation,” he said. “There’s a whole new resurgence and interest in all that kind of stuff.”

Not that he bashes electronic technology — “I love it, we all do, and we use it” — but disconnection from the physical world goes against eons of human experience. He referred to Ellen Dissanayake’s book “What is Art For?” to explain the conflict.

“She talks about how we’re biologically wired, not that long ago, to be making things in this world, and that moving in this other territory is a contradiction in a way,” he said. “It’s causing all kinds of issues and also a desire to remain connected with that physical world.”

Seelig’s latest work connects him to both modern innovation and traditional, hands-on creation. The Shadowfields series began with natural materials — visitors to Camden Hills Regional High School are familiar with one of these works, a Percent for Art commission — and have evolved into a Color Field approach, using discs of colored Lexan or Plexiglas. He also has been working with materials made by 3form, a design group whose manufacturing is based in Salt Lake City, with showrooms in New York City and Los Angeles.

“Sherrie knew about them and I remembered her talking about them, really liked the materials they were working with. At one point, they just got ahold of me and said maybe we can do a collaboration,” Seelig said.

That’s still in negotiation — the artist said he doesn’t want to commercialize what he does. But he has been experimenting with the colorful translucent panels 3form makes.

“They’re extremely green and proud of that. The plastics they use are all recycled materials,” he said. “They work with artists and do large-scale public works and that sort of thing … they also work with indigenous artists in Africa and all over the world.”

In his studio, Seelig has a small tabletop prototype of what could be an interior light wall, made from interlocking discs of 3form polycarbonate. The artist cut each piece out with a circular saw on his drill press, then cut out slots and filed the discs by hand. It consumed much of his summer.

“It’s held together with just friction. With a CNC, I could make the tolerances so it’s a nice tight fit; hand-wise, I’m back and forth on that,” he said.

The 3form facility in Salt Lake City has the biggest computer numerical control router west of the Mississippi, so if he decides to work with the company, Seelig will have access to it. A top-notch smaller CNC is likely headed to his studio, thanks to his being named a 2018 USA Fellow last month by the Chicago-based United States Artists.

“I’m not even sure who nominated me! I think I may find out, because we’re having a big gathering in Chicago in March with all the recipients,” he said.

Although he was informed of his nomination last June and submitted 25 slides of his work, it was not until some six months later that he got the call saying he had been selected by the jury of curators, art gallery directors, “museum people and all kinds of people who know the field.” He let that call go to voicemail.

“I was actually down here working on a Friday like today, and I thought it was scam! It said Chicago and I thought, eh, I have friends in Chicago, but we don’t really talk on the phone,” he said.

But the message mentioned the United States Artists Fellowship Group, so Seelig called back.

“And they said they were giving me the fellowship and I kind of flipped out, it was like the old days, that ‘Millionaire’ show,” he said.

The no-strings-attached fellowships, awarded across artistic disciplines, are far from millions, but 50 grand goes a long way, both practically and as recognition.

“It’s not just about the moment. But it depends, because there are young recipients, more elderly things like me, there’s a range,” Seelig, barely in his 70s, said. “Seriously, it is an honor. It’s like a reinforcement that something you’re doing in your work is there for people.”

One of Seelig’s larger public works is a 32-foot sculpture commissioned for the pavilion of the University of Kentucky’s Chandler Hospital and installed as part of its construction. “Gingko” is inspired both by the leaves of its namesake tree and by its healing properties. Before Shadowfields, there was Spoke and Axle, and 2011’s “Ginkgo” is an addition to that ongoing body of work. These are large sculptures of stainless steel and architectural mesh, illuminated by smart lights. That year, Rock City moved out; before the FOG renovations got under way in earnest, Seelig worked on another Spoke and Axle work on the first floor, this one headed to the American Embassy in Monrovia, Liberia.

“Usually we build the really big pieces out in Seattle. But I built three of them, they were 18 feet tall, for the embassy here. We even hung them in a certain front window and put lights on them, it was fun,” the artist said.

The Spoke and Axle series grew out of Seelig’s time at Philadelphia’s famed Fabric Workshop and Museum. He was invited to be a visiting artist there when he first started teaching and “was sort of forced to work with non-woven things.” And woven things are in his blood.

Seelig is the fourth generation of his family to work in textiles, although his definition of that would have confounded some of his predecessors. His great-grandfather, grandfather and father were mostly about machine design, he said. As a child, he loved going to the mills with his father.

“And it wasn’t the textile itself … if you see a jacquard lace-making machine, it is an amazing kinetic sculpture,” he said.

He still has some patent drawings of his father’s machine designs on his laptop. He said he used to draw from them, although he didn’t know what they depicted. And he avoided textiles in art school, precisely because his family was so immersed in their manufacture. But textiles were beginning to come into their own as a fine art medium; a couple of major exhibitions “made me rethink that maybe textiles, in that way, is something I could deal with,” he said.

While working on a loosely focused art degree, Seelig visited the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science.

“And it was like lighting! Here were the same machines I saw as a kid; the fact that I could work with and make things with those machines …  I fell in love with it, I really did, woven structures especially,” he said.

At the College of Textiles, Seelig said he learned what he calls the language of cloth.

“I loved learning that language, and then I loved the physical making of a piece of cloth,” he said.

While earning his master of fine arts degree at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Seelig began his early work, which he said some called architectonic weaving. It involved weaving double-cloth fabrics and employing a “skeleton” of support within.

“Between the structure of the cloth and the skeleton, it could be folded almost origami-like. I did a whole couple years of that kind of work before it morphed into other things,” he said.

Weaving continues to be the armature of his three-dimensional work. A site-specific piece comprising woven transparent blue monofilament — aka, fishing line — was installed in the rotunda of Rockland’s Farnsworth Art Museum in 2010 and it’s up there still; Seelig said “Oculus” has a limited lifespan because “eventually, someone will have to paint that ceiling!”

An online image of that work sparked a commission for Comcast’s new office headquarters in Washington, D.C. This project resulted in a 50-foot sandwiched glass screen of woven monofilament in many colors.

“We got this monofilament from literally all round the world; Korea had the most wide variety of colors. We had frames made by Rockport Steel that fit into this panel that fit into a long, narrow recess in the building,” Seelig said.

Another project that appeared high up in a building was executed in 2010 by Seelig and his students at the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore, where he taught several sessions and had a retrospective of his work. Offered the “air space” of MICA’s new, high-tech Brown Center, they first came up with an idea that would have suspended a heavy “trash doughnut” in the middle of the building.

“If it falls, it kills someone! So instead, we decided to use bubble tea sipping straws, which are the strongest of the straws, and make these Buckminster Fuller-type structures,” he said.

The result was a large, drawing-like sculpture that hung in the space, the multiple small straw constructions connected and suspended by florescent seine cord “that looked like laser lines.” Seelig said there was a Pompidou Center feel to the installation, as a cathedral-like traditional building could be seen through the glass of the ultra-modern Brown Center.

“It was fun, one of those projects we really had no idea it would come off,” he said. “It worked out really well; you never know!”

Plastic straws, slate and granite, maybe glass — Seelig currently is experimenting with recycled cullet, or waste glass — whatever the material, the shadow it throws is becoming Seelig’s paramount concern. His 2015 “Colored Light/Suspended Animation,” a commission for Oppenheimer Financial at 2 World Financial Center in New York City (site of the former World Trade Center), is a piece in which the shadow really dominates, he said.

“I like the fact that I’m a sculptor involved with materiality, and to have the material dissolve into space and the piece to become less tangible,” he said. “It’s more involved in some other sort of magical phenomenon, which is shadow.”

Seelig will be going away for two weeks this summer, to teach at Haystack and, for a second year, the Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill on Cape Cod. He has been a perennial presence at Haystack, both on the faculty and the board. While serving on the latter, he was part of the Digital Dialogues: Technology and The Hand symposium, which brought the MIT Media Lab to the esteemed craft school. As a result, Haystack is now part of the worldwide network of Fab Labs, “manned and womanned by MIT students” and bringing such technologies as 3-D printing and CNC routing to the traditional craft school in Maine.

Making by hand, however, is always Seelig’s first choice, as pleased as he was to use local Richard E. Warner Company’s big CNC to make the color discs for the World Financial Center commission. The silver-brazed stainless steel Shadowfields sculptures supports are handcrafted in the basement studio, where Seelig also is considering the possibilities of jasper — and even the little granite cores that result from his stone drilling, thanks to diamond-coated hollow bore bits that are water-cooled with a little jig he came up with.

“I’ve got boxes of them,” he said, and there are boxes and boxes of other possibilities all over the studio.

Midcoast residents and visitors will have a rare chance to see a variety of Seelig’s work in September, when he will have a show at the downtown Dowling Walsh Gallery.

“Everything’s not monumental,” he said, pointing to his little "shadowfields drawings.” He said when good light is focused on the white one, the sculpture itself almost disappears. He’s thinking about exploring that idea more for the September show.

“Shadow has substance, in a way, but it’s there and then it’s gone,” he said.

To see more of Seelig’s work, visit warrenseelig.com.

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