Duos dynamiques

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When two creatives put their lives and imaginations together, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Written by John Eischeid
Illustrations by Anje Jager

Detail of Real Estate Goldmine installation by Melissa Estro and Joshua Starcher, mixed media

The gold picture frame is in the shape of a heart. In the background of the photograph are a white windowsill and gray siding — the exterior of a house. However, there’s no happy homeowner or child in the foreground.

They’ve been removed, literally cut out of the frame so that a black-and-white document that contains terms such as “deposes,” “foreclosure” and “proceedings” lurks beneath in the silhouette of what apparently once was a parent holding up a child.

The piece is part of Real Estate Goldmine, an installation that contains many similar mixed-media collages. The installation comments on the impersonal real estate exploitation that occurred during and around the 2008 financial crisis.

In other pieces, the background documents are unpaid medical bills, student loan bills and child support papers — all in the place of people. The untitled piece described was originally part of Rooms to Let: CLE, a program that for four years has invited artists to create installations in the Slavic Village of Cleveland, Ohio, a neighborhood decimated by foreclosure. The piece was also recently in the Governors Island Art Fair in New York Harbor.

When Art and Relationships Cohabitate

Joshua Starcher, who created the installation with his partner, Melissa Estro, commented on viewer reaction: “In Slavic Village, everyone was saying, ‘This is the way the financial crises should be shown. You should go to all the cities that were hit by this crisis and just keep showing this.’”

Surprisingly, neither Josh nor Melissa knows exactly when or where the idea for Real Estate Goldmine came into being. This lacuna in the work’s genesis exposes one of the subtle complexities of what happens when art and relationships cohabitate.

Artists’ lives and work become intertwined in intricate ways. And, the line between the two is not always clean-cut. Collaborations, critiques, inspiration and even children blur the boundary between art and day-to-day living, creating a total that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Josh and Melissa — Collaborators in Collage

Artist couples, Josh and Melissa

artist couples, josh and melissa

The best explanation for the concept behind Real Estate Goldmine comes from Melissa: “It was just a matter of keeping some ideas and thinking things through and knocking off some ideas, based on certain limitations.”

“I think a lot of it just had to do with communication,” says Josh. “From either the aesthetic point of view or a conceptual point of view, we made sure to explain why we thought something did or didn’t work. Right?” he adds, conferring with Melissa.

“Yeah, definitely,” Melissa agrees.

“And we never took it personally,” says Josh. “We’re used to critiques.”

The piece was their first collaboration—in their art, that is, but not in life. “We’ve been collaborating for the past 20-something years,” notes Melissa. “But this is the first time we actually worked on a piece together and called it by name.”

Emotional Support

“It’s about just living.” This concept of creative collaboration takes us back to Josh and Melissa and their Real Estate Goldmine installation. Viewing their work in the larger context of their lives is a necessary aspect of their relationship.

Josh regards art as something he simply must devote a certain amount of time to, and Melissa has noticed the role it plays in his life and, consequently, their relationship.

“I just make stuff because I have to make stuff, and if I don’t, I get the itch,” says Josh.

“I can see when the balance is tipped,” says Melissa, “and I’ll tell him, ‘You should find time for your art.’”

This sixth sense helped the two cope with some of the emotions that their collaborative collages unearthed as the two began seeing the same people in photographs they’d collected for their work. Josh cites an instance in which they had a photograph of one individual as a young man in a suit, only to find another photo of the same person — but old, frail, in a hospital gown and attached to an IV.

“The photos we’d gathered weren’t in any order,” says Melissa. “You’d start picking, start noticing, Oh, that’s the same person. And this is later in their life. You saw their entire lives.”

“That was really like …,” notes Josh, trailing off.

“That was tough to go through,” explains Melissa, picking up where he left off, “So I think on a personal level, it may have been too much for one person to deal with.”

“We were very careful to cut out people from the photos in their entirety, and not just do a hack job, and we still have all those cut-out people in an envelope, because I just didn’t, I don’t know. It felt wrong to just …” says Josh, trailing off again.

“Maybe we can put these pictures back together, if we need to,” adds Melissa.

Collaboration’s Key

Putting pieces together is what collaboration is all about. When it works well, it’s as if the pieces had been waiting for someone to assemble them into a larger, more meaningful whole.

The same goes for creative couples. Partners who complete each other are nothing new, but when the partners are artists, the creative possibilities don’t merely add up, they multiply.

Dev and Cheryl (and Coconuts)

artist couples, dev and cheryl

art couples quote 2

Such collaborations can also arise organically out of the constant dialogue that couples have. Dev Harlan and Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong have been together for five years. While living in Thailand, they combined their talents in design, art and architecture for a sustainable-product design-and-build course.

“This course we developed derived from our looking around and seeing coconut husks everywhere that were being thrown into landfills,” says Cheryl. “So we cobbled together a course that would look at material innovation. We were creating coconut composite board and then using that to do a small pavilion project for a community.”

COIR panels (bottom), a coconut-husk product developed by Dev Harlan and Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong, provide decorative siding for a cart.

“I think we were actually speculating about the idea of material reuse before the idea came up for the design/build course,” says Dev. “We were just traveling around Thailand and seeing all this raw material and thinking, You must be able to do something with this stuff.

He goes on to say that, by themselves, either one of them might have come up with the idea of putting the material to practical use. But they needed each other’s input before they could think seriously of turning the idea into an actual process. That process is currently undergoing commercial development in Thailand. The two have formed a company, found business partners and are currently in the research-and-development phase of bringing a decorative paneling to market.

Artist Couples, Active in Each Other’s Practices

Their collaboration also spills into their individual projects. The two spend weekends in museums, keeping up a constant dialogue about the work on display.

“I think it’s safe to say that we’re very supportive and active in each other’s practices,” says Dev. “For example, Cheryl often does work that involves some element of performance. So naturally, I often end up getting involved as a performer.”

“I think we also have a lot of dialogue about design,” notes Cheryl. “It’s an integral part of our lives. We support each other outside of the projects we collaborate on.”

Dev continues, “I can recall some occasions when Cheryl was upset and saying something like, ‘Gosh, I really don’t know why this person said that.’ If I also wasn’t coming from a creative perspective, I might not empathize as much.” Cheryl agrees.

Kathleen and Robert — Trade-Offs on the Long Haul

Artist couples, Kathleen and Rob

Artist couples quote

Daily contact has played a role in collaborations between painter Kathleen Gilje and sculptor Robert Lobe. The two have been married nearly four decades, but only in the past few years have they collaborated in their art.

Kathleen creates paintings that Robert surrounds with his sculptures. Their shared experience shows as they finish each other’s sentences, interrupt and overlap.

“We talked about it. We talked about it a lot,” says Robert of the collaborations. “I could see her paintings in process, and I would tell her how things were going with my work and take pictures periodically.”

He refers to their conversations as “negotiations.” The result was Robert’s sheet-metal sculptures, shaped by hammering the material against a rock face, positioned around black-and-white forest paintings by Kathleen. “These paintings deal with landscape,” explains Kathleen, “which is not what my usual work is about. My usual work is about the figure.”

Woodbury Quarry by Kathleen Gilje and Robert Lobe hammered aluminum and oil on linen, 98x96x24½ (entire piece), 50½x50 (painting)

Woodbury Quarry by Kathleen Gilje and Robert Lobe, hammered aluminum and oil on linen, 98 x 96 x 24½ (entire piece), 50½ x 50 (painting)

She refers to the collaborations as “one tiny part of our lives,” and credits their ability to work together not just to their artistic perspectives but also to their experience in raising children together.

“Artists who are parents have to cooperate and allow each other time to do their work,” says Robert. “You really have to be a team, but a team in a different way from other couples.”

Kathleen agrees, pointing out that as artists raising children, “you don’t fall into conventional roles.”

“Basically, there are a lot of trade-offs,” states Robert. “You have to have a common objective, which is not just to achieve your ambitions as an artist but to see each other do well in the long haul.”

Greg and Kim — Inspiration

Artist Couples quote 4

Gregory Santos and Kimberly Cherubin were lifelong New Yorkers until about three years ago when they relocated to Denver. Greg is Caucasian and Kim is of Haitian descent.

“As an interracial couple, there were some places to live that we couldn’t consider,” Greg says. He’s quick to point out, however, that their considerations regarding their racial differences usually end there. “

We’ve joked that we’re an interracial couple that’s never really talked about race,” states Kim.

Gold Kim by Gregory Santos crayon with ink over screen print, 30x30

Gold Kim by Gregory Santos crayon with ink over screen print, 30 x 30

Portraits of Her

Kim is the subject of a series of Greg’s portraits.“The way I approach these drawings is to use Kim as the foundation,” says Greg. “The color palette depends on how I’m feeling that day.”

In the portraits, Kim’s skin can be yellow, blue, violet or even a collage of hues, depending on Greg’s mood or his physical surroundings. “Generally, I don’t feel the need to make skin tone the point of my work,” he notes. ”I don’t look at Kim and see skin color.”

What She Sees

Although Kim usually sees Greg’s work in process, these portraits are an exception. “The things that his work says to me as his wife are different from the things they say to me as a viewer of this work,” she says. “When I take a step back and look at his work, it’s like an exploration of energy and color.”

Kim describes herself as a creative person who has worked in the crafts movement and fiber arts (which involves, as Greg puts it, “everything except owning a sheep”). Kim has used reclaimed materials in collage, although she doesn’t have formal training in art. “We’re creators and makers. And I think that helps us through some serious aspects of our relationship,” she says.

“She actually has become one of my favorite people to ask for input or critiques,” explains Greg, who has a degree in printmaking from Syracuse University and a master’s degree in studio art from New York University. “She gives me the response that an average person walking into a gallery might give. It makes me change some things.”

“Art informs our relationship because it’s a thing that ties us together,” notes Kim. “We’re opposites in so many ways. We have such contrasts that they kind of draw us together. We care about our art, but we’re not going to take it so seriously that it’s forced.”

Viviana and Robert — Bubble Magic

portrait_RobertHerman_VivianaRasulo_blue2

Artist Couples

About two years ago, when Viviana Rasulo and Robert Herman met, Robert was teaching a photography class in Naples. Viviana happened to have enrolled. It was after meeting Robert that Viviana, from Italy, started taking classes in English.

“One day I meet Bob Herman,” says Viviana. “He’s my teacher in the workshop in Naples. He tells me that with a picture, it’s very important that you see not only with your eyes, but also with your emotions, that what you think is important, that you project these things into the image. Afterward, I cry.”

Learning From You

The appreciation is mutual. ”Her work influences me all the time,” states Robert. “We met, and I was the teacher and she was the student. Now she’s the teacher and I’m the student. I learn from her as much as she learns from me. I just showed her two bodies of work that I’m trying to edit. It’s really good to get feedback from somebody who’s got a great eye and reacts emotionally.”

As for Viviana, she’s working on a book of self-portrait photographs taken in a decrepit home, along with text such as “Filtered through fog, I recognized nothing.” She describes the work as “my emotional plan for me,” and adds that Bob is instrumental in its production. He has self-published two books of his own photography — The Phone Book and The New Yorkers.

Bubble Girl, the Cayman Islands by Robert Herman

Bubble Girl, the Cayman Islands by Robert Herman

Viviana says that the emotional sensitivity of the photographs that Robert has shown her has helped her to see better inside herself. “Maybe he helped me to go through the mirror,” she continues. “The better half in the mirror.”

Viviana is a pediatrician by profession, or “half artist, half pediatrician” as she says. She has used one of Bob’s photos of a child in a bubble (above, left) in a lecture to illustrate how babies are trapped after birth. This bubble, she explains, is protection but also an impediment to their development and contact with the world.

Vivian’s use of Bob’s photo inspired the two to refer to such serendipitous interplay of their work and lives as “bubble magic.” “It’s not only about photography,” says Robert, “It’s about just living.”

Daniel and Wende — An Artist’s Pair

Daniel Greene and Wende Caporale have two lifetimes’ worth of art-making between them. Wende is a leading pastel and oil portraitist. Daniel is known for his six decades of portraiture as well as paintings that capture the literal underworld of the New York City subway system.

If you know of Daniel’s work and want an up-close view immediately as in right now (!), Daniel E. Greene Studios and Subways eBook is available now.

A version of this story appeared in Artists Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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