IN A SMALL PENNSYLVANIA TOWN, LOCAL ARTISTS BRING BIG IDEAS TO A CLEVER, CREATIVE PROJECT
Exhibition on view at the gallery of the Wayne County Arts Alliance
959 Main Street
Honesdale, Pennsylvania 18431
On view through November 4, 2023
by Edward M. Gómez
“He appeared one wintry afternoon as if from out of nowhere. We looked at each other. Time stopped as our souls performed an entwining dance of recognition. Neither one of us moved. I heard a distinct voice inside my head say, ‘Hi. I’m Alfred.’”
So begins an 870-word story by Kazzrie Jaxen, a jazz pianist and recording artist who also teaches meditation and qigong; she lives near Wayne County, Pennsylvania, in the Upper Delaware River Valley. Her brief text is one of several similar narratives that serve as the starting points for nine writer-and-artist projects that are now being featured in the exhibition Collaboration. It’s now on view at the gallery of the Wayne County Arts Alliance.
A regional arts organization based in Honesdale, a small town in the far northeastern corner of Pennsylvania, the WCAA showcases the productions of local art-makers, including creative types working in various genres and disciplines.
In Collaboration, artists working in a diverse range of formats and materials have illustrated short tales penned by participants in the Yarnslingers, a local storytellers’ collective. In the exhibition, each unpublished text is interpreted by a few different artists. Jaxen’s “Alfred” is represented by a photograph by Bill Westmoreland (brutjournal’s visual director), a sculpture by Braya Watson, and two-dimensional images by Erica Hart and Jason Badum.
Jaxen’s story packs a big surprise when its title subject turns out to be — a bug. Curiously, this otherwise pesky cockroach wins the author’s affection, like a more conventional pet. “We came to realize that we were interspecies emissaries,” she writes, adding, after swearing off bathroom-protecting pesticides, “He crawled into the palm of my hand as we celebrated our peace talks with a tender embrace.”
Photographer Westmoreland’s illustration of Alfred — the insect and his story — is a photo featuring a prominently placed cockroach, but keep an eye out in this clever image for his alter ego or companion. “Lately, I’ve been photographing cows, so I’ve transitioned into the nature category of photography,” Westmoreland said. He observed, “I like photographing animals in their environments but I also like creating portraits. I positioned Alfred in my photograph as though he were looking at the camera.”
Erica Hart, who lives in Sullivan County, New York, just over the border from Wayne County, and also keeps a separate studio in Florida, has worked as a visual artist and teacher for five decades. In the past, she studied at the Art Students League in New York City. About her collage-based picture, “Alfred,” Hart told brutjournal, “I’m a mixed-media artist. Mostly, I combine acrylic paint with collage [elements] on canvas, as I did with this piece; sometimes I also work three-dimensionally. I feel that blending different media enhances the feeling of mystery in my work. I often use hands or eyes to express an emotion, as I did here.”
Hart noted, “Interpreting Kazzrie Jaxen’s story involved some research. I looked for images of pre-war bathrooms in New York City and used part of an image I found as a backdrop. I looked for images of cockroaches. There were a few scenes in the story that I wanted to illustrate; I selected the one in which Alfred climbs up the shower curtain.”
Jason Badum is a young man who grew up and lives in Honesdale, where he took high-school photography classes. “That’s when I discovered that I like to make art,” he said. Noting that, for him, interpreting Jaxen’s story was “a creative challenge,” he took the approach he likes best. “I prefer to use bright or vivid colors,” he said, pointing out that he also enjoys working in an abstract mode.
Thirteen-year-old Braya Watson, who lives near Honesdale, is a middle-school student who takes part in two art clubs. She said, “I paint windows with seasonal decorations at my school and love creating sculptures using clay.” Watson used Sculpey Clay (a pliable polymer clay), copper wire, felt fabric, and acrylic paint to produce her “Musical Alfred,” a three-dimensional object in which the protagonist of Jaxen’s story wears a bowtie and holds an elegant, black top hat. (Is he ready to dance as the author tinkles her piano’s keys?)
In an interview, Jaxen explained that she based her story on her actual discovery, in her bathroom, of a cockroach whose life she chose to spare. She recalled, “I actually spent time with this creature. He was adorable. I think my life in jazz and qigong had opened me up to subtle dimensions of energy, and perhaps that’s why I was able to have this kind of experience and not be freaked out. We felt like friends!”
She also recalled a childhood event that long ago brought her creative spirit in touch with the world of bugs. She said, “After I had written the story, I remembered something that added a whole new layer of strange to [my] encounter [with ‘Alfred’]. When I was six years old, I wrote my first piano piece and performed it at a recital. I named it ‘The Cockroach,’ even though I’d never seen one and didn’t have any idea of what kind of creature I was describing.”
As a very young composer, Jaxen remembered, “I just liked the word ‘cockroach,’ because it seemed to go with the music I was playing. I asked my parents why everyone in the audience laughed when I announced the title. Could there have been a connection to what happened with Alfred years later? Something to ponder.”
Hmm… That creative through-line in Jaxen’s long artistic journey certainly is a provocative one — but she needn’t let it bug her.