What is art?
We might as well ask “What is life?” since the definition of one could easily be read as that of the other.
Some people live their lives so thoroughly and richly that their entire existence could be said to be a work of art; others seem to be unable or unwilling to experience either life or art, traveling through their allotted time like bereft children surrounded by gifts that they either can’t or won’t acknowledge.
Most of us are a little of both, but there’s yet another kind of human — those who create, spending their entire span on Earth filtering their experiences through their chosen means of expression, whether that be words, images or music.
At the Box Gallery in Summit Artspace through Nov. 2 are two shows: Urban Lights by Ted Lawson and Ardath Wise.
The former could be said to be an example of someone who has lived a full, rich life and who also likes to share that life through his paintings. Lawson, a Canton resident, is an engineer who formerly worked for Marathon Oil inspecting and auditing refineries, and his work has taken him all over the world.
He says he works directly from the large computer monitor in his studio, translating what he displays there into pigment suspended in water on paper. The watercolors are created from photographs he has taken on his journeys, and, no surprise for a former oil man, he tends to favor black.
He’s quite a connoisseur of black, pointing out that he often tints his blacks with other colors so they won’t look too flat. His paintings that are black-dominated tend to be his most successful, especially when he can combine that love with images that are slightly abstract, such as the night scenes he photographs in cities like Cleveland, New York, Tokyo and Kathmandu.
He acknowledges that he’s been told in the past to specialize in night scenes, which do seem to be his strong suit.
Earlier images that Lawson took from nondigital photographs in Paris, Milan and Venice display enviable draftsmanship, but hesitancy with the brush. This seems to have disappeared for the most part in his paintings taken from digital photos and dominated by, you guessed it, black.
Not everyone has such an easy give-and-take with the world, however.
Sometimes creative people seem to live only through their creations, their interior worlds so rich and/or consuming that it’s as though to interact with the outer world would be a step too far, one dollop too much on an already loaded dessert.
We often put the works they create into categories — Art Brut, Folk Art, Intuitive or Visionary Art, Marginal Art, Naïve Art, Neuve Invention and Visionary Environments to name a few.
Sometimes these creative people seem to span several categories, or they simply cannot be pigeonholed at all.
Such seems to be the case with Ardath Wise, 93, born, raised and living in Mogadore, with the mid-part of her life devoted to teaching art in the Akron Public Schools system at various elementaries.
One of seven siblings in a family where creativity was highly valued, she attended the Cleveland Art School, Western Reserve University and Kent State University where she earned a BA in education.
During World War II, she worked in Akron and Alexandria, Va., and was a rural schoolteacher in the mountains near Lovettsville, Va. After the war, she taught overseas, first at a U.S. Marine base, then an Air Force base near Tokyo, where she taught for seven years and lived in a Japanese barracks.
She came to the attention of Akron artist Judith Gaiser in 1984 when she began to teach art classes in Mogadore.
“She had a piece in the show, but it wasn’t there, so I went to pick it up,” Gaiser recalled. “I found her in a little one-room shack behind what’s now Flower Corner on Main Street.
“I visited with her then and had no contact whatsoever until last year, when I submitted a proposal in July to show her work in the Box Gallery.”
Gaiser said that Wise’s circumstances had improved considerably in the interim. In 1998, she and three of her sisters moved into a house just three houses down from where they were born. The sisters have since died, but Wise continues to live in the house rent-free, although “she’s by no means well off,” Gaiser said.
Wise is also quite shy, and even in a family that valued creativity, she was considered “different,” Gaiser pointed out. She hardly ever goes out, and the materials she uses to create are what she can find around the house: notebook paper or crumpled-up pages of the Beacon Journal.
“She’s like a hermit. This is all she does,” Gaiser gestured at the works hung on the wall outside of and within the Small Box Gallery. “She’s been retired since 1968. She never married. She said she was always too shy to marry. She’s just peculiarly neat.”
One entire wall just outside the Small Box Gallery consists of portraits Wise has done in acrylic on newspaper of famous people she admires, people like Edna St. Vincent Millay, George Eliot, Albert Einstein, Babe Didrikson, Mary, Queen of Scots, Sigmund Freud, Goethe and Dvorak.
The works in this show are dominated by cats that seem to possess uncanny human qualities and are often used as vehicles to tell us about her life — as it is or as she wishes it had been.
There’s an art-deco sensibility about her work, which may be a factor either of when she went to art school or having lived in Japan. This often expresses itself in compositions that, while ostensibly childlike, have a highly sophisticated sense of design, as in Concert of Cats, Catmas Tree and Impending Doom.
For whatever reason, her output of paintings and drawings has spiked in the past few years. Having this exhibit, said Gaiser, “has been quite a shot in the arm” for Wise. “In this past year, she’s done one a week, but she wouldn’t hang them all.”
Gaiser wondered if Wise could be considered a naïve artist. Since she has had art training, that might not be the best fit for her. Her work is definitely outside the mainstream, thus she could be considered, broadly speaking, an outsider artist.
Those in the business of identifying, exhibiting and explaining outsider art, such as the journal Raw Vision, decry the use of labels, as do many artists. I would not want to pigeonhole Wise or her work.
For now, let’s simply say she’s most certainly an artist with a unique, even solitary, vision, and the power of that vision comes from not having had folks like me mess with it.
Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or email@example.com.