Center for the Arts in Murfreesboro | May 8 – June 2
WORDS Bob Doerschuk
At bedtime, when she was a little girl, Jessica Eichman used to lie back and lull herself to sleep by watching the flickers and hints of light that played against the inside of her eyelids, like movies on a screen.
“Those images are definitely still present in my artistic process,” she now confirms. “I’m still observing those moving shapes and colors but not necessarily controlling the process.”
That spontaneity is just one reason Eichman chose to express herself as a painter through abstract rather than representational forms. As for the others represented in Contemporary Collective: From the Heart and the Mind, each one has reasons just as personal for taking their parallel journey.
Running May 8 through June 2 at the Center for the Arts in Murfreesboro, this exhibit features the work of seventeen local artists linked by two common denominators: their decision to eschew realism and their history as students of Millie Jarrett, Nashville’s 80-something doyenne of nonrepresentational expression.
“Abstract is much more difficult than representational,” she insists with a finality that doesn’t encourage debate. “You already know what a tree looks like.”
Jarrett, who is represented by Tinney Contemporary, has been teaching and preaching the abstract gospel at Plaza Arts for a number of years. In 2012, members of her class decided to create Contemporary Collective as a forum for mutual support, encouragement, and positive critiques. Their Murfreesboro exhibit represents both their shared vision and each participant’s individuality.
“The most important thing about this show is that every one of these painters paints like themselves,” Jarrett insists.
“Nobody else around here, to my knowledge, has ever led a class where the students didn’t end up painting like the teacher. That does not occur in my class because it’s not about making pictures. It’s about emotion and feeling.”
Mary Veasey concurs. Unlike many in the Collective, she continues to paint representational as well as abstract works. But she credits Jarrett for broadening her approach to all of her endeavors.
“When you paint a hay bale, a floral still life, or a portrait, you have standards by which you and other people can judge your work,” she explains. “But nonrepresentational painting is almost uncharted territory. In exploring it you don’t copy the considered masters, like Helen Frankenthaler or Franz Kline. They can inspire you, though. In the group, with Millie’s gentle guidance, the humor and the camaraderie encourage us all to go further out on artistic limbs and challenge ourselves.
“This has helped me loosen up in my representational work,” Veasey adds. “I’m not content anymore to just copy nature. I want to express the essence of the subject. When I paint birds, I try to convey their kinetic energy now, by using slashes of paint and applications I’ve done in the Collective—vigorous brush strokes, drops, runs, and spatters.”
For Eichman, who paints abstracts exclusively now, the Collective has done nothing less than liberate her. “I love that I’m free from representation,” she says. “You can’t say, this looks a lot like the thing I was trying to paint and so it’s a success. Bypassing all of that imagery cuts straight to the emotions that people can identify with. Because it’s subjective in that way, people can bring their own stories to what you do. I really love that about abstract work. It kind of belongs to all of us.”
Process, as well as results, defines key differences between these two schools of art. “In representational painting, you often have an end in sight,” Veasey notes. “It’s step one, step two, step three, and step four. You’re very particular about your methods—thick over thin, working large and then going into smaller details. In nonrepresentational painting, the sky’s the limit. I’ve actually seen Millie put her canvas on the floor, put a squeegee on a broom handle, and squirt paint on the canvas.”
So how can visitors assess the works in the Murfreesboro show? What are the criteria? Don’t worry about it, Jarrett suggests. Just look and let each piece speak on its own terms. And if you’re not hearing anything?
Jarrett sighs. “If you want a picture, I would advise you to get a really good camera.”
“Abstract is much more difficult than representational. You already know what a tree looks like.”
Contemporary Collective: From the Heart and the Mind is on view at the Center for the Arts, 110 W. College Street in Murfreesboro, from May 8 through June 2. The opening reception is slated for Friday, May 12, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.boroarts.org.