By Annette Hinkle
Though the most successful artists tend to be those who develop a style that is immediately recognizable, here on the East End, there are art happenings which push the creative envelope by giving artists a common starting point to challenge their imaginations.
And this weekend, that starting point is the simple box.
On Saturday, the 12th Annual Box Art Auction will be held at the Ross School in East Hampton. A fundraiser for East End Hospice, this year event chair (and former East Hampton gallery owner) Arlene Bujese has assembled artistically designed boxes by more then 80 well-known artists, including April Gornik, Bill King, Connie Fox and Paton Miller.
The rules are simple. Each artist is given one of two box forms to choose from — cigar or wine. From there, the sky’s the limit and although the box typically has negative connotations associated with it — being “boxed in,” for example, is never a good thing — within the confines of this most familiar of shape, many find liberation.
Take David Slater, for instance.
“I’ve been doing this for 12 years – every single box auction,” says Slater. “It’s actually opened up a new vein in my creativity. I do these assemblages and they become very free association.”
This year’s offer from Slater, “The Shrine of the Bee,” is a collection of eclectic knick knacks and three dimensional shapes (including an impressive set of wing-like wood pieces) which represent his concern for the plight of the honey bee in this country.
“I think one thing that prompted it was bees and how they are depleted, and whole hives have disappeared,” says Slater, a Sag Harbor resident who spoke by phone from Minnesota where he had ironically just returned from the state fair where the importance of honey bees is well understood. “I don’t want to get into too many political things, but there are methods of farming where bees cannot exist. They have to use tractor trailers to bring in hives of bees to pollinate fields. If the bees were all to die, we would die.”
Slater adds that while reading about the Bushmen of Africa and their creation myth, he learned the first creatures were the bee and the mantis, which perhaps explains why his box has the feel of an alter-piece. A blue ceramic flower figures prominently, as do other botanically inspired shapes. On top of the box stands the figure of a porcelain couple surrounded by flowers.
Slater explains the box wasn’t built around the idea of bees. Rather, it grew out of the box itself as a result of the creative process.
“It becomes a matter of free association,” he says. “All of a sudden it becomes a track or theme I’m following and it goes from there. In many of my works, it takes over, comes alive and tells a story.”
And to tell that story, Slater looks to his own environment — objects lying around the house or those found in the nearby environment (like a thrift store) are all fair game.
“One thing leads to another and I don’t know where it will go in advance,” says Slater who adds one more intriguing tidbit about his inspiration.
“My mother’s name was Bea.”
Sag Harbor’s Pam Topham is best known as a tapestry artist. But often she’ll re-visit a scene in a totally different medium. A box art participant for the past four or five years, Topham notes her pieces tend to be a direct reflection of whatever she’s doing in her other work at that moment.
Topham works in series that she’s given names like “Water Music” (based on Long Beach in Sag Harbor) and “East of Montauk,” which was inspired by the experience of being caught in a small sailboat during a bad storm off Montauk.
“It was horrifying,” admits Topham. “We ended up in Stonington. We were inexperienced and had no business being out there. I did a box based on the storm.”
But this year, Topham’s box art offering is based on a decidedly more pastoral subject. Cedar trees dominate the image, titled “Harbor Music,” and beyond them lies a view of Accabonac Harbor as seen from a piece of waterfront property in Springs.
Topham first saw the view after a friend of Andy Sabin, the owner of the parcel, commissioned her to create a color pencil drawing of it as a gift for Sabin.
“I ended up doing a fall tapestry from that view as well,” says Topham. “Then I called Andy and asked, ‘Do I have your permission to go back in the spring because I love the view?’”
“He said, ‘certainly, but don’t run over any of the turtles on the property,’” recalls Topham. (Sabin is the founder and board president of the South Fork Natural History Museum.)
And it was in spring that Topham really took note of the unique nature of the cedar trees on the parcel.
“They had these long trunks and sculptural shapes,” recalls Topham who was so intrigued she shared her description of them with fellow artist, photographer Kathryn Szoka.
“She was saying ,‘That’s what I call deer landscaping,’” laughs Topham. “The bottom of the trees were eaten by desperate deer — I became fascinated with that.”
Because she often revisits a piece in multiple mediums, the spring image also became a monoprint (now on view at South Street Gallery in Greenport) as well as an intaglio print, a tapestry and a painting. And now, it’s a box as well.
Topham is happy she can to help raise money for East End Hospice through her artwork. The organization’s mission is of great personal importance to her — both her parents are 92, and her mother has been on, and off, hospice care.
“Usually they come in when you’re looking toward the end … then she got better,” says Topham. “It’s something I’ve seen personally. So I know what that means. It’s a very important organization.”
At the top of Reynold Ruffins driveway on Hampton Street, there’s a new sign pointing the way to his recently expanded artist’s studio at the rear of his historic Sag Harbor home.
He’s hoping that people interested in art might be intrigued enough to pop in and take a look at what he’s been up to.
Most recently, he’s been thinking inside the box.
“I think I’m still a little constrained. I try to limit myself to the parameters of the box,” says Ruffins who has taken part in the last three auctions. “If the time comes and an idea occurs to me, I wouldn’t hesitate to go outside the box.”
It’s evident from his box art that Ruffins comes from a graphic arts tradition. The strong lines he’s known for, the balanced imagery, the bright colors — it’s all there in this year’s piece titled “Love and Order.”
“It’s divided in half on a diagonal,” explains Ruffins. “The top half I assume is love. It’s kind of disordered, full of different angles and views and the color is wildly distributed.”
“The second half is in black and white and its very ordered,” continues Ruffins who created a step like construction using old clementine boxes which he cut and sanded. “The title didn’t come first, but when I was working on it. I wanted the contrast of color and black and white, busyness and stillness or quietness.”
“It’s so much like our marriage,” he grins as he looks at his wife, Joan.
But Ruffins is quick to point out that the piece wasn’t title driven. Instead, he says “it was about the concept of contrast between movement and stillness, color and black and white — that was the important thing.”
“It’s almost illustrative, especially if a title should be attached,” he continues. “A viewer can create their own reason a title exists or make the connection themselves. The graphics have to do with my sense of design. If I had to put that on paper, it would have the same kind of feeling of design.”
And Ruffins feels that’s ultimately what makes the box art auction special. The artists come from a range of artistic traditions, but each applies his or her vision to the same form.
“All the people who contribute to this work hard to do the construction and are serious artists,” says Ruffins. “It’s a piece of art and should be seen that way. The artists approach it like a serious work and the buyer should the same way.”
The 12th Annual Box Art Auction benefiting East End Hospice is Saturday, September 8 at the Ross School’s Center for Well-Being, Goodfriend Drive, East Hampton. Reception and silent auction begin at 4:30 p.m. followed by the live auction at 6 p.m. Admission is $75 and includes wine and hors d’oeuvres and 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale of the boxes benefits the hospice. For more information on the auction, call 288-7080.