The Coconut Grove Arts Festival is the nation’s largest outdoor fine art event, and a fixture of Miami’s Presidents Day weekend. For an artist, exhibiting in this maelstrom of creativity is an exercise in bravado and hubris. It’s also a lot of work.
You must have a vision and the talent to express it, money for tools and materials, and a space in which to produce a body of work to sell. Then you must convince a jury that you’re worthy to participate, pay the entry fee, build or buy a booth, schlep everything to your little niche along the half-mile-plus length of the festival route, and spend three days praying that the rain doesn’t fall and the wind doesn’t blow so you can watch 150,000 potential customers of all shapes, sizes, and hues stroll past.
A fraction of that multitude will stop in your booth to give your creative output more than a passing glance. An even smaller fraction actually will buy and carry off a souvenir of your life’s work. If you’re a left-brained logical thinker, you may well wonder how those free-spirited right-brained types could make a living this way – but lots of people try, and some actually do.
Although the CGAF attracts the crème de la crème of artists, many exhibitors literally get lost in the crowd. With more than 380 participants showing their work, all that art becomes a blur. Standing out requires more than just talent and technique.
If your medium is conventional, your subject matter must awe and wow, but if your medium is inherently awesome and wowish, your subject matter almost doesn’t matter. As the late communication theorist Marshall McLuhan proclaimed: “The medium is the message.”
Action and energy
The foregoing preamble explains why I chose to highlight unconventional media for this 2016 CGAF review. In every past year since 2009, I’ve prepared an Examiner slideshow highlighting art that I would buy for my own collection if I had unlimited funds and display space.
This year the only painting in my collection is Grove Regatta by Madeliene Abling, who gave up practicing law to become an artist and moved from Ohio to Ft. Lauderdale. I’m not alone in liking it; it’s the image chosen for the 2016 festival poster.
This painting qualifies for my unconventional media collection because she painted it with a palette knife. Instead of discreet brush strokes, she slathers on the paint in broad swatches. The festival program calls her work “figurative, with an impressionistic twist.” I would describe it as semi-abstract. At first glance you see only action and energy. After a while, forms emerge: tall buildings along the bayfront in the background, and boats floating on the water.
Feelings with felt
Amy Gillespie of Arlington, MA, is a fiber artist who works with sculptural felt, a non-woven textile matted together by heat, moisture, and pressure. “My sculptural wall pieces capture the colors and textures of meadows, fields and gardens,” she says. “My brushstroke is dyed and wet-felted wool. As I felt, I mix in chunks and tubes of color to achieve my impressionistic palette.
“In this unusual approach to using felt, the complexity of my patterns is only revealed when I cut into the felt and turn it on its edge. It always excites me to see what is inside.
“I build my sculptures piece by piece into a wooden frame using gel medium to bind and stiffen the edges. I try to be as painterly as possible despite the many steps and slow pace of this technique. I want my pieces to exude the same calmness and serenity one feels outside in nature.”
A stitch in time
The art of Xiao Xia Zhang Minich of Olmsted Township, OH, looks like painting but is actually hand-stitched embroidery. She began learning to stitch from her mother in China, and attended Chongqing Embroidery Academy in 1987 to enhance her skills. After coming to the U.S. in 2002, she began exhibiting in art shows in 2007.
In a booth full of beautiful images I could have chosen to feature, I chose a pair of English sparrows perched on a branch at the cusp of spring, with a background combining snow and a flower in full bloom. Unlikely, perhaps, but it can happen up north.
The sparrows themselves are an unusual choice of subject matter. English sparrows aren’t really sparrows. They are finches, an exotic species imported from Europe, a noisy nuisance – especially in big cities where they dominate the avian fauna. People tend to ignore English sparrows except when they poop in inconvenient places or compete with native songbirds for nesting spots. Due to disdain or disinterest, they aren’t often depicted in art. In nature they are usually grubby and dirty, but Xiao Xia’s sparrows sparkle like Cinderella at the ball.
Bowed and plucked
Archie Smith of Mt. Pleasant, NC, makes psalteries and dulcimers, both ancient stringed instruments. A psaltery is bowed, a dulcimer plucked. They are easy to learn to play, and in the right hands their pure tones “sing” the melodies of popular hymns, folk songs, and regional airs.
Smith taught history for over 30 years. In the mid-1970s he began to make fine wooden musical instruments. “I select the most beautiful, highly figured woods and burls available – woods with ‘character’ that ‘tell’ you that they want to be instruments and sing,” he says.
“My mission is to create museum quality instruments in which the visual beauty of the wood, the haunting sound of the strings, and the subtle feel of the vibrating wood combine to offer multisensory stimulation.”
Music from a box
Michael Thiele of Flagstaff, AZ, was a college sociology teacher when he began exploring the sonic and visual aesthetics of small hardwood drums in the mid-1970s. Now he builds and performs with them full time, as does his son Zoah.
“The drawing of sound from wood is among the oldest and most primal manifestations of human communication and musical expression. When we hear it we are given with a sense of wonder and delight,” Michael says.
“The acoustic aesthetic of wood has enchanted me ceaselessly since the first moment I heard a piece of it ring. I tune a board for the simple purpose of hearing it ring and putting some songfulness to its voice. I do this to please myself, knowing it will have a similar effect upon others.”
The Coconut Grove Arts Festival is located along McFarlane Road, South Bayshore Drive, and Pan American Drive. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. February 13 through 15.