Exhibit feature: "Remnants" shows Creative Arts of Women collective at its best

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

The Creative Arts of Women (CAW) collective regularly organizes group exhibitions where many of its members show exciting and often powerful works of art, but the group’s exhibition “Remnants” at the OSU Urban Arts Space is one these women are particularly proud of. The exhibit’s origins date back over a year, when three members (Allison Buenger, April Sunami and Barb Vogel) crafted a proposal summoning artists to re-purpose used and/or discarded materials in creating new works of visual art, installations and performance.

But that was only part of the challenge.

As the organization of “Remnants” progressed, the group saw the multi-room Urban Arts Space as an opportunity. The group was already having collective discussions and that particular gallery’s setting inspired the 43 participating artists to push themselves by stepping outside their traditional artistic practice.

For some this meant working much larger, or with new materials and processes. For others, it meant reassessing artistic philosophies and even working in mediums they hadn’t previously.

“We used it as a challenge to broaden the scope of people’s artwork. It’s also to be able to do [a large] piece they may have envisioned, but would have never had a place to show. So we approached it as an opportunity, not as a burden — we have to fill this space,” said Catherine Bell Smith, a CAW member on the steering committee, of exhibiting in the downtown gallery. “We dare to challenge each other and accept that challenge. It’s a little intimidating … to break out of [your normal practice] … but only in this kind of accepting environment would any one of us feel safe to push ourselves and go beyond our normal parameters.”

Many CAW artists took this challenge to daunting levels. A prime example is Heidi Madsen, a performance artist who created her first visual piece, a multifaceted installation — suitcases adorned with medical gloves that have negative terms written on them, tiny red socks inscribed with positive notes sutured to a dress, and a door of reflection — as well as a video. Madsen will also have a performance during the opening reception May 30.

“I’m really passionate about [the work I do with HIV/AIDS assistance programs] and have been doing it for 15 years. I thought about how there’s no cure, but there is a way to heal from the remnants of the test results. My whole performance, installation and video is all based on the effect of stigma; simply the fact that we can choose to be hurtful in ways, and that we can choose not to be,” Madsen said. “One way to spread inclusion and accepting people for who they are is through empathy. A cliché way of talking about empathy is walking in someone else’s shoes. There are things going on in the world and if they don’t affect you or shape you — like HIV — it’s just a thing out there where there’s no reason to think about it. So it’s key to have some form of education … to help understand. Basically I call it, walking softly in someone else’s socks.”

Janet George is another CAW member who was inspired by the “Remnants” challenge. George created her largest piece to date, using an entirely new material — a fabric hanging to which viewers can add their own elements and mementos. The finished product will be displayed at the Northside Neighborhood Pride Center after “Remnants” closes. While George is pleased with her new undertaking and its community-driven purpose, it’s the group’s energy she finds most rewarding.

“The excitement didn’t come so much through the process, but during the installation and watching the artists install their [pieces]. I got such a sense of freedom and the willingness of artists to push themselves. I’m an experienced exhibitor, but this is the first time I’ve had this real level of excitement,” George said.

For Sunami, the repurposing material approach is something that’s been present in her work for a while, so she decided to address “Remnants” with a personally conceptual approach.

“I wanted to use the vocabulary of subjects I’m familiar with to explore other ideas. The piece in ‘Remnants’ operates on two levels, spirituality and faith and the other talks about race. These are two things I don’t normally address in my work — on some level my work is about race and identity, but it’s very subtle,” Sunami said. “On some level I wanted to approach [it] by being very respectful of all the faiths I’m drawing from … but I also wanted to push myself artistically and say what I want to say. So I decided to go beyond the material and think about what remnants mean to me, philosophically.”

Not surprisingly, Buenger, who co-authored the proposal and will display an installation referencing the complicated history of Dresden, Germany, encapsulates ideology behind both CAW as a group and “Remnants” as an exhibition.

“Exhibiting with CAW is a really good opportunity to do something within your style and your own artistic voice, but challenge yourself to try something new, experiment or push the boundaries of your practice because you’re not doing a whole solo show. It’s an opportunity to delve into a new area,” Buenger said. “One of the things I respect about all the CAW members is they bring their A-game every time. It’s important to exhibit new and exciting work, and everyone seems so hungry for that.”

OSU Urban Arts Space

50 W. Town St., Downtown

Through July 11

Opening reception: 6-8 p.m. Saturday, May 30