The Sweat of My Imagination
There used to be a boxing gym here in my building, directly above my studio. It took up the whole of the third floor, where there are now more artists’ studios. The joint was run by a character named George Chemeres, who trained numerous world-class champions here for a couple of decades in the middle of the last century. In addition to his formidable training skills, he was also known for a Yogi-Berra-esque command of the language. A frequently-cited example is that one night during a championship bout, when the crowded room got to be unbearably stuffy, he bellowed, “Somebody open the window or we’re all going to be sophisticated in here.”
Another time, while promoting a fight at a news conference in Glasgow, he insisted that the Scottish referrees all get eye exams. An indignant uproar ensued—and subsequently a packed house at the fight, which was the point of the insult. Revisting the incident years later, he said, “That was me; I lived by the sweat of my imagination.”
Which brings us back to the art studios. I have always felt that buildings’ histories live on in their bones. Of all the enterprises that have inhabited this building in its 130 years—diner, flophouse, haberdashery, storefront mission, underground jazz club, underage brothel—the one that resonates for me the most is the boxing gym. As to why that is, well, Chemeres hit it on the schnozz: We artists, too, live by the sweat of our imaginations.
These last few years, as I reinvented my own art from the bottom up, my imagination sweated harder than usual. During the same period, a more practical section of my imagination simultaneously sweated, to secure the deal that ensured the future of imaginative sweat here in the building. All that sweating made me feel even more connected to my sweaty pugilist forebears.
At the top of the third floor stairs is a curved wall, a remnant of the questionable corporate taste of one of the later twentieth-century occupants. The wall has fabulousl visibility from the staircase, but is impossible to hang paintings on. It was practically begging for a site-specific installation.
What does the sweat of an imagination look like? What does the history of a building look like as it oozes in and out of the walls, floors, and ceilings? What color is it?
For a couple of years I thought about these questions while I worked on other stuff, including how I would bring my printed patterns to life in three dimensions. After a series of detours (which live in my back pocket for later use), I landed on a series of fins that stuck out of the wall, their shapes evolving as they progressed along its curved surface and around the corner, creating illusions of volume and movement.
My mental model for this evolution was hand-drawn animation, which I studied in college, back in the Pleistoscene when we shot the frames individually on film. I used a trick called “in-betweening,” in which you draw what you want to be the first and last images in your sequence on tracing paper, lay one atop the other with a third piece of tracing paper on top, and draw what you see as the “middle” image. Then you take the first and middle drawings, and do the same thing to get the one in between THEM, and onward, until you have a series of drawings that form a visual sequence. You can do this trick with a bunny rabbit, a not-so-bright hunter, boxing gloves (which I tried and rejected), or abstract doughnut-like things like I finally landed on.
After sweating over a couple variations of my model, I took it apart and scaled the individual pieces up into full-size paper patterns. Even though I used a grid to enlarge the shapes, there was a fair amount of approximation involved at each step, which kept the gesture of hand drawing in each step. I laid the patterns out on 3/16″ birch ply, and cut them out with my beloved Cutawl K11.
I painted them a cool yellow on one side and a warm yellow on the other, both as saturated as I could find in the standard Ben Moore paint deck. The “fins” are thin: they get their volume from their numbers and proximity, and also from the yellow glow that surrounds them. The two yellows also reflect on each other, making the colors appear changeable and ambiguous.
At some point, my Technical Support Team drew my attention to the sheer number of holes I was going to have to drill to get these things up on the wall, about 150 on the metal brackets and another 100 or so on the pieces themselves. TST then drew my attention to an inexpensive drill press on sale at Harbor Freight, and what girl doesn’t adore a trip to Harbor Freight?
Pictures of the finished The Sweat of My Imagination are here on my installations page— and you can see it live in the sweaty flesh at the ’57 Biscayne open studios on June 1.