ARTBELT: Exhibit at Lakeland Community College connects Cleveland, Youngstown, and Pittsburgh

Stampede by Patrick Schmidt

“To a large extent, I’m doing this show because no one else is doing it,” says John Morris, speaking about Artbelt: New Art from the Rustbelt, which he curated and organized.

The exhibit, now on display at Lakeland Community College, had two primary goals. Firstly, to showcase art made in the postindustrial Midwest while the world’s attention was turned to the FRONT International. (Artbelt opened July 22, eight days after the triennial’s opening ceremonies.) Secondly, to build collaborative networks between artists and curators across the Rust Belt. Particularly, Morris aimed to have artists from Northeast Ohio mingle with their counterparts in his hometown of Pittsburgh.

(It must be acknowledged that FRONT International Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art presented some work by artists of Cleveland and the region, including The Great Lakes Research, an exhibit of works by 55 artists of the Great Lakes Region, at the Cleveland Institute of Art, curated by Michelle Grabner. None of them were from Pittsburgh, however, and from a grassroots perspective, what Morris says is true. — ed)

Many Midwestern cities have robust artistic communities. However, these communities are often inwardly focused. Though individual artists often display in other cities or states, there is little systemic collaboration between art hubs just a few hours’ drive from each other. Morris hopes to counteract this tendency with Artbelt.

“Pittsburgh galleries only show Pittsburgh artists,” Morris says. As interested as he’s been about what happens in Cleveland, he has found it difficult to keep up with what’s going on outside of Southwest Pennsylvania. “There was just this assumption that when I came to Pittsburgh, there would be interactions with Cleveland.”

Over a year ago, news of FRONT finally prompted Morris to make those interactions happen himself. Through Facebook chats and real-world meetups, Morris recruited over a dozen Pittsburgh artists to contribute to a regional group show. The shape and location of the exhibit was somewhat amorphous until Morris connected with Mary Urbas, director of the Gallery at Lakeland. The gallery had an opening for the summer of 2018, and Morris’ mission aligned with Urbas’ desire to introduce gallery-goers to new artists.

“In terms of diversity, I want to show you something you haven’t seen. I do try to find people outside the three-hour radius around Cleveland,” Urbas said.

A total of 29 artists contributed pieces to Artbelt. Included media encompass painting, ceramic, fiber art, photography, and more. Pittsburgh’s Bob Ziller offers a fanciful painting of a checkered battleship firing pink and orange chrysanthemums towards the viewer. Laura Jean McLaughlin displays a pair of surrealism-inspired ceramic sculptures. Her figures’ pallid, moony faces look like old dolls which give children their first experiences of the uncanny.

From greater Cleveland, Arabella Proffer submitted the oil painting Astronomer, which presents a colorless membrane filled with organic forms resembling corals, streamers, and a rosebud. Husband-wife collaborators Gary and Laura Dumm submitted another installment in their series of visually intricate social commentaries. This one links industrial-scale consumption with environmental degradation, depicting tropical trees inhabited by parrots and monkeys being fed into a meat grinder dispensing hamburgers onto a gluttonous pile.

However, it’s not just Pittsburgh and Cleveland in dialogue. Morris also sought out artists from locales between the two urban centers. Thus, Doug Meyer of Warren exhibits his metallic fine-art furniture. Annette Yoho Feltes of Canton made mixed media assemblages that resemble icons of lost religions. Their pale faces suggest meditative repose, or sleep haunted by prophetic dreams.

Assembling such a large and diverse array of participants for Artbelt was a challenge, but Morris plays down his organizational credentials. Despite having spent several years of the 2000s managing the Digging Pitt Gallery, Morris says of himself, “I don’t consider myself a curator.” However, his experience with his own gallery—and his sheer doggedness pursuing a Rustbelt-wide collaboration—won over his peers.

“He had a really big vision,” said Sophia Sobers, an artist and visiting assistant professor of visual arts at the University of Pittsburgh. Artbelt features two of her works which combine handmade paper with elements like thread, wax, and gold leaf. Sobers said she is especially looking forward to possible future iterations of Artbelt, and more opportunities to display regionally.

John Morris’ career arc inverts the script career artists are expected to play out. He started out on the East Coast, then moved to the Midwest. Raised in Queens, Morris described himself as an “erratic” student. “I was drawing all the time,” he says of his high school years. After graduation, he spent several years illustrating and doing odd jobs. Then he got gallery representation and started exhibiting in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

However, in the early 2000s, the cost of living in New York kept crawling up. Even saving money by living with family, money was tight. Not only the neighborhoods, but the art scene itself was gentrifying. Morris says his work began to feel very commercial.

So in 2004, “on a little bit of a whim,” Morris moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Understandably, he compared the city’s physicality to New York; the geography of both locales is defined by intersecting rivers. But moving from a city with seven million inhabitants to one with just over 300,000 triggered some culture shock. Speaking of Pittsburgh, Morris quips “It’s like New York, except it’s empty.”

But it wasn’t just the quantity of people that was different. Whereas Morris said he often felt intimidated mingling in the New York art scene, he finds it easier to network in Pitt. He also obsesses less about money. The affordability of studio space was mentioned again and again in conversation with Pittsburgh Artbelt participants. Many also said that there are more opportunities for grants in the Midwest, compared to the artist-saturated East Coast.

“It’s a very art-positive town,” Ziller, the painter, says of Pittsburgh. Among its assets, he cites the universities which ensure there is always an influx of young artists. Lisa Bergant Koi, whose abstracted landscape painting Departure 38 appears on Artbelt’s promotional poster, also points to the Pittsburg Cultural District as a draw for creatives. The fourteen-block downtown district is maintained by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Besides curating public art and exhibition venues such as Wood Street Galleries in the city’s robust Cultural District, the district also supports theater, opera, an orchestra, and dance.

However, Pitt’s artists were also frank about their challenges. The Sprout Fund, a community development organization whose activities included arts funding, shut down a month before Artbelt opened. Though Pittsburgh’s artists supply art in prolific quantities, there isn’t always demand. McLaughlin, the sculptor, said that her work sells better in Columbus than in her hometown. This may be due to lack of wall space. Koi said that Pittsburgh has fewer commercial art venues compared to Cleveland. She said that hubs for commercial art like Radiant Hall and 448 Studios in Etna host open houses analogous to Third Fridays at 78th Street Studios. However, she said that attendance at these events isn’t as high as many artists hope it will be. As for the nonprofit sector, Morris says that other than an annual charity show of local artists, Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art usually displays work from out-of-towners.

Collaboration across regions can allow artists to overcome—or even circumvent—the challenges in their particular cities. Besides being an impressive showcase of work, Artbelt is also a model of how such regional partnerships can work in practice. It is Morris’ hope that the exhibit is just the first step in the development of a more connected Midwestern art world.

“I’m hoping this leads to more things,” Morris said.

Artbelt is on display through September 7 at the Gallery at Lakeland Community College. The gallery is located in the Dr. Wayne L. Rodehorst Performing Arts Center.

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