I stopped by Grand Bohemian Gallery Savannah at the beginning of March to grab a short interview with artist Josť Ray and curator Carmen Aguirre about Ray’s excellent exhibition, “Pollen.” After we were done, the three of us, along with gallery assistant Katie Stanton, were standing around chatting, and the conversation shifted to Aguirre’s own artwork. At the time, she was preparing for the opening reception of her three person show “Still Standing: The Resiliency of Humans and Nature” at Roots Up Gallery, which was due to take place a few weeks later.
Due to the novel coronavirus, the exhibition shifted to an online-only format at RootsUpGalley.com (check out John Singer’s article here to learn all about it). And it wasn’t intended to have anything to do with the pandemic that we’re all currently experiencing: It actually began as a response to 2019’s Hurricane Dorian. And at the time of our conversation, COVID-19 was looming on the horizon for the United States, although it was wreaking havoc in the rest of the world.
Needless to say, however, art has a way of finding its own significance in the moment. For Aguirre, who I caught up with again this week by phone, the whole tenor of the exhibition has been altered by the current health crisis.
“Does the name of the show change meaning?” She asked rhetorically, “I’ve gone back to look at some of my paintings and say wow, yes, very much so. Very much so [they have] more meaning to me today than the day that I finished painting [them].”
This shift in gravity is no more apparent than with “Venus Over Grand Concourse,” a darkly moody oil painting depicting the street where Aguirre grew up, where her parents bought their first home in 1953. The house is currently under contract, and it’s unlikely, given world affairs, that she’ll be able to get back to see it again before it’s sold.
“The last time that I was there was years ago.” She explained, “I never expected that I would not be going back to it”; adding that she “wanted that last feeling of my childhood home, and it’s not going to happen, because of the circumstances.”
Like most artists I know, however, Aguirre is trying to make the best of “a terrible situation,” as she termed it. In many ways “Venus” is a stepping stone towards a new project that she’s begun working on, a project that she likely wouldn’t have yet delved into were it not for the shelter in place order.
It’s “about those little things that you keep in drawers.” Aguirre told me. “Those things that trigger a memory. Maybe a childhood memory. Maybe the memory of a grandparent or your parents or a friend or a moment in time. And they’re silly things maybe. And usually have no monetary value to them at all except that they trigger that memory that can’t have a number put onto it.”
For the project, she’s gathered together a number of artifacts from that aforementioned childhood home, objects that belonged to her family, which have significant meaning to her that are unlikely to be obvious to the casual viewer. The final form of the work isn’t quite determined just yet, but she’s initiated the process.
“It is a project that I have been thinking of,” she said. “It came to mind about two years ago. And I’ve sort of been putting it off and putting it off and putting it off because it’s not an easy project emotionally.”
In her mind, it’s the perfect time to work on such a conceptually heavy project.
“If I cry my eyeballs out here and my eyes are all swollen,” Aguirre joked. “I don’t have to worry about anybody seeing me. And it’s something I need to go through.”
All jokes aside, Aguirre is laboring to remain connected, not just for herself, but for the art community around her that she feels a certain amount of responsibility to as both an artist and a curator.
“Be creative, use all of your resources,” she advised. “We’re all going through this together. Stay in touch. Even though we can’t touch each other, we need the human contact. The phone calls, the texts. The ‘hey, how are you doing?’ That little reminder that we’re here and we’re together. Most importantly that you’re not alone.”
Listen to my entire conversation with Carmen Aguirre embedded here. Next week we’ll be speaking with Harry DeLorme, artist and Senior Curator of Education at Telfair Museums.
Tune in to “Art on the Air” every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show “Art on the Air.”
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.