Cranbrook dream

thornleamorningBefore the snow flies I want to tell you a little about my trip last month to Cranbrook Academy of Art, an artist’s learning and work environment that opened 77 years ago, the brainchild of George and Ellen Booth (the newspaper Booths) after they’d seen the Academy in Rome and were smitten. Cranbrook, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, is a graduate program in art in which a faculty member acts as mentor/role model/critic/teacher for a select group of students (around 15 in each discipline). There are no classes and everybody’s main charge is to work, work, work in the studio.

The all work all the time paradigm is as divorced from the rest of the real world of MFA programming as is Cranbrook’s fairyland-like campus. With its monumental, Saarinan-designed buildings and sculpture- and fountain-dotted grounds, the cloistered campus is fit for a king. For an art student it’s Neverland. I visited when the fall colors were beginning and the weather was crisp and sunny and the sound of migrating geese passing overhead was a constant. (top image is the morning view out the window of Thornlea, the Cranbrook guesthouse where I stayed.)


I travelled to Cranbrook to be a visiting artist and critic for Randy Bolton‘s Print Media department. Bolton is a former Philadelphia artist whose dark and playful digital prints based on childrens’ book imagery appeared regularly in all the Philadelphia area best venues (Schmidt Dean Gallery, the Arcadia Works on Paper exhibit, the Print Center, the Delaware Biennial, etc.). (image is the door to Bolton’s Cranbrook studio. Someone could market a calendar, “The Doors of Cranbrook” — they’re each unique and beautiful.)


The artist is working on new prints for his upcoming exhibition at the Cranbrook Museum.

For the first time, he is working billboard-sized and the prints are on cloth. Bolton told me he learned to sew for the project so he could hem the pieces. He also invented and stitched on the tabs that will allow the prints to be fastened to the walls. (images left and right are two of the new works)


Bolton’s a sassy commentator on the little truths and big lies we tell ourselves to get through life. But without being pat, his works ask questions. While they’re not overtly political, these pieces can be read with the current election year situation in mind. The wall-spanning banners evoke the best of P. T. Barnum’s circus of wonders while poking fun at the big, blustery language of big, blustery people. (image right below is Bolton and his wife, the artist Kathleen McShane, who shows her works on paper at Gallery Joe. The two are sitting on wood stumps that will be part of Bolton’s new show. He’s carving images into the tops of the logs.)


While touring the campus and meeting the students I noticed that, in the same way we’ve seen in Philadelphia and elsewhere, the artistic disciplines (sculpture, painting, printmaking, etc) aren’t behaving like good girls and boys these days. All the genres are being mixed together and soon (if they haven’t already) more and more artists will shun the restrictive labels (painter) for the more open “artist.” And why not? If an artist’s ideas dictate the use of potato chips and gummie bears we don’t call her a junk food artist, she’s an artist.


In Bolton’s Print Media department I saw students working on sculpture, painting, drawing, assemblage and — hold on, was there any printmaking? There were digital prints and photographs. But, Bolton said he was defining printmaking as anything that involved repetitive processes, so I guess all is fair in that scenario. (image is a studio in the Ceramics department — note the sewing machine.)



The grounds and buildings as I said are a treat. The library and adjoining museum complex (right) is as elegant as an art nouveau Versailles reinterpreted for a Michigan mogul.


The Cranbrook Museum had three great exhibits when I was there:

1. an “best of” the collection show that included a wonderful Duane Hanson bodybuilder sitting on a bench. Hanson was an alum by the way. (sorry no image);

2. An African diaspora exhibit that included as its centerpiece a work by the seemingly ubiquitous Yinka Shonibare. “Scramble for Africa” (image left) depicted the artist’s trademark headless men sitting at a dining table and eagerly carving up a map of Africa;


3. A snapshot exhibit from the Duane Hanson estate showing photographs Hanson worked from to make his sculptures. What was interesting is that the shots were ambiguous as photographs of sculpture. And in fact some seemed to include a human interacting with a sculpture which was pretty trippy. (image is an example of one of the snapshots)

I imagine Cranbrook, with all its wonderful resources would be a pretty great place to be stashed away in for a couple years to get really confused about what art is and about what you want to make. One thing is sure — you’d pick up some discipline about staying in the studio and getting work done. And that’s a good part of the struggle as most artists will tell you.