For the past 20 years, Memphis College of Art professor Bob Riseling has led groups of students, alumni, and faculty members to Horn Island, a small island 12 miles off the Mississippi Gulf Coast. This May, 48 artists signed up for the nine-day experience.
Also in May, Teresa White, an MCA alumna and co-owner of Studio 1688, led a second group of eight artists who stayed on the island for eight days.
Both groups took long hikes on wet sand, ran through shoulder-high grass, swam at midnight, shared artwork and tall tales around campfires, and woke up on the beach to see the sunrise through tent flaps. And for the four days that the two groups' stay overlapped, they visited each other's camps.
The artwork created or conceived on Horn Island is now being displayed -- Riseling's group at MCA and White's at Studio 1688.
White's 200-pound glass-and-steel installation, The Ocean Is Alive and Dances to the Beat Inside My Head, is a reminder of the storms that come up suddenly and often on Horn Island. In Studio 1688's main gallery, 175 strips of annealed blue glass hang from three pieces of steel, re-creating the power and grace of retreating waves.
Inspired by the thousands of dead puffer fish -- casualties of industrial pollution -- washed up on the island's beaches this spring, Erik Yaeger molded 12 fish out of clay, sea water, and crushed shells and fired them in a kiln set up on the island. In homage to the dead fish, Yaeger has arranged the ceramic puffers along with sand, palmetto leaves, driftwood, fish bones, and shells on a 20-foot stretch of floor at Studio 1688.
Horn Island's colors loom large in many of the works. Riseling's wood carvings of red-eyed Ring Tailed Green Racers slither throughout MCA's exhibition, while Micaela Riseling's pink and purple sunset roils in her mixed-media Horn Island Skies. With neon-orange oil sticks, Wendy Young convincingly depicts total-body Sunburn. William Bearden holds his camera close to the water and captures an image of a shallow sea jangling with golden bracelets of light in Under a Sherbet Sky. In Jay Crum's acrylic on wood, Red Beach, white light vibrates through a dusty pink sky and emanates from the blood-red bodies of students set above a crimson mosaic of rocks, snakes, and continental platelets.
Many of the more than 200 works in the MCA exhibition express intense feelings of community and bonding with nature. Amanda Howard's mixed-media Daily Hike tells us about a blisteringly hot May day when students hiked for 24 miles with such a fierce determination that Howard envisioned them as marching warriors in tufted headdresses, shields, and elongated fire-engine-red masks. The ceramic alligator snout protruding from an MCA wall, with its dingy, chipped teeth and granular, dull-brown skin, suggests that Leandra Urrutia saw her Spirit Animal up-close and personal.
With watercolors, charcoal, pastels, and acrylic paints, Jason Roach recorded Horn Island at sunrise, noon, sunset, and in storms. Especially striking is his ability to capture the last traces of color at dusk, as in his watercolor Vanishing Light. With pen and ink on paper, Jeremy Waak creates waves of sand in Dune #4. Buttocks, feet, kneecaps, and breasts refract and repeat in waves and shadows as artists merge with the Gulf waters in Jay Crum's acrylic on wood Night Swim.
In Preston Drum's acrylic painting, eyeglasses are not necessary for seeing in What Matt Saw at Night. They hang lopsided and twisted across the side of Matt's face. The subject's translucent white body suggests the physical and psychological effects of moonlight swimming and sleeping on sandy beaches. This student-turned-night-creature reaches toward the moon with a three-pronged hand/claw/paw. He leans his head forward to peer into an impressionist landscape that contains faces looking back at him, depicting an artist's willingness to open himself up to new experiences.
Hanging between the first and second floors of the MCA galleries is Waak's Horn Island Dream 119, a 12-foot assemblage of buoys and nylon rope. This suspended hulk of flotsam with elements extending in all directions serves as a fitting centerpiece and metaphor for the artists/islanders. In Waak's work, the exhibit's artists are still together swimming, hiking, and reaching out for new ideas. •
"Horn Island Twenty" at MCA runs through September 18th; "Eight Days in Exile 2004" at Studio 1688 through September 19th.