On Digital Journeying from the Inside and Out
Michael Platt’s and Carol Beane’s Shared Experience of Art and Life
When artists marry their shared life can be tumultuous (Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera) or disastrous (Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Ike and Tina, Bobby and Whitney)— or creatively synergetic and lasting like the marriage of Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence, Alice and John Coltrane, Ruby and Ossie, and, fingers crossed, Bey and Jay.
When artists of differing artistic disciplines share their ideas and lives, their mutual benefit can increase exponentially. Such has been the experience of creative writer Carol A. Beane and visual artist Michael B. Platt, a collaborative husband and wife team who live in Washington DC. Sometimes the collaboration takes the form of Carol’s text combined with Michael’s panels of digital art and artists’ books by both. It also takes the form of each being sympathetic and supportive of the other when working in their individual mediums.
Michael Platt’s Digital Journey exhibition (which includes a poem by Carol Beane) opened June 14 2014 at the Hampton University Museum and is on view through November 25, 2014. The show was organized by Vanessa Thaxton-Ward, Ph.D., the museum's curator of collections.
When Platt prepares for a show, he usually consults with Beane about the final selection—especially if he needs another couple pieces to round off the number of works being exhibited. He likes to send off more pieces than will actually be in the exhibit so that the curator has some flexibility in selection. And sometimes that selection will include poetry by Beane.
The curators’ decisions of what image to place with what poem is always interesting for Beane because their selections do not necessarily coincide with hers “and yet,” she says, “somehow, the integrity of these two aspects holds fast.”
The couple consented to our request to take a look inside of their creative partnership. Because the IRAAA is a journal on visual arts, the focus is on their shared experience of that medium but Beane’s literary experience is summarized at the end of this account.
Michael Platt's digital journeying began with his attempting to find an easier solution to doing photo etching and litho. “But as time went on," he recalls, "I became more involved in the picture taking, more committed to exploring and creating with Photoshop and, finally, to letting the digital image stand on its own.”
A pivotal point in his work occurred in the early 1990s at the Southern Graphics Printmaking Conference, an annual event for printmakers from all over eastern and southern US and beyond. The conference was held in Baltimore when Platt first attended and Bob Blackburn was honored as printmaker emeritus.
“I was immediately attracted to the alternative, non-traditional ways of photo etching and litho demonstrated at the product fair portion of the conference,” recalls Platt. “This was also around the time artists were actively exploring healthier ways of creating images. Keith Howard's non-toxic innovations in digital printmaking and those of numerous others were exciting and stimulating. So that's where I spent most of my time, meeting the artists who'd come up with those products and talking with artists who'd already been using them: for example: Image-On; Dan Weiden and his Solarplates; the water-based monoprint inks; the DASS products that prep your paper and other media before they go through your ink-jet printer.”
Platt found the materials as fascinating as the processes. “There were all the papers being developed specifically for digital printing—the Japanese ones in particular—great! The European paper makers were close behind. It was a Candy Store of materials and information, all of which fed my interest in non-traditional ways of developing and using photographic images in printmaking.”
Digitally entering the world of the disembodied, Platt evokes the spirit of that place — the animas behind physical appearances such as the ghosts of abandoned shotgun houses. He describes these apparitions as the “a sense of the human spirit (that these places) possess and the presence that continues to exist in things left behind.”
In such ethereal but emphatic ways, Platt has documented New Orleans post-Katrina, the Ghanaian slave fortresses of Elmina and Cape Coast; Lorton Penitentiary, VA; Eastern State Penitentiary and Father Divine's Divine Lorraine Hotel in Philadelphia.
“A number of the prints in the Hampton exhibition come from these series," he says. "More recent ones come from travel to Australia in 2012—a trip that made a deep impression on both Carol and myself. We both feel there is much more to be mined from that experience. We saw red dirt in central Australia, at Uluru, aka Ayer's Rock, Australia, and had been commenting on it when the Australian next to us on the plane, said: 'Yeah, the red dirt — it hides the blood real well.' It reminded us of the red dirt of Georgia, USA—and that's some history right there.”
The images in these series express “resistance, survival and obstacles overcome.” Platt also documents doors wherever he is or goes: “They are portals to other visions, other worlds, other lives, other ways of being.”
And, as expected of a master artist, he continues to introduce surprising, new elements into his signature style as can be seen, for example, in Sun Shadows and the Water Hole, 2014 (below).
Platt initially intended using digital technology as an aid to traditional etching and litho processes, but, for the moment, he's captivated by the digital. “Right now, I am at a point where I feel that working digitally allows me to create more images more quickly. Bet you money that if Romare Bearden were alive today, he'd be right here working digitally too!”
Carol: Back When…
There used to be a time when watching Michael at work meant observing him drawing with his preferred medium, some kind of charcoal—vine, compressed, powdered ... putting it to paper. Rhythms of arm, hand and fingers pulling forth figures; planes, angles and contours of human forms appearing; eyes that looked directly into and through you, stopping at your soul…with a single deft gesture noses walked off the sheet of paper pinned to the wall towards you. It also meant watching as that single one-too-many-stroke broke the camel's back, rendering the image suddenly, startlingly flat and lifeless. Listening to him immediately curse that last gesture of hand to paper [which, of course, would be usually the next-to-last one…but which, at that particular moment, held only despair] Intense! Frustration turned into the concentration of an ER medic rushing furiously to save the patient, determined to resurrect the dead—the emotion of that drama of salvation—our shared exhalations afterwards, exulting in the relief that came after time had ceased to matter, when his laying on of hands succeeded in restoring the full impact of the image—never quite exactly the same, but equally forceful and engaging, sometimes, even more so.
Saturdays were spent pulling prints at WD Printmaking Workshop, in the basement of Percy and Alice Martin's home in Mount Pleasant. I've heard Michael talking: You did your work in the morning cause the BS started at 2 pm…I missed most of those 35+years, but in the basement the weight of the 3 huge presses, the feel of the wheel as the press bed moved smoothly in one direction, then the other; the feel and smell of dampened paper and the inks; the patterns and textures the various processes—etching, litho, monoprints—produced, even in the cheesecloth and rags used to wipe down the press beds, fascinated me, a coulda been artist in another lifetime, a poet who at that point was not sharing my words, my images with nearly anyone, Michael excepted…That was the journeying then…
The tools and the language are different: computers, printers, color profiles…machines have altered the process, but not the workflow itself. The hours continue to be regularly irregular, depending on the spirit of the image and when the magic begins to happen—the benefit of combining home and studio space.
It seems to go on longer, despite entreaties to stand up every so often, move around, stretch at least. Minimalist repetitive movements, apparently independent, of hand and mouse seduce and absorb, while he intently focuses on the images he's creating on the screen…layers upon layers, experimentations, permutations and manipulations of Photoshop's multitudinous variables…
I have seen how Michael works with digital processes to create an experience of these images as profound as those he spirited out of his traditional drawings, paintings and prints. Constants: the figure as predominant visual element and his subject matter—renderings of dignity denied and restored, surviving loss, pain, separations, injustices, abuse, violence. These visual articulations of what people do to each other raise the implicit question of Why? For the past 7 - 8 years, Michael has been creating images of ceremonies and rituals, private, public, collective, individual—reflective invocations and conjurings of healing.
Michael's ongoing involvement with digital possibilities has evolved naturally from the curiosity of an artist known for his mastery of traditional printmaking techniques—especially lithography, and his experimentation with innovative processes and materials. He began approaching this now omnipresent machine — utilizing one of the printer's key elements— Xerox toner ink. Back in the early 1990s, when a Kinko's could be found on nearly every block in downtown DC, and many of them stayed open late or all night, the Kinko's on NY Avenue was a favorite destination, especially between midnight and 3 am. The many Corcoran students working the graveyard shift were invariably eager to do something a little "different" from the routine print jobs.
After the commotion and activities of the day, and with a background of TV news programs, horror movies [frequently international in origin], the occasional cooking show or animated film — football and basketball in season—Michael settles in at the computer…. One thing about living with Michael and his art making has been the intensity and consistency of his creative process. He works everyday. If there's a shoot with a model, the model gets painted with professional theatrical make-up in the kitchen, where the TV is. Then the session moves to the rear studio for photographing the model against a neutral backdrop of white, grey or back. This facilitates relocating the model, placing the image in one of the new sites he's created.
Michael's a night owl; I have become more of one over the years, keeping him company, not looking over his shoulder, but adding my 2 cents worth from time to time. However, when my mother was living with us at the end of her life, I discovered that she—then in her late 80s—was also a night owl…and she thoroughly enjoyed whatever went on. Frequently, the pieces seem to be DONE between midnight and 3 - 4 am…That's when the image reaches out, grabs you and holds you there—then it's time to be Bold and stop!…Michael says: I always think my Best Work is My Most Recent work…
Living with him over the years I have come more fully to know the exemplary depth of his passion, his willingness to experiment; to take risks and follow them through to whatever end. Talking about his work, he says: Each new piece I do in some way comes from the previous one…. He shares information generously: what he's learned by trial and error from completed pieces, his discoveries and, laughingly, the trials that didn’t work out.
Michael's also one of the finest teachers I have ever encountered. He's good at making you look ever more deeply into your self and express it creatively. 1999-2000, Michael said to me: We're going to do a book—this from all the time spent at Pyramid Atlantic, the paper and bookmaking print shop, then, under the directorship of its founder, Helen Frederick —It's going to be your poems and my images, dedicated to your father since you never got around to doing your academic book for him before he passed… So we did; and it was a digitally produced artists' book.
Collaborating with Michael was easy…but it didn’t happen until some 10 years into our marriage. My observing the ways in which he worked, his encouragement—small poetry readings with friends at home—did help me in quiet ways with my own, more private creating. Ideally, collaborating with another person, involves Give and Take. It's such a matter of trust and respect…you want it to be like Call and Response; you want it to be seamless, yet reflective of each artist's being. You want the work you produce be one in which each image resonates and moves you to the next one…
The studio is home, NW, DC. There is the front studio for drawing and assembling; bathroom; kitchen and the rear studio for photography and previewing large installations. In the kitchen, in addition to the usual culinary necessities, we have a bed, in its earlier manifestations a futon and a daybed; currently, it is a Senufo laying out bed from Ivory Coast. Our 7 feet long kitchen table that we made of blood wood, naturally colored that deepens and ripens with time and exposure to light, originally felt too big for the space. It serves as a worktable. We realize it would have been even more useful had it been the 8 feet we first discussed.
In the basement, home to the traditional printing studio, where the small etching press inherited from my artist godfather sits keeping company with the more substantial modern etching press there's also storage and access to the airwell, that standard feature of DC's row houses, allowing all rooms natural light—ours is occasionally also used as a backdrop for photo shoots; the surfaces of the brick walls for textures…
These days the actual workspace is reduced to the size of the computer screens. We have two side by side, facing west, their backs to the airwell. They sit to the right of the Epson 9890 printer, 44" wide; able to print any length you want. This is printer #2—its predecessor continues in the front studio—it may still work. The 9890 occupies the place where my mother's electric piano used to be [the no frills kind that sounded only like a piano]. When the first very first big printer arrived some 14 years ago, on day 2 or 3, I was standing in front of it, when my mother called me aside and discreetly inquired: Had I learned to play Michael's new instrument yet? The easiest response was: Not yet….
As new pieces come out of the printer—a process that formerly could take most of the night for the 4' x 6' ones, we put them in the "gallery," the high-ceilinged —though not as high as we'd've liked—rear studio. They hang there so you can really see them—things change as the inks set; as you look at them with benefit of bright morning light, or the subtle mellow light of late afternoon or that of an overcast day. Michael often says when I see someone standing in front of one of my pieces for a long time, then I know I've got them...they are looking! at it; I know I've got their brain… Many times that person is me! Occasionally he'll see me looking at a print, but usually not… It's a peculiar sensation watching the print coming out of the printer—looking intently at it from a distance, or really close up…I remember when he was drawing he used the eraser a lot with the charcoal…noses and check bones especially were startling in their three-dimensionality…technical skills making magic. The same phenomenon continues in his digital creations. For example, when printing the cover for our third artists' book, abandoned spaces, as it was coming out, from across the room, I noticed that a piece was torn—my response: adrenalin, gut wrenching—I rushed over to see what I could do, only to find that it was an illusion. Such relief…had to laugh at myself for having succumbed to the digital illusion. Being seduced, drawn into a work of art is an experience both exhilarating and disturbing…
The experience of living with Michael's images as they accumulate, filling our walls with figures and scenes that acquire presence depending on the light and shadows in the studio…for me much more satisfying than viewing them on the computer screen [but perhaps this attitude is generational…] The tangibility of the print is what moves me; I love the feel of the paper and the alchemy of ink and light. It often feels as if there are people visiting—which, in fact, there very frequently are: family, friends, students. The numbers vary; informality reigns. Around the kitchen table always, occasionally in the photo studio—generosity of spirit, rambunctiousness; conversations about art, books, Life, politics, history, materials, processes, food, travel, finance, spirituality, flow! Who we are…What we've seen and done…Where we are going... Where some of us have been— shades of WD Workshop; a modus vivendi and operandi…
Recollections of art school days way back when, in Columbus, OH, young black art students attending Columbus College of Art and Design, gathering for creative hanging out, with photographer James Valentine, long established in Columbus' black community, who opened his studio and his home to them. Valentine, whose friendship, mentoring and sharing his knowledge about things photographic and conversations about being black and in the arts; about the world around them—the Midwest, late 60s, early 70s; DC and elsewhere, the riots…times of committing artistic talents to yourself within the context of black experiences in America; increasing awareness of the expurgated history, the talents and voices once excluded or silenced—these have been the raw materials of Michael's art from forever…He has always valued the figure—its power, its presence, its possibilities…
Michael's gift to himself and to those around him—in my experience, has been his passion and the discipline for creating. Whether working specifically for a show or engaged in the daily working one does simply because…, his attitude is the same; it's a matter of degree. He says: always prepare more work than is called for—you never know…used to be when I was painting, printing and drawing…the work'd be going off to the gallery wet…He continues to challenge himself; finding a multiplicity of places to go; discovering and exploring ways of getting there—his different ways of seeing…I have found that living with him, I have learned to see more carefully; I am more attuned to color and hue; have become more familiar with the nuances of shadow; am more attuned to the qualities of light…putting these sensibilities into my words…
Writing about digital journeying is for me, also a turning to memory—of those people around when the art was being created but who are no longer with us—in particular, poet Gaston Neal; my mother, Oris; photographer friend, Harlee Little, an early digital explorer in the DC arts community; artist and art school classmate Big Al Carter; and Michael's mother, Olga, who passed at the end of January 2014, his lifelong and most ardent supporter. However, digital journeying is also about the present— the opportunities working digitally has facilitated, the collaborations and convergences…
In September 2013, we had returned from Paris, France, a collaborative exhibition project involving Michael and Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann, organized by Duane Gautier and Anacostia's Honfleur Gallery, in conjunction with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The fellow travelers had been good— Michael's cousin, Sandra, and a good traveling friend, Dave, had joined The Group. The artwork was well received. Katherine's abstractions of colors, textures and line melded with Michael's figurative images that offered their own substrata of textures to the mix.
At home, around the kitchen table, Michael and I celebrated with his mother, toasting her favorite city and our Paris experience with a bottle of The Widow. Olga's toast was "Here's to having gone where you wanted to go and done what you wanted to do…" Enough said.
Carol A. Beane is an associate professor in Howard University's Department of World Languages and Cultures. She teaches Spanish language, literature, translation and simultaneous interpretation. The artists books she has created in collaboration with Platt, are forgotten contours (2001), solitary mornings (2006), Abandoned Spaces (2010), are represented in private and public collections: among them, The Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections; the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture; Howard University's Founder's Library; the Brown University's John Hay Library Harris Poetry collection; The Yale University Art Museum; and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
In 2009, Carol collaborated with artist Renée Stout on an artists book, the streets of used to be. It was awarded the National Museum of Women in the Arts' Library Fellows artists book of the year—i.e. the artists received a commission to prepare an edition of 125, and the book joined previous recipients in the NMWA's permanent collection of artists books.
Beane also was invited to participate in DC's Poet Laureate Dolores Kendrick's Poets-in-Progress, a program based in the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Her academic work has dealt with issues of history, identity, representations of slavery and enslavement in Caribbean and Latin American literature. To a considerable extent it has informed her poetry which was recognized with the 24th Larry Neal Poetry award, from the DDCAH with support from the NEA. Her writing also focuses on quiet understated moments and circumstances of daily life. The translations Carol has done have introduced the words and experiences of Spanish speaking writers and poets of African descent to an English speaking public and extended consciousness of the African Diaspora.