Rivers and Memories
Brentwood Arts Exchange Washington , D. C.
E.J. Montgomery and Lilian Thomas Burwell are brimming with ideas for new works. They also have learned to easily bend with the challenges of the creative process, understanding that unexpected obstacles ultimately can result in work that is even better than what they intended.
Aptly described as "two cultural pillars of the Washington metro area," these accomplished elder artists have combined studio careers that span more than eight decades. During this time they have continued to evolve artistically using adaptability, wisdom gained by an endless exploration of the world and, perhaps most importantly, "stubborn genius" to overcome physical challenges they have encountered as they have aged. Their two person exhibition, Rivers and Memories, was on view January 20–March 24, 2012 at the Brentwood Arts Exchange.
Two challenging new works by Burwell, Water People and I Am the Mother Nile, demonstrate how she continues to "stretch beyond" earlier creations. The site specific Water People, a 10-foot, horizontal installation representing a river bed, combines a thick Plexiglas sheet cut to resemble the cross-section of a river; rocklike, painted sculptural forms; and names of individuals, "water people," who have special meaning in her life. The biggest physical challenge that needed a solution, according to Burwell, was "the too frequent need of another pair of hands." But she is amazed at how "the mind can compensate by more pre-planning and by conjuring up inventive ways to physically lift and reach beyond into spaces and places never presenting themselves as demons before." Serendipity also played a role: "An unplanned knock of a neighbor on my studio door often answered a sigh of 'how on earth can I get out of this fix?'"
For four months Burwell labored on her second, three-dimensional work, a 13-foot mixed-media installation, I Am the Mother Nile. She drew inspiration for the piece from Barack Obama's description of fatherhood: "It's like having your own heart walk around outside of your body." Burwell recalls that the greatest physical obstacle she faced in creating this tribute to motherhood was "the need to dip into a reserve of stamina that was still in the process of trying to refill itself." After expending great energy and enduring physical suffering to create the monumental piece for the exhibition, Burwell encountered still another obstacle. In the end, the canvas, clay, oil paint on body cast and fabric construction had to be moved to Howard University's Blackburn Center where it could be better accommodated. According to the artist, "the solutions [to this and other challenges] themselves are part of the magic" of creativity.
In the recent two-dimensional works featured in the exhibition, E. J. Montgomery continues to demonstrate her mastery of form and texture. She has presented a visual feast of colorful, richly textured, abstract images created by multi-layering pigments and referencing memories of people and places. Montgomery has not stopped experimenting in her painting and printmaking techniques since being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Rather, she relentlessly has persevered and overcome her physical challenges with vigor.
In creating First Snow, an acrylic diptych inspired by a trip to Hokkaido, Japan, and the memory of gently falling snow, Montgomery uses delicate brushwork and, observes catalog essayist Claude Elliott, "layers the surface of the canvas with color to achieve transparent and translucent designs resembling the shimmer of grey-blue snow." Her continued experimentation creating prints is evidenced in the monoprint, Letters to Mom, an example of what Montgomery calls her "written works" on paper. Layers of pigment using an intaglio steel plate and large stencils require great deal of manipulation and physical effort. Summing up, Elliott describes the works as "exquisitely crafted, intellectually stimulating, and aesthetically pleasing." They are also expressions of an indomitable spirit.
E.J. Montgomery, 79, and Lilian Thomas Burwell, who will be 85 this year, continue to mentor and inspire future generations of artists. In addition to their huge artistic achievement, they are superb examples of how creativity can be regenerative.
Mary Hultgren is a museum consultant who lives in Virginia Beach, VA.