July 20, 2016
By Betsy O’Connell
First Day of School Target: Alone, that’s a puzzling title for an artwork. In context, it makes disturbing sense. Two little girls and a schoolhouse lie within a field of six shooting targets. Above the blood-red building float the words “Little Red School House Game.” At the bottom right corner, “Sold by NRA & Co.’’
The more you look at Kari Russell-Pool’s artwork, the more jarring it becomes. It’s meant to get you to stop and think, to make your stomach clench. Russell-Pool makes the schoolhouse piece even more personal by using a photo of her daughters from 19 years ago.
Russell-Pool usually tells her stories through glass rather than drawings. A 1990 graduate of CIA’s Glass department, Russell-Pool has work in national and international collections, including the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and the Niijima Glass Art Museum in Tokyo.
But she returned to one of the core skills of art — drawing — for the series that makes up her new exhibition, Kari Russell-Pool: Perspective. The show is on view July 25 through Aug. 12 in the Ann and Norman Roulet Student + Alumni Gallery at the Cleveland Institute of Art. The work examines gun violence and women’s reproductive issues.
“This was sort of an experiment. I hadn’t drawn for 25 years,’’ Russell-Pool says as she walks around her Cleveland warehouse studio with a visitor. “I think a big part of drawing is being able to translate, not so much reproduce in lines.’’
She is, she says, “sort of a flame thrower.’’ She gestures toward the school target image. “The world is very combative. This is a good way to get that out,” she says. “I’m pointed and direct and focused. I’m not one to let a falsehood go.’’
Personal and political perspectives inform much of Russell-Pool’s art. On a shelf in her studio sits a delicate glass teapot with a not-so-delicate gun at its center. “It’s the Tea Party teapot,” she says. “I did that when the Tea Party was just getting started.’’
Guns also show up in her Heartland series, in which Russell-Pool created glass squares that evoke quilt squares and cross-stitch samplers, but instead weave in words and images that frame both political and personal perspective.
Guns became even more prominent in her work after 2012, when Adam Lanza shot to death 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “I was profoundly impacted by Newtown, as we lived in Connecticut at the time,” Russell-Pool says. It’s sad, she adds, that “we all have been trained on how to comport ourselves in an active shooter environment.’’
Her series of gun-target creations drawn from a series of woodcut Sears Roebuck shooting targets from the 1950s. “There’s something beautiful about them,’’ she says, tracing the lines of a jack rabbit target in the air above it. But it’s disturbing when the target animal is looking straight at the shooter, as is the case with a bear and raccoon that are part of the 1950s series.
“The shooter is watching, then the target is watching the shooter,” she says. “When people are aware they are the target, the target changes perspective.’’
Russell-Pool’s exhibit also looks at women’s issues. In one, a Scrabble board is centered with a package of birth control pills. The title “Incendiary Words’’ is at the bottom and game tiles are laid out to spell vow, woman, family, pill, planB, baby and choice. “I believe in choice, but I also believe in the choice to prevent an unplanned pregnancy.’’
At the bottom of the piece, on either side of the title, are two watercolor robins. The birds “are a metaphor for home and family and nesting. Birds have been part of her work for years, and recently appear inside black glass sculptures of cages with their doors open.
“The birds in the cages are a stand-in for me,’’ she says. She talks about the difficulties of raising teens. Doing so has an element of Stockholm Syndrome. “I could leave but I choose to stay.’’
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