July 23, 2014
Assistant Professor Barry Underwood reinvigorated after sabbatical
By Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz
It’s difficult to imagine anyone having as busy and productive a sabbatical as CIA photography Assistant Professor Barry Underwood had this past year. He traveled to half a dozen national parks around the western U.S. to scout locations and take photographs for a new project; completed two artist residencies in New England; took part in nine exhibitions; was featured in more than a dozen magazine and website articles; and rounded out the year with four of his prints selected for Akron Art Museum’s permanent photography collection.
The museum’s Chief Curator Janice Driesbach says she had been interested in Underwood for some time, and explains that a major draw is that Underwood’s work is so “distinctive.” He is renowned for his use of lighting and luminescent material to transform natural landscapes into surreal experiences. Driesbach says Akron Art Museum is always interested in showcasing the work of regional artists, but that the deciding factor in terms of Underwood’s pieces is simply that “they are wonderful prints.”
Despite his very busy schedule, Underwood recently found time to discuss his sabbatical—and the impact it had on him as an artist and an instructor.
What did you hope to accomplish during your sabbatical?
On my sabbatical, I planned to focus my time and artistic investigations into the ecological and social history of specific places. I am particularly interested in the connection between manufactured landscape patterns and cultural norms.
In other words, I spend a significant amount of time researching, thinking about, and recording the different ways that humans have altered the natural landscape; the purposes for these changes; and the effects both on the landscape and on human behavior that result from this manipulation.
Getting out of the studio and traveling to new places is always exciting, inspirational, and important as an artist. If one is making artwork about the world, it is important to have exposure to the world as much as possible. It was my plan, in part, to be on the road.
What were some highlights of the year, professionally? And, could you describe how the particular project that was your focus for the year evolved?
Last year, I started a new project titled Attractive Nuisance. For this project, I have been conducting research, scouting locations, and photographing areas and effects of industrial, commercial, and recreational land use in delicate ecological systems.
As part of this research, I was able to visit some National Parks and the areas surrounding them. Some of the parks I visited during the 2013-2014 academic year were: the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park, Zion National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Everglades National Park, and Muir Woods National Monument.
Unfortunately, my stay at Yellowstone was cut short. On the first night I was staying in the park, the U.S. Congress failed to enact legislation appropriating funds for the 2014 fiscal year, which resulted the closing of all the National Parks. I had to leave Yellowstone the next morning. This shutdown also canceled my trip to Glacier National Park.
I also visited John Muir National Historic Site, Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front, and Navajo Nation. [I visited] John Muir’s home because the philosophy of Muir is a driving theory in ecological ideals. Muir’s writing has greatly influenced me. In addition, there is a large oil refinery down the street from John Muir National Historic Site, and I wanted to scout a prime location to photograph the two sites.
I visited Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front out of general curiosity. Rosie the Riveter is a reference that comes up often in discussions of some students’ artwork. I wanted to deepen my understanding of this icon, and the historical events that gave rise to this character. My interest in traveling to Navajo Nation is because this is an area of the United States where a culture and landscape are shaped by capitalist neglect and marginalization.
What are some additional accomplishments from your time on sabbatical?
Though they had not been part of my original sabbatical proposal, I was able to take advantage of two artist residencies, because of the time allowed me to dedicate to my studio practice. The first artist residency was through the Burlington City Arts in Burlington, Vermont. This residency granted me lodging, as well as freedom to explore, research, and produce work at Shelburne Farms.
Shelburne Farms is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate for a sustainable future. Their campus is a 1,400-acre working farm, forest, and National Historic Landmark, located on the shores of Lake Champlain in Shelburne, Vermont. Here, they have Environmental Education and Outdoor Survival Programs. [They describe] their mission [as being] about “the sustainability and quality of life on earth. We care about young people having hope for the future. We believe that sustainability is grounded in individual awareness and action in our own communities.”
The second artist residency was at The MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire. The MacDowell Colony is the oldest artist residency in the United States. Artists, writers, and musicians—including Michael Chabon, Thornton Wilder, andFaith Ringgold—have produced work there. This was my second opportunity to attend MacDowell. The opportunity to work there in the New Hampshire woods, in the winter, fulfilled my long-held desire to produce work during the winter in snow conditions.
In addition to my travels and research, I worked on two solo exhibitions (Scenes, at Sous Les Etoiles Gallery, New York, New York; and Land of Milk and Honey, at the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan). I had two two-person exhibitions (Active Light: Barry Underwood and Chris McCaw, Woodbury Art Museum, Orem, Utah; and Trace Artifice, Johansson Projects, Oakland, California).
My photographs were included in several group exhibitions—Indiana University Northwest Alumni Exhibition, Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts, Gary, Indiana; New Neon: Light, Paint & Photography, Bedford Gallery, Walnut Creek, California; Moving Nature, LCAD on Forest, Laguna College of Art + Design, Laguna Beach, California; Of Land and Local, Burlington City Arts, Burlington, Vermont; and The Gravity of Sculpture, Dorsky Gallery, Long Island City, New York.
Akron Art Museum has recently acquired four of your pieces. How did that come about? How were the pieces chosen, and what does it mean for you to have those pieces on display in Akron?
In 2011, I had a two-person exhibition at the Akron Art Museum, with Bruce Checefsky (director of CIA’s Reinberger Galleries), titled SuperNatural Landscapes by Bruce Checefsky and Barry Underwood. Since then, I have been in continuing communication with curators at the museum.
Like most acquisitions, there is a process of building a relationship even after the exhibition closes, by staying in touch and keeping folks aware of career successes, awards, new work, and events.
In December 2013, I was in contact with Janice Driesbach, the chief curator, to discuss a studio visit. In March, after my residency at MacDowell was completed, Janice visited my studio in Cleveland and we spoke for roughly two hours. We discussed the previous exhibition at the museum, my current projects and possible future projects. We continued our conversation through email, at which time Janice proposed the acquisition of four prints.
Of course, it is a great honor to be included into the Akron Art Museum’s collection. The museum has an excellent collection with a respected reputation. The museum also has significant importance in its display and collection of photography.
How do you think your experiences during your sabbatical have affected you as an artist?
As an artist, and I would add as an instructor, knowledge and understanding of the world through experience is key. Studying and research must be a holistic experience through immersion into places and cultures. The time I was able to spend meeting new people [and] visiting new places, as well as revisiting some locations, has allowed me to conceive of some new ideas, plan projects for new locations, and expand my understanding of my studio practice.
To view a portfolio of Underwood’s work and read more about this artist, click here.
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