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Bellefonte & The Two-Headed Goddess: An Interview with Persephone/Persephone Artist, Elody Gyekis

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133 North Allegheny Street Bellefonte, PA 16823

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814-355-4280

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By Serge Bielanko

Some artists lock themselves in a dark dank studio and shut out the world in an effort to take the elevator down to the depths of their guts. It's all they can do, you see. Art- at least truly great art- is often an intensely personal journey into the wilderness within. Artists, writers, poets, whatever...they usually have to tap into the veins of pain and struggle and uncertainty that lay deep beneath their own bones before they can start a sketch or start throwing words down on the page.

In a sense, they have to live real life, you know? They have to hurt like the rest of us. They have to yearn like the rest of us us. They have to wonder and wish and lust and long for things and people and better days just like the rest of us, all in the very spirit of simply surviving a while longer.

Just like you and me do all the live long day.

It's very often a lonesome, ragged journey: making art is. But then again, sometimes it ain't. That's the beauty of it, too, I think. There are rules for art. And the number one rule is: there are no rules. Collaboration might be the muse of the moment. Year after year of solo deep dives into the deep dark soul sometimes lead artists need to come up for a little air, a bit of light.

And in some cases, two artists end up finding one another on the surface, bobbing up and down as they tread towards some unseen shore where they can rest after so much time down deep.

Okay, yeah I know, I know. I speak in cliched metaphors here maybe. Whatever. That's okay because I have a finer point and that's this. I want you to head over to the Bellefonte Art Museum, 133 North Allegheny Street, this month if you can swing it. There's a new exhibit there called Persephone/Persephone and we're all lucky to have it in our neck of the woods. It's not a one artist show either, and maybe that's why it's so remarkable even before you've laid eyes on it. The backstory here is as intriguing as they come. In a beautifully eccentric nutshell: two well-known and successful artists from central Pennsylvania, Elody Gyekis and Joanne Landis begin to dream up the idea of a two person exhibit that doesn't just feature individual works from either one's personal canon. Instead, they'll create a unique and sweeping familia of works with each other's blood.

Or paint, as it goes.

But these sorts of shows don't come easy.

"It’s unique- artists tend to work alone- being private about their works, techniques and vision,' says BAM Executive Director, Patricia House. "Sharing the creation of a painting is both dynamic and challenging- the two artists could be in harmony or in a tug of style and direction. Elody and Joanne working to get here have challenged each other to create amazing life like but spirited characters."

I wanted to know more, so I connected with Elody Gyekis to ask her everything I could think of about this show... and about being an artist in a place like Centre County.

I hope it makes you want to go and check this thing out.

 

Bellefonte.com: Persephone as a muse. Why her?

Elody Gyekis: Persephone’s story is interesting to us on many levels. Both Joanne and I work with feminine mythologies, and this story features two strong female goddesses. To recap for readers who do not know the tale, Persephone is a goddess who is daughter of Demeter, goddess of nature and of the harvest, and Zeus. Demeter loves her daughter and as she grows up, they are inseparable. Hades, God of the underworld, sees Persephone when she becomes a young woman and desires her. He strikes a bargain with Zues to take her as his bride. Neither Persephone nor Demeter are aware of or involved in this negotiation. Hades then abducts Persephone and brings her to the underworld. Demeter is so distraught when her daughter goes missing that she allows all the growing crops to die and the earth goes into a deep famine. Eventually the situation becomes so bad Zeus relents to Demeter and requires Hades to release Persephone. However, in her time in the underworld, she has eaten a pomegranate seed, tying her forever to the underworld. (In some version of the tale, this is interpreted as a consummation of the marriage to Hades). Thus, Persephone is allowed to return to Demeter only for part of the year. When they are reunited, the land blooms again. When Persephone returns to the underworld, Demeter mourns and the plants die again. Thus, the seasons.

It is a complex tale that has been interpreted many ways. As a feminist, it is a difficult story to grapple with. How to present a tale that is essentially about abduction, rape, and forced marriage? Or, is that not what it is about at all… but about an overprotective mother who will not give her daughter any freedom? In some versions of the tale, Demeter goes on a rampage that kills many innocent mortals when her daughter goes missing. Regardless, we decided to focus the tale not so much on Hades and his abduction of Persephone, though that does take place in our story, but on the emotional consequences and the relationship between the two women, and the way in which the earth personifies Demeter’s emotional state.

 

Joanne Landis as a partner in creation. Why her?

Collaborations are like relationships. You flirt, you have coffee, you go on a date before you commit to each-other. You have to establish whether or not you have chemistry as collaborators. For every ten people I talk to about collaborating with over a cup of coffee, only one comes to fruition. A little over three years ago, I reached out to Joanne. I had never really met her but knew her by her work and, as you do with certain artists, I could just tell that I wanted to know her. I met with her in her studio and we shared our stories, and by the end of the conversation she had invited me to collaborate and I said yes. This was one of those rare conversations that kept going. We continued getting together until an idea took shape. Our first collaborative show was at the Pajama Factory in March of 2018, after which Patricia House offered us this show at the Bellefonte Museum and we embarked on an even more intense collaboration over the past year and a half.

Again, like relationships, sometimes collaborations work because you are similar, and sometimes because you compliment each other. Joanne and I work very differently. My work is much more planned, much more based in realism and detail. Joanne is very intuitive, spontaneous, and stylistic. We both influence the other to work outside of our comfort zones. This is extremely challenging and obviously uncomfortable at times, but also extremely exciting and fruitful.

 

What do you think lies beneath the rare idea of two very creative and successful painters working together?

Collaboration is giving up something (autonomy, control) to gain something else (inspiration, the unknown). Something is born that neither of you could have ever created (or even imagined) on your own. As a musician, I am sure you feel a particular kind of magic when you are on stage and playing music together with rest of your band. All of you are creating your own sounds that align to create an energy that is more than the sum of its parts. Painters don’t need anyone else to create a painting, and the risks and logistics involved in collaboration all make it rare. However, for those of us that do go down that route, the reward is that we also get to experience the magical energy of ensemble creation that is more common among other art forms.

We are hardly the first or only collaborators though. Many great visual artists have had fruitful periods of collaboration in their lives. A few interesting examples include: Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Steiglitz, Man Ray and Lee Miller, Jeanne-Claude and Christo, Marina Abramovićand Ulay, and many others.  Look them up! Read about these collaborations! They’re just amazing stories and relationships and resulting works of art.

Speaking of other collaborators, the Bellefonte Museum will also have a show of Jennifer Tucker Self-portraits with poems by Abby Minor in September. The four of us will do a joint artist talk about collaboration and women in the arts on Friday, Sept 27thfrom 5-7pm!

 

How does the process work for you two? Are you ever together in the same studio painting alongside one another? If not, how does it all unfold?

I have done collaborations in which we are painting on the same canvas at the same time, but in this case, no. This entire collaboration has taken place long distance. For this show, we worked on the paintings in groups of four, all on the same large roll of canvas. One of us would work on it for awhile, let it dry, roll it up, and then the other would come pick it up. This was, logistically, our only option as I currently live in Brooklyn and Joanne in PA. However, this gave us time to sit with the work and reflect on it before diving in, time to find our way into work that was not entirely our own, time to find ways to merge our disparate working methods into a cohesive whole. Usually we each would work on each canvas twice, so each work had four stages of painting.

 

Do you feel like Centre County is a good place for an artist to live? Why or why not?

This is a question that I personally am grappling with. I spent 8 years as an artist with Center County as my home base. I am embarking on my third year with Brooklyn as my home base, and contemplating my eventual return to Pennsylvania. The two places are so different, each so full of pros and cons that are perfectly opposite to one another. It is a classic big fish in small pond versus small fish in the ocean kind of comparison. New York is so brutally expensive, but so full of opportunities and events. It is hard, ruthless, competitive, but there are also no limits. The caliber of the artists surrounding you is intimidating and inspiring. The moment you learn about a new artist you adore, you find out they live in Brooklyn or have a show coming up somewhere in the city. You get to be in the thick of it, and you get to see so much phenomenal art in person. Yet it is exhausting, and the energy spent on making income to cover rent and studio rent is relentless and sometimes leaves little to spare for enjoying the opportunities that are so plentiful here. In Central PA, the pressure to make money is so much less. You can get by on much less, have a bigger studio with more light, more time to make your work. The number of happenings and opportunities are far fewer, but then you can do them all and really get to know the community of artists around you. The artists and art patrons in Central PA work hard to create many smaller vibrant art communities even in rural places. And the trees! Oh the trees and the birds and animals and plants and stars and sunsets and moonrises. The nature feeds my soul. Central PA is astoundingly beautiful, which is a constant inspiration to its artists. I miss it desperately in New York, though I have a membership to the Brooklyn Botanical gardens which is only a twently minute walk from my apartment, which keeps me sane, as do the two trees outside my bedroom window.

People in New York think that there is nowhere else. That there is nothing happening anywhere else and no one with any talent anywhere else. But that is not true, and artists are always leaving NYC for the countryside or nearby cheaper cities like Philadelphia. And many artists maintain a dual life in the city and outside of it, commuting back and forth frequently. This may be my future. In both places, life as an artist is hard. It is a hustle, requiring creative thinking and savvy and a lot more time on a computer than any of us would like.

 

Last question. What do you hope visitors to Persephone/Persephone walk away thinking...or wondering...or wishing?

I would hope that they leave feeling something. I hope that they are also thinking and wondering their own personal, tangential, unpredictable patterns of thoughts in whatever direction their unique minds take them. But in the response to my work, I have intellectual thoughts that go into it, but what I hope the audience comes away with in an emotional response. In the case of this show, I hope that they feel the circular emotional wave of this story. The show is very physical, with the twelve paintings in large standing frames built by my father, Gary Gyekis. They will surround the viewer, like architecture. You will be inside the story. I want the viewer to really feel the joy and sorrow and joy again. When you dance the waltz, its is a one-two-three. On the three, the step makes your body rise, so the rhythm has an up and down as you circle around each your partner. Rising, falling, spinning, like a merry-go-round. I hope the audience members feel like that, going around the seasons and the emotions, feeling the innocent joy, the pain of separation, and the joy of reuniting: feeling that all with their whole body. 

 

Persephone/Persephone
Opening Reception: Sunday, Sept. 1st, 12-4:30pm.

Bellefonte Art Museum, Special Exhibitions Gallery
Now thru October 27, Friday - Sunday 12:00-4:30

Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County
133 North Allegheny Street
814-355-4280
Museum hours Friday, Saturday, & Sunday 12;00 - 4:30 p.m.

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While at your visit to BAM, head up to the 3rd floor to witness Underground Railroad: A Journey to Freedom exhibit. That permanent feature highlights the escaped slaves who sought safe passage to freedom in the north via a secret network of people who wanted to help abolish slavery altogether.

*This exhibition is supported in part by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency fund-ed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

The Bellefonte Art Museum is supported by the Central Pennsylvania Convention & Visitors Bureau. Learn more about the CPCVB by visiting www.visitpennstate.org.

 

 

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