Route, Rut, Lane: A Karkhana Collaboration at Shoebox Projects
“The stereotype of the solitary artist working away in private has dominated the recent history of Western art, but in the end we are social beings. The truth is that artists feed off their relationships with other creative people.” ~Jessica Hough, In The Spirit Of Collaboration
Opening Reception October 12th 7-9pm at Shoebox Projects
And October 13th and 14th 11-6pm during the Brewery Artwalk
By Nancy Kay Turner
“Route, Rut, Lane: A Karkhana Collaboration,” curated by Nancy Kay Turner, is a collaborative work by the artists S. Portico Bowman, Carlyn Clark, Johnny Fox, Margaret Lazzari, Luke Reichle, Chris Russell, Caryl St. Ama, Nancy Kay Turner.
Karkhana is the Urdu term for the imperial-sponsored workshops that produced manuscripts for Mughal Emperors from the sixteenth until the nineteenth century in what today is India and Pakistan. In these workshops, the production for a single work of art was divided among various collaborating “masters.” However, in this version of the Karkhana collaborative technique, the artists created sixteen works on paper circulated in a proscribed order over eight months until everyone had worked on each piece. Each artist created the first layer on two surfaces and then sent them on their way. Eventually everyone contributed to all 16 pieces.
This model of Karkhana is particularly exciting in art-making today as artists across divides (gender, age, geography) can collaborate to produce artworks that are at one point in time completely theirs, but by the end of the process are also completely hybrid works. S. Portico Bowman, addressed this in her poignant comments after the project was over. “Karkhana collaboration is a space to …drop pieces of my self. Traces of what I believed to be essential are covered over or torn away and I’m forced to reconsider my attachments.”
The artists were all connected to someone in the group – either as a teacher, mentor, colleague or former student. They have their own diverse art practices that encompass drawing, mixed -media, digital imagery, painting, and sculpture. Each artist’s work experience informs their artistic practice: costume designer for film/TV (Luke Reichle), special education teacher, graphic novel artist (Chris Russell), public artist, painter, college professor (Margaret Lazzari), novel writer, college art professor (S. Portico Bownman), art educator, art critic (Nancy Kay Turner), gallery preparator, sculptor (Johnny Fox), textile designer, fabric artist (Carlyn Clark) and painter/encaustic, college art professor (Caryl St. Ama). Geographically the artists were in London, England, Pittsburg, Kansas, Los Angeles, California and Alberta, Canada.
The Karkhana concept was somewhat tweaked with this project, from what was traditionally a physical workshop with many skilled workers to a loosely defined collaborative network. As life intervened, some members had to move away from Los Angeles and the works traveled from LA to NY, to Vancouver, to Kansas, to Hawaii, to San Diego and to Alberta, Canada. Sometimes the packaging of the artwork itself as it sped through or slogged through the postal system became archeological as the artists layered paper and text over earlier surfaces.
Luke Reichle, who had to move to Vancouver for work said about Karkhana “A lesson in collaboration, partnership and international shipping charges. It turns out that Canada is an actual foreign country. Customs, duties and brokerage fees…pricey. Getting to work with this group of artists…priceless.”
Each artist had a different response to the challenges posed with this new way of working. Johnny Fox said “I found the entire concept to be quite intriguing…. responding to the disparate approaches and contradictory styles each artist employed in order to create this body of work was immensely enjoyable and challenging”. Caryl St. Alma said “I approached the Karkhana project with a bit of hesitation…I spent a long time looking at the work and finally developed a technique that worked for me by photographing each piece before working on it in Procreate on my Ipad”. The biggest challenge for Nancy Kay Turner “ was that I was more ‘product’ oriented than I had imagined. My desire was to fix what I saw as compositional issues, which may be the result of my decades long career as both a critic and a teacher. I often employed my Iphone as a tool to take pictures of various solutions before committing to one.”
Chris Russell, who had long been engaged with collaborative mail art exchanges said “The process is always interesting and new and…it tends to bring out very different approaches, and even use of different media than any solo art practice….The Karkhana project created by Nancy Turner has developed into something strange and wonderful in these expansive mail exchanges….For me, this was, by far, the most challenging mail art collaboration I’ve been involved with…”
Before figuring out the structure of this project, Nancy Kay Turner and Margaret Lazzari collaborated on six works on paper (also in the exhibit) casually mailing work to each other with no particular timeline. These works went back and forth over a year. There was another Karkhana precursor created by Caryl St. Ama, Carlyn Clark, Luke Reichle, S. Portico Bowman and Nancy Kay Turner. In that series (called “K1”), Portico did all the first layers and sent them out: therefore, this particular series had an internal compositional structure that easily became identifiable as landscape.
One of the challenges of the project was to establish a specific rotation based on an alphabetical order, a set of monthly deadlines, and a few rules. It was decided to keep the boundary sacrosanct at fifteen inches square and to stay two- dimensional, mostly because of concerns that the work would get damaged or prove too expensive to send. For most of the participants the process was surprising and challenging, especially because of the monthly deadline. Concerns over ownership and possible sales were tabled: to be discussed upon completion of the project.
“I found the process to be freeing,” said Margaret Lazzari. “I was almost never in control of what I received and almost never in control of the final product. Because of the lack of ownership, I took chances that I realize I should take more often with my own work…I found myself thinking more about form than meaning, and was willing to just let the meaning come through once the marks were made”.
Participants were allowed to erase, remove, paint over earlier marks if necessary for the composition. Some works –such as “See Father Pray” clearly
show each artists layer and decisions, while others such as “Problem Child” became extraordinarily dense and almost archeological in structure. Each mixed-media piece has a diaristic element, as every artist was instructed to write on the back and to note date of arrival and when they finished it, and of course, to sign the back. Some artists added notes about mood or a particular emotional trial they were going through. The orientation changed on some works, which is evident through the paper trail on the back. Artists were instructed to take a “before” and “after” picture of every work received and send it to S. Portico Bowman who created a website especially for this conceptual project. The next step is to design and publish a zine-like catalog, which will show both the front and the back of each piece chosen for the exhibit and pick one piece to highlight each layer.
Many of the artists discussed how the process shifted considerably, depending on which layer they were working. Carlyn Clark said “In the beginning the process was quick … as the layers built up it became a much more thoughtful and labored process. It was as if I was having a wordless conversation with each of the artists who had worked before me….sometimes my response was strictly to the composition of the piece, and sometimes …the piece evoked a memory…that guided what I did….In the end, I found that the process…made me think about what I put on the paper in a different way than I have before.” For Margaret Lazzari “working on the third to the fifth layers was the best part.”
Just as in real life, some pieces were easy to work on while others were nearly impossible or impassable. The creation of this conceptual body of work echoed a solo creative practice, which is filled with doubts, anxieties, exhilaration, surprise, fear, and ultimately joy. In the end, everyone came through. The artists already working together and are considering our next Karkhana collaboration.
The exhibit “Route, Rut, Lane,” will be on display during the Brewery Artwalk at Shoebox Projects October 13-14, 11-6pm.