when pictures fail me…
Stepping off the street into Williamsburg gallery Art 101 on a bright winter day, I was greeted by Aggie the Scottie dog and Elizabeth Riggle’s paintings of bones. No graveyard aura here, however–these walls actually sing. The show is entitled “Parts Is Parts — Studies for a Vertebral Opera.”
Just inside the door is more enticement to smile, as “Overture for Bob and Ray” (former teachers, not the 1950s radio comic duo) looms: an eight foot canvas with almost cartoony shapes loosely and lusciously oil painted in Crayola colors, floating with cheerful abandon that counters any morbid association one might make, given that these forms are, in fact, our vertebrae. In this setting, Riggles also toys with our preconceived notions of what vertebrae often represent in stress-filled lives: brittle bones and lower lumbar ailments. Something’s gotta give, and it’s usually our back.
But not here, not today. Clearly the spirits have moved this artist, instead, to bring all “dem bones” to life. Luckily, Ms. Riggle was in the gallery and graciously shared some of the backstory.
Q: Why vertebrae?
A: Painting the bones began as a response to a homework assignment in my yoga teacher training with (back care and scoliosis specialist) Alison West at YogaUnion: to simply draw the spine. I tried to do that and couldn’t. Instead I set up a very large piece of paper on the wall and used wet material. I still had trouble getting the spine into an area that was six feet wide and eleven feet tall. I realized it was something I had to keep doing.
Q: Why do you use Opera as metaphor?
A: The basic musical analogy is that the word “chord” is spelled the same in both anatomical and musical constructs, with many parts comprising one thing. They both create possibilities for movement within the medium. I’m also an opera fan. It is such a grand and crazy structure, and can be similar to something going askew in the spinal chord. It can go from the sublime to the ridiculous, and that’s also the reality of the world.
Q: Can you explain more of the connection between yoga and art in your life?
A: When I started yoga fifteen years ago at age forty it triggered wonderful memories of my first drawing teacher. The charcoal paper was like the yoga mat. You stayed on it for the whole class–three hours and longer, starting over again and again. My way of making sense of the world is that I have to paint through it with a beginner’s mind.
Q: What else influenced this series?
A: Years ago I took a workshop on The Anatomy of Sound with Leslie Kaminoff, who directs the Breathing Project in NYC. The session broke down sanskrit sounds, such as Om, which reflects what I call the music of the bones. Before that I worked at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and handled Tibetan musical instruments made of bones, both human and animal. It was a privilege to have access to those.
Q: You received your MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When and why did you move to NYC?
A: I came to New York for personal reasons, as opposed to career, in 1995. I was lucky to land a day job at MoMA, where I still prepare exhibits for installation.
Q: Is there an arc in your spiritual/artistic journey that you are aware of?
A: Discovering yoga in midlife gave me the tools to find center both in my body and in my art. It allowed me to translate some devastating personal losses I had experienced at that time, giving me control of my physical self and allowing for a rebuilding. I can now take beginner’s mind to any project I start. And I am able to experience and understand that arc both inside and outside my body.
Q: You art work is clearly a very personal path of self-enlightenment, yet you also want to fully engage the viewer, or audience. Will there be a final movement to your Vertebral Opera for the public to view?
A: The essence of inventing abstraction is to “hear” a painting, or to “see” music. It is wonderful to make a painting that people respond to that way. When one recognizes something of their own experience in an artwork, and has a very visceral response, it is a literal mixing of the senses. And that in itself is a heart-opener. The reason I am so happy with this body of work and being able to show it at this stage is that it is the beginning of a project, with the end result to come. How often do you get to do that in the art world? This will be in three acts because there are three sections of the spine. I’m inspired to continue this to its visual culmination. A lovely thing about the word “inspire” is that it actually means “to inhale.”
To which I can only add: Brava, Elizabeth! Encore!