Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Defiant Act of Moving Forward

... During the trip, I met and worked with Arab women, not far from my own age, who were empowered and respected members of their community. Unlike its neighboring countries, the UAE promotes gender equality and “the Constitution of the UAE guarantees equal rights for both men and women.”[1] Throughout the trip, the more I spoke with these women, the more I felt a sincere connection to them and their art. This incredible cultural experience has instigated many questions on my part as an artist. At the forefront is whether my connection to their work is due to a valid thread that runs through each of our artworks despite global distances and cultural differences or if that connection is simply the fabrication of rose-tinted memories?...

To read this article in its entirety (and find out my final conclusion), follow this link:

"The Defiant Act of Moving Forward"

[1] “Women in the UAE”. UAE Embassy in Washington, DC. Web. 14 February 2011.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dubai: Second Trip

Only a couple of weeks after returning from the Dubai trip I found out our show would be included in the Sharjah Biennial. Horray! That meant I would be going back. So me and Lauren McCarty left in early March for two more weeks of fun and art. This time instead of staying at a hotel we were able to stay at the Flying House in an art residency type of situation.
Our first event was Art Dubai. This is Dubai's art fair with many galleries representing even more artists. There was lots of buying and selling going on, with gallery owners running back and forth talking about their latest sales. It was very exciting with all the people and great works of art. Then, outside on the patio, we hung out talking and listening to music enjoying free drinks. In the morning Hassan as well as Mohammed Kazam and Catherine David, the two curators of Hassan's show, had a few interviews to take care of before brunch on the beach. There were a number of good talks commending Hassan and the Flying House. After the talks as I was sitting at the table a woman walked by and said she had been watching me and wanted to "shove that toothpick down my throat!", it was very odd.
Then we traveled to Abu Dhabi for a few days to be at the opening of Hassan Sharif and surrounding events. The show was spectacular, very well organized and did justice to Hassan's work. After the show we went to dinner with a bunch of people. I ended up talking to Saad Juma, Senior Journalist in Abu Dhabi, whose English is slightly better than my Arabic. Everyone was tired around 3 am, but not me and Saad, he took me out to the African dance clubs and showed me a good time. Then 4:30 am rolled around, all the clubs were closing so it was time to grab a cab, hit a gas station for some Popeye's Chicken and call it a night.
Rounds of interviews and visiting collectors followed Hassan from his show in Abu Dhabi back to the Flying House in Dubai the following week. We had another great dinner at Carolin Kropff's house, this time prepared by Mohammed with the rest of us helping out. A huge fish and mixed seafood soup, delicious. That's about all I can type and Lauren is going to cover what I missed.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Emarat Al Youm, UAE Daily Newspaper

Newspaper coverage of The 29th Annual Exhibition of the Emirates Fine Arts Society, January 10, 2011 edition.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Art and Hospitality

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was not on my “100 places to visit” list, but when my work was accepted into the 29th Annual Exhibition of the Emirates Fine Arts Society, held at the Sharjah Art Museum, I was given the opportunity to attend. Before I knew it I was onboard a jet at Philadelphia Airport, January 7, 2011 on my way to Dubai International in the UAE, heading back in the same direction from which I had come from 49 years earlier in 1961. Philadelphia was my point of entry into the United States, arriving at a young age from my place of birth, Lahti, Finland. Naturalized as a US citizen at the age of six, I have recently applied and been granted dual citizenship with my mother country Finland. This new found status as a citizen of the European Union and Nordic Council opens up the potential and desire to interact with the world as a holistic global community.

Flying out of the country, I felt handicapped with a lifetime of ethnocentric cultural bias deeply rooted in a western mind set. And undoubtedly, my limited perspective of the Middle East has continuously been shaped by the media I have been exposed to. Saying I was an open minded person and being open minded are two different things and immersion into Islamic culture would be a great test of my flexibility. Along with having little time to prepare, I have set a challenge for any journey that is documented by my artist statement: “By questioning the beliefs of myself and others, and confronting societal issues such as prejudice and racism, gender bias, consumerism, pollution, and natural resource depletion, I hope to dissolve dualistic thinking, identify non-sustainable practices, and promote more cooperative relationships between people and the planet.”

At times, feeling hypocritical when I read this, I am also learning to be patient with myself while transitioning to better way, setting high ideals in order that I might someday aspire to them. A gift of being an artist lies in having the ability to initiate an honest dialog without words. Contemporary art is a universal language transcending ethnic barriers, a sublime vehicle of heart to heart and mind to mind communication. Our group of Americans, one Ghanian, and one Korean artist, showing our artwork together in one museum, reveals our likenesses as human beings rather than what can sometimes be alienating cultural differences.

The Emirates are developing a strong center of culture and commerce, attracting the entire global community. The core of this expression is displayed with their innovative structural achievements, one of which includes the tallest building in the world. Architecture is an artistic expression that can transcend social norms. To stand in awe may be the closest experience any of us will have with what we perceive to be divine. Looking out from 160th floor of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, towering at 2717 feet, was a truly awesome experience, reminiscent of times in my past spent above tree line. Mountaintops may have given birth to the dreams and visions of skyscrapers reaching for the heavens and been the inspiration for their construction, but it was human effort that climbed those mountains and built those monuments testifying to one facet of the human potential.

My short stay of eleven days revealed only a microcosm of Arabic culture, but it was a positive life changing experience. I was less impressed with the architectural spectacle than the peacefulness, generosity and kindness of the people I met during my stay. H.H. Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Bin Sultan Al Qassimi, Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of Sharjah, attended the opening of the art exhibition and took the time to shake my hand and ask about my artwork as he did with each of the attending artists. It was an honor to meet him and experience first hand the government’s generous support of the arts. The Sharjah Museum, under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qassimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, hosted the Emirates Fine Arts Society annual event which was made real by the Sharjah Museums Department, with an experienced installation team, an immaculate, almost divine, gallery space, and refreshments, provided as needed during our press conference and lectures.

Arabic culture has touched me deeply on a heart level pointing more to my own shortcomings rather than those of a foreign culture. I was humbled by the discipline of the masses to stop what they were doing and be mindful of the sacred. The calls from the mosques were contagious and each time I heard them I became more still and took time for reflection myself. They don’t feel so far away to me anymore. If there’s one thing the world needs now it’s more places conducive to a peaceful cross cultural exchange and dialogue. The Emiratis have opened their home to the world, hopefully we will continue to be humble guests with open minds and hearts ready to receive the many gifts they offer and give them the best of ourselves and culture in return.

Insha ‘Allah

Monday, January 24, 2011


A Hallo Steve-Shukran production
A collaborative effort by Eric Abaka and AJ Bredensteiner

Friday, January 21, 2011


Call to prayer floating in the hazy morning air.

Henna stained skin.

Tea and toast with rose apricot jam.

Crashing dunes.

Salty sand angels.

New friends for life.

Glowing black light waves thorough grape hookah smoke.

Standing on the top of the world.

Conceptions. Misconceptions. Re-evaluation. New perspective.

Avocado shakes and lemon mint juice.

Buildings, buildings, buildings.

Things familiar written in mysterious loops, lines, and dots…Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, Pizza Hut.

Evening boat ride.

Souks, souks, souks.

Hummous, Tabbouleh, Kebab.

Scraggly bits of green struggling to grow.

Rauschenberg, Ruscha, Serra, Twombly, Warhol and Wool.

Flying House.

Sleepy, sleepy, sleepy.

Everything under control.

Conversation with Hassan Sharif 1-16-2011

While sitting in Hassan's workspace and looking at his sketchbooks, Hassan and I had a conversation about language and expression. He stated, "The aura of language is the part that cannot be translated; it is a feeling. This is what we strive for in art."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dubai Art Galleries

Moammed Kazem, of The Flying House, took students on a tour of Dubai galleries at the Dubai International Financial Center.

The Flying House

The artists of The Flying House, a contemporary house of Emirati art, welcomed the group from the University of the Arts MFA in Studio Art program into their galleries and studios.

Artist Hassan Sharif shares his work with students at the Flying House.

Sharif invites students into his studio and living space to discuss his work and influences.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Exhibition Lectures

Joe Girandola and Hassan Sharif speak about the work of the University of the Arts graduate students and the work of the contemporary Arab artists featured in the exhibition. The lectures were held at the Sharjah Art Museum.

The discussions continued late into the evening as artist Carolin Kropff hosted a dinner at her Dubai home following the lectures.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Abu Dhabi

A visit to Manarat Al Saadiyat, the cultural visitors' center on Saadiyat Island, presented the group with multiple opportunities. The visit began with a tour of the current exhibition: RSTW from the private collection of Larry Gagosian, including work from Rauschenberg, Ruscha, Serra, Twombly, Warhol and Wool. This tour was followed by a private tour of the construction sites for the new Louvre and Guggenheim Museums.

The group and their hosts enjoy lunch on Saadiyat Island.

View of the beginnings of the Louvre ceiling.

View of the Guggenheim construction site.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Top of the World

From the dunes of the desert to the Top of the World, the UArts group made the most of every moment. A visit to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world and the magnificent centerpiece of Dubai, left all with a new perspective.

View from "The Top of the World"

View of the record setting choreographed Dubai Fountain in the 30 acre manmade Khalifa Lake below the Burj Khalifa.

Visit to the Desert

UArts students had a variety of experiences this week to better understand the culture and environment of the United Arab Emirates. Today, after leaving the Barjeel Foundation, students went on a "desert safari" to venture outside the urban areas they had been exploring.

Graduate Student Eric Abaka takes to the dunes.

The safari was followed by a traditional Egyptian dinner with local entertainment.

The Barjeel Foundation

The University of the Arts group was lead on a private tour of the Barjeel Foundation by gallery manager Mandy Merzaban. The Barjeel Foundation is working to introduce Arab Artists to the international contemporary art scene.

Gallery Manager Mandy Merzaban discusses a current exhibit with Michele Kishita and Lauren McCarty from the University of the Arts.

The group tours the multi-level facility and the variety of exhibits it offers.

Joe Girandola, Director of the UArts MFA in Studio Art Program, discusses the work of artist Layla Juma in front of her installation at the Barjeel Foundation. Juma is currently the Chairman of the Emirates Fine Art Society.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Opening Reception

The Emirates Fine Art Society, in cooperation with the Sharjah Art Museum, hosted the opening reception on January 12, 2011 at 7pm in the East Wing of the museum.

H.H. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed bin Sultan Al Qassimi, the Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of Sharjah, engaged each artist in a conversation about their work at the reception.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Artwork from UArts

Today closed with a final walk-through of the exhibition as preparations were made for the opening reception. Work by the University of the Arts Graduate Students can be seen below.

Taegyun Yoon

Kristine Sullivan Strawser

Carrice Chardin McKinstry

Guy Loraine

AJ Bredensteiner

Eric Abaka

Harry Matti Hukkinen (left)
David Chatfield (right)

David Chatfield (detail)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Artwork Installation

Students worked with the professional installation team at the museum to install their artwork and prepare for the opening events.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Press Conference

The week began with a press conference celebrating the collaboration of the Sharjah Museum, Emirates Fine Art Society and the University of the Arts MFA in Studio Art Program. Pictured above is Hind Bin Darwish, Curator of the Sharjah Museum of Contemporary Arab Art; Layla Juma, Chairman of the Emirates Fine Art Society & Exhibition Curator and Joe Girandola, Director of the University of the Arts MFA in Studio Art Program. Some of the news outlets featuring stories throughout the week included: Alkhaleej News, Emaratalyoum News, Albayan News, Alitthad News

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Still Melting...

Submitted by:

Joe Girandola, Director UArts MFA Studio Art Program

The city of “brotherly love,” as it was coined by William Penn from the Greek terms philos and adelphos, the city of Philadelphia was planned in grid-like fashion to separate residential life from occupational endeavors. The people of Philadelphia quickly abandoned Penn’s plans and merged their living arrangements with their entrepreneurial talents. The city quickly grew and spread its arms to include denizens of all cultures from around the world, a true melting pot of ideas and creativity. Home to a vast cauldron of human achievement, Philadelphia has embraced with open arms the likes of Ben Franklin to Alexander Calder, Louis Kahn to Kobe Bryant, Billie Holliday to Naom Chomsky, Joe Frasier to Bill Cosby, Solomon Guggenheim to Kevin Bacon and Betsy Ross to R Crumb. To phrase one of Philadelphia’s most favorite sons, the rapper Will Smith sings, “maxing and relaxing,” to indicate a long and vibrant history of a creative city on the banks of the Delaware River with a passion for work and play. The Master of Fine Arts program in Studio Art at the University of the Arts(UArts) has an equally vivid history of merging its talents to create a more vibrant whole. As one of America’s oldest Universities dedicated to the Arts, UArts was literally created by melting together the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts and the Philadelphia College of Art. These two schools have historical roots embedded in the city since the 1870’s. In 1985, the Master of Fine Arts program in Ceramics, Painting and Sculpture was introduced with the renaming of the academy as the University of the Arts and students from around the nation entered the graduate studio art program. As the program has grown and embraced all forms of visual art making, the MFA Program in Studio Art encourages creative researchers from all parts of the globe to call Philadelphia home for three consecutive summers of eight-week residencies. The melting of ideas and ingenuity in the intense heat of the summer, leads to anything but grid-like outcomes for the graduate students at UArts.

From Philadelphia to Ghana, Iowa to Korea, Omaha to Idaho, to Connecticut to Michigan and the shores of Finland, this exhibition presents a small sample of the diverse practice and accomplished skill of contemporary art from twelve students currently enrolled in the professional practice studio art program of over 40 graduate students. The ideas that have emerged from this exhibition invite discovery and contemplation and honestly investigate the currents of contemporary art.

The work of Eric Abaka, Marge Renno and Lauren McCarty merge the fields of installation and performance. A recorded act is reconfigured and exhibited as a dynamic installation that invites the viewer to join in the artistic experience. Abaka creates work from his surroundings and has chosen to create a site-specific work from the environs of Sharjah. These found-object alterations weave together his boyhood memories from his home in Ghana and his urban existence in Chicago and Philadelphia. Renno produces large-scale projected works mesmerize the viewer into the trace of natural phenomenon. Usually projected in urban environments, the video artworks deliver a story of the passage of time and the memory of travail. Lauren McCarty investigates chance encounters by producing documentaries of her day-to-day discoveries. Animating her sketchbook into a projected diary with sound displays McCarty’s interest in the connections of daily routines in the artistic practice.

AJ Bredensteiner, Guy Loraine and Andy Walker produce artworks that envelop time and produce digital fractionations that when presented in large format installations, reveal minute details embracing the beauty of intense observation. Bredensteiner’s current work focuses on the computerized recreation of sketches drawn on paper. Evaluating the myth of ownership in today’s global culture, AJ creates fantasy landscapes that entice visual contemplation. Guy Loraine has captured a specific moment of the laborious process of collecting acorn shells and caps from an oak tree near his studio in Des Moines, Iowa. A small piece of an elaborate installation and performance artwork, the image drives home a loneliness of artistic process and perfecting practice of integrity and honesty in art making. The Liberty Bell piece also displays the quiet energy of a cracked bell of independence and the significant ring of progress in the shadow of doubt and citizenship on native grounds. Andy Walker, a lifelong Philadelphian, photographs tarnished buildings in city limits that have succumbed to economic shifts in the housing market. Hand-built structures weep in their abandoned state as government policies prevent individuals with finances and creative re-use strategies to purchase these homes. They remain dormant in their once-cherished beauty and they creep into memory as their card is called for demolition erasing the vibrant past of energy.

David Chatfield, Tae Gyun Yoon(Lucien) and Carrice Mckinstry compile life into compartments of analytic and mysterious human space. Chatfield discovers the never-ending task of updating resumes and the job application process to further ones opportunities in the workforce. These paintings overlay a multitude of pages in a transparent attempt to “pile on” experience to rise to the top of the applicant pool. Tae-Gyun Yoon embraces his Korean upbringing and the packaging of societal goods and “Western” needs in intricate drawings that resemble his installation work. Stacking of mass-produced packaging goods and containers, Lucien is interested in the re-purposing of items usually meant for one-time use. Carrice McKinstry hand toils in a laboratory style process that is far removed from any scientific method. Handcrafting object after object and letting shape and form develop through process rather than research based assimilation, Carrice sets up dramatic whimsical installations using light and space to dispel the act of creative calculation in art. Allowing for the freedom of interpretation and the viewer’s need to place each of her “specimens” into context, Carrice develops a sculptural vocabulary that welcomes debate.

Harry Hukkinen, Michele Kishita and Kris Strawser contemplate abstraction though their varying works. Harry Hukkinen, born in Finland and raised on the shores of New Jersey, creates opaque sculptural objects that become integral components to photographic works that investigate contrasting elements of linear form and organic surroundings. Experimenting with color, texture and shape, Michele Kishita’s use of gold and silver leaf borrows renaissance techniques while reinforcing the act of painting as a collaborative symphony of marks and movements. The installation work of Kris Strawser joins in the playful coordination of making by incorporating mass-produced objects (in this case, Slinky’s and Mylar Balloons) to coordinate an indoor mythical landscape. Interlacing with light and shadow, the installation reflects the viewer and the environment in fractal planes that creates a unique experience with time.

All twelve of these varying artists share the commitment and dedicated passion of creative research and exploration. The University of the Arts graduate program in studio art does not have a distinct “look” or “style.” What it lacks in a singular vision, it gains in its melting pot existence. UArts is as diverse as the global world of creativity and its artists thrive in their varying perspectives. Still Melting presents a brief look into a visual art program that embraces diversity in visual art production and research based awareness of visual culture and historical structure. Allowing for cross-disciplinary studio practices, artists in the UArts MFA Program in Studio Art are encouraged to follow their instincts and be guided individually by leading creators in all fields of practice. The blurring of disciplines and formulaic processes lead to new discoveries that once were as flat as the Earth was thought to be. Philadelphia rings its cracked Liberty Bell to signify Independence through difficult times. The determination of these twelve individuals each sound off in varying tones of creative impulse while together their ideas speak loudly to exemplify the still melting pot of artistic diversity.

2011 UARTs MFA Students selected to participate in the Emirates Fine Arts Society Exhibition at the Sharjah Art Museum, UAE:

Eric Abaka

AJ Bredensteiner

Kris Strawser

Harry Hukkinen

Guy Loraine

David Chatfield

Lauren McCarty

Marge Renno

Michele Kishita

Carrice McKinstry

Tae Gyun Yoon

Andrew Walker