Point Breeze artist shows another side of least-livable town
Pittsburgh has earned the title of “America's Most Livable City” several times. But artist Hyla Willis of Point Breeze wants you to be aware of “America's Least Livable City” — Yuba City, Calif.
In 1985, when Rand McNally first singled out Pittsburgh as “America's Most Livable City” in their Places Rated Almanac, Willis' hometown of Yuba City was ranked dead last.
“The townspeople were indignant, but responded with humor and imagination,” Willis says. “After a public burning of Places Rated, they joined forces with the ‘twin city' across the river (Marysville, named for a Donner Party survivor) and sponsored a radio contest for a Pittsburgher to win a trip for two to attend the famous Bok Kai festival.”
That Pittsburgher was Cheryl Volchko. Using her memories and Volchko's many clippings and stories about the trip, Willis was able to create the installation “America's Least Livable City,” at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, where Willis is the 2014 Artist of the Year.
Willis says her installation is a conceptual art piece. “It's a multimedia installation that explores the community cohesion, collective sense of identity and creative joie de vivre that can still occur despite the struggles of everyday life and an outside world that disregards you.”
Walking through Willis' installation, one gets a sense of the place, the sweat, grit and grind that, as an agricultural center, helps Yuba City flourish to this very day.
Willis serves up a generous helping of current facts and history. For example, visitors will learn that Yuba City is the metropolitan center of the Sacramento Valley's agricultural zone between the state capitol and Mt. Shasta in northern California.
First colonized by the Spanish and Mexicans, the area was originally inhabited by the Maidu and has been deeply re-shaped by global environmental, economic and ethnic conflicts. The region boomed during the Gold Rush, with many early immigrants from China's Canton province and from the areas that are now India and Pakistan.
Whites, Hispanics and migrant farm workers (primarily Mexican) also are part of the mix. It is where the vast majority of this country's sushi rice, prunes and canned peaches come from and, more recently, Willis is quick to point out, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome.
Willis says this installation is a love song of sorts.
“It's a remix of historic and personal stories from the Prune Capital of the World and its surrounding communities that have shaped my sense of self, commitments, water, land, displacement and friendship,” she says. “Childhood in Yuba City was not always easy, and the dissolution of my family led me to live in numerous other small towns of Northern California for my teenage years. But the many shreds of alternative economy and mutual hospitality amongst an economically, politically and ethnically diverse group of historically displaced and entrepreneurial people have stayed with me.”
It's proof, she says, that “when resources and accolades are not in alignment, another world is still possible.”
An associate professor of media arts at Robert Morris University, Willis holds a master of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University and a bachelors degree from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. She has appeared nationally and internationally as a founding member of subRosa, a feminist art collective focusing on the ways women are impacted by rapidly evolving biological and communications technologies.
To help visitors to Pittsburgh Center for the Arts put the trajectory of her work into context, she has included a number of pamphlets and other ephemera from her work with subRosa, which has been the primary focus of her art practice since 1999. These include sculptures and 2-D work on themes of war, feminism, neoliberalism, domestication and the ways they confound one another.
Also on display is the work of Mia Tarducci Henry of Aspinwall, the 2014 Emerging Artist of the Year. Filling up the galleries on the first floor, Henry's work is a mix of paintings and painted objects that speak to the way she communicates emotions and, she says, “how I work through particularly difficult ones.”
“The work centers around how I translate emotion, how feelings effect me, and how I treat and express myself, which I think are very relatable themes.”
For example, at more than 61 feet long, “The Ride” is a 12-panel piece that wraps the internal dimensions of one of the galleries, and mimics a rising tide of emotions through paint, from dull black-and-white to ebullient explosions of color.
“It is very personal to me,” Henry says. “That said, ‘The Ride' reflects on emotions in a broader way — how they form, how they get confused and complex, how we work through them, and, ultimately, how they are temporary and fleeting.”
Emotions as controlled by drugs are a different matter, but addressed all the same in “Pharmadozen” and “Low and High,” two more room-size installations that take a more direct approach to the theme.
“One of the best aspects of working on this show was the freedom I was given to express myself and explore new ways to do that,” says Henry, who is known primarily for her large, abstract canvases.
These last two works are not paintings on canvas but paintings on objects. “ ‘Pharmadozen' was my first attempt to paint off the canvas,” Henry says.
To create the installation of large-scale pill bottles she used 30-gallon cardboard drums and painted each to mimic a pill bottle, complete with labels identifying popular antidepressants like Cymbalta, Lexapro, Paxil and Zoloft.
“I used Warhol's soup can as my inspiration for these pieces to point out how ubiquitous antidepressants are today, how relatable they are for us all and how we seem to turn to them in ever-increasing numbers to provide comfort — which says a lot about where we are today,” she says.
“Pharmadozen” was exhibited last fall at a Brooklyn art gallery and was featured in “New American Paintings” in February of this year. The success of this work prompted Henry to continue to use objects as canvas, which in turn led to a few other pieces in this show and the “Low and High” installation.
“Low and High” consists of more than 20 pill forms that have been coated, painted and suspended from the ceiling. The forms were taken from images of the more than 20 antidepressants on the market today. “I chose to magnify the size of the pills to fill the room,” Henry says. “The largest capsule measures 48 inches long with a 16-inch circumference.
“I like to use scale to allow people to feel like they are part of a piece, rather than the work existing in their world. It's how I like to experience art myself.”
And, indeed, walking through it is like walking through Andy Warhol's “Silver Clouds,” where you feel like you are floating, but, here, you cannot help but make the connection as to why.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.