Wethli Creates Public Spaces With Private Meaning


Wethli finishes painting "Salon."

Story posted May 06, 2005

Visual Arts Program Chair Mark Wethli likes to name his large, mural-like installations after the architectural spaces they inhabit - "Foyer," "Alcove," "Transept," "Transom" - the latter of which graces the lobby of the Portland Museum of Art.

Currently, the architecture of Wethli's life also can be distilled into one word: busy.

By the time the A. LeRoy Greason Professor of Art finishes a large wall piece at the Knox County Courthouse in June, he will have created and executed five major works within six months.

"I suppose I'm usually this busy," says Wethli, "although the projects are starting to overlap. What's unusual is how the large-scale works are catching on."

Wethli did a wall installation for the February show "Sublime Geometry " at the June Fitzpatrick Gallery in Portland; currently he is working on a piece called "Salon" for the Bowdoin College Museum of Art; this month he will install a mural at Yarmouth High School; next month he will install a piece in the Knox County Courthouse.

Computer rendering, Elevator
A computer-generated rendering of "Elevator," 2005, at the DeCordova Museum.

One of his most important new installations, "Elevator, "was unveiled on April 30th at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass. The work is literally the backdrop for their prestigious 2005 Annual Exhibition, which features the best contemporary artists working in New England.

The work is painted on the exterior wall of an elevator shaft opposite the Museum's grand staircase. Three stories and 41 feet high, it is a joyous work that features colorful circles rising like Candyland champagne bubbles.

"In creating 'Elevator,'" notes Wethli in the exhibition notes, "I was conscious of the compelling scale and proportion of the space; the notion of rising and descending; the unusual situation of a vertiginous three-story staircase that doubles as a gallery; and perhaps most of all, the competing mental and physical process of keeping your balance and looking up at the same time ...."

Wethli is one of only 10 New England artists selected for the juried exhibition, and is the only artist from Maine. The show opens Friday, May 6, and runs through July 31, 2005.

Wethli's bold explorations of color and space are a far cry from the formal, meditative interiors for which he first gained recognition. They were quiet paintings in which walls, windows, stairs and doors - animated by the play of light - beckoned viewers to inhabit their own interior spaces.

He took what many thought was a surprising turn five years ago when he began painting colorful murals in public spaces. The first was a mural for a public corridor in Mid Coast Hospital, which Wethli created with Kyle Durrie '01 and Cassie Jones '01, two visual arts alumni. Several murals followed, including ones at the Smith Union café and at Bowdoin's Children's Center.

Wethli's bold explorations of color and space are a far cry from the formal, meditative interiors for which he first gained recognition.

In 2003, Wethli and the team of Durrie/Jones, produced his largest-ever mural for the Maine Department of Transportation in Augusta, which measures 3,000 square feet. Wethli says he designed the colorful mural of abstracted road grids and leaves to counteract the confining effects of the building's work cubicles.

"I wanted to provide shapes that are lyrical and move the eye," he says. "A way for people to look up from cubicles and get a hint of nature."

Wethli says he strives to create public works that are "helpful to the people who walk by them," even if only subliminally.

That psycho-spiritual underpinning is particularly evident in Wethli's next big challenge - the commission for the Knox County Courthouse, a Percent for Art project sponsored by the Maine Arts Commission. The work, which Wethli and his crew of assistants plan to complete in June 2005, will surround the door to the main courtroom. Breaking from his architecturally titled tradition, Wethli calls the piece "North Star."

"The scheme is the night sky," he says. "We talk about our fate being somehow written in the stars. And the North Star is that unmoving star, an axis mundi, reliable.

"I thought the deep blues would be comforting," he adds. "And I thought about how things are resolved in the night, how each new dawn cleans the slate. It's an abstract leap to justice, but I find that when an idea is embedded in a project, people get it intuitively. When you make art in public buildings ... you celebrate the highest aspirations."

Salon detail
Final painting nears completion on "Salon," at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art., on view through June 5, 2005.

This week Wethli is putting finishing touches on "Salon," the very publicly painted mural that covers the walls of a main gallery in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. In February, Wethli and museum director Katy Kline invited the public in to paint the walls of the gallery after its contents had been moved into storage. (The Museum is undergoing a major renovation to be completed in 2007.)

Over 800 people participated in the paint-a-thon. Wethli , working with students in his Painting I class, designed a template of black lines that overlay and define the chaos of colors beneath.

Like most of his work designed for gallery exhibition, these images ultimately will be covered over. Wethli doesn't mind.

"I'm not particularly interested in making pictures," he says with characteristic softness. "I mean for my work to be an avenue to be passed through, seen beyond. That's why I'm not distressed when they get painted out. I like the work to be perched on that edge of non-existence. They were there when you were there."

Being there is a delight.

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