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Interview with Chattanooga artists Janet Chenoweth & Roger Halligan

(L) Jan Chenoweth: 'Graves on a hill', Acrylic on canvas, 24" by 24"                                                             (R) Roger Halligan: 'Fortune Flowers I', 11" x 4.5" x 4.5"                    

When I was in Chattanooga last weekend, I visited a number of artists' studios on the south side, an area that has been transformed in recent years by the arrival of painters, sculptors, glass artists, furniture makers, and other creative people. The two artists who impressed me the most were painter Janet Chenoweth and sculptor Roger Halligan, who have a building near Main Street that combines a large workshop and studio area at the back with a beautiful gallery area at the front. They were kind enough to agree to a joint interview, and I began by asking them to talk about their work.

Philip: Jan, your work has an interesting balance between 2-D elements such as texture, colour, and drawing, and 3-D elements such as jars, found objects, box frames. How did you arrive at this combination in your work?

Jan: Evolution. I have always been drawn to strong colors and textures, I can't remember a time when they have not been part of my art. I keep trying to push my idea of color combinations into new and sometimes very uncomfortable realms for me. It struck me a few years ago that I view everything from many dimensions, it is hard to me to see things as flat, even my 2-D work. Figuring that out really helped me to at least partially understand what I was doing. As far as the objects, cast epoxy, and wood and metal constructions are concerned: I collect objects, architectural fragments, and visual fragments that occur in my daily life. These objects and fragments always move something in me, I am not always sure what or why—maybe reminders of the past or something that I find pleasing. In some cases it may be something that bothers me enough to notice. Just things I have a strong response to or things that stand out from the visual onslaught encountered in daily life. One given in my life is that I love to make things. The newest work brings these elements together in a way that has kept my interest and brings new questions that need answering.

Philip: Roger, similarly how did you develop what I see as a style that combines heavy and light materials, solidity and a sense of playfulness?

Roger: My early sculptures in graduate school at University of Georgia were minimalist, welded and monochromatically-painted steel pieces that were designed to integrate into our environment. There is the old joke that sculpture is what you back into when looking at a painting. So I made sculptures that addressed that. I specifically created pieces to go in corners or that would attach to both the floor and ceiling or that became directional obstacles that would force the viewer to take a certain path in the gallery. I had the sense then and still do now that there is something oddly absurdist about making totally non-functional objects and then placing them in people's space for them to interact with.

Roger Halligan: ,Safety First-Ollie's Buoy' (approx. 7 ft high)

My art changed after grad school when I worked as an exhibit designer for the North Carolina Zoological Park. This was where I found my true voice as an artist, instead of making art I thought I should be making. This newly-formed state zoo hired a team of young artists, including myself, to do exhibit design and construction for its new natural habitat exhibits. We worked collaboratively and developed many techniques for creating hardscape elements found in such exhibits, like artificial trees, rocks etc. The 1400 acre property that the zoo is on is a very old tree-covered mountain filled with outcroppings of native stone. If we were to make the habitats believable we had to mimic the real outcroppings flawlessly. That discipline crept into my personal art when I created a very vertical, rock-like sculpture that seemed delicately balanced on rusted welded steel forms. The apparent contradiction of man-made material, (steel), and an apparently natural material (concrete that looked like stone) intrigued me and the forms struck some Jungian “collective unconscious” nerve that made me research the origin of those forms. For me it was the Neolithic standing stones and other formations found in various parts of the world especially Ireland, Scotland and Cornwall. These forms activate space and designate a unique, meaningful place and are some of the earliest human site specific constructions. They resonate with us. The fact that many of the megalithic stones were carted great distances to their locations fitted right in with my absurdist notions, although I’m sure our ancestors had convinced themselves of the importance of these acts.

Philip: You have exhibited together, and you have a shared studio and gallery in Chattanooga. Have you influenced each other's work at all? I am thinking of the openings in your paintings, Jan, and the openings in your sculptures, Roger, as well as the use of rough textures and strong colours in both paintings and sculptures.

Jan: I know that there are many ways that we influence each other's work. Probably, not all obvious to us, but to other people. I never worked with concrete before I met Roger. It is now a material that I feel I can use when a piece is right for it. As far as openings in paintings and sculptures go, for me that goes back to my work in graduate school. I built architectural structures in which windows and doors played a prominent role. I really love walking through neighborhoods at night, seeing the warm lighted space and interior depth through unclad windows. The openings imply something beyond.

Roger: Jan and I met when I was giving a presentation on my sculpture at the Greenhill Center for North Carolina Art. She got it. That started our relationship and we have been influencing each other and our work ever since. Jan understands color better than any one I have ever met. Her love affair with color is infectious. My sculptures when I met her were in tones of gray and rust. That has changed dramatically. You mentioned openings in our works. Actually we both used openings or negative space before we got together. How we individually used them in the past influences how we use them now. We force ourselves to push in our own directions as much as possible, knowing full well that we are attracted too and influenced by what the other is doing in another corner of the studio.

Philip: What are you working on currently?

Jan: The constructions housing cast objects. There are some multi-object combinations I want to make and some different materials that I have been collecting to cover the boxes with, and I want some of them to be viewed in the round. I also have drawings for some outdoor sculptures that will get made at some point.

Jan Chenoweth: 'Three lucky jars,' wood, casting epoxy, found objects, pigment

Roger: Our move from rural North Carolina to living and working in downtown Chattanooga’s semi-industrial south side influenced changes in the direction of our art. For me the plethora of non-verbal, cautionary symbols gave rise to thoughts about safety and our perceptions of what we should be warned about. Railroad crossings, river buoys, colored striped patterns on signs and stairways crept into my awareness. My new sculptures are part of a series of “Land Buoys” They still contain elements of my older work. I hope they still activate space and designate place but also act as enigmatic directional warnings. Now they not only get in the way of the viewer but they also ask them to decide what they need to be concerned about. 

Philip: When did you move to Chattanooga, and why?

Jan: I have lived in Tennessee twice in my life and I like it. Chattanooga was a place that I drove through on my way to and from visiting my family in Florida. It was always physically beautiful to me: mountains, trees, river, lakes. And importantly, the winter is not very long. We visited Chattanooga seriously in 2006 to decide if we wanted to take advantage of the Allied Arts ArtsMove program. It took a day to decide that we would be stupid not to move here.  It seemed like a perfect fit and it is.

Roger: I first came to Chattanooga in 1983 to deliver a sculpture to the Hunter Museum which was hosting an NEA-sponsored outdoor sculpture exhibition. I distinctly remember downtown Chattanooga as being a pretty run down, inhospitable and somewhat dangerous place to be. I came back again in 1997 to place sculptures at Chattanooga State and do a one-person show at River Gallery’s sculpture garden. The difference in the downtown was astonishing and my negative feelings changed to ones that considered Chattanooga as a great place to live and work.

Several years ago Jan and I short listed a number of places where we might like to live. Our kids were grown and scattered in four different states and three different time zones, and we figured as long as we were near an airport we could probably live just about anywhere. Chattanooga was one of the places we both agreed to put high on our list. It was beautiful, affordable, and vibrant. There was and is an energy and an interest in contemporary art that's not found everywhere.

Philip: What are your plans for the beautiful new gallery space that you have created near Main Street, Chattanooga?

Jan: We do not want to create an ordinary gallery, we do not want the usual commercial gallery. We want to put together shows that we want to see, introduce artists, and show art that is not common in the region. We want to do some very short shows—one or two day exhibitions—as well as longer shows. We have just moved into the studio and gallery spaces and hope to get both in complete working order within the next few weeks. Then we will sit down and schedule exhibitions.

Roger: We both have the feeling we can do whatever the hell we want to with this gallery. We will obviously show our own work but we’re going to let this exhibition space evolve in some organic fashion, doing shows when and how we want to do them. Should be fun!

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