Demarest Fund award goes to 83-year-old South Carolina artist
Sculptor and painter arrives at her creations through exploration
PITTSBURGH, March 26, 2019 – Aldwyth, a South Carolina-based visual artist, is the recipient of the annual award bestowed by the Eben Demarest Fund, a Pittsburgh Foundation fund.
Aldwyth’s art ranges from large murals created with found images to assemblage sculptures. Her work has been recognized through solo exhibitions and prestigious awards including the 2015 South Carolina Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for the Arts. Aldwyth said she will use the $20,000 grant that comes with the award to hire workshop assistants to help finish a series of three collages that she has been unable to complete on her own, due to difficulties she now experiences when using scissors.
The award established in 1939 by Pittsburgh professor Elizabeth B. Demarest in her father’s name is one of the premier national honors for artists and archeologists. Demarest awardees must have produced significant work in their fields and demonstrate special promise for future achievement.
“As a community foundation rooted in Pittsburgh, the birthplace of contemporary art collection and exhibition through the Carnegie International, the support of individual artists is a vital part of our mission,” Pittsburgh Foundation President and CEO Maxwell King said in announcing the award. “It’s an honor for our foundation to uphold the art philanthropy of Elizabeth Demarest and her family.”
Awardees are selected by a Pittsburgh-based committee of the Demarest Fund. The award has been a crucial source of support to artists who later became masters in their fields, including 1948 winner Jackson Pollock. From 1923 to 2009, the awards were overseen by a committee at a private foundation. In 2010, the fund came to The Pittsburgh Foundation, where it will be administered in perpetuity.
Aldwyth, the oldest Eben Demarest Fund recipient to date, recently finished “A not so Still Life in a Landscape (minimal) with Figures, sort of,” a three-foot by eight-foot collage filled with animals, flowers and other references to nature, and a meticulously painted black and white checkered border. But while Aldwyth has concepts in mind for the other pieces, she doesn’t like speculating about final products.
“When you talk about it, I find you don't do it,” she said. “It's not knowing what's going to happen and what it's going to be exactly, and the exploration, that makes it exciting.”
Aldwyth began painting as a young adult. Frustrated by the high cost of frames, she started building her own from stretcher bars, which are pieces of plain wood over which artists wrap canvases for painting. But she wanted her frames to have more embellishment.
“I would cover [the stretcher bars] with old, cut-up paintings. So I was sort of collaging, making a collage around the outside of the painting,” she said. “And it became more interesting than the actual painting.”
At an artist residency at the Vermont Studio Colony in 1988, when the flowers she wanted to paint died in the cold weather, she made layered three-dimensional collages out of the Colony’s informational booklet. In Colorado at the Anderson Ranch Residency from 1991 to 1993, the wood shop and clay kilns so captivated Aldwyth that she never unpacked her painting materials.
She earned her first solo exhibition through Mark Sloan, the director and chief curator of the College of Charleston’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. Sloan was first exposed to Aldwyth’s work when a colleague at the South Carolina Arts Commission told him about an unusual application he received.
“Aldwyth submitted a work sample that was her resume. [But] it wasn’t really a resume,” he said. “It was a physical object … It was a recounting of all of the things she never had.”
The object included a list of art career milestones that Aldwyth had not yet achieved: a Guggenheim Grant, a MacArthur Grant, a solo show, a retrospective, a write-up in Art in America, an MFA.
“But there was one little box [on the list] that was checked, and it said ‘Worked,’” he said.
Because she didn’t include a work sample and a resume, as the grant application required, Aldwyth wasn’t eligible for the Arts Commission prize. Enticed by the story of “Resume,” Sloan visited Aldwyth at her house on an island in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
“It was a little bit like walking into Tut’s tomb,” Sloan said about Aldwyth’s 800-square-foot octagonal glass house on a marsh. “It was this discovery of enormous magnitude. These gigantic collagic works, and these beautiful, intricate, delicate assemblage works.”
Sloan remembers seeing her workspace for the first time, taking note of flat filing cabinets labeled “Eyeballs,” “Torsos facing left” and “Arms and Legs,” each filled with clippings Aldwyth made from primary sources — a rule she sets for her collages — that she would eventually incorporate into her work.
Sloan describes a “brilliance and depth of thinking” hidden in Aldwyth’s work, such as her piece titled “Casablanca,” a diptych with the left side called “Classic” and the right side called “Colorized.” “Classic” is an orb covered with eyeballs cut from magazines and other publications. The thousands of them covering the orb are visually striking and obscure a deeper significance — they are the eyes of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Salvadore Dali and other artists.
“So, it’s the art world looking at you, the viewer,” Sloan said. “And the title, ‘Casablanca?’ What’s the most famous line from that? ‘Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.’”
Aldwyth scatters other references throughout her work, such as the tidal map of coastal South Carolina that is the background to “A not so Still Life.” But one reference has made its way into nearly all of Aldwyth’s work — the “zombie ant,” which she began including in her collages when she read about the Camponotus leonardi species in Lawrence Weschler’s book “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder” Museum of Jurassic Technology.”
The ants live on the floors of tropical rainforests. After the ant inhales a spore of the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus, it climbs the nearest tree and buries its head in the bark. There it dies and begins emitting more spores, which fall to the ground and infect other ants.
“It’s like being an artist,” Aldwyth said. “You inhale the spore, then you climb up and you do it. And supposedly, you inspire someone else to do the same thing.”
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