Work in progressA prestigious arts award managed at The Pittsburgh Foundation cites a South Carolina painter and sculptor for "presenting a special promise of future achievement." By the way, she's 83.
VISUAL ARTIST ALDWYTH has been working with her hands to extraordinary effect for most of her adult life. As the maker of large found-image murals and assemblage sculptures that often take up an entire gallery wall, she possesses intellectual dexterity and wit, as well as physical strength and stamina. But in 2009, just as she wrapped up a solo exhibition of her works, she began experiencing costochondritis, an inflammation of the ribs and back that made using scissors painful. Forced to set her large collage work aside, she began working on smaller pieces that were less physically taxing to create.
Enter the Eben Demarest Award. Thanks to this $20,000 grant, Aldwyth is hiring workshop assistants to help finish a series of collages that have sat unfinished for nearly a decade.
“[The Demarest Award] is an amazing thing and has enabled me to continue to be a collage artist. I could make smaller work probably, but to do the things that are in my head, there is no way I could have done those without this grant,” says Aldwyth.
The award was established in 1939 by Pittsburgh professor Elizabeth B. Demarest in her father’s name. It is one of the premier national honors for artists and archaeologists.
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.
Artists do not apply for the award, but rather are nominated each year by a rotating pool of nominators from archaeology programs and established nonprofit arts and cultural organizations. Awardees are selected by a Pittsburgh-based committee.
The award has been a crucial source of support to artists who have become masters in their fields, including 1948 winner Jackson Pollock.
Aldwyth more than meets the award’s requirement of having produced significant work in her field and demonstrating special promise for future achievement. 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.
[The Demarest Award] is an amazing thing and has enabled me to continue to be a collage artist. I could make smaller work probably, but to do the things that are in my head, there is no way I could have done those without this grant.”
Her latest collage, “A not so Still Life in a Landscape (minimal) with Figures, sort of” was completed with the help of her newly hired assistant, Torry Lusik, and was included in a juried exhibition at the South Carolina State Museum. The piece won the purchase prize and is now in the museum’s permanent collection. Aldwyth has concepts in mind for the other pieces but doesn’t like speculating about final products.
“When you talk about it, I find you don’t do it,” she says. “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 says. “And it became more interesting than the actual painting.”
After a series of artist residencies, 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, who visited Aldwyth at her home in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Seeing her workspace for the first time, he took note of flat filing cabinets labeled “Eyeballs,” “Torsos facing left” and “Arms and Legs,” each filled with clippings 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, Salvador Dali and other artists.
“So, it’s the art world looking at you, the viewer,” says Sloan. “And the title, ‘Casablanca’? What’s the most famous line from that? ‘Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.’”
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.”
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.”
Original story appeared in the Forum Quarterly Summer 2019.