Current Issue

July 2022

Peers

PROLOGUE / Peers
CAMEO / Nour Bishouty
FROM THE STUDIO / Nomads
IN BRIEF / July 2022

Peers

For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.

– Rainer Maria Rilke

Eight years ago, devastated by my daughter Elisif’s death from overdose, I was driven to do something in my home city of Baltimore. Joining with people challenged like she was by circumstances beyond their choosing (the homeless, the traumatized, the addicted), I launched into art and advocacy work. We allied with a broad range of others, all giving and receiving, all intolerant of injustice and full of compassion. In our diversity, through art and stories, we shared fellowship, and together found connection.

We created the world of peers we needed.

Among my peers I felt such balm. Our work accomplished so much for so many, and for years this activism was exactly what I needed. My community held me, and Elisif’s spirit hovered in their presence. I loved every day of it. I needed nothing else.

Over time, though, I realized communal work could only take me so far. After five nonstop years of effort I was exhausted, and knew private grieving lay ahead that nobody could do for me. I needed quiet – space to write, time to make art. I needed solitude.

So I moved from Baltimore to Maine.

Three years later, through art-making and writing, solitary days steeped in nature, I am replenished, overflowing again with the desire to do.

I am ready for another turn – or return.

A return to my peers, in the broadest sense of that word.

A clarification here: I reject connotations around that word as often understood in the field of substance use support services. Too often, “peer” is perceived as applying exclusively to those whose lives have been marked by extreme hardship: adverse childhood experiences and addiction, homelessness and incarceration, trauma and mental illness. It’s so often seen as a euphemism, referring only to folks with those sorts of experiences – outliers who are less than normal.

In my mind, that over-simplification is counterproductive, if not harmful.

At the same time, there is risk in equating all experiences of challenge: not all hardships are the same, and “peer” is sapped of all meaning if we blithely assume otherwise.

So what do I mean when I use the term?

In those years in Baltimore after my daughter’s death, we allowed space for each other’s distinct lived experience; we accepted our own and each other’s vulnerabilities and flaws; we supported one another, offering our gifts for the good of the whole.

In other words, we were humans sharing our pain and fears. We were peers.

Here in my new home (in Maine), I am ready to give and receive again – I want to return to being a peer among peers: with Michael and Donna, giving voice to the too-often-voiceless suffering in the shadow of opioids; with Brian and Meredith, creating common space for the hurting and the helping; with Jess and Keith, pivoting from pain and trauma to helping others; with Gordon and Nirav and the hundreds gathered just days ago for Governor Mills’ 4th Annual Opioid Response Summit, working to make a difference in the face of the ongoing devastation of the opioid epidemic.

We are humans – peers whose work is rooted in a love that heals and saves.

And that honors those we’ve lost.

(I miss you, Elisif.)

Photo by Peter Bruun, taken at Governor Mills’ 4th Annual Opioid Response Summit, July 11, 2022, in Bangor, Maine.

Nour Bishouty

Nour Bishouty, Untitled (2022), inkjet print with die-cut stickers from the exhibition: Nothing is lost except nothing at all except what is not had by Nour Bishouty, February 3 to March 5, 2022, Gallery 44: Center for Contemporary Photography, Toronto, Canada. (Photo credit: Darren Rigo)

Nour Bishouty’s heritage is one of diaspora and displacement.

Her father, artist Ghassan Bishouty, was born in Palestine in 1941. At 7 he and his family fled to Lebanon, caught up in the Nakba – “the disaster.” Thirty years later the Lebanese Civil War displaced them again, and Nour’s family settled in Jordan, where she was born in 1986.

She now lives in Toronto, mostly by accident: A Palestinian-Lebanese-Jordanian artist in Canada.

With uprootedness and disruption central to Nour’s experience, she gravitates to both in her art.

Thus, she up-ends conventional art and installation practices with Nothing is lost except nothing at all except what is not had, her recent exhibition based entirely on Al-Wadi, a landscape painting by her father. In her show, she hangs framed works, their imagery obfuscated and askew, at random heights. She incorporates label-like wall text, off-center and hung nowhere near works a label might describe. A scientific-looking drawing is alone on a wall, ostensibly cataloging flora but including partly invented plants, the product not of clinical observation but rather the artist’s imagination. Even the complex syntax of the exhibition’s title disrupts expected norms.


Photo credit: Darren Rigo

Nour takes widely accepted exhibition-making practices and scrambles them, foiling our expectation of a staid and whole narrative presentation. Which makes sense, for Al-Wadi’s story is neither staid nor whole. In its fanciful portrayal of a picturesque Bedouin landscape, the painting itself is perfumed in nostalgia, evoking themes of separation and loss. Those themes are only amplified by the work’s provenance as an object, traveling place to place with its maker and his daughter, like a fragment from a lost world.

By not adopting wholecloth any single conventional system for making and presenting work, Nour is highlighting fracture and gap, the spirit of Al-Wadi, the wellspring for the exhibition.

The painting itself appears twice, each time in altered form: first near the entrance, where viewers can play the game of placing figures from the original painting on a digitally depopulated reproduction; second, within a large display table, whose glass top is etched with a grid and superimposed with (among other things) ostensible cartography symbols.

The rest of the installation is similarly layered and complex. Photographs (some framed, some pinned) offer fragmented realist counterpoints to the stylized Bedouin world of her father’s painting. Odd-shaped tables in the center of one room display wooden likenesses of desert cattle and camels from the painted scene, elongated and distorted. The pale blue sky and warm sienna sands of the painting step off the canvas and onto the gallery walls as bands of color. It’s as if Al-Wadi has undergone some kind of thorough autopsy, or perhaps been blasted into bits, parts scattered, defying established mechanisms of order.

Everything has wandered from its original home, resistant to ossified classification and systems – especially Western ones.


Photo credit: Darren Rigo

Which brings us to a seemingly small element of the show – the map pins.

These simple tools (a staple of Western geocoding) are typically used on maps to pinpoint locations – to orient us. They’re also a useful way to pin paper to a wall, and a common sight in art exhibitions: tidy rows of uniform pins in the corners of works, all in a line.

That’s not how Nour uses them.

In the photo on the right above, we see the pins are plentiful, showing up here and there, helter-skelter, like tossed darts. Some settle on paper images or text in random fashion, while others miss targets altogether, pinning nothing but themselves to the wall.

Which actually leads us to the point.

The exhibition catalog describes Al-Wadi as having been created “in a somewhat orientalist style.” “Orientalism” is an excellent word through which to consider the exhibition, for it not only evokes the historical baggage of the oppressive Western gaze challenged by Nour’s persistent subversions, it also brings to mind a different word: “orientation.”

As with many other elements in the exhibition, Nour’s use of map pins denies their customary purpose: she does not deploy them solely to pin something down, orienting the viewer. Map pins in Nour’s hands become a symbol of resistance.

In her installation, we see several standalone pins of red, blue, and yellow. Like an accident, they are startling, landing where they will. They have become metaphors – like wanderers, free-floating.

Like diaspora. Like Al-Wadi.

Nour Bishouty is a multidisciplinary artist working in a range of media including works on paper, digital images, sculpture, video, and writing.

Nomads

They multiply, these cities of the heart,
these rooms we lodge our bodies in.

– from “Altogether Elsewhere,” by Tess Taylor

When on a run one day in 1995 I passed a blue and yellow O’Connor, Piper & Flynn real estate sign (ubiquitous then in Baltimore) and had a simple yet profoundly liberating thought: I wanted to make a drawing using those colors.

It seems hardly an earth-shattering notion, but for me at that moment, it was.

A decade before, in graduate school, I had started making art exclusively based on self-portraiture. At first I had sought verisimilitude, then the undertaking became conceptual, an ongoing exploration of all the ways a “self” might manifest. The one constant for all that time: looking in the mirror as my point of departure.

As the child of divorce, shuttling from house to house, I had constantly performed different identities, never really discovering who I was. As a young adult, spurred by this abiding sense of feeling out of touch with me, I began my self-portrait work. I was seeking my “true” self, an undertaking excluding anything not me: environment, place, home. (Identity for me then had to exist apart from all of that.)

This approach went on for years. Though it was rewarding and led to a rich run of art making, it carried with it an accompanying feeling of exile. Without any sense of rootedness in place, I had come to identify as a sort of spiritual refugee, feeling existentially alone and perpetually adrift. I had my family and felt loved but, untethered from any deeply felt centering from ancestry or home, I saw myself as perpetually belonging nowhere. This was reflected in my art.


Images left to right, top to bottom: Self-Portrait #12, 1988, oil on canvas, 22″ x 22″;  Abstract Head (Self-Portrait) #49, 1990, charcoal on paper, 22″ x 22″; Abstract Head (Self-Portrait) #168, 1993, watercolor on paper, 8″ x 8″; No Title #171, 2012, watercolor & pencil on paper, 9″ x 9″; Abstract Head (Self-Portrait) #44, 1994, charcoal on paper, 22″ x 22″

Just days before my run, my sense of homelessness had been freshly activated by the trip I’d just taken to visit museums and cathedrals in Europe; a feeling like envy had haunted me throughout. Everything I saw – all the artists I came across – were deeply imbued with what I was so aware of missing: a strong identification with place.

In France, from Sainte Chapelle to Matisse, the work was so grounded in French-ness (such delight in color, decorative and spry). In the Netherlands, artists from Memling to Mondrian were faithful to their homeland’s proclivity to organize and compartmentalize (the countryside all well-lined canals and tidy hedgerows). In Germany, from the Middle Ages to Dürer and beyond, so much was brute and austere (so very German). These artists – their authentic selves – weren’t separate from place but instead steeped in it, even defined by it.

I’d never had that experience, and was reminded constantly of my disconcerting rootlessness. But I could not conceive another way to frame things.

Until my last day in Europe.

That day, I visited a Francesco Clemente exhibition in Paris’ Pompidou Center. The artist is Italian, but his art is not – he courted influences of all kinds.Though not rooted to any one place, his art invited so much in: India’s spiritual sensuousness, America’s cocky confidence, Europe’s deep traditions. In Clemente’s globetrotting appetite I saw someone neither as locked in to identification with any one place, nor as homeless. I saw a nomad, and that idea was a revelation: unbound from any one place, I need not consider myself homeless. I could embrace nomadism.

Swirling with the notion of redefining myself as nomadic, I went for that run, wondering at the implications for me and my art.

I cruised by that realty sign and had my simple thought: I want to make a drawing with the colors of that sign.

And so I did – not by looking in the mirror trying to expunge all external context, but rather by inviting outside influence (the colors of the sign). With whimsy and joy, I made the drawing above on the right, a variation of the one to its left, made just that morning the same way I always had. I was no longer in self-imposed exile from my surroundings, and the world was now my playground.

I had stopped believing I belonged nowhere, and realized I could belong anywhere.

I am a nomad, as are we all, and the world is ours.

Header images, left to right: Abstract Head (Self-Portrait), 1995, charcoal on paper, 22″ x 22″; O’Connor, Piper & Flynn, 1995, pastel on paper, 22″ x 22″

July 2022

Thank you to the Nancy Patz Fund

It is with tremendous gratitude that we thank the Nancy Patz Fund for a generous unrestricted gift to Bruun Studios to allow us to continue our work of online public engagement, including creating Out of Place. Our work takes time and money, and only with the support of those who value it are we able to keep it up. If you wish to make a tax deductible gift of your own, please contact Peter.

This Can Be Yours

With each newsletter, we offer a work of art by Peter at a deep discount. This 14″ x 17″ watercolor, gouache and pencil drawing from 2016 can be yours for just $15 if you are the first to email Peter to claim it (see a large version of the drawing here). If you want to see more art for sale, visit the sales gallery at the Bruun Studios website.

Summer Hiatus

We’re not exactly going fishing, but we are taking a small break: the next issue of Out of Place will hit your inbox not in August but rather September. We look forward to sharing with you again then.