Fall 2009 Fellow
John Moran is always aware of the middle ground, the space between…. between fact and fable or between skills and sculpture and, especially, the space between past and present. Those transitional places are ambiguous, mutable. They dominate our experience. They are too close to define or quantify. They are where we live — all we do know.
Moran, a fall 2009 resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America, likes to characterize history as composed of truth and myth are capriciously interwoven through layers of interpretation. The farther we are from specific events, the more likely it is that the story we are told has veered from the “facts.” On the other hand, the closer to an event we are, the greater the likelihood that “not all the facts are in” or that what we think we see is distorted by bias.
Plunging boldly into this web of confusion, Moran’s project at WheatonArts focused on making portraits of the 43 American presidents. He had completed four before the residency and made the glass part of remaining 39 heads at WheatonArts. The finished portraits will be busts with blown glass heads, latex hair, cloth clothing and other suitable accouterments. He says that what he’s learned while researching each president has changed his ideas about some of them and about history itself.
“My doing this has made me think differently about Bush 2, for example,” he says. Bush was not the buffoon frequently satirized. He achieved more than Moran had realized. Now Moran is more forgiving of mistakes a president is believed to have made. The project has, “made me think of a religious comparison, the deification of someone who is a powerful and inspirational person. Myths like the ones about George Washington grow up. Deification and vilification: How do these happen?”
He questions assumptions, popular truisms, and simplistic solutions. “I’m critical of the structure of society but I don’t necessarily believe it should be torn down. It’s an American belief to say that anyone can come from nothing, but it’s not a reality. Because we have nice TV’s and nice cars, we accept that we have to work more and more to afford things we want but don’t need. Some people in America work two or three jobs to feed their families. Others just want [more luxuries]. When people don’t have the success [that popular culture tells them is the norm] they feel like they’re doing something wrong.”
Moran calls his current body of work “American Idols” because “the whole idea behind the presidents [series] was the deification of humans once they fall out of the human realm. Presidents are iconic for American society, but [most of us] don’t know what they were or what they did.” Many are remembered for specific quirky things. William Henry Harrison is best known for dying after a month in office. But [it’s not remembered] he was a hero of the Tippecanoe battle [against Indian insurgents]. He was politically very active.”
On the subject of technique, Moran says, “I’m not a [glass] blower, I don’t do cane pick ups and all the Italian techniques. Glass is just a sculpting material that I use.” Nevertheless, he uses it well enough to assist the de la Torre brothers and other top-of-the-line glass blowers. He is making the near life-size portrait heads of the presidents on the pipe.
The bodies of the busts are Bondo, a fiberglass material. He puts arms and hands on some of the busts and he gave James Buchanan, one of the completed portraits, white latex hair. The leaders of our nation are dressed in real clothes, painted and sprayed with resin and polyurethane. Through the iconography of the whole bust, Moran hopes to capture his sometimes satirical understanding of the man’s extra-presidential persona as filtered through the public imagination. Obama is shown as a boy wearing a Public Enemy t-shirt. A collegiate Regan is dressed as a frat boy.
When making a portrait in the hot shop, Moran refers repeatedly to a notebook of presidential pictures he’s assembled. Damaged and stained over the course of the project, the book has become a secondary artwork with its own history and meaningful content. There is also a literary component. Moran is writing mock histories for some presidents, narratives that fall somewhere between documented or popular facts and witty provocative fabrications.
“During [Teddy Roosevelt’s] ‘reign of terror,’ he was known as the trust-buster and broke up many of the biggest monopolies of the time. Most memorable was the conglomerate of Boardwalk and Park Place…. During his presidency, Teddy established the National Forest Service which set aside land for him to hunt endangered species free of opposition.”
An inattentive or naive reader could almost accept the accuracy of those statements. Roosevelt did like to hunt. There have been monopolies on Broadway and Park Place — in a board game.
Moran isn’t sure exactly how he will incorporate these essays into the presentation of the portraits. He regards them as framing elements in this ambitious project that reach well beyond the hot shop. He’ll figure it all out before the exhibition of the entire series scheduled for 2012 at the Pittsburgh Glass Center.
Written by Robin Rice