Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Arlene Schneller Talks About Art, Promises, "Winchester" and Artist Paul Castagna

Last Friday I attended the opening reception for the Paul Castagna exhibition at the Kruk Gallery, UWS. Though I shared my impressions here on Saturday, there was more to tell and I asked curator Arlene Schneller if she'd mind sharing. She welcomed the opportunity.

EN: What years were you in school at Gogebic?

Arlene Schneller: I attended Gogebic Community College in 1976-79 but went back for personal enrichment art classes with Paul Castagna as my instructor in Painting I, II and III from 2007 to 2011 for 3 hour painting classes in the evening.

EN: When did you first take an interest in art? How did that come about?

Detail from "Winchester"
AS: I took art anytime I had the chance. I lived outside Tokyo, Japan for a year when I was 10, educated at the Tachikawa Air Force base. I had a very inspirational art teacher there, I remember my blue shaded vase that won an award. I came back to the US and painted a watermelon from a slice of wood the next year and my English teacher loved it so much she displayed it in a glass case in the hall. I loved taking art classes in high school. My art and English teachers have always inspired my creativity. I volunteered in the community for over 35 years with kids' free art programs. I currently volunteer as a teaching artist for children's art classes for a non-profit art center called Downtown Art Place (DAP) where Paul and I both rented DAP art studios.

EN: Did you start out as an art major in college or did you veer in that direction after taking painting classes with Paul?

AS: I did not major in art in college. I have an Associates Degree in general business. (I was a real estate broker for 35 years with my own office. Paul joked that when I retired that I'd become his art agent. I retired and now my business background helps because I guess I'm his art agent now.

I experimented with many art techniques, I have a home library full of art books and DVDs that I studied. My mother-in-law was also a great inspiration, as a watercolor artist.

EN: You say that he entrusted his work to you because no one else was interested? How many paintings and sketchbooks are there in total?

AS: Paul deeply loved his paintings, it was hard for him to let them go. He was afraid his work would be a large burden for anyone to take on, he worried that it would become a "geeze" for me, but he knew that if I was given the task that I'd do it well. His two sons at the time were in their early 20's and he felt they wouldn't care or know how to deal with the responsibility and his father was elderly.

Paul and I knew each other for 8 years. We had a great friendship, discussed art history, artists and artwork we loved. He critiqued my work and encouraged me to become more serious about my art and to create a series of work. As his student I had my first solo art show at Gogebic Community College at Art Space, a gallery he created.

I have over 140 acrylic and oil paintings, drawings, sketches, plus printmaking images, a few small sculptures, some music he made, images, processes of his work on multiple external hard drives, video, and at least 10 sketchbooks. I have a vast collection that will take time to process, I am still looking through some of his work. It's a huge responsibility and an honor to accept a lifetime of work. It's like making a puzzle and putting all the pieces back in the right place. His son and his father have additional gouaches and other important drawings and sketches. Paul's father is giving me his paintings to add to my collection. Paul was very creative, talented and committed to his work as an artist, philosophical too.

EN: You made three promises to him. First, to have a show. What is the status of the other two?

"Winchester" -- detail from left panel.
AS: The three promises made to Paul were First, to show his work, Second, to donate a piece to a museum, and Third, promise to "do something good" with his work. The Kruk is his first show. There are more shows planned, his work will live on. I've been reaching out to a few people I know at museums to see where we can donate a piece, I'm confident that will happen. The "do something good" is the best promise because it will be ongoing and continuous and hopefully make a difference.

My next show for him starts on July 2nd in Ironwood Historic Theatre concourse, attached to the Downtown Art Place Gallery. I'm selecting the next body of work that needs to be framed. Some of the work from the Kruk Gallery show, including "Winchester," will be on display at the Ironwood Memorial Building in mid-July at the annual Range Art Association show.

Details from center panel, "Winchester"
Last year and this year, his art proceeds sponsored local artists to produce murals in the award winning Downtown Art Park as well as prize money for a photography show and an art show held at Downtown Art Place. This summer proceeds will also sponsor prize money to the Range Art Association for their annual art show held in July. Next year we'll sponsor matching grants for artists, artist initiatives, donate money to art related non-profits and the Carnegie Library for children's art classes, as well as sponsor children's art awards. We'll see how well sales go because I'd also like to donate art supplies for area art teachers, too.

I see his artwork sales creating a wonderful ripple effect in area arts. What a great way to create a lasting memory. It's been heartwarming to be given this challenge and I know I'm up for it.

Castagna's pieces are for sale at the Kruk. Two sold before the show. All art proceeds will be reinvested into children's art programs and artist initiatives within the Gogebic Range community.

EN: You now have a gallery in Ironwood. What kind of work do you show there? And do you still paint?

Schneller Art Gallery in Bessemer, Mich.
AS: Schneller Art Gallery is on US2 in Bessemer, Michigan. It's a small quaint place with a gallery in the front and an art classroom in the back. It is open seasonally in the summers only. When reopened, my gallery will feature my artwork and jewelry along with Paul's and a few other area artists' work.

I've got plenty of ideas for Paul's work in the future. I plan to incorporate some of his artwork into copper resin jewelry, too. Another collaboration of sorts.

After seeing the beautiful "Three Promises Show" I was so inspired. A special thanks goes out to Anne Dugan and her Gallery Practices students from UW-Superior for setting up and preparing the show.

Detail from lower portion of central panel, "Winchester"
I loved talking to various artists at the reception. Remembering Paul painting some of them and seeing his work on the walls was so emotional for me, what a rewarding promise to fulfill. I was a collage/abstract artist, and yes, I am totally inspired to finally pick up my paints again.

It's taken awhile to get over the loss of such a great friend. I quit painting for several years as a result. Instead I focused on making copper jewelry.

It was just the opposite for Paul's girlfriend Kate Greenough. She's a close friend of mine. She's a very talented artist and has been painting up a storm and is more inspired than ever. She learned a lot from Paul, too. Death affects us all in different ways. He was my instructor, mentor and dear friend -- in that order.

My charity work at the DAP studio I rent above the DAP Gallery keeps me busy during the winters. I teach children, young adults and friends how to make Copper Jewelry. Then we donate our items to area fundraisers and sponsor children's art programs.

Across from the DAP Gallery in Downtown Ironwood, there was a recent fire where 3 people died. We'll be active in helping raise funds for victims and survivors.

Currently I sell my copper jewelry and art at Downtown Art Place Gallery, DAP is a non-profit 11,000 square foot art center (Gallery/Studios/Classroom) which I helped get started 5 years ago, while running my own gallery. I wrote their 501(c)3 and volunteered a great deal of my time. I will be selling Paul's work at the DAP and at 906BOOM and at my gallery this summer.

A deeper dive into the left-hand panel.
EN: Tell us about the overall message in Winchester?

AS: Probably Picasso's most famous work, Guernica, is certainly his most powerful political statement. Castagna's political statement made in the mural-sized "Winchester" features similar frustrations from tragedies of war. I remember Paul being so frustrated with President George Bush's troop surge of 20,000 to Iraq, then angered when Obama sent 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Paul nearly cried, he couldn't believe they were sending more troops.

As a result, Obama takes on a sinister look with graying streaks of hair and long fingernails and Bush painted faintly near the bottom as if hiding behind a naked woman.

Castagna's "Winchester" was his anti-war symbol and a reminder of modern day tragedies of war. Castagna started with one center piece which grew into three large panels with references of small parts and pieces from Picasso's painting of Guernica, showing the madness of war repeating itself.

Castagna's symbols echo suffering, images of innocent people, greed, money, and newspaper headlines. I see fires burning, mechanical shapes stacked in piles of destruction, a power switch and one of his trademark angels angered in red. Picasso's influence is everywhere including Obama holding the broken sword, German swastikas and a dismembered foot. But of course, that's my interpretation.

It's an impressive piece that is difficult to translate for an ordinary viewer and reveals more than the eye can see with one look or one visit.

Interpretations of Guernica vary widely and contradict one another, just as Castagna's "Winchester" invokes similar thought. When Paul painted this masterpiece in class at one time the word "Winchester" was painted on it, when asked what it represented he gave no explanation. He preferred his work to be interpreted by the viewer for its detail and intensity.

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Picasso's Guernica Revisited
Gallery Hours for the Kruk at UWS
More images from Castagna's exhibition at the Kruk

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