Published  10/10/2016

Susan Webster and Stuart Kestenbaum: interview

Susan Webster and Stuart Kestenbaum: interview

Maine’s poet laureate Stuart Kestenbaum and artist Susan Webster talk about their recent collaborative cross-disciplinary work

Stuart Kestenbaum and Susan Webster. Photograph: Leslie Bowman, 2014. Bowman Studio, Trescott Maine, USA.


For 27 years, until he stepped down last year, Stuart Kestenbaum was director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine, where he lives. He was elected poet laureate of Maine earlier this year and also appointed interim director of Maine College of Art (MECA) in Portland. Kestenbaum has published four books of poetry. Susan Webster is a graduate of the University of Maine, Orono, has taught in Maine, Oregon, Connecticut, New York and North Carolina, has received fellowships from the Women’s Studio Workshop in New York, and has been a visiting artist at the Borowsky Center at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and the College of the Atlantic in Maine. She runs the Pleasant View Barn Gallery, where she curates exhibitions of works by artists from her local Deer Isle community. Webster and Kestenbaum, who are married, and have worked together for many years, recently completed a series of joint works titled Collaborations.

MK Palomar: Can I start by thanking you both for doing this interview with Studio International. It’s very exciting to talk to a poet and a visual artist who are working in collaboration. Stuart, in a text from 2005 (The View From Here: Craft, Community and the Creative Process),1 you wrote: “I like the juxtaposition of disparate worlds; perhaps it makes for a starting place for art.” Susan, you mention in your artist’s statement on your website how you are “exploring ways that materials, processes and scale work together”. Perhaps it was your mutual interest in exploring new ideas that brought you to collaborate? Can you explain what kind of thinking and making process you used to bridge the distance – or gap – between the written world and the visual world? Or, to put it more succinctly, how do you do it?

Stuart Kestenbaum: We have been together for a long time as a couple (since 1979), so we’re always around each other – and we talk about ideas and making, and what we are doing. But we were invited to be in a show [titled Couples] at The Center for Maine Contemporary Art. Bruce Brown was the curator. He wrote to us, saying that he was putting together a show of couples who make work, so it gave us the opportunity to work together. The funny thing is that, when we got to the exhibit, all the other couples were visual artists, so there might be a furniture-maker and a painter and they exhibited their work side by side – we’d read this invitation and said: “Oh, well, we should make work together.” You know, like in school, did you ever misunderstand an assignment? So it was a happy accident for us that we did, and it’s what we had wanted to do.

Susan Webster (monotype), Stuart Kestenbaum (letter stamps), Sing, 2016. 43 x 51 cm (17 x 20 in). © the artists.

Susan Webster: Coincidently, we had talked about wanting to make an effort like this together – it’s not that we hadn’t [already] done some collaborations – we had throughout the years, from time to time, but without the focus of a show and a deadline. When we were invited to participate in this show, we were so game, so ready, and we had this period of time to do work together. So, it was surprising when we went to the show and saw what others had done. Not that there’s any right or wrong in interpreting the invitation to participate, but we were the only couple that had said: “OK, we’re going to merge.”

SK: It actually took us in a different direction.

SW: Yes, it was a turning point.

Kestenbaum collects a print he and Webster worked on together, titled Your Stillness.

SW: The whole framed piece is 26 x 26 inches [66 x 66cm].

SK: It’s called Your Stillness. Susan was making pieces with a gelatin plate, which Fran Merritt (Haystack’s founding director) developed. Susan took it in a whole different direction, and would leave some space to do words – whenever we worked together, we never talked about who was going to do what, when or where. We never say, “This is for you to do something with”, or “I’m thinking about this idea.” It’s always much more subconscious.

Stuart Kestenbaum. Grieving over loved ones. Found black text blacked out with marker and hand stamped text, 10 x 13 cm (4 x 5 in). © the artists.

SW: Most of the work for this particular show didn’t have any of my imagery or any of my compositional elements that dictated an orientation. It’s like giving over a lot as a visual artist. I would give a piece to Stu and sometimes he would work on it and, in my mind, I might have had a way that I’d thought the print would be oriented. But, occasionally, it might come back in a different orientation. These works are square – and I thought that would be good because it wouldn’t matter [which way it was oriented].

MKP: But your processes (writing and printmaking) have a different pace. When you make a gelatin print, there’s a certain amount of procedure that you need to go through in order for it to be ready to print, so do you work standing side by side?

SW: No.

SK: Susan makes the prints and then she will give them to me – the larger ones I actually worked in her studio – and I used the rubber letter stamps. When people look at these works, they sometimes think that it’s part of the printmaking process. But the letters are actually rubber stamps. And for me as a writer (at Haystack I liked being around visual artists, people working with materials), there’s a physical process. When you’re writing, there’s not as much physicality. You know you can make marks with a pencil when you’re editing – but [you’re not] doing things with an object. Doing these connects me. There are fewer words that I’m using – even when I use a lot of words in one of these pieces, it’s really a pretty short piece of writing, like 25 words, but there’s a physical connection.

SW: I’ll get one to show you. We’re working on a new series – it’s going back and forth a few more times. I’m establishing some imagery. I give it to Stuart, he adds text and then gives it back to me.

MKP: Stuart, I read that you began your creative life as a ceramicist.

SK: I did work in clay, yes. I was writing before that, but I liked that element. So when I use the big stamps, they’re big letters and it’s physical, and I think this is the part of the process that we both like. So I do the lettering or stamping – and sometimes, even in the beginning pieces, Susan might do some hand-colouring. I have given her words and she’s made images – but mostly it’s gone from image to word.

[Susan returns with a large print, titled Eternity]

Susan Webster (image), Stuart Kestenbaum (text), Eternity, 2016. Monotype, ink drawing, letter stamps, on paper, 56 x 76 cm (22 x 30 in). © the artists.

SK: This is one.

SW: This is a monotype.

SK: Then she begins to draw in pen and ink.

SW: I gave it to you.

SK: You had most of it done. She gave it to me, I looked at it and just put in

MKP: Is that the title?

SK: That’s it, that’s all the text, so I think it is called Eternity. I did lots of different-sized letters stamps, so, for me, it’s more like drawing in a way. Then I gave it back to Susan, then she added some more images and colour.

SW: [Susan shows another print, Alive-O.] This one went back and forth quite a number of times and he put the words “sun and sees stars and jump”, then I decided to draw a foot in it.

MKP: When you say back and forth, you’re not sitting in the same workspace together?

SW: Well, that’s true. I really prefer working with no one around.

SK: I don’t take that personally [he laughs].

SW: And he feels the same way, right?

SK: Yes, I need to be quiet.

SW: Yes [to Stuart], so I can tell the story about the chocolate–

SK: Yeah.

SW: We were making the work for the show that we’ve mentioned [Couples at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art] and Stu was working at Haystack, and we did most of the work during the summer. We had a few months and I was producing a lot of prints, and was thinking: “OK, I’m not going to finish it.” It was a very different way of thinking for me to say: “OK, I’m just going to leave space.” It was good for me to do, because I like to fill up space, so leaving that space felt like it was inviting somebody else in to my work. I would leave several pieces and Stu would get up very early and go down to my studio, which was nearby, and, at some point, I would come back and the piece would have his text on it. It might have taken more than a day, but that’s roughly how it would go. I would leave the piece; he would work on it. I remember the very first one he did. I felt like my image wasn’t as beautiful as the text, and I was so moved by the text. I thought, I really need to go back and print some more. It motivated me in a way that I was delightfully surprised by. I was really moved by the text. That’s a very significant point for me, that something was happening, definitely something stirring within me that I entered that piece like a new person. I happened to go into the studio while Stu was working, and I came barrelling in to find him just sitting like he is now. He wasn’t writing and he wasn’t stamping and I thought: “He must be tired and this is really too bad that this is a lot of work and he’s busy and he’s just sitting there, so maybe I can do something to help him out.” I said: “I’ve got some chocolate, and can I get you coffee?” He just turned to me and said: “This is what it looks like when I’m working.”

SK: It’s different with the size – if it’s a big piece. I think with the first pieces I wrote something out in advance, but I don’t do that any more. I’m actually working right on the piece and the limitation is the size of the space, so I have to know. It reminds me of a boundary and I have to work up to it, like when people do the long jump and you have to hit the line. I have to know where I’m going to end and I have to make the words fit in that space, so while I’m working I’m measuring in my head how many words I have, or how to say that thing within that limitation. It’s like the language comes from the limitation of the space. I don’t think I’ve ever said it that way before, but …

SW: Plus the visual.

SK: Right. The visual will trigger it when I’m working. When I’m stamping it so precisely, I thought I might have to make an adjustment – like in the old days when you were typing and you made a mistake, you had to reconstruct the sentence while you were working. You didn’t want to retype the whole thing and have a whole white-out section, so you might say: “ I’ll just say it this way.” That doesn’t happen that often, but it means it’s a very live process – there’s no safety net.

SW: I’ve kept two from this series – we made 24 and they have all gone, apart from two, which I kept because they are very dear to me. I kept two, one for each of our sons. There were some where Stu said he’d used the wrong stamp and would have to go over it and make it dark – and I actually grew to really like that. It reminded me of Isaac – both our sons are very artistic, they are writers. When Isaac was very young, if he made a mistake, he’d just cross it out and say, “No problem” and keep on going. And you admire that in children because that’s the best solution – just cross it out and keep on going. I really like that. I probably would not have done that.

SK: Yes, I don’t think it was obvious.

SW: There are certain elements, or decision-making, or whatever – I don’t even want to call them corrections – that enhanced the subliminal message that was happening there.

MKP: You are both clearly fascinated with the substance of material. Susan, in your artist statement on your website, you mention that, for you, there are connections that begin before birth and extend beyond this life. This perhaps relates to something that you spoke about, Stuart, at Rochester Institute of Technology (2002), when you said: “Anything I do is built on something done by someone before me.” Can you both talk about this continual thread that seems to exist in creativity, that goes from past to future, embedded in materials, and how does this inform your creative process?

SK: I wanted to cry just now when you read what I wrote, because I think I’m just more and more aware. Maybe it’s the longer you’re alive, the more you see those threads. You see people you love die, you see people you didn’t know you would love be born, and you realise time is moving and you’re part of it. I think that’s been a big part of that. The original work that we did for that first show, a lot of it grew out of my brother’s death. He died in [the events of] September 11. And I think that we’re just aware of grief and mortality. We never said anything, and I would never say anything to anybody about it – it seems like a cheap thing to say: “Well, it grew out of this.” I always feel uncomfortable when people say I did this about September 11: it feels too personal to put it that way. I think it was just much more profound and deeper – and the impact it had on us is that we were aware of fragility and loss. That was in all of those first pieces, as Susan was saying today.

SW: Yes, I said I am becoming more comfortable in saying that I do think that the loss that happened on September 11 for us is a personal loss, and then it becomes complicated with the public loss. It had a huge impact on our family and our children. This year, I asked each of our children to talk about that day [pauses], so I think it does. I remember a friend said nothing’s ever the same. You go through life and experiences – and there’s this gigantic [event] and we were away from one of our children – that’s why I wanted to talk to him – and one of them was right by our side. We have talked about it – but we’re all adults now – so that was the thing that I wanted to say. And I said to Stu this morning, when I read one of your questions, this experience is something that we have shared. In fact, Wes McNair [Maine’s poet laureate from 2011-16] asked me when he saw this body of work [Kestenbaum and Webster’s work in the Couples exhibition]: “How did you guys do this? Why does this work so well?” At that point it was so new, I said: “I don’t know, I don’t know why.” And Wes said: “You have some shared experience.” That stuck with me, and I do think that we do have a lot of shared experience: we have the birth of children and our lives, but there is something very pivotal about that day. Also, ever since I was young, I’ve been obsessed with time. I remember that I must have been interested in learning how to tell time, as my Dad sat with me and showed me a secondhand that went around for a minute. And then he said something like: “Well, you know you cannot go back to that ever again.” This notion of something ending was a big revelation. I remember running to my mother for comfort, hoping she could somehow ease my anxiety and my new awareness of time. I remember that moment often, and I return to it. It endures and motivates me. For example, in college, I talked my way into a film-making class when I said to my professors: ‘What would happen if I were to die, I couldn’t make it in your class.” What happens in the work that we do together gets to the heart of this awareness of the preciousness of time.

SK: It’s not all September 11 – that’s not the only loss there ever was in the world. There were losses before and there were losses after. I think there’s a certain point in one’s own life when you realise that there’s loss in the world, and that everybody’s going to experience that, there’s no getting out of it. It was just a kind of catalyst for looking, and, in some way, it’s got more immediate to me since then, and I think in the work that we’re both aware of that. There’s a poem by the poet Wislawa Szymborska (Polish Nobel Laureate 1996) called A Little Bit About the Soul.2 In it, she says the soul doesn’t understand joy and sorrow as two different things, that they’re only alive when they’re together: It doesn’t see joy and sorrow/as two different feelings./ It is with us/only in their union.

SK: And I think that the work is celebratory. I don’t know how other people look at it, but, for us, it’s got the force of joy and sorrow in it, that would be its characteristic.

SW: Stu’s very funny, too. You don’t know him, but he’s a really very funny person.

SK: Depending on the day.

SW: He’s very funny. We do other things – we do a lot of exquisite corpse drawings and they’re always funny.

MKP: Do you ever exhibit those?

SW: We never have, I have hundreds – a whole shoebox-full.

MKP: How long have you been doing them?

SK: Since before we got married

MKP: I wanted to go back to what you were saying earlier, Stuart. “Anything I do is built on something done by someone before me” implies previous makers and thinkers in some way. Looking at it from that point of view, for either of you, are there particular makers, creators or thinkers whose work you go back to in your thinking and making? People you would cite as having guided you to where you are now?

SW: Early on for me, there was Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson, Alice Neel and Georgia O’Keeffe. Later on, strong women artists such as Lynda Benglis, Yoko Ono and Frida Kahlo. I also admired the abstract expressionists and like minimalism, but in my own work I am attracted to, and interested in, formal elements that celebrate a more feminine side. I think there is a consistent quality inherent in my work that is informed by the feminine.

SK: For me, organisations are involved – but I wrote that [“Anything I do is built on something done by someone before me”], in 2002, but I thought I just started to think it last year, so it’s great when you forget. It’s like having a new thought. So leaving Haystack [Mountain School of Crafts], after so many years (27), I was just always aware that if Fran Merrit hadn’t done what he did, then I wouldn’t have done what I did. It’s so easy to forget when you’re living that there are people who did things before. You know somebody came to Deer Isle [the island in Maine where Kestenbaum and Webster live], and started to make a harbour, and that’s why people live here. You didn’t just come into the world as it is now. Everybody had to work to make it what it is. People tend to forget. When I left Haystack, somebody asked: “What advice would you give to somebody taking on this position [director]?” I said: “What you want to do is honour the past and look to the future.” You don’t want to say: “It’s got to be this way because it’s always been this way.” In terms of work, I would think at Haystack, too, somebody who was making pots in the 1960s that, to us, might look dated or commonplace, if they hadn’t done that, you wouldn’t be making what you’re making because they got to this next step. When you see something that doesn’t seem so radical to our eyes or ears now, you have to understand that it could have been totally groundbreaking. We’re able to embrace people of various genders and sexualities now and that’s not because we’re enlightened at this moment, but because people’s ideas change over time. I think about that in terms of writing. Yesterday, I was driving home, listening to my iPod and Leonard Cohen singing Hallelujah. I like that he can have the joy and the darkness, and I wasn’t thinking about writing. But I just love the way it’s like an earned darkness, but it’s not all dark. In that song, there’s a Judaic Old Testament quality, yet its got a contemporary sensibility and I think that’s what I respond to the most – something that has something ancient and something new in it.

MKP: That leads me to something you said, Stuart: “What attracts people to the creative work of the arts is that there is an implied holiness to what it does.”3 Can you tell us what you mean by that?

SK: [laughs] I feel like I’m dying, in the best way. To me it has to do with time – it slows people down.

SW: Yes.

SK: I think it’s the way it slows people down.

SW: One of the things about slowing people down is that I really like the way Stu breaks up the words – compositionally. He’s got a certain space that’s dictating the way it’s made, but he just keeps on going. It’s not grammatical – it could be a “th” on one side, and if the word is “there”, then “ere” will be on another line. People have to struggle a little bit to read these words and, then, when they do, they’re so happy. So by doing that, people need to focus and slow down and look at it – it’s not coming to them so quickly. We’re so used to so much information coming so quickly now. The holiness, the time – people long for that – we want those connections and we want that time. It’s as though they’re learning a foreign language, and the relationship that people have with the work and the way that you [Stuart] write it down, creates that experience [of focus and slowness].

SK: And I wouldn’t do that text if I didn’t have the image. The image evokes the language that wouldn’t exist without it. That’s like the wholeness thing. Because maybe, at its roots, making is about survival originally.

MKP: Can you explain that?

SK: If you didn’t know how to make something to store your food in, you wouldn’t live. Or if you didn’t make your clothing, you’d freeze to death. You forget how sheltered our lives are until you’re camping, and then you realise that we have pretty formidable shelters now. You just have to be outside after midnight for two hours in the dark and you realise that it’s a hostile world; we really have removed ourselves from that. Even here on Deer Isle in such a rural place, we’re in a big house, we have oil heating, but if you’re closer to nature you’re just aware of that thin line that separates you from not being here – and knowing how to make things is a way of [surviving]. Once we lost our fur, that was a turning point.

SW: The impulse to make that pot, to make a mark on that pot, to choose to make this pot meaningful, beautiful – whatever adjective you want to put in there, because they’re all loaded. But, definitely, there is that as well as the need to have a bowl [to eat from]. That’s survival, but then there’s also the survival of being human, I guess.

SK: It’s pretty deep. I mean the aesthetics.

SW: I know. I mean, what is the impulse?

SK: Why with ancient things do the proportions strike us? You never look at them and say: “Boy, they got that proportion wrong.” You think: “Wow, there’s something natural about the rhythm, which reflects the natural rhythm maybe.”

SW: And the golden mean and the whole sense of proportion and beauty.

SK: When did I say that about holiness?

MKP: It was in a talk, If You Can’t Find Inspiration at First, Give Yourself a Deadline: Some Thoughts on the Creative Process, which you gave in 2002 at Rochester Institute of Technology.3

SK: Yes, that was soon after September 11.

MK: I’d like to ask you about the importance of landscape. In 1994, in one of your Haystack diary texts (included in The View from Here), you wrote about a journey that you had made from Deer Isle to Washington DC. You said you felt that you looked like every other tourist, but (in a reference to Thoreau, I thought), you felt as if you were carrying within you the places that you’d come from, and the landscapes that you’d seen. I thought that was terribly beautiful and very like what Bachelard4 said of Thoreau5,6 having the map of his fields engraved in his soul. Susan, you also talk about the deep connection to landscape and the rhythms of the natural world. Does it make a difference to either of you, where you are when you make work?

SK: I guess, for me, its like there’s an internal landscape and an external landscape, being here back on the island (Deer Isle).

SW: For me, the view – I’m looking at the water from our house.

SK: Yes, and the way the Haystack landscape looks. I don’t know if I’d always reference it. It definitely feels like the sense of place or the serenity of light – those are all really important. I don’t write about the place I’m in always, but I’ll be aware of it. So I guess I’m aware of the environment I’m in, but I could write a poem about the country when I’m in the city.

SW: I grew up in the coastal town of Boothbay Harbor in Maine, where water and horizon are huge, and I’m comfortable when I can see the horizon, no matter where I am. I’m very uncomfortable if I’m closed in. But where I’m working and when I’m working – for me, it’s more about finding solitude. I think I carry the landscape within and I’ve been noticing that almost everything I’ve composed lately has been either a division in colour or a horizon line. I’m recognising that the horizon gives me a sense of grounding and comfort. I do look at the horizon from my studio window every day.

SK: I think part of it is, wherever it is, I need quiet. I need to settle into some internal rhythm. It could be in the city itself. I could hear traffic outside, but I need to be in a deeper place.

SW: We were in Japan last year around this time, for a long conference – a place called Shigaraki. The conference room was large and I thought it was like being at the United Nations, with people from different countries attending. Stuart was invited to speak about art retreat programmes in America. I was fortunate to come along, and I was sitting at one of the many small desks in the lecture hall. There were translators for English, Chinese and Japanese. Of course, I mostly listened to English, but I could go back and forth between languages. When I put those headphones on, it was like I was transported to a wonderful internal studio. I would sit for quite a number of hours and draw very small, but very detailed pieces. The drawings were different from anything I’d ever done. I got into a very intense and productive artistic space. I liked that no one knew me and I felt as though I was alone, even though I was surrounded by many people I didn’t know. I loved listening to the translators. I had found a way of working, a way of zeroing into a very internal landscape. And at the end of each of those days, I would look forward to showing drawings to Stuart.

MKP: It sounds as though you were documenting all your experiences and that drawing is very important to you. So then can I ask Stuart, is there such a thing as drawing or sketching in the process of writing poetry? And, Susan, could you draw in the form of a stanza or haiku? Is there a weaving that might occur within those two disciplines? Can you sketch in a poem?

SK: I think working with spatial limitations has been really interesting. Right now, I’m not writing as many longer pieces as I am making these pieces [Kestenbaum holds up a print with stamped words on]. Susan gives me a fragment of a piece that she’s selected and then I make a square and look at that and I write something that responds to the image in some way, and then I would take these rubber stamps – they feel as if they are some sort of scientific specimens – with the language. This one says LOST.

MKP: Lovely.

SK: Actually, I had no plan. I had to fill that in, so once I start I don’t know where I’m going. So, where did that go to with the question?

MKP: Well my question was about whether in the different languages of making drawing and making poetry, it could be argued that the making of writing happens in an internal world, while the making of visual imagery happens in an external world?

SK: In a way, that kind of writing makes it more visual also because I’m – well, you might not want to tell anybody my secret [she laughs], but I’m just taking a Micron pen and going dot, dot, dot. People might think it’s a printing process – but it really slows me down because I’m making the letters with a long series of dots.

MKP: Are you doing that to slow yourself down?

SK: Yes – and to make my penmanship better. It makes it into a different kind of meditation. It makes me feel more of a visual person. With writing, I have one group of friends – when I was in high school I had some friends who were athletes and some who were musicians, but they didn’t always fit together – and this feels like two worlds. It’s writing, but it’s writing in a context where the words themselves are part of a visual piece, so it makes me part of two worlds. It’s not like somebody is illustrating a poem that I wrote: most of them wouldn’t exist in quite the same way if the image and text wasn’t all together, all one thing.

MKP: Both of you have taught and have much experience with education in creative practice. How does this influence your own work, and have you ever been surprised by something one of your students made?

SK: That just happened to us. We were teaching together at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina – it’s a school similar to Haystack.

SW: What happened during the teaching process was that we found a new direction for our collaborative work. I was doing a demonstration showing students a way to create layers, and it triggered something for Stuart.

SK: It was a stencil. Susan had these images – it might be a figure – so it appeared that the text you were looking at was lying underneath the thing [the figure], so I wrote over and over again, “Once in a Lifetime”. But then [when you read it], it might say, “Once in a” and it wouldn’t have “Lifetime” as the next line because it was behind [the stencil]. So it’s an illusion that what you’re seeing has a life underneath.

SW: It’s very interesting [for me] as a visual person to see the light go on with Stuart. I’m just thinking, we block this area, we write on it, we lift it up, and we see it. But your question was about a student. A student had made that illusion with drawing within a space, had made something look as though it was behind something else. And when I saw that, I said to all the students, “Look at this, you might want to try this now,” because your students are always experimenting in ways you can’t anticipate. They’re so smart and you have 15 of them and they’re always doing amazing things and I’m always learning. But Stuart just took that –and it was very exciting – I knew technically that layering works – but for him it opened a door.

SK: I’m pretty simple – we did another thing at that workshop. Those Blackout poems. We did it to free people up. When you’re a little afraid of language, if you’re using a page of text that’s not yours, you don’t have to be so nervous because they weren’t your words to begin with, so the risk is a little less. It’s like if you make a collage from a magazine, it’s not your imagery, and that also began a whole series of works.

SW: For you.

SK: Yes, what changed was that Susan made a template for these, and then I realised I could put stamps above and below. The first one I did was A Small Pond. I crossed everything out: the only words I left were “a small pond”. I wasn’t thinking about anything when I did that. Then I thought, “Oh, Thoreau’s Dream”, and wrote Thoreau’s Dream with a rubber stamp. Visually, it will be all blackout lines with just one little text that says “small pond” and, above and below, it says “Thoreau’s Dream”. I thought it’s almost like call and response. It’s really using very little, it would be like a brush drawing, like a gestural thing, it just says: “Here, look at that.”

SW: There was one you made about loss.

SK: Yes, it was work that I posted online in Today’s News, called Grieving Over Loved Ones. [Kestenbaum posts a poem daily, in a series called Today’s News.]. We would never have worked that way, it grew out of the stencil idea.

MKP: There seems to be a recognition about the importance of momentum. Stuart, in your poem Starting the Subaru at Five Below, you wrote: “This car is going to move me, it’s going to take me places.” You also talk about sports – so does motion itself have anything to do with the work of either of you?

SK: You should have seen Susan dancing last night – she’s the most exuberant dancer I know. It’s like motion is big for her.

SW: I do like movement. I also like looking at work that’s totally still. I don’t know if I’d use the word busy, but I like busy too. I want to feel that there is something captured in that motion that is [stillness at] the same time. And, yes, I love to dance. I play music: we both play music. Sometimes we play crazy made-up music that nobody else hears – that’s similar to the exquisite corpse drawings we do.

SK: It’s a good thing nobody else hears it.

SW: Movement for me is very important. It implies a beginning and ending – or something that happened before and after, not only in a physical compositional way, but in a more subliminal feeling of the work. [To Stuart] What do you have to say about motion?

SK: The thing I like in a work is when you are creating a situation that you come to see as if you’re in the middle of it, in time.

SW: Maybe that’s it because there’s a stillness within something.

SK: It’s like you stop a frame, or a motion.

SW: Yes, I would agree with that.

SK: I think I’m attracted to that.

MKP: Is that suspended animation?

SK: I like that, if the motion is trapped, it means it’s stopped time.

SW: It’s not contradictory that you’re creating something within the motion. It’s a mix – the good and the bad – everything mixed up in there in the messiness of life.

MKP: And are you working together on some new pieces now?

SW: Yes, we’re working on some new pieces. They’re a combination of the blackout and the other (stencil) pieces we showed you, with strong horizontals and the idea of the layering of texts underneath. When Stu started his job at MECA, I was teaching at Haystack – so he’s gone between Mondays and Thursdays. I see that as a residency for me in a sense that my focus can be right in the studio – not that it’s not when Stu’s here, but it’s nice to have that unbroken possibility of working any time.

MKP: And, Stuart, when’s your residency?

SK: I don’t know [he laughs].

SW: Oh, [sighs] I know …

SK: I have the three hours in the car on the ride back (from Portland to Deer Isle) [he laughs]. I just try to find quiet.

[We go downstairs from Kestenbaum’s workroom to Webster’s studio.] There are prints and drawings on the walls, and a noticeboard displaying artworks, and images of artists and family members. Two large worktables fill the floor space, one carefully scattered with natural objects – leaves, sticks, feathers, shells and stones. Through the window is a view of old wooden houses, Deer Isle village and, across the street water, East Penobscot bay leading out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Webster runs a gallery space called Pleasant View Barn Gallery, where she curates community-based shows and also shows her own and Kestenbaum’s work.

1. The View from Here: Craft, Community, and the Creative Process by Stuart Kestenbaum, published by Brynmorgen Press, Brunswick, 2012
2. Published as A Few Words on the Soul in Monologue of a Dog: New Poems, translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, published by Harcourt, New York, 2002.
3. The View from Here, idem, page 945.
4. The Poetics of Space by G Bachelard, published by Beacon, 1958, page 11.
5. The Portable Thoreau by Henry Thoreau, edited by Carl Bode, published by Penguin, 1982, page 592.
6. Journals, I to Myself 1854 by Henry Thoreau. “This earth which is spread out like a map around me is but the lining of my inmost soul exposed.”

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