I am not a Mall Officinado. It is difficult for me to walk. A shopping trip is only a part of my life in a Health Food Store and sometimes that is too much.
On a recent trip to collect research on a city that intrigues me, I would be thrust into of all things, a shopping mall at 8:30 pm. My bedtime is generally 9:30. Following my diet is not always easy on the road and I had waited for one of my best friends to return from an endless day of work. I use my food, so starving, I agreed to quick and cheap Chinese. Not really on my diet. This is an easily accessible destination for an impaired person, flat and consistent, but I performed what to me is, and no doubt to my companion as well, a virtual death march to the far, far, food court. As I lumbered along we encountered a most amazing gift. My eyes danced with vibrant colors, texture, and forms. I was saved from drowning in the vortex of vanilla I had just encountered. I found myself drawn into a window to another place. In the middle of an aging monolith of shopping, on the Belt Highway in St. Joseph, Missouri, I found an intriguing artist and his working studio gallery.
A potter, a painter, and a woodworker, Dooley Lawrence has had the good fortune to capture the imaginations of two St. Joseph art patrons, Dick Deshon and the Reverand Jimmy Lee Albright. These gentlemen had the brilliant idea to approach the Mall’s management to use Dooley and his work as a “Mall Attraction”. Attraction, hardly speaks to the experience you can choose to explore if you make the trip. The family heirlooms of Navaho rugs on the studio floor, to use Dooley’s words speak to patience, endurance, human endeavor, space, color field, design, and the informed energies of decades of age. You couldn’t use better descriptors as you encounter this humble, unassuming St. Joe native and his work. The gallery was closed by the time our dinners were consumed so I called and made an appointment to visit on yet another trip.
Straddling one of three beautiful raw wood benches that the artist has made, our meeting began with Dooley noting the condition of my hands. “Your hands have stories, tell stories about you, good looking hands… they’ve been purposed, ” he says. Always self conscious about my work worn hands I respond laughing, “they need to be re-purposed!” I then nervously launch into quick version of my life history. I am the worst interviewer! Now he knows more about me than I know about him. Still seated on one of his inviting wooden benches, I pull conversation back to his art that wraps itself around us like a warm, welcome blanket. I have never met this man before and I could not be more comfortable, in his presence and in this space.
I am drawn to three large paintings close to our conversation. There is a fourth one that is long and horizontal drawn from the same exploration. I particularly like the third and most abstract in what could be considered a series. Dooley shares that the inspiration for the work came from the Guanyin image on his Nelson Atkins Museum membership card. Burning a hole in his consciousness the image of the Diety kept after him until he started pushing into a canvas honoring the beaconing energy. The results are stunning. Very different from the traditional image of the Diety, but resonating with the same peace and acceptance of centuries of prayer and human endeavor embodied by the ancient sculpture. One stares, one eyed, out at you. Daring you to pose a question. Another approaches you with a softer gaze that makes the answer to your question obtainable. The third, most abstract, pulls you into a vortex of texture and color. You work to see the Guanyin through the chaos of the surface.
When questioned about what a small turquoise bird in a painting symbolizes Dooley launches into a deep discussion. While, I want it to have some deep psychological transcendent meaning. It does not. I think that is the romance of an artist and their work in my mind. The bird becomes objectified by the viewer’s experience and are extensions of our being consciously projecting into our world with a visual image. It is the artist’s task to manipulate mediums to maximally engage themselves during the creative process and the viewers in the resulting images. You are most certainly engaged in this space. Questioning over and over what you see.
Some of the paintings originate from almost play-like beginnings. Dooley is experimenting and toying with surface and the paint. Rolling, dragging, dabbing the paint to discover what it will do. At all times Dooley is stepping into the painting transcending the reality outside of the frame. Other paintings evoke the clear imagery of animals or birds that you may make of what you will. Rejoicing in the surfaces that are often barely stained. A viewer can loose themselves in the color, shape and rhythm of the forms.
The canvases are tacked simply on the wall. I asked if when he sold a painting he stretched it for the buyer. He said, “I would. I’ve never stretched a canvas on a stretcher in my life.” I pondered if I bought one how I felt about it floating on my wall. I like the simple honesty it evokes. The painting’s greeting, ” Hello, I was just created here for you.” The raw edge of the fabric speaks to the immediacy of the image. I thought about how many students never question the confinement of the stretcher’s box.
Ceramics are another chapter in this store of delights. Using the ancient Anagama method of firing, the vessels stand in defiance of the very process that gives them life.
Dooley has researched Anagama kilns and the complexities of this firing technique for over ten years. Anagama is a firing process that takes days and days of intense heat and careful placement in the cave-like kiln. The ancient Japanese borrowed it from the Chinese and used it to make their precious tea ceremony bowls. Dooley, as with any medium he approaches, pushes the process in every direction, creating objects that are small and fragile to huge pots that stand like soldiers who survived a battle.
Their surfaces recall the earth and the fire that birthed them as they defied the flame. Big, little, shiny, dull, again Dooley pushes the medium in every way he can. Leaving no possibility unexplored, he experiments with every ounce of artistic energy he can summon from this difficult and sometimes unpredictable process.
A day trip from Kansas City you could find such a treasure. Even if art is not your strong point a simple conversation with a straight forward, open, man could give you a new perspective on honesty, humility, and humanity in one short trip to a shopping mall.
See you soon,