Argus Courier: Answering unanswerable questions through art

Argus Courier

June 17, 2021–DxJ0gBh1e7s1vRUx_WgOZQ1bGLsgSqhSt1vWWICTY

When Petaluma artist Carol Ceres succumbed at 56 to cancer last January, the quick rise of COVID-19 prevented any public memorial or retrospective exhibit of her work. Now, thanks to a new group show at the Petaluma Arts Center, art lovers can meet Ceres through her work and that of her circle of mostly LGBTQ artists.

The show’s title, Undertakes to Answer, is a phrase taken from the poem “Conversation” by Elizabeth Bishop. When visitors step into the center’s lobby, the first thing they see is a large reproduction of the 12-line poem, which begins “The tumult in the heart keeps asking questions. And then it stops and undertakes to answer.”

This is the center’s first Pride Month-related exhibit.

“What I love about the show’s title is that there are so many unanswerable questions in the world, but art undertakes to answer them anyway,” said Brittany Brown Ceres, the spouse of the artist, who passed away just 20 days after her diagnosis. The Ceres’s moved to Petaluma with their two young children in 2017.

The subtitle of the show, which runs through July 10, is “LGBTQIA+ Artists (and Allies) of the U.S. West & East [Carol Ceres and Her Circle].”

It brings together 23 artists, with 37 works in varied media. While most of the artists in the show identify as members of the LGBTQ community, curator Jonathan Marlow urges visitors to not bring their preconceptions. The show is neither sexualized nor thematically about identity.

As a program director for the center, Marlow recruited Ceres to teach at summer art camps for several years. With assistance from painter Mary Fassbinder, he put together the show to pay tribute to both Ceres’ art and her character.

Marlow’s own background combines art and technology. Formerly of Seattle, he was one of the first 100 Amazon employees. He later moved to San Francisco, where he and two others founded Fandor, a subscription service and social video sharing platform that operated from 2011 to 2019. He now works in film distribution.

The heart of the show is the five-piece “Trust Series” by Ceres, which takes up much of a long wall in the gallery. Each painting features an intense closeup of two bodies, cropped to achieve a near-abstract quality. The images variously suggest caring, sensuality, grieving — and dance, appropriately enough, given Brown Ceres’ background as a dancer and choreographer.

There are three other pieces by Ceres in the show.

Bookending the long wall where “Trust” hangs, two large paintings by East Bay artist Christine Ferrouge evoke an aspect of LGBTQ culture that is finally in the ascendant — that of family and children. The Ferrouge and Ceres families were neighbors until the latter moved to Petaluma.

In “The Day After the Costume Party,” the artist’s two young daughters are joined by Ceres’ young daughter in a garden. Still in their costumes, the girls smile at the viewer, exuding camaraderie and joy.

The other Ferrouge painting, “The Huddle,” suggests the mystery of childhood. A group of five young girls, most with their backs to the viewer, conspire together while one of them keeps a watchful eye on us.

“Christine’s work is exploding in the art world,” said Brown Ceres. “It’s exciting to see.”

Petaluma artist Garth Bixler is represented by a series of color studies he has done during COVID-19. Previously on the center’s board of directors, Bixler is also an art collector, and several of the works he loaned the show are intriguing. There are three photos created by John Dugdale using an updated version of cyanography, a 19th century photographic technique. Instead of black & white, the images emerge in tones of blue. The effect is old-and-new and rather uncanny. In “The Stairway,” a ghostly shadow hovers near the top of a steep, plain stairway.

Bixler also loaned the show two works by David Linger, who achieves a similar old-new effect by silk-screening dim, dark photo portraits he took in Russia onto thin porcelain.

There are many such delights in the show.

“Lota and Bishop,” a small construction-collage by Barbara Hammer, pays tribute to the poet Bishop (1911-1979), who lived in Brazil with Maria Carlota de Macedo Soares for many years. Hammer, who died in 2019, and filmmaker Lynne Sachs, also created “A Month of Single Frames,” one of the two short films that run continuously in the background of the show. The other film, “Eastern State,” was made by Talena Sanders, an assistant professor at Sonoma State University.

Petaluma artist Robin Bordow’s large painting “23 Blue” suggests the ultimate diamond, cut with hundreds of facets to hypnotic effect. Bordow is the director-manager of City Art Gallery in Petaluma. She is also a professional drummer.

Ceres had many friends in the art world, several of whom are in the show. In addition to Ferrouge, there is Russell Ryan, with the painting “Deer Jawbone with Cast Iron Rabbit and Poppies,” and Oakland artist Hadley Williams, who has three abstract paintings on display.

Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Ceres attended the Art Institute of Chicago on scholarship and moved to San Francisco in the early 1990s, eventually becoming a member of City Art Gallery. She met Brittany Brown in 1998. When Mayor Gavin Newsom announced the legalization of gay marriage in February 2004, Ceres and Brown were 11th in line to get married. The couple spent a decade in Oakland, where their children were born.

During the pandemic, Ceres painted at the dining room table every day.

“Up until a few weeks before her terminal diagnosis and despite COVID, Carol was also teaching art to the Grant Elementary kids here in our open-air driveway,” said Brown Ceres. “I was thrilled for her to be using art as healing, weaving her painting in between school and meals with our kids.”

Initially, she assumed this daily art meditation was primarily a coping mechanism during such a stressful period.

“At the time, I did not understand that it was a part of her dying,” said Brown Ceres. “But then again, she was such a unique soul and never failed to surprise us — especially with her profound wit and imagery. What was so important to Carol was that young artists, especially LGBTQ artists who may feel marginalized, have the chance to make art.”

Throughout her life, Carol Ceres’ goal, remarked Marlow, “was always to help younger, emerging artists find their way in a competitive art world.”

To that goal of supporting artists, as part of the Undertakes to Answer show, there will be a panel discussion at the center on June 19 at 2 p.m. Several artists will discuss how the artist makes the work and the work makes the artist. The Zoom-platform panel will be moderated by Josephine Willis, a niece of the Ceres family and an art student in Milwaukee.

Inspired as it is by the work and legacy of Carol Ceres, the gathering of artists to discuss what art matters seems a fitting and appropriate way to honor someone who was constantly inspired by and actively inspired others, though her art and through the example of how she lived her life.

“You never know when a piece of art will influence or change someone,” said Brown Ceres. “If it changes one person’s life, doesn’t that matter?”