As our readers might know, the ownership of The News-Gazette and all its community weekly papers changed hands recently. 

I didn’t know if anything would change with my Art = Life column. Due to not knowing, I wrote this column in a rather special way so it could serve as the conclusion or a new chapter.  

Dec. 5, 2007 is the date my Art = Life column first officially appeared in the Rantoul Press. Twelve years down the road, I still remember vividly about starting this column. My idea was to create an art column designed and called Art Equals/Bigger than Life by using the mathematical equation between the words Art and Life, i.e. Art ≥ Life.

Unfortunately/fortunately Rantoul Press Editor Dave Hinton argued that art can’t be bigger than life. Plus, he would have technical difficulties of using the mathematical symbol to set up my column in the paper because ≥ is not on the normal computer keyboard. After trying to insist using my original idea, I then thought art = life can be also read as art and life which could cover anything about art and life, so my column would have a much wider horizon. Therefore we settled with the column name as Art = Life.

During the last 12 years, this column has featured a few hundred artists discussing numerous subjects on art, life and social/ cultural issues facing the art world in our community. To get the most valuable insight from each of my column’s subjects, I tried to have direct personal interactions with each of the artists. 

Wang column artwork Dec. 11
Ian Wang in front of art professor Joel Ross’ artwork on display in this year’s UI Art and Design Faculty Exhibition in the
Krannert Art Museum-photo by Mary Gao.

I must say it is not always easy, but it is definitely worth it and very rewarding. During the past 12 years I have learned so much from my direct interactions with the artists, studying and researching the artwork and building up my art collections. I have written about much of what I learned with my readers.

To celebrate this milestone of my column’s 12th anniversary, I have selected two artists I had direct interaction with recently to talk directly on the art of knowing/not knowing. 

The first interaction was on the first Friday in October 2019. I was invited to the Decatur Area Arts Consul’s exhibition opening and in conjunction with the Millikin University students’ art display and sale in the building. From the student-run link gallery, Danna Herbach’s ceramic sculptures drew my attention. 

Unlike normal art exhibitions that would not allow people to touch the artwork on display, I took down all her sculptures and held them one by one in my hands, carefully played with and viewed them in technical and artistic design details. I enjoyed my feel of them physically and artistically. After purchasing one of her sculptures, I wrote to the artist and asked her to discuss the insight of her art. Here is what she told me in her email:

“The piece you purchased is titled “Rebel, Rebel.” It is a specifically special piece of my work because it is the only one of the series that does not prominently display a nose or mouth when placed against the wall. It was an exploration of the human ear and texture as representative of hair. 

“This piece also holds earrings that I wore for many years throughout the time this series of pieces was developed. I felt the need to express how short hair and many piercings represent a rebel in society, even though it is not uncommon for males to have short hair. These works represent a growing self-love for myself, which became centered on my short hair and my earrings. I personally feel that these pieces are a representation of how I became my best self.

“My artwork reflects everyday female experiences through clay. Clay is a medium that can be manipulated almost endlessly and can be therapeutic as well as artistic. Working with clay, whether on the wheel or through sculpture, is an accurate reflection of what I want to complete as an artist and an art therapist. Neither my sculptures nor my ceramics start with a drawing. I prefer to let the clay decide its shape and then I shape it further. If I did begin with a drawing, the clay itself would render them useless.

“My sculptures represent familiarity through the subject of a face. At the same time, they address issues of social and physical normalcy by the distortions I create in my forms. All of my sculptures are of women, but are defiant of what is expected: the female identity that is expected in society. My sculptures start with a wheel-thrown bottle and are then manipulated to capture a sliver of existence.

“The ceramic forms that I am most drawn to are bottles. Bottles can have a myriad of shapes, depending on how one forms the clay. There can be such a difference in circumference from foot to body to shoulder to neck to mouth. Bottles can also be modified in many ways, changing the appearance, structure and stability. Similar to surprising differences within society, not all of my bottles are functional. However, they are all beautiful in their own ways.

“Both my bottles and sculptures are salt-fired — a process in which the clay is heated in a gas kiln to over 2,300 degrees F. Salt is added into the kiln during the firing process which creates a warm earthen finish.

“Art has been an adventure for me. I have explored many of the media offered in my undergraduate experience. These processes helped me discover who I am and how I relate to my artwork more highly than I would have had I not taken these classes. The art that I create can hold a deeper meaning than just a pretty face.”

The second artist I spoke with for the column is University of Illinois art professor Joel Ross.

Ross displayed his piece of artwork and statement in this year’s UI Art and Design Faculty Show that opened Oct. 31 at Krannert Art Museum. The title of this artwork is “[SIR, THE PRIVATE DOESN’T KNOW, SIR]” and the display label states:

“It took some time to figure out what to do with questions. We all suffered for months, failing wildly, but every approach brought more rebuke. None of our answers to any of his questions ever satisfied the D.I. Each response we gave, no matter how true, no matter how well considered, simply led to another set of questions. And each subsequent question involved more screaming and more spitting and more punishment. We staggered through these one-way conversations, confused and exhausted.

“Eventually, trial and error revealed the one true path. By the third phase of basic training, we had collectively embraced the art of not knowing — anything. It did not matter if your answer was solid and clear, because it turned out all the questions were really just one question, and your best, perhaps only, defense was to shout with conviction: “Sir, private does not know, sir.” The questions continued, but the punishments lessened.

“The D.I. (drill instructor) would occasionally test our commitment to the state of not knowing, and when he did, even repeated admissions of ignorance did nothing to calm the assault. With time, and patience, we all learned to yell a reply of “Sir, the private has no excuse, no sir.” This became our last, enduring refrain. He was satisfied. Because that was the end of the logic line — at least as far as the Corps was concerned. 

“All questions were meant to lead you to understand this: you have no ... idea what you are doing or why.”

Dr. Ian Wang is the curator of the Spurlock Museum and may be contracted by email at wangyu@illinois.edu