These are not pretty pictures.
kore loy wildrekinde-mcwhirter's etchings are drawn with great care, but they are far from pleasing. In 1898, in his What is Art, Leo Tolstoy wrote, "To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced … then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling — this is the activity of art."
wildrekinde-mcwhirter does this.
"I made this work as an enduring testimony to the vulnerability and resilience of children," the artist writes in the catalogue for her brave exhibit redhanded: a songe forre the lost, on display at UNCA's S. Tucker Cooke Gallery. "It is meant as a satirical indictment of people who bear and train children to violence. A place of mourning and remembrance, it is a war memorial and witness for children lost in the rituals of violence."
wildrekinde-mcwhirter spent the first 10 years of her life in a Germanic community in the jungles of Paraguay, writes Marilyn Kushner in the catalogue, an extensive document put together by UNCA's art department. "Based on medieval Anabaptist societies (as well as unnamed secret societies), her world was isolated from the 20th century. Her father was a radical pacifist who resorted clandestinely to a violence that her mother chose to accept. The men in this community ruled and the women surrendered everything to them, including their children. The children lived in a world of physical, emotional, and sexual violence … And, the children learned that submission, withdrawal and dissociation was a means of self-protection."
There is no hint of "art for art's sake" here. wildrekinde-mcwhirter tackles the conditions of contemporary life head on. She pulls no punches. No subject matter is taboo. There is no hint in the work of the screaming hard-core feminist, but there is instead the essence of a mature, rational woman who has overcome, but not divorced herself from, the agony that she has faced — and that she knows continues for other children. Again, these are not pretty pictures. They do not depict beautiful things or happy times. They are a record and a warning.
These prints can serve as an inspiration to students of printmaking in their technical expertise and to all artists interested in art as communication, a way to tell a story. Primarily concerned with child abuse, these multilayered works contain myriad important messages: not just about violence against children, but about many other social, religious and ecological issues.
"This work is important not just because of the beautifully executed prints, but because of the courage it takes to make work from such a deep place," says Virginia Derryberry, head of UNCA's art department.
wildrekinde-mcwhirter's work was first called to my attention back in the 1980s, and I have followed it since. A few years ago I drove up to Penland for a lecture. I remember sitting in the row of chairs behind wildrekinde-mcwhirter watching, mesmerized, while she filled her sketch book with remarkable line drawings — each mark perfect in its purpose — strong, confident, relaxed. The quality of line was impeccable: I have never seen anyone, before or since, draw with such ease and such skill.
The artist taught herself to draw, and has spent time in art schools and around other artists as a model for drawing classes. In 1997, wildrekinde-mcwhirter made the first of her prints depicting experiences from her early life. "At that point I did not think in terms of a series," she says. But from that first piece, she began the body of work presented in songe forre the loste. (wildrekinde-mcwhirter says that her unique spelling and use of punctuation come from her informal study of Old English and French. She hopes that this will help the viewer "slow down" and give the works full attention.)
The etchings are presented as treasures. They are encased in beautiful hand-crafted boxes made of precious fabrics and the finest of papers. Images on the covers of the boxes show reaching hands: long-fingered and swirling across the surface through shapes suggesting heavenly bodies.
These narrative works are disturbing. They depict a little girl's existence filled with expectancy — not for a new doll or a new dress or a pony, but for the next cycle of desertion, disapproval and unspeakable disrespect.
Referencing influences as diverse as Kathe Kollwitz and Walt Kelly, wildrekinde-mcwhirter tells her story with the same kind of honesty and sense of irony found in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Her images are complex, with hidden elements appearing only with careful study. She writes that she is appalled by the fact that one out of two children are neglected or abused, and that one in three women are raped. She attributes these statistics to "loud male endeavors" presented as role models. She bemoans "the earth's lungs being razed for second homes and shopping malls for those who already have too much."
"Her images can be interpreted on a number of levels: a plea for the world to know what exists, a plea for help for these children who still survive, and a cry out for the children who have died from this violence," Kushner writes in the catalogue, and goes on to quote wildrekinde-mcwhirter: "one simply has to find a way to live with the horrors and the fact that they continue. i have to face this every day. i cannot heal myself until all are healed."
Connie Bostic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
what: redhanded: a songe forre the loste
what: etchings from kore low wildrekinde-mcwhirter
where: S. Tucker Cooke Gallery, UNCA
when: Friday, Feb. 5 to March 2. Opening reception 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5. Free. Gallery open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. Info at 251-6559.