Times are tough, they dance

“I’ve run my life by saying ‘yes’,” explains the exuberant Leo Monahan, whose work is currently on exhibit in the lobby of the Asheville Community Theatre.

Country neighbors: Quilt artist Webb-Lee and paper artist Monahan live near to each other in Barnardsville. Shown here is Webb-Lee’s “Squarely Divided.

The widely-acclaimed paper artist’s spirit of adventure has led him from the hills of South Dakota to the war in Korea, to a Disney scholarship at Chouinard Art Institute, to a police academy, to a thriving Los Angeles advertising business, and now to Barnardsville, where he works in his quiet rural studio like a house on fire.

Collaborating with Monahan in this exhibit is his neighbor, internationally recognized quilt artist Susan Webb-Lee. Like Monahan, she brings years of experience to her craft.

Both artists intrigue the viewer through jazzy improvisations with color, texture and form. Both play with repetition and variation and thus demonstrate that subtle shifts can have dramatic effects.

Monahan’s “Dancing Alone” series consists of eight works in collaged and sculpted paper. Against complex backgrounds of muted colors, textures and forms, Monahan’s ungainly figures dance.

“Times are tough, I dance”; “Keep your damn job, I dance”; “Alone at night, I dance”; “No love, no money, I dance” read the taglines, which Monahan has created with Scrabble tiles.

While I was making notes on the exhibit, two viewers applauded “Keep your damn job, I dance”—an indication that the artist’s work speaks to these times.

Each of Monahan’s dancers is bound with colorful mummy wrapping that seems to enforce anonymity as the figures move alone against the grain of some difficulty. And yet each generates an individual response. “Times are tough, I dance” is autumnal with earthy greens, ochres, burnt siennas and Monahan’s signature sculpted autumn leaves. By contrast, “If I’ve had a few, I dance” features a figure in an abandon of limbs flying in all directions, depicted in a brighter, springier palette of purples, reds, bright greens and oranges.

Webb-Lee’s work shows a similar capacity to create different effects through variations on a theme. “Squarely Divided,” a small, framed art quilt, organizes squares of hand-painted, hand-dyed and collected fabric into a dynamic not-quite-symmetry that keeps the eye moving.

“Alone at Night, I Dance”: Along with Monahan’s intricate “Twelve Days of Christmas” creations, the exhibit features a series of lively, devil-may-care Dancers.

“Divided We Stand #4” uses a similar offbeat near-symmetry of patterns and colors; however, this work is organized around circles instead of squares, and the eye is instantly soothed as it travels from circle to circle, reassured by the discovery of repeating arcs of colors and patterns.

Webb-Lee also displays two large art quilts, both stunning. “Athena,” with its art deco scheme of brown leaves, blacks and browny green,s is particularly arresting.

Another series of works on display by Monahan, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” shows off the artist’s prowess with paper cutting and sculpture. Monahan has turned these sculptures into a lush art-book, available at Spellbound Children’s Bookshop, among other locales.

Gracefully sculpted streamers unify the different days of Christmas. The birds are charming, especially the four calling birds. They roost in a brilliantly-executed Christmas cactus. A pail of spilled milk and an angry cow in the “eight maids a’milking” bring a smile.

The co-presence of Monahan’s “Twelve Days of Christmas” series and his “Dancing Alone” works is almost schizophrenic. The palette of “Twelve Days of Christmas” is indomitably perky, a testimony to the power of bright children’s colors to invoke cheer and optimism: Recession, depression or not, Christmas will come and we will enjoy it.

“Dancing Alone” is almost the opposite. In this series, indomitable individuals overcome their bulk, their solitude and their constraints to express joy despite somber circumstances. 

This tension seems to exist throughout Monahan’s work. Whether whimsical or reflective, all of his work is exquisitely crafted. But some of his pieces are downright silly, much to Monahan’s delight. He likes puns and has created a whole series of composite beasts in paper such as the “buffalo carp.”

Other pieces are sterner, moodier stuff that hearkens back to Monahan’s South Dakota childhood and something near to natural mysticism. But Monahan is too wise, experienced and masterful to be corralled into anyone’s notion of what art should or shouldn’t be.

“If it’s not fun or funny, I don’t do it,” he pronounces with finality.

In his studio he draws with an X-Acto knife. Working freehand, he creates perfect semicircles with his knife, and magically the paper becomes a three-dimensional form. “Paper has great integrity,” he explains. “I don’t make the paper do what it doesn’t want to do, and so it likes me.”

[Harriette Grissom is an adjunct Humanities instructor at UNCA.]

who: Leo Monahan and Susan Webb-Lee
what: Art show featuring paper and quilt creations
where: Asheville Community Theatre. Monahan will also be at Spellbound children’s bookshop on Saturday, Dec. 13, 6 to 8 p.m., to sign copies of his art book The Twelve Days of Christmas
when: Through Dec. 14 (Free. Tuesday to Thursday, 10 a.m.- 4p.m.; Friday and Saturday noon to 8 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 2:30 p.m. Details, www.artquiltstudio.com and www.leomonahan.com)

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