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Art Exhibitionist Finishes Her 30 Days on Display

Walker Evans Walker Evans
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A stroll along High Street through Downtown will normally reveal a depressing number of vacant retail storefronts, but if you’ve walked past the old Experience Columbus space at 90 North High during the past month, then a glimmer of something new and exciting may have caught your attention. Local artist Megan Burkholder has spent the past 30 days living and painting in this formerly unused space and has turned her painting process into a performance art display. Megan’s project is ending today, and we sat down with her for an “exit interview” to hear her thoughts on the whole experience.

Walker Evans: So how did this project come about? What made you want to live in an empty retail space Downtown for a month?

Megan Burkholder: It started about four months ago when I was just showing work here as a gallery space through the windows up front. I direct people to my website where they can see the pricing and information and make appointments. But after awhile I started thinking about what it would be like if I had a studio in here with these great windows and visibility. Then I kind of expanded on that idea and it got bigger and bigger. I wondered what it would be like if I lived here for a couple weeks. That still didn’t feel like enough, so I expanded it to a month of living here with my dog Bentley and my husband Derik. So that felt right, and that became the project. Once I started mentioning it to a few people, there was no backing out.

WE: So essentially you’re taking the process of creating traditional visual art and turning it into a performance art piece?

MB: Yes, I’m playing a bit with the ideas of voyeurism and exhibitionism. Though sometimes I’m not really sure who’s the voyeur and who’s the exhibitionist, because I’m looking out just as much as everyone is looking in.

WE: As we’re standing here inside the building it actually looks like you’ve got a clearer view looking out. I think the windows might be slightly tinted looking in from the outside.

MB: They are. At night I turn the inside lights on and then people can really see in. It took me a little while to get used to that. During the day I feel like I’m playing in here, but at night I’m wondering who’s out there because I can’t see out as well into the dark. I open the curtains religiously at 9am every morning and start painting. I’m sometimes cleaning brushes, but I’m usually in the front windows during those times. The scheduled hours end at 6pm, but I usually extend it past six. These last few days my back has really been killing me and my arms now have tendinitis, so I’m trying to just hold those hours. We leave the curtains open until 9pm, so there’s 12 hours that the space is visible. I’ve got my bed over here in the corner, a small office space, living room, kitchen, and bathroom. Derik hooked up a waterless shower heater in the basement since there was no hot water in the building. There’s actually a vault in the back too, since this used to be a bank before Experience Columbus was here.

WE: Nice. What do you keep in the vault?

MB: Well, we had an art show last Saturday, so a lot of work is still hanging on the walls throughout the entire space. The work I’ve got hanging in the vault is my older work. I’ve put it in there for several different reasons. It’s part of my past, but I also think that artists sometimes allow their most recent work overshadows their older pieces. There’s almost a feeling that everything else that came before wasn’t good enough or was too immature. So I’m using the vault to embrace my trek as an artist.

WE: Can you tell us a bit more about your background in the arts?

MB: I grew up in Bexley and went to Cornell. I graduated in 2000 with a Fine Arts Painting Major. I’ve been painting off and on since 2000 and doing some commission work, but I’ve not been fully committed to my artwork. This project was sort of my renewed commitment. I figured that the best way to commit to painting is to lock yourself into a room for a month and keep regular painting hours, and if you have people watching you who are expecting you every day, you’ll stick to it.

WE: How would you describe your style?

MB: Over the past month I’ve been inundated with art and working constantly, so my style’s shifted to more of a gestural, emotional, looser art form than it was before. I’ve actually marked these paintings by the day that I’ve done them while here. I started off doing very geometrical work. I use a lot of mixed-media paper cut-outs and a lot of the paper led me to a more geometric form. I love the control that I feel with the canvas using geometric shapes. It feels very complete to me, so I love that style. But over the past month I’ve been shifting to more of a subtle, calmer style. I think more of me is in the canvas. I’m trying to deal with texture a lot. Thicker strokes, thin washes, sanding down with sandpaper, and scraping down with my fingers. So I’m getting a deeper light effect from that.

I really don’t like to paint the same thing over and over again. That doesn’t excite me. I don’t like to use the same palette. I do tend to lean towards more cool colors, and I love painting in black and white, but there are some days where I just have to paint red. I don’t like to limit myself.

I was trained very traditionally at Cornell, and I was actually never trained in abstract, which is probably why I’m obsessed with it. I never took any classes, so it’s continuously challenging to me. I feel like every time I try something new, I try to master the canvas and the technique. I feel that over the last four weeks I’ve really had a chance to do that more than I’ve ever done in the past 10 years.

WE: Well, seeing as you’ve essentially lived as a resident in the heart of Downtown for the past month, I have to ask… what were your biggest pros and cons of living Downtown?

MB: Hrm… I guess safety is always a concern since you get a lot of people coming and going who don’t live here. I do take Bentley out for walks, and the dog poop is a problem. People do not clean up their dog poop around here. I used to live in Rome, and you couldn’t look up at the beautiful buildings because you’d have to watch the ground to avoid stepping in dog shit. Maybe it’s just a “city” problem.

It’s been a lot of fun though. The people watching is great being right here at street level. It’s usually pretty quiet around here except when sirens go by. You feel like you’re really living in the city when there’s not much separating you from the sidewalk. I can see some people liking that and some people not liking that. At first I was kind of shy, but I feel like an exhibitionist now. I don’t know what people outside are saying, and I’m sure some are laughing and pointing, but I don’t care. Sometimes I’ll avoid looking at people who are watching me, because as soon as I look at them, they get embarrassed and walk away. It’s just so unique living Downtown. There’s not always a whole lot going on, but you feel like you’re at the center of things.

WE: So now that this project is coming to a close, would you either consider doing it all over again, or would you recommend that someone else do something similar?

MB: At this point I’m kind of wondering what my next project will be. Every once in awhile I just have these ideas where I feel like I need to do something and get it out of my system, and this was definitely one of those ideas. I’d recommend that everyone should do things that will put perspective on their lives. This was definitely something that I had to do for my art and myself. My husband has been great through all of this, and I couldn’t have done this without him. He took over building my wood panels and canvases and there’s been days where he’s painting walls and doing everything for me.

I’d recommend that everyone should try pushing the envelope and thinking big. When I first thought of this project, I worried that people were either going to think I’m crazy, or that no one would care. I worried about something happening that would force me to have to leave and prevent me from finishing. But that isn’t the way I want to live. I decided to just do this and deal with whatever comes up. I think this project is somewhat unusual in the Midwest, and especially in Ohio, and that’s why people have been reacting so positively. The owner of Due Amici stopped by and donated food for our reception… The Dispatch wrote an article… and I’ve just had so much great response from people walking by. I’ve had people share stories about how they used to paint, and I’ve seen how a project like this can enliven creativity and innovation and self expression in people. If seeing this sparks something new out of their usual cold December Columbus day, then that’s what this project is all about for the people out there.

More information can be found at www.MeganBurkholder.com.

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