True creative collaboration, common in the performing arts, can be hard to achieve in the visual arts. You don’t often see two artists working on the same painting or sculpture, for example, unless it’s a mural or public art project.
Local artistic team Sarah Conarro and Matt Davidson have delved into this uncommon kind of artistic partnership with “No Situation, Just a Series of Choices,” a body of work now on display at both Heritage Coffee locations downtown. Their show is part of Conarro’s larger show, “These are the paintings that hang in my living room,” on view through the end of the month.
“Just a series of choices” consists of paintings, drawings and collage incorporated with wood in various forms — from recycled floor boards made into frames to pieces of charred cedar included in finished pieces as stand-alone artistic elements.
Conarro, an active teaching artist, said that though she’s done plenty of collaborating in the past, most of these experiences have been in educational settings where she’s taken on the role of a leader. Much more rare, she said, is collaboration between equals. Working with Davidson, who brought his carpentry skills and artistic eye to the project, challenged her to look at her work from a different perspective.
“I’ve had some collaboration like that, but it’s been a long time, and for me this has been really invigorating,” Conarro said. “You find yourself compromising because of that person’s vision, which is what a collaboration should be — learning through compromise.”
Both artists were venturing into new territory, trying their hands at the others’ craft in some cases and working together to determine the overall aesthetic of each of the pieces, giving each other suggestions that were sometimes heeded, sometimes ignored.
“It’s fairly categorical that he was doing the structural and I was doing more of the imagery, but those lines became blurred,” Conarro said. “The point is exploration, getting back to the basics, using our tools and bouncing off each other to see what happens.”
Conarro said the collaborative process involved talking about the work, experimenting with different techniques and ideas, and then executing those ideas, together and separately.
“It’s really nice when you’re collaborating with somebody to spin that creative energy with them -- it’s a dialogue, and sometimes it’s a silent dialogue. There were days when I was working in my studio, and he was working in his shop, and we’d pass things back and forth. There were days when we were working in the same space and not talking, and there was lots of time sitting at the table together and working.”
The two have worked together in the past. Davidson has helped Conarro with some of the structural considerations of her work and installments, such as building frames for some of her prints and paintings, but for this project she encouraged him to take it to the next level.
“He’s been with me behind the scenes, but what I’ve noticed is that he has an artist’s brain. He has vision. He’s structural and linear, but he’s spatial.”
Davidson, who works for the state, also has a background in ceramics and photography. Though he used his carpentry skills in creating the pieces, he said his focus was on the art, not on the finer points of joinery.
“The method of assemblage was secondary in my mind, especially since much if it was covered with paper and paint,” he said, “So no dovetails.”
One of the techniques Davidson explored in the show is a traditional Japanese method of charring cedar wood called shou-sugi-ban, typically used to treat boards used in exterior siding. It involves burning the wood just enough to blacken the surface. Placed alongside Conarro’s vivid collage paintings, the blackened wood provides a striking contrast in texture, color and shape, with the straight lines of the boards pointing up the free-flowing curves of Conarro’s images.
The pair agreed on certain parameters for their project early on — most notably, that they would try to use only the materials they had on hand. For Conarro this meant using up the paint colors she had in surplus, such as vivid cadmium yellow, and for Davidson it meant digging into his collection of salvaged material he uses for his artistic home improvement projects, such as fir and oak flooring from a Catholic school building that was torn down 10 years ago, as well as hinges and some garage sale finds.
In some cases, both artists painted on the same piece in overlapping layers.
Though the pieces involved a lot of experimentation, they are finished works, Conarro said.
“They’re not sketches. They are experimentations that have been pushed to this finished, refined level. Even if they’re inhabiting a sense of rawness, they are finished pieces.”
The pair may plan more artistic collaborations in the future, but you can see the fruits of their labor thus far at Heritage Coffee in the Emporium Mall and a few pieces at the Second Street Cafe, where Conarro’s solo works are also displayed.
For more on Conarro, visit sarahconarro.com.