The Cambridge Candle

 

Vol. 1, No. 1

November/December 1998

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A Glimpse of CAOS

By Niels Burger

If you happen to be from out of town and decided to walk through Cambridgeport on the weekend of October 3 and 4, 1998, you would have witnessed an unusual sight: many people zig-zagging up and down River and Magazine streets, carrying purple colored maps and entering houses marked with balloons. If you asked anyone the reason for this apparent madness they would have told you, “It’s CAOS.”

CAOS (Cambridgeport Artists Open Studios) started six years ago by local artists as a way to collectively show their work, has become an annual tradition of the Cambridgeport neighborhood. CAOS provides a showcase of the unique works of art and eclectic visions generally hidden away in a neighborhood known for its eccentricity and diversity.

Paul Gray, who has lived in Cambridge for 15 years, is commonly known as the owner of Rentparty, the antiques shop on the corner of River and Kelly Streets. But not everyone knows he also creates impressive sculpture out of found objects. Entering his house you see the work of an alchemist. Out of discarded objects, Gray has fashioned sculptures that seem to come to life. Vacuum cleaners, bicycle handles and sink faucets are combined and choreographed into what looks like post-modern African masks and creatures full of energy, spirit and humor.

When asked what inspired him to start his art work, Gray responds, “Urban renewal.” Gray, who grew up in Boston’s Back Bay, says, “Urban renewal tore down my neighborhood and I picked up the pieces. Literally.”

Gray shrugs off comparisons to modern artists such as Max Ernst, who made similar looking figures with more traditional materials. He lists jazz and African art as his influences, calling his work an improvisation with the materials he finds. Asked about any of his work, he will tell you the object or objects in that work that inspired him -- often objects that he has had for many years, such as the dish pan in the figure titled “Mask.” He watched people drive by on River Street through that pan for many years, until a form came to him. He then banged it out, banged in the new shape, and added other pieces of discarded objects to complete the sculpture. He says people often leave objects for him, with notes such as:  “For Paul Gray. If anyone knows what to do with this, you do.”

Artist Paul Gray

Paul Gray. (Photo by Niels Burger.)

Artist Bren Bataclan
Bren Bataclan. (Photo by Niels Burger.)

Down the street from Gray lives Bren Bataclan, a computer designer, programmer and graphic artist. Born in the Philippines, Bataclan has used his experience as a computer designer and Filipino-American to focus on issues of technology, nationality and identity. Unlike many artists who focus on the dangers of modern technology in our world, Bataclan’s art focuses on how computers and other advanced communication technology can revolutionize the lives of those Filipinos and others who have not reaped the benefits of most technological advances. In “Let’s Skip the Industrial Revolution” Bataclan examines how Filipinos are embracing communication technology despite the general poverty of the country, and how such technology may offer new possibilities to Filipinos.

Bataclan also used computer technology to focus on other aspects of his Filipino identity.  In “Digital Filipino American War” and “Filipinos” Bataclan uses computer generated images to explore new ways history can be told and examines aspects of Filipino history that Bataclan believes many Filipinos are largely unaware of, such as the Filipino-American War.

David Prifti, who lives in Brighton but has a studio on Mass Ave. in Cambridge, is a photography and sculpture high school teacher. He develops photographs he’s taken of his children and photographs from old family albums onto old boards, pieces of pottery and other found objects. His work gives a strong feeling of nostalgia for childhood and of a time when parents and grandparents were young.

David Prifti
David Prifti. (Photo by Niels Burger.)

Cheryl Jaffe
Cheryl Jaffe. (Photo by Niels Burger.)

Cheryl Jaffe, a retired art teacher who now works as an artist full time, produces oil paintings in many diverse contexts. Her paintings on screens are particularly intriguing. On one screen she depicts a fantastic scene of cactuses with floating fetuses apparently asleep in their wombs. On an other screen she depicts Anne Frank, the heroic girl who kept a diary while hiding during World War II.  Jaffe says the picture of the cactuses come from a dream, while most other pictures come from her childhood. The picture of Anne Frank was inspired by her mother giving her The Diary of Anne Frank when she was very young.  Jaffe says, “I always wanted to do a picture to commemorate Anne Frank.  And now I have.” Another picture is of irises which Jaffe says also comes from her childhood.  “I remember,” says Jaffe, “my mother used to grow irises in her garden and I loved to put my nose in them and smell.”

CAOS, which seems to run so smoothly each year, is an example of people organizing together to help themselves and each other. It was started six years ago by Judy Motzskin, a sculptor who opened up her studio each fall and thought it would be a good idea to invite other artists to join her, opening their own studios on the same weekend.  Motzskin and a handful of other artists put a call for artists in local papers. Many artists responded and the first year of CAOS began.  CAOS remains an independent and local organization. Artists can participate for a small fee of $30. The artists all meet once a month in April, May, and August and work on various committees. CAOS remains small to keep participating artists from getting over-committed or burnt out.

Participating artists feel that CAOS serves a need not met in other places. “It is hard to meet other people in the neighborhood, let alone artists,” says Jaffe. “Most of us (artists in CAOS) did not know each other before CAOS.” Bataclan agrees. “It is a great event to meet people, network, get to know the neighborhood, and see other’s work,” he says.

To increase this kind of connection between artists, members of CAOS are initiating a weekly gathering for artists to meet and talk at the Green Street Grill every Monday night starting at 6 pm. The weekly gathering is along the idea of the old salons.

Many of the participating artists feel that Cambridge is a supportive environment for an artist. “Cambridge is supportive of arts. That is why we are here. We can get an affordable studio in Cambridge,” says Prifti.

“Being an artist in Cambridge is not an uncommon thing to be,” says Jaffe. “University towns are always more liberal and cosmopolitan and accepting of differences. There are many different people here with different kinds of life styles.”

But on the other hand, some artists feel that the city of Cambridge does not support the arts enough. Pat O’Brien, a sculptor and one of the CAOS founders, says that Cambridge supports arts, but hardly as much as it could. “It is a pittance of what they could do,” says O’Brien. “We could be the arts center of New England. We have enough artists and creative thinkers. Universities don’t support arts in Cambridge, or pay taxes. We are sitting between MIT and Harvard and they do not reach out to help us.”

In addition there is worry that the changes taking place in Cambridge are going to hurt artists. “Let’s face it,” says O’Brien, “art does not pay. It’s the cheap rents that allow so many artists to live in Cambridge.” O’Brien says that while CAOS still remains strong, she has seen many artists involved in CAOS leave the neighborhood due to rising prices. She is concerned that even with organizations like CAOS, artists face a bleak future in Cambridge. “Without affordable housing in Cambridge, many artists will have to leave,” says O’Brien.  “People are not willing to pay for arts.  They may have to pay the price in the end.”


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