Flex Gallery and the work of Megan Altieri

Megan Altieri Full Armband SmallMegan Altieri. Untitled (SUV series). Thread, acrylic medium, fabric on canvas. Grand Rapids, MI. 2017.

In response to a lack of public art opportunities during winter, on January 11th, I launched Flex Gallery, a mobile public art space located on my left arm. For the project, I sent canvas armbands to six artists, requesting they turn them into artworks. Each artist works in a wide variety of media, and I provided them with no themes or limitations other than the dimensions of the band. Last month  for two weeks, I wore the work of Megan Altieri, a local artist, high school art teacher, and member of the Collective Artspace. I spoke with her last week to learn more about her work and creative process.

Zachary Johnson (ZJ): How did you get started as an artist?
Megan Altieri (MA): I feel like my inclination towards creating was founded on my need to express ideas visually rather than a love for art. I realized that art was the most suitable avenue through which I could express my ideas. Since I was young I’ve worked through my self-discovery and my understanding of the world in a fairly abstract way. It felt more accurate to articulate an idea with a primitive line or a soft form than creating some combination of words. It just feels so literal sometimes and it limits the scope of ideas.

So I guess I started making art more regularly because I was in the market for a new language through which to speak.

ZJ: Why did you decide to become an art teacher?
MA: I wanted to teach kids how to express their ideas. Expressing an idea through a process, with patience, especially now, is hard for young people to do. Or any people, really.  It has become so easy to voice emotions and opinions with impulsivity and thoughtlessness. It’s a good exercise for young people to have to translate their ideas into a visual language. It allows them to filter ideas through a more thoughtful and creative lens.

I’m making it sound like that process is actually what happens everyday at school. Of course, plenty of kids are taking my class to learn techniques so they can draw a better portrait of their cat or just to hang out. But all of that is cool with me. I actually like the diversity of their intentions within my classes. It’s like a fun game of trying to figure out what sort of experience each student wants out of the class and how I can push those boundaries.

Also, I just love human beings. A school is a fascinating place to work. You’re literally watching people become people right before your eyes. It offers me a platform to study the development of people — that sounds creepy. And also allows me to intervene in their developments when I feel like it’s going south. I’m still surprised every day how much I love them all. That level of investment was a total accident, I didn’t sign up for that shit [laughs].

ZJ: Has your job as an art teacher changed how you approach making art?
MA: Who I am as an art teacher and who I am as an artist are two entirely separate entities.  They’re totally unrelated in that they satisfy two different parts of my interests and passions. But there is some convenient overlap! Like,  I always tell my kids that they don’t need to listen to anything I say unless I’m making work alongside of them, as an artist. I have no business teaching them if I’m not making mistakes with them, growing with them, learning with them.

My work as an artist strays away from criteria on which I grade them. The concepts I’m teaching are mostly technical — how to render form, understanding anatomical proportions, how light affects color. Solving visual problems can be pretty formulaic. Then they see some of my work and they’re always like, “Wait…what? But I thought…”

I suppose creating art has made me want a richer art education experience for my students. Most kids want to learn how to create in a way that makes things that “look real”, that’s where most of their interest will stop and that’s okay. But the more I experience my own discoveries through creating, the more I want my students to use art to explore contemporary art concepts. In my opinion, the best ideas aren’t likely captured by the lessons taught from the curriculum.  When I work with higher-level students whose work is more idea-centered, I start to feel a fusion of my passions for art education and art making. Otherwise, they tend to be two wonderful things in my life that are unexpectedly disconnected.

M Alterie SUV Series #2Megan Altieri. SUV Series #2. Painted and carved MDF board. Grand Rapids, MI. 2016.

ZJ: This is your first soft sculpture. How did you decide on this approach and what inspired this piece?
MA: I’ve always felt that my work is conducive to soft sculpture. Soft sculpture has this visceral relatability that I’ve always wanted my work to — especially with this current concept of re-writing a logistical tool as an emotional artifact, a structural machine as an inoperative cluster of soft shapes and forms. This piece is meant to explore dichotomies and unexpected associations within a mundane object — taking an object and looking at the layers, literally and conceptually.  Obsessing over it,  complexifying and dissecting it. It only makes sense that things become soft when we pry into them.

This piece was inspired by a loss I recently experienced. The car became an emblem of that person. I saw it everywhere. My attention was drawn to anything red.  I started to become fascinated by my own obsession with this artifact on which I projected my hurt and anxiety. A car is supposed to be this logistical tool that we use to get from one place to another. It wasn’t created to be experienced as a piece of emotional, psychological stimuli. It wasn’t made with the knowledge that you’d be haunted by the specific tone of the blinker or that you’d memorize the layout of a dashboard down to the depths of the ridges on the A/C dial. We dig around our memories for the contours of that chrome door handle, anticipating that it might also bring us back to a state of mind. So much happens in this space that it was never intended to cater to.

Somehow this structured, hard-edged, geometric machine becomes an emotional relic, completely set apart from its purpose. It becomes inoperable, it melts, almost. We dissect it to digest it, as if that process holds any answers. Even if we acknowledge the unresolvable nature of our pursuit, it seems we have to continue obsessing, searching, dissecting. Translating these ideas visually was my way of acknowledging the pathetic but unavoidable impossibility of our obsessive processing when in pursuit of solving our pains.

Megan Altieri SUV Series #5

Megan Altieri, SUV Series #5. Mixed media on panel. Grand Rapids, MI. 2016

ZJ: What’s one of the most visually striking things you’ve ever seen?
MA: The Salt Flats in Utah. The vastness was the most powerful thing I’ve ever experienced.

ZJ: What’s next you?
MA: I have more work left to do with this concept. The more I work on the SUV series, the more sub-concepts I unearth.  I want these mixed media pieces to evolve into objects. I think the experience I’m trying to offer the viewer could be carried out better through three dimensions. I guess what’s next is more of this until I feel like I’ve exhausted it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Posts by Zachary Johnson are also available via instagram and tumblr under the name Vis Ed.

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