The ‘Audacity’ of Beck Metzbower: The entrepreneurial spirit driving the fine arts in Chambersburg

CHAMBERSBURG – Being a private residence, the exact location of the house-gallery was only revealed to people who RSVP’d on Facebook. It’s not far from where I live, and the April weather is nice, so I decide to bike through the rows of houses. The gallery is pretty much equidistant from Main Street, the Norland shopping area and Wayne Avenue. This is residential. The houses have mowable yards and the sidewalks are shaded by full-sized trees.

As I pedal up to the house, I am permitted to park my bike on the porch, being sure to keep it out of the way because people are already buzzing around the property. The artist recognizes me from a previous art event, and I am led through the front door of the two-story home into the atrium of a fine art gallery.

A table offers a price list, fluted champagne glasses and other refreshments. (It is my understanding that artists are responsible for providing the refreshments at their openings.) A staircase to the left leads up to what is now the “living quarters,” and a door to the right takes patrons to the first room of the gallery complete with original hardwood floors (circa 1913), extensive wall space and lots of natural light.

Beck Metzbower — along with five other artists — make up the inaugural class of Wilson College’s fledgling Master of Fine Arts program, only the fifth in the nation to include a concentration in Choreography as well as Visual Arts. These six were the first to enroll back in 2015, and they will be the first to graduate in 2017. The two years in between were filled with classes, summer residencies, critiques and lots and lots of work. The students were also required to arrange, promote and stage their finished projects in spaces that complement their specific bodies of work.

The painters worked with gallery owners and local arts councils to hang their work in professional spaces. The choreographers secured suitable locations to stage their performances.

Metzbower took a different — more audacious route — by converting the entire downstairs of her Chambersburg home into a multi-room art gallery. Here, she has meticulously placed the 30-plus paintings that make up “Audacity,” her MFA Thesis Exhibit. The public was invited in to see the results at a reception held on April 14, 2017.

“I am actually a very private person, so it makes complete sense that I did it right here in my own house,” said painter and choreographer Beck Metzbower. “Not to mention the perks of being able to put the show up slowly and not work with a curator, and to be the curator myself. As well as the artist. As well as the hostess.”

By 6:20 p.m., there are approximately 25 people shuffling through the house with the poise of MOMA and the polite, graciousness of an estate sale. The hardwood floors maintain a constant roar of conversation as the attendees — mostly friends and a few professors — make the most of what is likely the most interesting art event in the area. The conversation is punctuated by the stomping of running children — several of which belong to Metzbower — as they chase each other around the in-home gallery.

In a broad sense, Metzbower’s paintings are considered abstract, but more specifically the works that comprise “Audacity” draw from four different subgroups: painting, pastel, sculpture and relief. And, true to the MFA program’s goal of cross-pollination, she draws from her own experience as a choreographer to bring a sense of movement to the pieces.

“This is a fairly new style,” she explained. “It’s one of the rarer styles. It’s not used as much, and I’m really excited to explore this territory.”

Metzbower creates sculptures out of paint. Sometimes as petal-like swirls that swell like multi-colored waves that are forever cresting but never breaking; other times as repeating patterns or lines that rise outward from the canvas into the room. Many painters study for years to create the impression of depth. Metzbower’s pieces have literal depth.

As the event extended into the evening and the natural light from the windows transitioned to the warm light of the sconces around the gallery space, the paintings changed accordingly. The paintings were now casting shadows onto themselves enhancing the dimensionality that makes Metzbower’s work stand out — both literally and figuratively. The challenge of hanging and lighting paintings like these made the physical space an integral part of the exhibit, and it made self-curation necessary.

Metzbower’s process begins with meditation in a completely quiet studio. The work is done very carefully and very slowly. The movements are embodied and automatic. The goal is to achieve the natural creative state that she sees in her children. And what adult isn’t envious of a child’s lack of self-awareness?

She doesn’t put too much stock into other people’s interpretations of her work — good or bad — because she recognizes that it always represents their own projections. As a professional abstract painter, she is very much used to people saying her work looks like X, Y or M, and at this point nothing surprises her. In fact, in some ways she leverages the Rorschachian nature of her work to her own advantage.

By titling all of her works using the same formula — her last name followed by the Roman numeral indicating the order in which it had been created — she avoids subconsciously telling the viewer what they are supposed to see in her work. Without any clues from the artist, the viewers are forced to grapple with the piece on their own.

“When you subtract all of the extra, unnecessary information — to me it’s unnecessary — then people are allowed to experience it without me putting anything on it or in it,” she explained. “It also puts my mark on it. It just continually says, ‘This is my work.’ You have to say my name in order to own it.”

Most of the pieces took a solid six to twelve months to complete. And then, of course, that much paint takes a long time to dry. Metzbower estimates there is about 300 pounds of paint spread across the paintings in the two main rooms of the gallery plus the atrium, and enough empty tubes to fill three trash cans.

“A decade from now, you’re going to be able to take an Exacto knife and cut into some of these pieces, and there will be wet paint on the inside that has still not dried,” she says gesturing towards one of her denser creations.

She briefly mused about turning the empty tubes into a sculpture, but with the rush to finish the paintings and convert the downstairs into an art gallery, side projects will have to wait.

Metzbower had previously earned her BFA with an emphasis in Studio Arts from Wilson College, and she had kept in contact with the faculty while continuing to paint professionally.

“When I heard [the MFA Program] was in the works, I said, ‘Sign me up.’”

In addition to the paintings and the gallery space, the exhibit also presented the first real opportunity to appraise the program itself.

Joshua Legg, director of Wilson College’s Master of Fine Arts Program, holds court in Metzbower’s living room-turned-gallery.

Choreographer, performer, dance historian and artistic director Joshua Legg took over as director of Wilson College’s Master of Fine Arts Program in January of 2017 — the final semester of the inaugural class.

He explains that the ideal candidate for the program is someone who has been out of undergrad for a few years, has a substantial professional portfolio, is eager to work in a trans-disciplinary setting, and has a strong potential for voice.

That last part — the part about voice — seems to be the most important quality in Legg’s opinion.

“There are some programs, there are some schools, that are interested in turning out a particular style or look,” he explains, “and that’s not what we’re interested in. Our commitment is to helping professional artists continue to develop their own artistic voice and to push them as far in that development — and to support and mentor them in that process — as we possibly can.”

He adds: “I don’t want people to replicate my work. I don’t want people to only follow the things that I say. That old-school way, not only is it detrimental to the emotional things that we sort of touched on, but it also leads to homogeneity, and we can’t afford that. If the arts are going to survive, we can’t afford homogeneity.”

“Professional” is another theme that recurs when discussing the program with Legg. In a social environment that has gone from “Is college worth the expense?” to “Is college worth anything?” his defense of studying painting and dancing at the MFA level was as direct as it was passionate.

As Legg tells it, the true skill of the artist isn’t making pretty pictures or training a body to move in a certain way. It’s the art of adaptability and survival, which requires a strong voice. At no point in the interview did he suggest that artists should create with profit in mind, but he did suggest that they aren’t likely to starve as long as they can spin whatever is at hand into gold. After all, what is a life, but an extended scene in need of choreography?

“There are a couple of things that I think are important for Americans to understand. We live in a new economy. Post 2008, people who have what have been typically referred to as the professional degrees — an MD, an MBA and a JD — those people lost jobs just like everybody else. There are no guarantees. Everybody has to be an entrepreneur. And that means creating multiple revenue streams. So it doesn’t matter that right now I’m a college professor. Right? Things happen. Faculty across the country lost jobs. And not just in the arts. That was across the board.”

He continues:

“In order to create — not just stability — but in order to thrive in this new economy, you better have multiple revenue streams. And the thing about artists is that we have been entrepreneurs since before that word existed. That’s our reality. And who are the people who thrive in this new economy? It is the creative economy, the creative class, that is thriving.”

I suspected that Legg’s MFA program would be a battlefield where works of art are created only to be destroyed during soul-shattering, tear-filled critiques. Surely, this was where Metzbower and other artists developed their thick skins, right?

“That is one hundred percent diametrically opposed to how we approach the critical response in this program,” he says, bristling a bit at the insinuation.

Legg’s incarnation of the MFA program uses the Liz Lerman Critical Response Process, which changes the fundamental question from “Is it good or bad?” to “Is it successful?” And that question can only be answered by knowing what the artist had intended in the first place. It’s not about weeding out the weak. It’s about making everyone stronger.

That isn’t to say that a critique is an hour-long love fest. If something doesn’t work, it’s the responsibility of the class to determine what that means and how to convey it constructively. This can be an emotional process, and it is designed to be beneficial to the artist and the critic.

“Let’s say a student has just presented his choreography,” said Legg giving an example. “As the facilitator in the room, I would make some kind of statement of meaning acknowledging that there was value in what we just saw — even if everyone in the room is going, “[Groaning], Wow that was not successful.’ Even if that is our internal monologue, it’s my responsibility to find something that is viable and meaningful to demonstrate respect for the human being that I’m talking to.”

Once respect and trust have been established — and humanity acknowledged — then the artist can discuss what they were attempting to do. Then the class is invited to make inquiries about the curious series of decisions set before them, and also to consider their own curious decisions.

Because I was interviewing him between Metzbower’s exhibition but before graduation, Legg had to choose his words carefully when discussing her work — and whether or not it was successful.

“You know, it’s interesting,” he says. “Beck has a way of photographing her work so that the photograph itself becomes its own piece, which is really intriguing. She will take it from a particular angle, the lighting is from a particular angle, and you’re seeing a facet that she has chosen to reveal in the photo. That’s one facet. And that’s something that’s really unique about her work is that it is multi-faceted. There are multiple ‘right’ pictures of it. That application of texture and the specificity of the marks on the canvas, and the very intentional color choices and the way sin which that sort of evolves in the space of the canvas creates depth. It creates texture. It creates dimensionality.”

Having attempted to photograph her work, I can confirm that the best way to experience a Metzbower painting is in person.

While Metzbower’s thesis had yet to be graded, I felt confident that all would go well for her when Legg continued and conceded that there is an entrepreneurial aspect to her thesis exhibit as well. By running a self-created, self-curated gallery out of her own home, Metzbower channeled both the contemporary trend of pop-up shops and the traditional concept of cottage industries. The living room gallery contains elements of Woz and Jobs toiling in a garage and the dedicated, curated space of an Apple Store.

“She’s curated her own work and created a place for that entrepreneurship, which is really exciting to see,” says Legg. “When you see women like Beck who are making the decision — ‘I am launching myself, even if it’s in a pop-up situation’ — well, they’re empowering themselves.”

In addition to being exposed to fine art at a young age, the kids chasing each other around Metzbower’s exhibit are also being exposed to the subtly subversive lesson that not only can they create their own art, but they can also create their own galleries.

Between the Metzbower’s acceptance to the program in 2015 and her graduation in 2017, a second six-member class began its journey towards MFA status. The new class is already taking the “intersectionality” of Visual Arts and Choreography to a new level.

One student is a large-scale sculptor working in film; another does smaller-scale 3-D projects; another is a choreographer-photographer; another is a ceramicist; another is a painter; another creates large installations and choreographs within that environment.

Under Legg’s watch, Wilson College’s MFA program will never have a singular style like, say, Bauhaus, but instead, the artists it produces will be recognizable because of the unique purity of their voices like, say, the Judson Dance Theater.

Professional artists would be wise to consider the program. Art critics who want to get in on the ground floor should start paying attention now.

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