School of Art director reflects on past health struggles, healing in upcoming exhibit

Marie Bukowski sits in her office in the Center for the Visual Arts on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, where her artwork is framed.Bukowski began practicing visual and performance art as a child. Her family included art in her education as early as 6 or 7 years old, but she didn’t decide to pursue art professionally until high school. Bukowski earned her first degree in fine arts from Carnegie Mellon University. Now, Bukowski is the director of Kent State’s School of Art, and she has shown her printmaking work in local and international exhibits.

Alexandra Sobczak

Since she began her junior year of college, more than 130 exhibits have featured Marie Bukowski’s artwork. The School of Art director participated in solo, invitational and juried exhibitions in eleven countries.

Soon, she’ll have a solo exhibit in a place she’s never had one before: Kent, Ohio.

Bukowski’s show, “Memoirs of Disintegration,” will in at the KSU Downtown Gallery from Dec. 5 to Jan. 12. There is an opening reception on Dec. 7 from 5 to 8 p.m., as the gallery is one of the locations on Main Street Kent’s First Friday Art Walk.

The show will feature prints from her collection, “Cold Memories; Warm Dreams.”

Despite being an internationally recognized artist, Bukowski thinks it’s essential to challenge herself with new artwork.

“I think part of being in higher education is not only do you have to keep your own profession going just for yourself, but I think you owe it to your students, too,” Bukowski said. “If you’re not making work and you’re not doing your own professional practice, you’re doing your own students a disservice because you’re then not bringing anything new into the classroom.”

Bukowski strives to bring new concepts into her artwork, but there is one part of her process she won’t alter: her work is always hand-drawn.

“One of the things that’s really important to me is that it’s all done by hand,” she said. “I don’t like using stencils. I don’t like using rulers or French curves … I like the idea of perfection within imperfection, the idea that nothing is ever perfect because it’s by hand. But there’s a perfection because it is by hand, and the human hand can never be perfect.”

Despite not using tools, Bukowski works to make sure her artwork is as exact as it can possibly be.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever … been around an artist who has been so dedicated to everything being just the way she wants it to be,” said Maria Robertson, the academic adviser for the School of Art. “I work with a lot of artists on a daily basis, and they’re all amazing in their own right. But I’ve talked to Marie a lot about what her work ethic is … She’s a very precise person … who’s very controlled in her own mind about what she wants to put (in), from the time she starts developing a piece to when it appears on the paper.”

Bukowski acknowledges that producing precise artwork is directly related to a large time commitment. She works to fit in studio time throughout the week, while also dedicating eight to 10 hours on one day of the weekend to her art. The top of her website says she does work “requiring countless hours of unsung commitment.”

“The act of art-making blurs the line between introspection and obsession,” the website says.

This “obsession” extends past her process to the very reason she creates art. The pieces in her upcoming exhibit, described in the title as “Memoirs,” serve a diaristic purpose: she documents her thoughts and experiences during good times and bad. In her artist statement, she describes her private experiences as “obsessively recorded.”

The timeline Bukowski was recording began with a cancer diagnosis and ran through the point of recovery.

The concept the exhibit focuses on, “disintegration,” finds a counterpart in “recovery” and “reconstruction.” Bukowski explained that during an illness like cancer, disintegration and recovery often happen simultaneously. She suggested that while undergoing treatment, her body was “deteriorating” while it was also “healing and becoming whole again.”

“If there is disintegration, there is also healing involved, but one can’t happen without the other,” she said. “They can only coexist.”

Because of this, the pieces in her collection represent both deterioration and regrowth. Each piece includes a plant or a tree, which can either be wilting or thriving, depending on the viewer’s perspective.

Illness can take a toll on someone both physically and mentally. It’s harder for a person to gauge how she’s doing mentally than physically, Bukowski said.

“It’s hard to really know where you are on that spectrum (of mental health),” she said, “which is why I think doing work like this is so important, to kind of document it.”

Although Bukowski closely examined her mental struggles in the process of creating this collection, the art mainly focuses on physical aspects.

Warner said Bukowski’s work is like an “abstract vocabulary for herself” because it helps her understand her “personal history, personal trauma (and) lived experience.”

In her artist statement, Bukowski won’t be telling viewers what inspired her art.

“(The statement) doesn’t say specifically ‘cancer,’” she said. “It kind of puts people in a certain mindset, so that way it can be a little bit open to interpretation for them.”

Even in full health, Bukowski is not finished with her collection. She plans to work on it until it entirely “evolves” into a new concept.

“Even though I am actually perfectly healthy now, I’m still making the work,” she said. “For whatever reason, I don’t feel like the series is done, even though I’ve come out of it on the other side for the better.”

Bukowski’s work in the upcoming exhibit and her current research differ slightly from her what she has done routinely in the past.

Examples of work from her collections produced between 2014 and 2016 reveal she created her work on gridded graph paper.

“She has intense mathematical formulas in her journals,” said John-Michael Warner, an assistant professor in art history. “Somehow she translates visually these formulas — I mean absolutely brilliant mathematical formulas.”

Bukowski said she has based her artwork on mathematics for the last 10 years. Her current work does not incorporate graph paper and grids, but it still includes some “harsh geometric shapes” mixed in with natural, organic botanical images.

The pieces in this collection are as current to Bukowski as possible.

The KSU Downtown Gallery’s mission is to display the current research of Kent State students, faculty, staff and local artists, said Anderson Turner, the director of the School of Art collection and galleries.

“That space is really supposed to be the research that’s happening in people’s studios right now,” Turner said. “It could still be drying as it gets hung on the wall.”

This is Bukowski’s second year as the School of Art’s director, and some people have never seen a body of her work in person before.

“My hope would be … that people would be really interested in the director of one of the lead schools of art in the country, so I hope they will find it as interesting as all of us do as her colleagues,” Turner said. “My hope is they look and see and respond to somebody who’s working on an international level and continuing to push herself intellectually and artistically.”

Alexandra Sobczak is the Arts and Architecture reporter. Contact her at [email protected].