Redding artist James Grashow transformed the Museum's Leir Gallery into a zoo of wild jungle animals. Crafted from plain and corrugated cardboard and assembled with Elmer's Glue and paper packing tape, these larger-than-life size animals were arranged so that visitors could stroll throughout the gallery in the corridors between their cardboard cages. Grashow fabricated as many animals as possible to replicate the thrill and variety of an actual trip to the zoo.
James Grashow walked into the cardboard factory in Danbury, and as he wound through the aisles, forced to choose between the wide variety of thicknesses, styles and shapes of cardboard, he came across a box. This was not just a box; the word printed on its side shone out at him like a message from above: "yazoo."
"It was like a cosmic sign telling me to do the zoo," Grashow recalls. With this heavenly sign of approval, Grashow would dedicate the next few months to the exhibition naturally titled YaZOO, a collection of life-size (or near life-size) zoo animals composed entirely of corrugated cardboard.
Meanwhile, back at The Aldrich, a program called DesignWorks was just entering its second session, this time composed of high school students from Danbury and Ridgefield. Aldrich Associate Curator of Education, Lynda Carroll, is the ringleader of this group which, over the course of a few months, learns key elements of design — as well as the design process, which, as the participants learn, required not only creativity but teamwork. The fundamental lesson here is that design is in every process and every object.
"It's in every blade of grass, every coffee cup from Dunkin Donuts," muses Carroll. "Every undertaking has design involved — it's practical. An Oreo cookie, for example, is designed to hold milk. Design empowers everybody, because it makes things work." Empowering the DesignWorks program through funding is the Alexander Julian Foundation, the O'Grady Family Foundation, and a grant from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts.
Soon this DesignWorks group would cross paths with James Grashow, but instead of going their separate ways, they merged their ideas and inspirations into a creative superhighway. "His inspiration and motivation has really brought us together as a team," says DesignWorks participant Kristin Ehrismann. "Art is an incredible process," says Grashow, "but everyone that sees art and shares it only sees the final copy. I want to let as many into the process as possible — getting hands wet and pasting and cutting paper may seem very mindless, but it very satisfying." When Grashow and DesignWorks combined, the cardboard animals were no longer alligators and elephants, but "ciorrugators" and "package-derms," and the DesignWorks participants became zookeepers of sorts.
Essentially, the very walls between the rational and the imaginary that seemed so tall and reinforced has been torn down. "There's always this kind of very, very fine line between fantasy and reality," says Grashow. "There are always real images and cartoon images. Animals have the unbelievable power to transcend the reality and the fantasy. We often want animals to belong to us — to be human — so we have a tendency to put them in a quasi-cartoon world and make a separate reality. What separates man and animals is the recognition of morality. Making prisoners of animals talks about mortality — your frailty is making an illusion of the animal."
The very idea of frailty is one of the reasons why Grashow uses cardboard in his sculpture: "Sometime an artist is marked by more by his medium than the subject he chooses. If an artist works in stone, it says something different than if he works in paper. Paper often conveys a message about the transitory nature of man. I have atlas been drawn to working with cardboard and paper mediums which speak of mortality."
For the DesignWorks group, which would meet at Grashow's Redding studio once a week, working with and manipulating cardboard to create art also gave the press ion that there was something to this medium than just paper. "Working in Mr. Grashow's studio, particularly with cardboard, has definitely been a different sort of experience for me," says a DesignWorks participant. "The cardboard really seems to have a life of its own. To get it to reach a certain shape, you have to cut it, glue it, tape it down, stick all sorts of pins and razors in it to keep it where you want it, and then you have to papier-mâché it to cover all the seams. But if you overdo it, like applying too much glue or bending it too much, it doesn't look that great and you've actually taken away from it. It's kind of like man himself — over the course of life he gets shapes a certain way sometimes a little pinned down, but if he's influenced too much in any one way, he breaks.And not even papier-mâché can cover that up."
Grashow's choisi to use cardboard, however, is far more than theoretical; it is emotional, and the justifications for it are almost inexpressible. "The choice of a medium," he says, " is an absolutely personal choice. The body responds to certain mediums. Corrugated cardboard is so basic, so close to the source. Everyone has had an experience with cardboard. It is a warm, forgiving medium that accepts everything and by its very nature invites all to come and play."
DesignWorks hopes to influence how its participants represent themselves and face the world, not only by teaching them deign is all around, but by pairing students from town differing in size and general socioeconomic backgrounders in order to reinforce the fact that people from different places indeed share the same high levels of creativity as others. "When student from rural and urban areas are paired," says Carroll, "we see different influences unite. It's productive to take the complexity of one town and put it together with another." Essentially the artistic influences from different town complement each other, especially in design, to enhance the final product. "The best par of DesignWorks was to work as a team and get to know different people," exclaims Design Works participant Franciele Mendes.
In choosing animals as the subject for this examination, Grashow has reached out to people not only of different background but of different ages: "As you work, you're always looking for the root of yourself — it's absolutely elemental. Animals are incredibly elemental. They have a signature and form that everybody understands. Every work has a broad entry point, and animals would make the show very accessible to people. A zoo would give a very rich texture, and would help make that statement about the fragility of life."
"Your can't help by become excited about cardboard animals," enthuses DesignWorks participant Beth Thomas. "And Mr. Grashow's enthusiasm is contagious." Of course, Grashow did not just "choose" animals one day as the subject for the show. A mental process extended over a long period of time was what eventually led to YaZOO. "Your brain is like a stove," Grashow explains, "and there are ideas that are cooking all the time. Some take years or months to cook — you never know when they'll be ready. Over the last few years, the whole idea of creating a show entirely of corrugated cardboard has been getting stronger and stronger. The medium is so responsive and creative that I wanted to take it as far as I could — a zoo was a perfect vehicle for it."
A short while ago, the time on that stove buzzed, and what emerged was YaZOO. It gave DesignWorks members a taste for the process of art in the real world, but knowing James Grashow, his appetite has only been whetted; we can expect more course to emerge from that same stove in the future.
by Jullian Knox, DesignWorks student
The show was a collaboration between The Aldrich, DesignWorks Students, and James Grashow.
James Grashow of West Redding, Connecticut received his BFA and MFA from The Pratt Institute. He was a professor of art at the Pratt Institute in New York Cit and the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation, Colorado.
His exhibition have included "Houseplant and Dinosaurs," Allan Stone Gallery, "Card-board-asuaruses," Staten Island Children's Museum; "The Ocean," New Britain Museum, CT; and among other, exhibition at American Institute of Architects, Center of the Arts, SUNY at Purchase, NY.
Commissions; Morgan Stanley, Walk Disney, the Javits Center, The New York Times, and The San Francisco Ballet. His work is also in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, The New York Public Library, The Roanoke Museum of Fine Art, and the Staten Island Children's Museum Awards include the Tiffany Grant Award for Graphics; The Fulbright Travel Grant, Florence Italy; Society of Illstrators Award of Merit; American Institute of Graphic Arts Certificate of Excellence; and the Art Directors Club Certificate of Distinction.
Top image: yaZOO! Installation Photo