Popeye, the cartoon sailor who achieves super-human strength when he downs a can of spinach, first made his appearance in American newspaper funny pages in 1929. Hindu devotional art emerged in India many centuries before that. Most of us would not discern any connection between the two, but Grace Weaver does. And you can see its indelible presence in her own artwork.
Weaver, 22, graduated from the University of Vermont last year with a degree in studio art. This month, she’s been ensconced on the fourth floor of the BCA Center in Burlington as artist-in-residence in a program BCA calls ArtLab, making one picture after another. All of them feature line drawings of figures on white paper, some smudged with charcoal or washed in gray. They are cartoony and amusing, but also slightly unsettling: The figures’ fingers and toes bend and curl and intertwine in anatomically impossible ways — recalling, yes, the movements in Hindu dance. And, like that art form, these images are graceful and disciplined.
“What struck me looking at Hindu bronzes for the first time,” Weaver says, “was, I didn’t know the religious significance, but the body language was so evocative to me.” She has parlayed this fascination into an artistic language all her own in works she calls “provisional icons for the contemporary world.” Weaver’s drawings are deceptively simple, but the lines are confident and expressive. With minimal marks, she renders facial features, hair, breasts; she ignores the limitations of human anatomy, the relative sizes of body parts. Yet her stylized figures convey movement and attitude, even sensuality.
In a drawing of a nude female, for example, the figure’s body leans forward at a right angle to her extended leg; at the end of that leg, the foot is bent upward, the toes curled forward — unhindered by the presence of bone. One long, rubbery arm swoops forward, the spindly fingers on its hand crossing like a pretzel. Think Olive Oyl practicing bhakti.
That image, titled “Noa Noa,” is one of three limited-edition screen prints that Weaver is currently selling to help fund an impending journey to India. The trip is not just for sight-seeing; she plans to work as a volunteer photographer for DakshinaChitra, a nonprofit in the state of Tamil Nadu that supports indigenous folk arts and crafts. “It’s like the Shelburne Museum of South India,” she suggests.
Over her five-month sojourn, Weaver will also travel and do research to inform her own work — and feed her evident hunger for knowledge. She’ll photograph Hindu temple sculptures, interview folk artisans and generally immerse herself in Indian figurative-art traditions. Curiously, this Burlington-born-and-raised young woman says she recognizes herself in medieval Indian artwork. “It’s exciting to me to communicate across time,” she says of her 21st-century devotions.
Longtime readers of the New York Times might also find reminders in Weaver’s work of the black-and-white caricatures of Al Hirschfeld. For many years his weekly installment was something to look forward to: brilliant, spot-on expressions using strong lines and swirls of ink, and wry humor.
Weaver is calling her project “Speaking Through the Body of God.” Her fundraising campaign has the more secular name of “100x100,” referring to the number of 11-by-14-inch prints she hopes to sell, and their price: $100 each.
BCA curator Chris Thompson says he selects artists “on the verge of breaking out” for the ArtLab residences. Weaver’s month in the fourth-floor studio “fit between her graduation and her leaving [for India],” he notes. “The thought process behind her work is very vigorous; she’s really taking chances when she’s here.
“I like this cartoon direction, but there’s this beautiful line,” Thompson continues. “And there’s also something disturbing and uncanny that she captures. I really like how she’s used her time.”
That time is waning. Weaver will host a closing reception in the studio next week and leave for India shortly thereafter. As she researches, photographs, draws and writes, she’ll maintain a website chronicling her experiences. Of her artistic direction, she says, “I guess I benefited from some kind of beginner’s luck; I took an art history class that really influenced me. Going to India,” she muses, “will be the challenge, to see if my interest goes beyond that.”
Either way, it will be an adventure, and this red-haired, blue-eyed Vermonter may well leave a mark even Shiva could admire.
Grace Weaver’s closing reception is Friday, March 9, 5-8 p.m. at the BCA Center, fourth-floor studio. More info about her fundraising project at 100x100project.blogspot.com.