When considering candidates for the role of exhibitions director, the Helen Day Art Center could have done worse than hire a guy who shares a name with a Norse god. Odin, Wikipedia informs us, “is associated with wisdom, war, battle and death, and also magic, poetry, prophecy, victory and the hunt.” Such splendid versatility is probably not in the job description, but, as the newest member of a small arts staff, Erik Odin Cathcart will surely be expected to multitask.
Actually, says HDAC Executive Director Nathan Suter, Cathcart’s sole official job will be to curate exhibits, but his diverse collection of skills, interests and experiences made him an attractive hire. “Odin is enthusiastic about connecting artists and the community,” explains Suter. “We wanted someone with no preconceptions about our audience, about Vermont, about what is and isn’t possible here. Right now his life picture is, he’s doing artwork and Helen Day Art Center and not much else,” Suter continues. “That’s the kind of commitment we really need.”
It doesn’t hurt, though, that Cathcart brings an arts marketing background to the table, not to mention expertise in art installation and preparatory techniques, art handling and shipping, photography, computer design programs, database management, carpentry and, handily, writing about art. Take that, Odin (the god)!
After earning a BFA in painting from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1987, the Albion, N.Y.-born Cathcart moved all over the U.S., opting for “real jobs” to escape what he saw as a “shallow” art scene, before recommitting to art making. Those jobs included stints at Jager DiPaola Kemp Design and PKC in Burlington a decade ago. He finally returned to school — SUNY New Paltz — and earned his MFA in painting last year. Cathcart, now 46, was preparing for a show in New York when he saw the HDAC job posting.
For now he’s living with an old friend in a woodsy area of Essex, where he’s installed a tiny shed — its footprint is 6 by 6 feet — that’s part of the Habitat for Artists project launched by Hudson Valley artist Simon Draper. The mini-studio is a decidedly “green” statement about shelter, space and the use of natural resources.
Cathcart’s own work reflects his eco-consciousness, too. His current two-dimensional “paintings” do employ acrylic pigment — and formally evoke the color-field school of abstraction — but they also inventively showcase natural “media” such as tree bark, feathers, bulrush and sumac. “The conversation for me comes through leveraging an art-historical statement with an environmental one,” says Cathcart. Some of the meaning in his work is invisible to the viewer — that sumac, for instance, comes from a field that was later paved over — but he doesn’t seem to mind. “That’s what always fascinates me [about art],” Cathcart muses. “You can take it to a number of levels.”
At the Helen Day, Cathcart says, he and Suter agree that they’d like to raise the level of discourse about art but “shed its elitist entrapments.” Sounds good. And here’s another “shed” idea: Build more tiny studios and sell them to the rest of us who need a quiet room of our own.
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