Artists in Residence

Steve Aishman holds up a photograph of a Twinkie sliced down the middle to reveal the creamy white filling. As Aishman explains it, in his whimsical glossies, his Japanese-American roots are reduced to the metaphor of the dessert cake: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Larger photographs in another series document his father fighting prostate cancer. Even in these dire shots, which show his father weakening as the disease progresses, Aishman manages to infuse some humor. In one picture, he and his father flex muscles together in a shared show of strength.

So when Kathleen Bitetti, executive director of the nonprofit Artists Foundation, found several of Aishman's works in a show at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, she mentioned him to Nick Capasso, a curator of the DeCordova Museum. After reviewing Aishman's works, Capasso decided to include them in a DeCordova exhibition on humor in art. “I doubt that would happen anywhere else,” says Aishman, a 26-year-old Museum School graduate. “To be able to show a student's work at a major museum is remarkable.”

Museums that take an interest in area artists are among the reasons young artists such as Aishman are increasingly forgoing the chance to work in New York — the unmistakable center of the art world — and choosing instead to stay in Boston. There's no denying that the latest Boston housing crunch has pushed many artists out of the city limits into more affordable locales like Lynn, Lowell, and New Bedford. But Boston's wealth of universities offers artists a chance to teach part time to supplement their art income. These same schools also offer something even more valuable: exhibition space where young emerging artists can get their goods up on the walls for people to see. The Boston area may very well have more exhibition space per artist than anyplace else in the country, what with the ring of museums in the suburbs — the DeCordova in Lincoln, the Fuller in Brockton, the Danforth in Framingham, the Addison in Andover — and the growing number of galleries and alternative spaces in the city itself. Many of these local museums and galleries favor regional artists.

“I could be scrapping for fame in New York, but that's not the point of what I do,” says Aishman. “I want to share my ideas with as many people as possible. And I have that opportunity here.”

For decades, the Massachusetts College of Art, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Museum School, and even Boston University churned out promising young artists who grabbed their diplomas like batons and ran to the studios of Manhattan's Lower East Side and Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood.

These days, however, more of these artists are electing to stay in Boston. Behind this contemporary art renaissance is an ambitious crop of curators who have taken over the city's major art institutions. “They're morale boosters for young artists,” says Bitetti, whose Artists Foundation helps art-school grads deal with such issues as housing, studio space, and health insurance. “It's a real change. Before curators didn't know who was in their backyard. Now they realize that part of their job is knowing.”

Foremost among them is Bill Arning, curator at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. Before coming to the List in April of 2000, Arning made his reputation at New York's White Columns, an alternative space that curated the first shows of many of today's top talent — people like Andres Serrano and Jonathan Currin. “I did some 1,200 studio visits a year,” says Arning.

His enthusiasm hasn't waned since he arrived in Boston.

“Bill Arning walks into my show at the Artists Foundation and soon he's talking about the notion of a hybrid society in today's world,” says Aishman. “Much of it went over my head, but it was a thrill to have him talk about my work.”

Curators from around the world call Arning to ask him about the Boston art scene, and if by chance they're in town, Arning will drive them around to his favorite galleries. He isn't trying to impress only his peers. “One of the reasons I took this job is that a large percentage of your audience is students,” he says. “If we do a good, edgy show here, something that engages them, then that's a particularly exhilarating position to be in.”

DeCordova's Nick Capasso, like Arning, strives to keep current, frequenting art schools, galleries, and open studios. He looks at works to mount in exhibitions both inside the museum and outdoors in its 35-acre sculpture garden. Most of the sculptures are on loan from the artists or their galleries for a few years, and then returned. Others, like Joe Wheelwright's Listening Stone, are created exclusively for the museum. During an excavation to double the museum's size, workers came across a large boulder. Wheelwright, whose work Capasso discovered at the Chapel Gallery in Newton, painstakingly chiseled away the rock to carve a head with an ear close to the ground, directly engaged with the landscape.

The DeCordova is not the only museum making space for public art. The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) has teamed up with the National Park Service to form an artists-in-residency program. Each summer, temporary works are developed to explore the history of the city and exhibited at the Charlestown Navy Yard, Paul Revere House, and other public places.

Curator Carole Anne Meehan has chosen only Boston artists for this high-profile residency because, she says, “they already have a feel for the city and are able to dig a little bit deeper into the scenes. It's also wonderful to give artists that have chosen Boston as their home a chance to test their mettle.”

Like Meehan, ICA curator Jessica Morgan is always on the lookout for local talent. “Our policy right now is to show Boston artists on the same level that we show artists that have national and international exposure,” says Morgan. “So if I'm doing a group show, I have an eye out for people from the area.” The ICA's annual Artist Prize, for example, conferred for the first time in 1999, honors only local artists. The winner is awarded a one-person exhibition at the museum and $2,500 in cash.

It's a powerful recognition. Painter Ambreen Butt, the first recipient and a Pakistani-born graduate of MassArt, has since won accolades, $10,000 in grants, three sold-out shows, a residency at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and exhibitions at the ICA, DeCordova, and Fuller museums.

Sitting on a rug in the same Mission Hill apartment where she's lived since her arrival in America, Butt dabs her brush into seashells that contain various watercolors. Her home is her studio. She's been teaching at MassArt off and on but prefers residencies and grants so she can immerse herself in the work without distractions. Her medium is traditional miniature painting, created by putting together layers of Mylar and paper. The themes of her paintings cover the complexity of human relationships. In one of her recent works, Home and the World, a husband and wife stand comfortably alone at far corners of the painting sniffing roses. A red love line connects them, yet both are dwarfed by an immense circular design in the middle — a centrifugal force, or the world itself, splitting them up and then bringing them back together.

“She's an amazingly skilled artist who offers an opinion without a sledgehammer,” says Boston gallery owner Bernard Toale. “A visual narrative with clues, but not the whole story.”

Butt met Toale at his former gallery on Newbury Street, when she walked in with her paintings under her arm and asked him to take a look. “She did what I tell every artist not to do: show up with your wares,” says the soft-spoken Toale. “But as soon as I opened up her portfolio, I knew that there was something special here.”

Three years ago, Toale moved from Newbury Street to the South End after his rent tripled. A handful of other galleries, including three that set up shop last fall, have joined Toale in this emerging neighborhood south of Washington Street — “SoWa,” as the locals have begun to call it, “So What” as critics derided it when Toale first made the move. But he insists he made the right choice.” I happened to do very well last year,” Toale says.

Allston Skirt Gallery owners Beth Kantrowitz and Randi Hopkins relocated to SoWa last summer after finding their own eclectic mix of clientele in Allston. “We've developed collectors who didn't realize they were collectors,” says Hopkins. “People in their thirties who are finally getting rid of those college posters to purchase something a bit more substantial,” Kantrowitz chimes in. With prices as low as $100, the art in this gallery is affordable. But it's also accessible. “Our main goal,” says Kantrowitz, “is to educate people and hopefully make contemporary works less intimidating.”

That's not to say that Allston Skirt shies away from bold works to hang saccharine still lifes. In a corner of the gallery, Pia Schachter was busy drilling, building her latest installation, Bedroom. Complete with a naked Iggy Pop pillow, a headboard of Alice Cooper, and a bedspread of sexually explicit lyrics from rockers of the '70s and '80s, Schachter's bed focuses on the influence rock 'n' roll has on a teenage girl. David Bowie wallpaper and curtains made of quotes from Schachter's own teenage diary furnish the rest of the room.

Like Toale and the gregarious duo at Allston Skirt, Barbara Krakow is not the least bit pretentious, even though she has owned a gallery on Newbury Street since 1964 and represented some of the biggest names in art. Krakow refuses to rest on her laurels, exhibiting works by many young Boston artists. “It's important for me to be up to date,” she says. “Otherwise, the gallery becomes fossilized, and so do I.”

While Krakow has her fair share of walk-in clientele on Newbury Street, no exhibition space has a better location or a more diverse crowd than that of Gallery @ Green Street, opened in the Green Street T stop in Jamaica Plain

in 1998. Thousands of commuters, including students at nearby Boston English High School, pass its windows every day. Owner James Hull props open the doors in the summer, when people stumble into the gallery thinking it's the subway entrance.

Green Street is part of a growing number of alternative spaces — the Oni Gallery in Chinatown, HallSpace in Roxbury — scattered throughout the city. Many are housed in unused locales like this former subway station storefront, which had been vacant since 1987. Now it's lit up every night so people can peek in the large windows. Galleries like this one expose a broad audience to contemporary works few would go out of their way to see. “It lowers your apprehension and raises your comfort level,” says Hull, “even with works that are more challenging.”

Take Taylor Davis's pine and plywood structures. The most recent recipient of the ICA Artist Prize, Davis creates sculptures that give the illusion of simplicity on first glance. Their minimalist designs become far more complex as the viewer walks around each of the wooden troughs, or pallets. “I've had carpenters come in and say, 'I don't know if it's art, but it sure is well made,'” says Hull.

Hull scours the art schools and gives many young artists their first shows, which, in turn, become must-sees for curators such as Arning, Capasso, and Morgan. More established talent seeks out Hull, knowing that his nonprofit status and ideal locale offer the chance to experiment. Working artists in the neighborhood are thrilled to have a gallery in their backyard. Many have been working in J.P. for decades, helping to beautify the neighborhood. They've also helped to gentrify it — so much so that some of them can no longer afford to live there.

Skyrocketing rents are threatening artists not only in Jamaica Plain, but all over the city, especially in the Fort Point district and the South End. “It's the sad inevitability of every urban renewal that artists or those who take a cheaper rent are the first people pushed out,” says Jessica Morgan of the ICA.

Boston artists are fighting hard to stay, and City Hall is making a few accommodating gestures. The mayor's office has hired Susan Hartnett, former head of Boston Center for the Arts, to help boost the number of affordable living quarters available to artists. So far Hartnett has found 29 apartments and condominiums that will be deeded forever to artists in each of four different neighborhoods.

It's another reason for young artists to shift allegiances from SoHo to SoWa.