Burns Maxey is in the middle of a long-scale project of impressive scope. For a lot of artists, "impressive scope" might mean an entire exhibition of artworks. Maxey, on the other hand, has undertaken a project that sprawls over a lot of literal and temporal real estate, and involves a whole set of exhibitions, many of which would be impressive as standalone material. Her Project Elements Easthampton, begun in 2009, is only halfway done ("Earth" and "Water" have made it to completion, and "Water" was the subject of an Advocate story last year), and it includes art of traditional and more contemporary proclivities.
Her sense of adventure and wide-open conception of what constitutes an artwork meant that the first two installments involved installations, audio, video, and one thoroughly organic medium: chairs seeded with grass, which became lush mini-lawns. The chairs held old-fashioned phones on which listeners could hear stories from Easthamptonites. The project also involved nighttime photographs of Easthampton houses and a cell-phone tour of weird stories around town. "Water" involved recreations of dreams, a very blue room installation, and parts of Patty Gambarini's documentary Reflections of the Lower Mill Pond. It's all heady stuff, but also entertaining and rich in content.
Through the end of June, one part of "Earth" is on display at Northampton's Forbes Library. It may be part of a greater whole, but Easthampton Alphabet is, on its own terms, a complete and elaborate grouping of artwork involving many an hour of studio work and, unusually enough, library research (which took place at the Forbes).
Maxey's work is rooted in place, so much so that it becomes inextricably linked to one town. That exceptionally local flavor is no doubt part of why Maxey's art makes for great conversation and why it is itself something of a conversation. Easthampton Alphabet in particular is distinguished in other ways. Much of Project Elements involves art that demands a broad definition of the term, art that employs audio, video and unusual installations and can prove challenging to viewers' expectations. That effect is somewhat mitigated in that its subjects are often local people—who, after all, doesn't like something that is a reflection of her own life? But in Easthampton Alphabet, such concerns evaporate. This is art of a more basic sort, renderings of people and events, accompanied by brief text.
Maxey, who studied at Rhode Island School of Design, may spend a lot of time thinking of art in cerebral terms, but it's clear that she can put pen to paper to great effect, too. The drawings of Easthampton Alphabet are cartoonish, colorful and whimsical. They recall Edward Gorey's work at times, at other times kids' books. In a lot of images, that approach melds perfectly with the lightness of the subject matter. Two women breezily bike in one, and the accompanying story tells of their being intercepted (in 1940) by a policeman in Yonkers, who stopped them for wearing shorts.
In other frames, though, subject matter and aesthetic style clash to create a sense of unease. Even when Maxey is doing the expected, she ends up complicating matters in a really interesting way. The frame of one drawing is full of bright blocks of color, and the story is not readily apparent: a shirtless boy lurks between very large chickens. Whimsy does not follow—the boy, says the newspaper article, is a 16-year-old who was forced to sleep in a chicken coop and eat what was left over once the chickens finished eating, all because of the reported hatred of his stepmother.
The stories that prompted Easthampton Alphabet were brought to light by Maxey in a mammoth bit of research: she read about the town, but not in an easy way. "I was doing research on microfiche," Maxey explains. Though she looked even farther back, the oldest stories in the project so far come from the mid-19th century. Her microfiche reading came from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and she also employed old city directories, which often enabled her to find out the addresses of such goings-on.
In order to guide her works and limit their scope, she used the idea of the alphabet, starting with O (the aforementioned cyclists). Choosing the right stories wasn't simply a matter of finding the weird and wacky. "I thought about what makes an interesting story, but when I printed them up, some also suggested visuals. There was the obvious, like a crime scene, but the mundane could still be interesting and visual," says Maxey. "Like the potato chip factory [letter P]—it's not dramatic. But I like potato chips."
Maxey, who recently gave up her Easthampton residency for Northampton, grew up in Mississippi, and ended up in the Valley after sojourns in New Orleans and San Francisco. At Rhode Island School of Design she studied painting and also developed an interest in multimedia work, which, she says, was part of "bringing my work into a larger context. It was thought-provoking for me. I want to be involved and learning something beyond just my own creative flow."
That led Maxey to the idea of an artistic equivalent to the locavore movement: "We have interesting things around us right here and now," she says. She explains that she wants her art to offer viewers "a way to learn about our surroundings, but not in a didactic way. I want to engage the senses and create experience. Art is entertainment, but you have to take an initial step [to experience it]."
For Maxey, the creation of art is something of a similar process. She embarks, takes that initial step, without really knowing where it will lead: "I go into each project without knowing what I'm going to do or what materials I will use."
It's that ready sense of exploration and expectation that makes her work at once easy to like and conceptually sophisticated. As high-concept as some of her works are, they're rooted in one Valley locale for a simple reason: "I adore Easthampton. It's a bit of an underdog next to Northampton."
The Easthampton Alphabet: through June 29, with Terre Verte: Handmade Paper and Monoprints by Elisa Lanzi and Pastels on Paper by Sherry Poirrier, Hosmer Gallery, Forbes Library, 20 West St., Northampton, (413) 587-1011, forbeslibrary.org.