Moon of a Scarlet Sky, 2021
Materials: abaca, flax, and pigmented cotton pulp painting, 90" x 43"
Location at Summa: Juve Family Behavioral Health Pavilion, waiting room
About the art and the artist:
This work is unique in the Summa Collection for its particular medium and technique: Tom Balbo creates a base layer of paper (the "substrate") from pulp made of three different natural fibers, which he has then colored with pigment while still wet so that the pigment infuses the paper rather than just resting on top of it. He then "paints" with brushes and also with squeeze bottles and syringes full of more thin, pigmented pulp, in order to create lines, forms, and broader areas of color that soak into the still-wet base layer. Sometimes he builds up forms on top of the substrate, still wet, to create relief, as he has done here with the moon.
Once the desired visual effect is achieved in this process of adding more and more pigmented pulp, everything rests on a screen to dry, the various wet parts adhering to one another and the colors penetrating into the substrate. The result is paper without being flat, a single sheet which has relief as well as varied texture and is filled throughout with all the painted pulp once on top of but now firmly a part of that paper. In Moon of a Scarlet Sky, Balbo has not only built up the moon but also left the rest of the surface rough in order to create texture for the sky and the foliage-like forms near the base of the composition. Then he has echoed the moon's shape in what look like rounded river stones gathered below. All this begins as wet pulp and ends up a single "sheet" of transformed paper.
Balbo tells us that, like so many artists, he spent much of the pandemic in his studio responding to the imposed isolation by focusing on ideas that had been on his mind for years. This work is one in a series about the moon, which he describes as having poetic aims. He wanted to explore the moon's traditional and contemporary meanings, along with the kind of fantasies it might generate in us in times of uncertainty.
And so, this sky feels dream-like, brilliant with colors beyond the scarlet of the title, while the landscape below is implied rather than articulated in detail. Is that blue a lake? Do those crimson and yellows evoke a particularly vivid sunset or are they flames? The artist allows for the enigma as he veers from strictly naturalistic description in color and in form. Contributing to this sense of dislocation is the work's very size (almost 8 feet tall!), as well as the fact that the material that is familiar but used in an unexpected way.
At the same time, it may well be that, in the rocky relief forms at the base of this work, Tom Balbo wants to remind us that, however poetic his interpretation of the moon, it does in fact belong to, is part of, our own planet: According to best current theory, the moon was consolidated from terrestrial material bounced back into space by the impact of a Mars-sized body with the earth some 4.5 billion years ago! We don't really need to know this to be affected by the visual impact of this work, but there is a kind of poetic symmetry between the heavenly body floating high above its earthly origins, deep underground.
Tom Balbo grew up in Cleveland, attended public and private schools in the Cleveland area, and earned a B.A. degree in studio arts from Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea. He then received a fellowship from Syracuse University and a Ford Foundation grant while completing the M.A. in studio art. His first interests were in ceramics and printmaking, but with time he found himself devoting more energy to papermaking, which has been his focus for more than 40 years.
While creating, exhibiting, and earning critical acclaim for his work with paper, Balbo, along with other area artists, in 2008 founded the Morgan Art of Paper Conservatory and Educational Foundation, "the largest arts center in the United States dedicated to every facet of papermaking, book arts and letterpress printing." He served as its first artistic director for many years and retains "emeritus papermaker" status while continuing to make art and to run the Balbo Galleries.
Where you can see more of this artist’s work
In addition to what is featured on his website, Tom Balbo's work can be seen at his galleries in East Cleveland and on the 2013 PBS video. He creates artist books from his handmade paper, as well as embedded, marbled, and cast papers, and pulp paintings, all involving techniques both traditional and new, which are partially documented in videos on his website.