It was a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, 2019
Materials: Acrylic, pom-poms on wood panel, 44” x 36”
Location at Summa Health: Dr. Gary B. and Pamela S. Williams Tower on the Akron Campus (141 N. Forge St.), blue neighborhood, fourth floor, outside patient rooms, H4-125 and H4-126
Purchased by Summa Health with a donation from the Haslinger Family Foundation
This portrait of Fred Rogers, a familiar TV figure represented in a familiar posture, is the product of the artist’s own history as well as that of art and of later 20th century technology. You can be excused if it takes you a moment to recognize that this is indeed Rogers in his famous red sweater because you’ll have to take a few steps back from where it hangs. At a greater distance, the individual sparkly pom-poms of which it is composed blend more easily in the eye and then reveal the half-length, seated figure, probably in the act of changing his shoes, as he did at the start of each program. (You can also get this same effect by looking at the image as it’s captured on your mobile phone!)
Why pom-poms? Artist Erykah Townsend has used them in several of her recent “paintings” in part because her very tongue-in-cheek approach to art-making sees in them a very folksy and inexpensive material (the kind you can find ready-made in big – no, huge -- bags in a crafts store) as well as an unexpected means of reproducing one of art history’s most famous techniques, pointillism. You have already experienced pointillism’s signature feature when you stepped back from Townsend’s work to resolve the image: Images are created when the individual dots or points of unblended color that the artist puts onto the surface then mix in your eye, at a distance.
“Georges Seurat – The Yorck Project (2002) 10: Detail from Circus Sideshow (Parade de Cirque), 1889.”
The pointillists, in the last decades of the 19th century, called our attention to how the eye perceives light and color by separating out, on the surface of the canvas, individual pure colors (not mixed with other colors or with black or white), as you can see very clearly in this detail from Georges Seurat’s Circus Sideshow (“Parade de Cirque”, pictured here) of 1889. Pointillism grew out of the experiences and theories of the Impressionists; Seurat was perhaps its best-known practitioner, and his A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte its most famous example, which you can see today in the Chicago Institute of Art.
And Townsend, with her pom-poms, further makes a play on the cathode-ray tube of early television technology: Its beams of electrons become points of light on the surface of the vacuum tube of these TVs and, like pointillism, blended in the eye to produce the images captured by the television camera (the pixilation of flat-screen technology is a rough digital equivalent). In this way, though you may not guess it at first, the artist has in fact chosen a very appropriate technique for this portrait of a TV personality, which is both unexpected and funny because we’ve not likely seen pom-poms used to this effect.
(We should note that the pom-poms are fixed – with glue – to a wooden ground; Townsend has already calculated how many pom-poms she needs to reproduce the image from the frame of film that guides her overall plan, but the final creation of the pom-pom portrait is done entirely freehanded.)
The very lively Townsend grew up in Cleveland, recognizing quite young that she wanted to be a visual artist. Some of her early work was in computer animation. She attended the Cleveland School of the Arts from sixth grade and, in 2015, was awarded the first full scholarship for a graduate of a Cleveland high school to attend the Cleveland Institute of Art. She completed the B.F.A. degree there in May 2020.
Townsend describes herself as a conceptual artist, interested in how things work and what they mean, as well as in how they look. And she has always been immersed in pop culture, so she makes work about SpongeBob, Tom and Jerry, Big Bird, and other figures familiar from children’s television, from advertising and its jingles, and from popular music. She transforms these by subjecting them to multiple processes and techniques – some 2-dimensional, like pixilation, others more sculptural, to make a flat image come off the wall. In doing so, she aims to achieve a kind of distance that she finds really cool and relaxing, almost therapeutic. These are the qualities she likes so much about Mr. Rogers’ persona -- although, for visitors to Summa Health, it may be the warm colors, goofy materials, and “what-is-that?” elements to this portrait that first draw them in close.
Where you can see more of this artist’s work:
You can see other examples of Townsend’s work on her website, where you can even more fully appreciate her sense of humor and tendency to the surreal, as well as her critiques of consumer culture. She has exhibited work in the Reinberger Gallery as well as the Newsense Gallery. In the summer of 2020, she gave an interview with Jimi Izrael on the Collective Arts Network, archived on the CAN website along with images of several of her other works. This affords more insight into her unique sense of humor.