was I received an email last week from artist Robert Gould, who introduced himself and invited me out to see his current art exhibit, which he did in collaboration with poet Gerald Wagoner. Tis past Sunday I ventured out to the Gowanus, where I met Rob and Jerry. We had a great conversation. They sat down and answered some questions about their current installation.
The Strawfoot: Robert Gould, tell us about “On the Tides of Time.” What inspired the series?
Robert Gould: I am an artist who draws inspiration from historical events. Over the years I have created a body of work about the Battle of Brooklyn, and this year I was offered a month long residency at Gowanus Dredgers boathouse. The month of August was chosen because it marks the anniversary of the battle. As part of the residency I created an exhibit that includes my paintings and the poetry of my good friend Gerald Wagoner who shares my passion for history. His poems have a different approach to the passage of time and add his personal observations. He also came up with the title, “On the Tides of Time,” which he pulled from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
My painting series is a continuation of a piece I made a couple of years ago, “Maryland Willow of the Gowanus.” It includes the names of the Maryland soldiers written on willow leaves. I combined these leaves with a photograph I had taken of the Old Stone House using a primitive camera.
For this new series I expanded the theme by incorporating natural elements from the fields of battle. For example, the picture titled “Black Eyed Susan of the Gowanus” features actual river marsh grass with collaged paper black eyed Susan flowers (the Maryland state flower).
Who were the Maryland 400?
RG: The “Maryland 400” was a nickname the Maryland Militia earned during the Battle of Brooklyn. They were under the command of William Alexander also known as Lord Stirling, although his Scottish earldom was rejected by the House of Lords. They were one of General Washington’s most competent troops at the battle. They repeatedly counter-attacked and fought a delaying action to allow other militia troops to cross the difficult terrain of the Gowanus marsh lands thus saving a number of other units from capture and destruction.
The state of Maryland is meaningful to me because I was born there. I moved to NYC to attend college and have remained ever since. My family is originally from eastern Ohio. The first Robert Gould, in our family records, settled what was then the frontier of Ohio after his services in the War of 1812.
The Gowanus Dodgers Canoe Club Boathouse is an ideal venue for the exhibit. How does the site, being where it is, relate to the art works?
RG: I agree it’s an ideal venue for this exhibit! It is located on the exact spot of the Battle of Brooklyn. I have included a painting by Alonzo Chapple, a 19thCentury American painter. His image of the battle from Brouwer Mill pond was within a hundred yards of the boathouse site. The interior of the boathouse space is also ideal because it has long, high, unfinished walls. Because my work uses natural materials the scale of the materials dictates the finished size of the paintings. For example “Hessian Bayonets” incorporates steel bayonets that I fabricated along with rubbings of real tree bark. The resulting painting ended up being 8×15 feet. Thus the scale of the works needs a larger forum than most local gallery spaces.
Is place a recurring theme in your work?
RG: Yes, place is a recurring theme. I strive to find novel ways to describe “place”. The various materials that I use to create the paintings become the subject matter. It is this curated use of materials that reference the place of the battle. I keep coming back to this quote from Gen. Joshua L. Chamberlain taken from his dedcation speech to the 20th Maine Monument at Gettysburg in 1888:
“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.
Explain broadly the piece in the series. What materials did you use? What inspired them?
RG: I’ll include what I’ve written about each painting:
“Maryland Willow of the Gowanus” (2016)
I was inspired to create this work from a photograph that I saw in a book about the Old Stone House, called The Stone House of Gowanus by Georgia Fraser (1909). The house was the center of the fighting during the Battle of Long Island in 1776. Near the end of her book there is a photograph of a lone willow tree in the vacant lot where the house once stood. (pp.129) The author claimed that it is the same willow that is depicted in old paintings of the house. I am not so sure of that, however, I became fascinated by the idea of an old Willow tree that links us back to the times of 1776. So my creative idea was to inscribe the names of the Maryland soldiers onto willow leaves. The leaves are then arranged in long hanging branches that represent the different fighting units that the soldiers were with. For example all the soldiers from the Second Company are represented by leaves on one branch that hangs down in the image.
“Elements of Gun Powder 75%, 15%, 10%” (2019)
Rock Salt, Charcoal, Paper Mache, Sulfur, Acrylic Paint, Marsh Grass.
A graphic representation of the ratio of the three elements that compose gunpowder (known today as black powder). Various armies used slightly different ratios of these essential elements to create explosive powder. This is the ratio of the British army: 75 % saltpeter or potassium nitrate, 15% charcoal, 10% sulfur.
In the painting, the different elements are displayed as horizontal bands. The thickness of the bands represents the ratio of that element as present in the British formulation. This is overlaid on marsh grass that has been sourced in Brooklyn. Marsh grass was plentiful in the Gowanus area during the time of the Battle of Long Island.
Black-Eyed Susan of the Gowanus (2019)
Marsh Grass, Acrylic House Paint, Powdered Pigment, Natural Dyes, Rock Salt, Iron Powder, Paper College, mounted on Paper Shopping Bags.
This painting references the Maryland state flower, the black-eyed Susan, and uses marsh grass as a form of requiem. The Gowanus area was a barrier for the retreating American army. It was the sacrifice and repeated attacks of the Maryland troops that allowed other American soldiers to retreat to the safety of downtown Brooklyn. The development of the Gowanus area has been built over the unknown graves of the Maryland soldiers.
Hessian Bayonets (2019)
Welded Steel, Canvas, Oil Stick, Acrylic House Paint, Powder Pigment, Iron Powder, Paper collage, Paper Shopping Bags Mounted on wood frame.
This painting has evolved from local folklore. Hessian soldiers were German mercenary, “solders for hire”. They were used by the British army to supplement their own troops. During the Battle of Long Island Hessian troops acted as a diversion to deceive the American army into thinking the main British attack was happening in what today is known as Prospect Park. Meanwhile the true British attack was able to cut off and isolate the American troops facing the Hessians. The Americans, upon realizing this, fled towards what today is downtown Brooklyn. The Hessian troops, perhaps because of language barriers, or perhaps because of British propaganda, did not take prisoners. Instead they used bayonets mounted at the end of their muskets to kill any surrendering American solider they came across.
The painting was created using rubbings of actual tree trunks from the “Battle Pass” area of Prospect Park. Oil stick was used to transfer the bark pattern from the trees to the canvas strips. These strips of canvas were mounted to the substrate of paper shopping bags and hand forged steel bayonets were impaled into the tree bark.
Gun Powder Sky (2019)
Acrylic House paint, Powder pigment, Iron Powder, Rock Salt, Marsh Grass, Charcoal, Sulfur on Paper Shopping Bag.
This work references the painting “Battle of Long Island”by Alonzo Chappel (1828-1887)That painting depicts the retreat of the “Maryland 400” across Brouwer’s Mill Pond which was located across the canal from this site.
The title alludes to the great blinding noxious clouds of white smoke that were created by the burning gunpowder. Battles of this time in history were often hard to directly observe because of the tremendous volumes of thick smoke that were generated. Consequently, because the battle was totally obscured, generals of the time had a difficult time controlling the movements of their troops.
The artist has layered the ingredients of gun powder and local marsh grass. White paint covers and obscures that under-structure. The paint is layered in such a way so as to let the chemical reaction of iron and salt stain and penetrate the white painted surface. Rust and decay are modern components that allude to both the past and present environment of the Gowanus canal.
You and Gerald have visited many historic sites over the years. Which ones have meant the most to you?
RG: I will let Gerald speak more about that.
Any ideas for future projects you can tell us about?
RG: Nothing concrete yet, but I can see us doing something on Governor’s Island next summer during one of their art fairs.
Gowanus Canal, August 2019
The Strawfoot: Gerald Wagoner, you have lived in Brooklyn thirty-five year now. What does the borough mean to you?
Gerald Wagoner: I moved to New York because this is where the art is, and the artists are. I ended up in Brooklyn and have never regretted it. A few years ago I decided to express my creative urges in poetic form, and now Brooklyn is a hive of poets, so it is exciting to be part of the conversation.
What was your life like before moving to Brooklyn? Where did you grow up and how did it make you who you are today?
GW: I grew up in Eastern Oregon and in northern Montana on sixty miles east of Glacier National Park. In my poems Montana weather and people are joyless adversaries of mine in a magnificently grand landscape
The West, I think, made my language spare. I was a creative writing major at the University of MT when the poet Richard Hugo was teaching. He left a lifelong impression on me, as did Richard Stankiewicz when I earned my Sculpture MFA at SUNY Albany.
As I brought up with Robert, the two of you have visited many historic sites. Which would you say have meant the most to you?
GW: I think maybe it was tracing Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg over South Mountain to Falling Waters where the army crossed the Potomac because on that trip we learned things that were totally new and perspective altering.
Your poetry complements Robert’s art works in the exhibit. Tell us about your poems.
GW: The poems surprised me. Which is always a good thing. I had taken pages of notes about the canal, and learned some new things about the Battle of Brooklyn, but it is rare for me to sit down at the table and sketch out three related, but distinct poems like I did one morning. The Gowanus Canal is tidal, so it comes in and goes out, and up and down giving it metaphorical qualities of time and change. The title Tides of Time is from a line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
I’ve known this canal for twenty-five years and things are changing, and I am lamenting that change partially because I’m older and decaying too. The only other thing I would add regarding my poems is that I revise relentlessly, and I aim for a fluid musicality that is suitable to the poem.
Where and when can people see “On the Tides of Time?”
GW: “On the Tides of Time,” at 165 2nd street in Brooklyn, is on view Saturdays and Sundays in from 1:00-5:00 in August and there will be a poetry reading Wednesday August 14 from 7:00-9:00 pm featuring 12 poets and myself reading original theme related poems.