Exhibit merges a woman's politically charged art with her husband's whimsical carved furniture

Bird Ross departed from her usual medium - fiber art in vivid colors - to create the austere and unsettling anti-war works in "ADDITION = SUBTRACTION," currently at the James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy.

by Gayle Worland
Wisconsin State Journal

Married 15 years with three kids, Madison artists Bird Ross and Tom Loeser share a houseful of imaginative hand-crafted works. But "ADDITION = SUBTRACTION" and "LadderbackkcabreddaL" - a joint art exhibit as intruiging as it's name - is only the second time the pair has done a show together.

"We realized it would be like oil and water," said Ross, 47, whose conceptual, politically charged "ADDITION = SUBTRACTION" is riveting in it's profound simplicity. Just on the other side of the Overture Center's intimate James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy, her husband's larger-than-life furniture is an artfully crafted, witty adventure in design.

But the combination somehow works - and the artists declined the gallery's offer to erect a partition between their works.

"One thing that Bird and Tom share," Watrous Gallery co-director Martha Glowacki said, "is that they both explore processes and materials in different ways."

Ross' pieces include "Four Thousand and Fifty Four," meticulously counted poppy seeds symbolizing the civilian lives lost in the U.S. war in Afghanistan. "Ten Seconds" is composed of 19 fat phone books whose pages represent the dollars used for the war in Iraq.

"I think the amount of money we're spending every second on the war is so unfathomable, the numbers are actually hard to picture," said Ross. "The wind is blowing and the bus is driving fast and the money's sort of just going out the window.

"Phone books are sort of like toilet paper: They're very disposable. To me its' a real link to the amount of money that's being spent," she said. Ross was tempted to crinkle up the pages or have visitors rip them out and create a voluminous pile. But she finally decided the pile of phone directories "had more integrity and more power just being still."

Artist Tom Loeser creates whimsical pieces in his Madison woodshop like "Chariot," whose rotating back allows sitters a 360-degree view of the world. His exhibit "Ladderbackcabreddal." challenges viewers to think about their own mathematical relationship to furniture.

"ADDITION = SUBTRACTION" grew out of "What 6,000 Looks Like," Ross' post-9/11 show inspired by the original death estimates in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In September 2001, Ross, primarily a fiber artist who works in vivid colors, was facing a deadline for baskets she was making for a show. "And I thought, oh God, this seems really ridiculous to make artwork under the circumstances."

So the chilling idea of 6,000 deaths turned into a basket incorporating 6,000 dried lentils. When she began work on "ADDITION = SUBTRACTION," focusing on the impact of U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, "I wanted to do layers," she said. "But I kept coming back to numbers.

"I don't want the lives of people who've perished to become anonymous, ambiguous, or all rolled into one group," she said. At some point she had to stop counting - so she picked Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.

Initially Ross and Loeser planned to collaborate on several pieces for the show. "But Bird's work went in a different direction," said Loeser, who teaches wood-working and furniture-making in the UW-Madison art department and chairs the department's graduate program. "Even when we brought all the work to the gallery for installation, we weren't quite sure if we were going to mix them together or split them apart."

Close to a dozen of Loeser's works belong to permanent museum collections, but the pieces in his "LadderbackkcabreddaL" were all created in the past four years. The title piece, a whimsical but functional double-ended chair that could seat two people (asusming one could defy gravity), came out of the artist's woodshop just before the opening of the show.

"I think a lot about furniture and its function and the way people interact with it," said Loeser, 48. "People are not really intimidated by furniture the way they might be by a painting or sculpture, so I think they bring a certain kind of comfort level and set of expectations. I like to undercut that, sort of surprise them in a different way."

Loeser, whose first college degree was in sociology, calls himself a "totally intuitive engineer" yet creates intricately moveable - and mathematically amusing - benches, cabinets and chests of drawers in colors he concocts himself. One of the exhibit's most striking pieces consists of a grid of nine chairs ranging from fat/tall to skinny/short, with a "normal" chair in the middle.

It's sort of a game with proportion and looks," he said.

While Loeser sculpts his furniture art in the East Side Winnebago Studios building, Ross creates her fiber works at the heavy-duty Singer sewing machine in a basement studio at their home. The two met when Ross worked as an administrator and Loeser taught at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine.

Today, "We have this life very much together - but it's sort of together in terms of things that are not always art-related," said Ross. Even with its very individualistic "oil and water" approach, the show at Watrous Gallery "was a nice way for us to be reminded of the reasons that we got together in the first place."

- from the Wisconsin State Journal, April 20, 2005.
  Copyright 2005 Wisconsin State Journal