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Frida Kahlo and Pablo Picasso created art inspired by their own personal tragedies. They took a risk, because personal pieces are often so intimate that audiences can't relate. Local artist Jen Urso successfully overcame this challenge — and the demons of her past — in creating "White Space," a multimedia exhibit on display through February 5 at Artlink A.E. England Gallery in Phoenix. It's a fascinating, complex show.
In August 2009, Urso undertook a grueling 82-mile "walk of healing" between two Pennsylvania towns: Reading and Lansdale, where she grew up in an abusive household. The walk eventually evolved into an art project that includes video, keepsakes (maps, photos, the banana-yellow shirt she wore), and three sets of ink drawings marking the time before, during, and after her trip. Each drawing undulates with an organic, emotional quality owing to Urso's personal investment in the project.
In White Space Study 9, a rocky landscape is cross-sectioned like an earth-science diagram. Red plants blossom above the surface. Their roots are thick and strong but unconnected to the plants. A blood-red dot stains each root. It's a powerful metaphor for the tumultuous landscape of the artist's childhood. Urso may have been able to sever her roots by eventually cutting ties with her parents, but those roots are clearly still present in her memories.
Another grouping of "before" studies features strange needle-like plants with deflated balloon heads. In White Space Study 19, red ink oozing from these heads speaks to a bloody, scarred existence. It's a brave piece. This is as close to personal as Urso could get, short of displaying photos of the bruises she endured in childhood.
The drawings Urso created during her trek are simpler. Not surprising, considering she finished them in cramped motel rooms after walking an average of 10 to 15 miles a day. Each drawing is accompanied by a short blog entry detailing the day's emotions and events. Urso also took photos and video as she traveled her pre-planned path.
A slideshow of photos taken during the trip, looped on a plasma screen, seems an afterthought. Technically, it was. The documentary film Urso planned to unveil at the exhibit is still in production, so Plan B was the slideshow. Bummer. Film footage could've helped us to better understand Urso's journey, literally following her every step of the way. Instead we're forced to rely on the blogs and uncaptioned photo slides to give the drawings context. The artist's sketches range from a nervous, tentative exploration of lines on Day One to a bleak series of T-shaped needles stuck between two points created on what she describes as the most difficult day of the journey.
Urso and her two companions walked over 16 miles that day, until their feet were sore and blistered. "Emotion seems to pop out in the weirdest instances fueled by lack of sleep and this strange trip," she wrote in exhaustion that night. "I have a realization that the past doesn't really seem so important anymore."
Those words mark a turning point in Urso's journey — and in her artwork. "Today, I came to the sudden realization that I wasn't afraid anymore," she said on Monday, August 31, halfway through the trip. That day's drawing features graceful, curving lines reminiscent of the lower half of the female form. Brilliant green circles swirl in the figure's thighs, as if the strain of Urso exercising those muscles the previous day awakened something vibrant and beautiful inside of her.
A project like this could be a cathartic moment for a survivor of abuse, so I was curious to see whether the series would show further progress. The contrast between the "before" and "after" studies is startling. In White Space After Study 2, the small black dot visible in many of the show's drawings is the core of a green earth teeming with penciled-in plant life: ferns, flowering plants, tiny mushrooms. Each plant's roots burrow deep into the verdant soil. It's a hopeful image.
Inside the plant-covered sphere are layers containing elements from the earlier works — tiny, detailed cells and branched circles that evoke textbook drawings of neurons and basal ganglia. Though the painful recollections marked by the black dot, branches, and cells still exist, they are now buried in this image under the fertile green of the new memories Urso created on her trip.
In facing the trauma of a violent childhood and sharing her experience, Urso seems to have found her way home. The traditionally framed drawings are a departure from the quirky performance art she's best known for, such as chiseling a 350-pound boulder at the Icehouse and draping Modified Arts in a cocoon of white string. This is also the first time the artist's work has been fueled by a deeply personal experience. The result is an exhibit that connects viewers with Urso in a way her previous works could not. If this evolution is ongoing, I look forward to her next journey.