In “Deaf Republic,” allegoric poems that rail against violence and military oppression, Ilya Kaminsky created a young deaf martyr and a community that protested with sign language. The collection of poems, published in 2019, is a story that is meaningful not just for the Eastern European country that Kaminsky envisioned, but also for any oppressed place.
The American figurative painter James Stewart, who lives in western Pennsylvania, envisioned “Deaf Republic” taking place in Weimar, Germany, and created a body of paintings to reflect and illustrate the poems. Twenty of his paintings along with several of his sculptures and relief works that also depict “Deaf Republic” are on view through March 20 in Ohio Wesleyan University’s Ross Art Museum in Delaware.
Stewart’s works are filled with characters from Kaminsky’s poems. Petra, the deaf boy, is attending a puppet show when he is shot and killed by soldiers. The gunshot — or their horror at the murder — cause the entire town to go deaf and mute. Momma Galya, leader of the puppet theater, incites an insurrection. A young married couple, Sonya and Alfonso, become victims. Puppeteers teach villagers signs and lure soldiers to their deaths.
Stewart’s oil paintings place these characters in scenes, some of them gruesome and many chaotic. “Large Overture” presents the town’s cafe, puppet theater, soldiers and victims all blended in one collage-like scene. In “Large Overture II,” Petra can be seen being shot in the lower right corner of the painting. The rest of the canvas includes a group of soldiers standing nonchalantly beside their jeep, the dead body of a naked woman lying in the street, a woman covering the eyes of her two children, a puppet show, and in the background, a cafe filled with well-dressed patrons oblivious to what’s happening outside their window.
A phrase from Kaminsky’s poem “And Yet, On Some Nights” is fitting for a number of the paintings: “Our country has surrendered/Years later, some will say none of this happened; the shops were open, we were happy and went to see puppet shows in the park/And yet, on some nights, townspeople dim the lights and teach their children to sign. …”
Stewart’s paintings are dramatic and wrenching. They are not hung in an order that matches the poems but they do inspire viewers to discover Kaminsky’s words for themselves — and to consider how poems and paintings can offer a relevant warning to more than one place in the world. In contrast, the Ross Art Museum is also presenting paintings by Columbus artist Ron Anderson, who finds and depicts joy in the lives of his subjects.
The 17 oil paintings in “Ron Anderson: Into the Light” are energetic depictions of African American life in music, dance and sport. A number of these works were seen in Anderson’s one-man show in 2019 at Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center’s Shot Tower Gallery. They bear another look. In “Lady in Red,” showing the vigorous dance of a young woman, you can almost feel the shaking of her hips. In “Sundance,” couples dance before a musical combo and you can almost hear the blast of the trumpet. “Blues Singer” presents an Ella Fitzgerald-type vocalist backed by drums, piano, saxophone and bass. Many of these works have a focal point of light — a lit match or a spotlight, for instance — and, despite their nocturnal settings, an overall sunny glow. Anderson beautifully captures the movement, vitality and sheer exuberance of his subjects and, as the exhibit title states, brings them “into the light.”
At a glance
“James Stewart: Deaf Republic” and “Ron Anderson: Into the Light” continue through March 20 in Ohio Wesleyan University’s Ross Art Museum, 60 S. Sandusky St., Delaware. Hours: 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays. Masks are required and any group visit of more than five people must call or email the museum to schedule a time. Call 740-368-3606 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org.