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(Reprinted from Skidmore Intercom, April 17, 2006)

Two faculty receive Guggenheim fellowships

Stern, Sattler to pursue projects

Two Skidmore faculty members received fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation this spring. Professor of English Steve Stern won a grant to support continued development of a novel tentatively titled The Frozen Rabbi. Associate Professor of Art Paul Sattler plans to employ new materials and methods in his ongoing work on the "Peale Variations," a series that explores his interpretation of themes presented in Charles Willson Peale's The Exhumation of the Mastodon (1806).

Guggenheim awards are presented annually to people who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts. The foundation in 2005 awarded 186 fellowships from an applicant pool totaling 3,008. The monetary component of individual awards is not made public, but they averaged $38,236 in the past year.

Author Steven Stern
For Stern, the Guggenheim is the latest honor in a list that includes a Fulbright (2004), the National Jewish Book Award (2000), the Pushcart Prize (1997 and 1999), a Pushcart Writer's Choice Award (1994) an O. Henry Prize, and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish-American fiction. A Skidmore faculty member since 1988, Stern is known for creating colorful characters that mine "the rich terrain of Eastern European Jewry," according to Fernanda Eberstadt of the New York Times (March 20, 2005). Stern's writing offers "a rollicking compendium of myth and historical tidbits, of dybbuks, wonder-working rebbes, and clandestine prayer houses where lapsed Talmud students meditate on the holy letters of God's name until they levitate," she added.

The Angel of Forgetfulness (Viking, 2005) "is Stern's most ambitious fictional creation to date," Eberstadt continued. The book interweaves three stories about characters who take flight from their ordinary lives and are plunged into extraordinary circumstances. At the center of the tale is an unfinished manuscript—an adventure about a fallen angel named Mocky and his half-mortal son Nachman, who both reside on the Lower East Side of New York around 1900. Stern uses interwoven narratives in The Frozen Rabbi, on which he will work during a leave next year. Comic on one level, but "deadly earnest" on another, the story "represents one author's efforts to locate the place of the sacred in these latter days," said Stern.

That book continues his romance with Jewish history and culture, a romance that has become more intense since Stern spent time in Israel as a Fulbright scholar. The Memphis native confesses, "I had no real Jewish content in my upbringing. I attended a reform congregation in Memphis in the 50s and the 60s. For all I knew I was a Methodist. It was fairly ecumenical." His knowledge of Jewish culture came through books, including Jewish-American fiction, Yiddish literature in translation, cultural history, mysticism, and folklore. Stern said, "It was a real revelation to me, having known a pasteurized version of Judaism, that there was this immense mystical literature and an enormous amount of folkloric material full of magical creatures, dybbuks, and saints, and what have you..."

The discovery was "something I could celebrate," he continued. "It was a tradition I wanted to lay claim to, even though my access was entirely second-hand. In my relationship to my heritage, I'll always be like a poacher, because I haven't had much Jewish ritual in my life." He traveled to Israel in 2004 to teach at Bar Ilan University. "I went," said Stern, "insecure in my identity as a writer and returned insecure about my identity as a human being." Israeli Jews impressed him. "They know who they are and where they belong and have total confidence in their right to be Jews in Israel. It was eye-opening for me."

Stern continued, "I never met anyone who wasn't struggling with the current situation. Men my age who'd seen so much more of life—surviving wars, living with a siege mentality, but living in history in a way that Americans seldom do. It was humbling." The experience "turned my head around," said Stern. "Israel as I knew it before going was a political conundrum. And then I go and see its people and hear their stories. I'm a sucker for people and stories."

Stern has characterized his fiction as "radical nostalgia," explaining, "I often invoke elements of folklore in order to subvert finite reality with the timelessness of myth." He pointed out that nostalgia "recalls the pain of remembering. If there's no pain involved, it is not so interesting to me. In Angel of Forgetfulness, my characters tend to chase the echoes of memory. Sometimes the echoes are louder than the original noise. It's both a painful and paradoxical kind of awareness because the memory of paradise can make life on earth by contrast look pretty grim."

Artist Paul Sattler
Memory is an essential component in the work of artist Paul Sattler, who draws on "memory and imagination" when creating art. He paints at night, and there are times when crazy memories are likely to influence a mind that's fueled by caffeine and fatigue during late hours. Says Sattler, "I am responsive and honest to absorbing those elements." With distance (and the light of a new day), however, he decides "if they are worthy to be included in the work. I may have a vague idea about a quality of light, landscape, or space and as I work, memories will arise to be woven into these rough and broad beginnings."

The resulting works can be ambiguous or astonishing, as Sattler balances elements of internal and external worlds or environments in paintings that have earned acclaim for their "novelistic dimensions" (ArtNews) and "innovative spatial devices and varied imagery" ( Sattler calls his works "fantastical and fabulist," adding, "they seem to gravitate toward more visionary worlds. There are rhythms, patterns, and colors that require you to look at them differently." A member of the Skidmore faculty since 1998, Sattler has shown his work in Boston, Chicago, and New York. In an interview (Fall 2005) with Scope, Sattler said that when he moved from city to country, nature so impressed him with its "outrageous, unending growth" that "it made my paintings more chaotic, unpredictable."

The focus of his current effort is a series called the "Peale Variations," influenced by a 19th-century oil painting titled The Exhumation of the Mastodon by Charles Willson Peale. Set in Newburgh, N.Y., the painting depicts Peale and his entourage, after a storm, overseeing a crew removing water and debris from a pit that contains a nearly complete skeleton, the first of its kind discovered in America. Sattler's brother showed him the image in 2001, shortly after the events of Sept. 11. Explained Sattler, "Feeling in the aftermath a jarring mixture of profound grief, patriotism, and doubt, I became fixated on Peale's quintessentially American vision of crisis, discovery, family, labor, mystery, and enlightenment."

Said Sattler, "Striving to build an unwavering connection to the art of the past is one of my most rewarding and indispensable activities." He has thus far completed 12 different works of various sizes exploring these themes in wide range of media. "I keep seeing qualities, visual components" that compel continued exploration of themes connecting to the Peale work. The effort has helped him to expand his visual vocabulary and has led to more daring levels of abstraction, adventurous surfaces, and riots of color, he explained. "Sometimes the correlation is highly formal, and other times it is thematic integration. Recently I have been finding purposeful reasons to blend the influence into my own narrative ambition," said Sattler. "I don't know when I'll be done."

Sattler added, "I am not in the business of offering endless dedications to Peale and suggesting that every move I make has a mirrored allusion or match in the original Exhumation. I do, however, admit that my five-year infatuation with Peale's image seems to have, at least temporarily, infected many levels of my picture-making process. The more I work on these pictures, they seem to be merging personal elements with the Peale structure, but are less involved with the actual Peale composition." The Guggenheim is the first fellowship that Sattler has received. His reaction? "I am thrilled and overwhelmed. I entered the process as a trial run and I am ecstatic that I was chosen. It is a true honor and I am humbled by the company I share with past recipients."

©2006 Skidmore Intercom

Creative Thought Matters.
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