(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 manuscriptan 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
lifesurviving 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
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"
(artdaily.com). 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.