Persona Conundrum

Avoiding a Different Task © Catherine Rutgers 2016

02 Night Red Cat photo by Tom Burnett 2014

Merriam-Webster’s defines conundrum as an intricate and difficult problem, or a question having only a conjectural answer. Here’s one: Growing up, I was either painfully shy or thrilled to be on display. Some people thought I was “a snob.” But, really, I was just afraid to talk to them. On the other hand, as the preacher’s kid, I was highly visible and didn’t mind being in the spotlight at all.

I remember sitting at a table with my family in front of hundreds of Boy Scouts in the church gym for a dinner. I was probably 10 or 11, so it’s the mid-1960s. The scene was about as straight as you can get, which, of course means it was totally twisted. They had a hypnotist for entertainment and I volunteered and pretended to be hypnotized. Sat on a metal folding chair, closed my eyes, and did whatever he prompted. Though I don’t recall what that actually was, it resulted in the proverbial thunderous cheering and applause.

Later, when I tried to perform – flute in a grade-school talent show, auditioning for a high school band that wanted an Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) stand-in, singing solo with a local “Up with People” knock-off – I was petrified. I didn’t get in the band. My singing debut was not repeated. I did get second prize in the talent show. I think they felt sorry for me.

Then somewhere in the late 1980s, I started hanging out with poets. The Unbearables. It was great. I made art for their Assembling Magazine, then wrote and read a poem. My hands and voice were shaking. But I loved it, and did it again, and again. Eventually memorizing all my pieces and having a pretty good run at readings around New York up until the early 2000s.

There are few things more exciting than being on stage. Really. I love it. Couldn’t tell you why I stopped. That is, until a hot summer night in Connecticut, July 2014, when spontaneously drawn into the lights and fire you see in these photographs, snapped by Tom Burnett. It was brief, silent, and it didn’t occur to me that there would be documentation. Though that’s the current nature of life, when almost everyone always carries a device that records images. Still freaks me out, and gets totally meta in 09 Night Red Cat (the seventh image below), where another hand with another phone appears at stage right.

The conundrum here is that the moment was delightful, but the photos scared me. Nearly two years later, on May 12, 2016, I set them up for a post and started writing the performance story. And thought that would be it. Because they’re night shots in only ambient light, the data was thin, I didn’t think there was enough to work with to create further transformations. But the next day, that assumption proved to be wrong, and the abstractions evolved with surprising variation and strength.

They strike me as very different from the colorfields and folds that have been my focus for the past year or so. Which brings us to this question: Does the artist’s personality drive the work, or does the art take control of the persona?

Classic Island © Catherine Rutgers 2016

04 Night Red Cat photo by Tom Burnett 2014

Left to Her Own Devices © Catherine Rutgers 2016

06 Night Red Cat photo by Tom Burnett 2014

Oracle at Sea © Catherine Rutgers 2016

And Another Thing © Catherine Rutgers 2016

09 Night Red Cat photo by Tom Burnett 2014

10 Night Red Cat photo by Tom Burnett 2014

Not the Same © Catherine Rutgers 2016

12 Night Red Cat photo by Tom Burnett 2014

The Greening Flare © Catherine Rutgers 2016

14 Night Red Cat photo by Tom Burnett 2014

Fire Five Adjustments © Catherine Rutgers 2016

Not Abandoned © Catherine Rutgers 2016

Original photos © Tom Burnett, 2014. Images and text by Catherine Rutgers © 2016

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6 Responses to Persona Conundrum

  1. Anonymous says:

    Cat, thanks for the post, these gave me goose bumps!

  2. Hello, Mike! aka orangeleisure at wordpress dot com … I think you understand why it took so long to come to terms with the original photos. They do have that goose-bump aura, though at the time, it just felt like a touch of magical fun. The scene was pitch-dark semi-countryside, hanging lanterns lit by LEDs in the foreground, the roaring fire, and anti-bug tiki torches in the background. Quite a combo!

  3. Samm says:

    That was fun to read. And I think you should start using one of those as your portrait for a while. Cool

    • Hey, Samm! Thanks so much for your comment. It’s tricky writing personal history, but somehow compelling to figure out how it ties into the present. I have a few drafts of posts on identity that hover indefinitely. This is the only one so far that’s been completed.

      Have been thinking about a new pic for about … not sure that any of the ‘fire’ photos will work but will give them a try. Meanwhile, hope you’re having a wonderful Wednesday!

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