By Jordyn Haime
…I dreamed the horrible dream of the rattling red livingroom, newly painted a strange 1929 varnish red and I saw it in the dream all dancing and rattling like skeletons because my brother Gerard haunted them and dreamed I woke up screaming by the phonograph machine in the adjoining room with its Masters Voice curves in the brown wood—Memory and dream are intermixed in this mad universe.
-Dr. Sax by Jack Kerouac
For Lowell artist Barbara Gagel, the power of writing transcends medium. The evidence is boldly apparent in her newest exhibition—Gray Words: The Dark and Light of Jack Kerouac, opening Friday at the Ayer Lofts Gallery.
Working with heated wax and pigment, Gagel translates Kerouac’s rhythmic prose to imagery that dances with a musical quality of its own and tells another Lowell story.
It’s not the first time Gagel has been inspired by the iconic Beat writer. Ever since she moved back to Lowell from Santa Fe, New Mexico five years ago, Kerouac has sparked her creative fire, making Gray Words Gagel’s seventh show with a focus on the author.
“It’s not like me to do seven shows on one theme, but each time I see a little nuance—I’ll read something that I hadn’t read before, could be an article or one of his books or poetry—I just get pulled in again. His words are so powerful,” Gagel explains in her studio, which is filled with photos of the people who’ve inspired her, paintings from previous Kerouac shows, and of course, endless art supplies.
Leaning against one wall is a board of inspiration wallpapered with pages and pages of Kerouac quotes—inspiration for future artwork.
“I just look. Sometimes I start with the words and it comes out the way I want it to, sometimes it’s the feeling that I want to be invoked, sometimes it’s just the fact that I’m reading him and I will go and do some painting or some printmaking,” Gagel says. “Then I will look at the [words] and say ‘oh my gosh, this fits so beautifully for this,’ and then make it work. It’s like going into an ocean of Kerouac and swimming in it, and the words are bobbing in the ocean.”
To create the many layers of wax, the bubbly black splotches and abstract designs that decorate Gagel’s canvases, she uses two techniques: encaustic mono-printing, and painting with hot wax.
Gagel’s encaustic mono-prints require a hot nail and a large hot box that gets evenly heated. She keeps an eye on the temperature with a thermometer set on top of the box, and then uses beeswax pigment to draw her design on the surface. Then, to create the print, she lightly presses a piece of paper to the surface, which picks up the design. She usually does several passes on one piece of paper, creating the layered design that communicates Gagel’s message.
She also paints with heated wax, experimenting with various techniques and tools, to get different effects and textures. Torches, stencils, tape and wax sticks are all tools Gagel has used to produce her paintings.
“The technique is only as good as your idea. A lot of people just work with technique, and that’s very decorative, I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m more interested in the idea, what am I saying? It would be like asking Kerouac, ‘are you going to be decorative with your words and just make it pretty? Is it a dime novel, or do you want to make art out of it?’ So that’s the difference,” she says.
Many like to remember Kerouac in an idealized light, but Gagel recognizes the darkness in him too. Those are his “gray words,” his fascination with spirituality and the divine, she says, as well as the haunting memory of the death of his brother Gerard when Kerouac was only four years old. He presented dark and light imagery in his writing, too, frequently using black, white, and gray as descriptors.
The occasional pop of red makes an appearance in Gagel’s works, too, as it does in Kerouac’s novels. Included in the exhibit, is Gagel’s painting “I Saw The Dark Flowers,” inspired by a quote in Kerouac’s Vanity of Duluoz. Black, dripping, seemingly dead flowers stand against a delicate gray base with a single red rose drawing the eye to the right.
Another painting, “Oh Black Magic in the Night,” boasts assertive black brush strokes with white shining through and a few red drips hidden within the folds.
“I have this whole sensation of feeling the same feelings from my childhood,” Gagel says, relating to Kerouac’s own childhood memories, which he often referred to in his writing. “The Catholicism, the smell of incense, the candles, you know—everything. I connect with him deeply.”
Gray Words: The Dark and Light of Jack Kerouac will be on display October 6-29 at Ayer Lofts Gallery on 172 Middle Street. Their Weekend hours are 12-4pm. The Opening Wine Reception will be on Friday, October 6th, 4-7:30pm.