Samuel Rowlett has a cross to bear—a literal cross that he made accidentally while stretching canvas over large slats of intersecting wood.
Rowlett is a member of the artists’ collective at the Oxbow Gallery on Pleasant Street in downtown Northampton. He constructed a blank canvas, approximately 30 lbs in weight, and attached a backpack to the bottom as part of his work-in-progress solo exhibition at the gallery.
“I did not even think about the religious iconography that emanates out of the back of my head when I wear this thing,” says Rowlett.
Rowlett does concede that he is on an “aesthetic pilgrimage.” The blank canvases, present at the gallery in varying sizes, represent artist’s block just as much as they do unlimited potential.
“I wanted to embrace the idea of these epic landscape painters like Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt, sort of going out, conquering nature,” says Rowlett. But at times while wearing the backpack-canvas, Rowlett feels more like Buster Keaton or one of the Three Stooges.
“There’s a lot of physical comedy to it,” he says.
As part of the exhibition, Rowlett projects a video of himself hiking through the woods with the giant canvas on his back, wading through rivers and occasionally getting caught on tree branches. The camera pauses for a long moment on a shadow cast onto the canvas by surrounding trees.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to actually paint on the canvas once I made it. Once I started walking around with this, it sort of became a painting in and of itself,” says Rowlett.
Rowlett, who split his time between England and the United States growing up, pays homage to both aspects of origin in this exhibition.
“The English have a long tradition of walking,” says Rowlett. “We have this society of ramblers. They basically have a small backpack and they go from village to village, and they’ll sleep in a B&B each night, and walk around the Peak District in Derbyshire.”
Rowlett’s artistic and literal pilgrimage is inspired by this tradition, as well as his time spent as a Boy Scout when he was younger, fishing and swinging on rope swings. His exhibit also features a black and white painting of rope swings that will eventually be painted over to make space for the next artist.
Most of the exhibition, in fact, is temporary or unfinished. In the corner of the room is a worktable complete with pliers, a wrench and some painter’s tape. In the center of the gallery, the focal point of the exhibition and the initial idea from which other elements of this endeavor stem- an unfinished canoe held together with plastic ties and flipped on it’s back. On June 9th, Rowlett plans to have a send-off in his canoe down the Connecticut River.
“ I’ve always been interested in environmental issues and conservation,” says Rowlett, who called the Connecticut River program through the Nature Conservancy to see how he could, “make himself useful” as he floated down the river.
Kim Lutz, the Connecticut River program’s director, told Rowlett that one of biggest problems with conserving the river is that people do not feel a connection to it.
“I’ll say [to friends], ‘What’s your connection to the Connecticut River?’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s an obstacle. I want to get to Amherst and I’ve gotta drive over the Calvin Coolidge Bridge,’” quotes Rowlett, laughing.
On May 29th, Rowlett will have a gallery talk about the Connecticut River Project with Kim Lutz at the Oxbow Gallery.
“[The Connecticut River] is daunting. That’s why in many ways I wanted to—not conquer it—but for myself, I wanted to build my own canoe [for the first time], and I wanted to go down the river,” says Rowlett.
“Wow, I hope it floats,” he adds.