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In the best creative collaborations, a powerful merger of minds and ideas, influences and inspirations takes place—just look to the industrial design of Charles and Ray Eames, or the graphic work of Alvin Lustig and Elaine Lustig Cohen, for proof. Suddenly one plus one equals three. This June, the North Carolina-based Dare County Arts Council presented Pinta Manta, a series of collaborative canvases and neon artwork created by bassist and co-founder of alternative band Future Islands, William Cashion, and Baltimore-based artist Elena Johnston. Their playful, innovative work utilizes creative strategies including place, sound, and elements of chance. “I love our process of creativity,” Johnston says. “Magic happens through process. I never think about end product. I’m drawn to a few colors, I’ll put on music, I’ll go with whatever I’m feeling. That’s the joy of it for me, letting go and not worrying. It translates into the final product, it looks spontaneous and joyful and peaceful.”
Neon tubing mounted on Plexiglass
The two first created a joint artwork in 2014 on the painting “A Dream of You and Me,” documented via time-lapse in the official music video for the Future Islands song of the same name. Cashion says, “We’d never done a video, but we tossed our hat in the ring and said, ‘Hey, we’ll do it!’ We got a camera and a stop motion setup, holed up for a weekend and worked for like two or three days straight on the video. It was the first time we made a painting together, and we had a lot of fun, so for the next year or two we made a lot of small paintings (less than 8.5 x 11,) and documented each one.” The works have grown in size since then, with the largest approximately 3 x 5 feet.
In a north Baltimore shed that combines Johnston’s visual-art studio along with Future Islands’ practice space, the pair work on canvases positioned horizontal to the ground at waist height, each taking the opposite half. They agree on a color palette and begin making marks on the canvas. “We listen to vinyl records while we’re painting, a lot of African, South American, and Latin American music, and keep a postcard of everything we’re listening to while we’re painting, so that each painting has its own playlist,” says Cashion. The playlists add context to the finished work, preserving the soundspace that existed while the artists created the paintings. The show’s name comes from a song, Pinta Manta by António Sanches, the first track on the 2016 compilation Space Echo: The Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed! Cashion says, “It’s a cool melding of traditional music mixed with synthesizers. Pinta Manta is my favorite song on the album; it means ‘painted blanket’ and it seemed to have a beautiful connection to what we’re working on.”
The artists recently began experimenting with light, choosing to have certain paintings fabricated in neon tubing. They consider the neon pieces separate works, apart from the paintings that inspired them. Johnston says, “There’s something brilliant about playing with light and color. Neon is an amazing material to work with because it creates entire color fields and becomes more of an installation.” Cashion’s original fascination with neon originated with the 1970’s German band Kraftwerk. “When they’d play live, they’d have their names written on the stage in front of them in blue neon,” he says. “They’ve been one of Future Island’s biggest influences. I’ve always wanted to have our names in neon on the floor, but it’s a little too on the nose, just doing the exact same thing they did, so the idea gets shot down by the band every time. But over the years I’ve dreamed about having a neon sign made for performances. Now I don’t need to do it with the band, I can just do it with my own stuff.”
Cashion and Johnston have a quote posted on the wall of their studio to reinforce what’s most important to them in their collaborative work. (They found it in a catalog accompanying a gallery show of Minimalist artists Yayoi Kusama, Brice Marden, Robert Ryman and Cy Twombly, but have never been able to learn its attribution.)
“Every time we immerse ourselves completely in an act of creation (no matter how insignificant it might seem) we have arrived. Every time we do that, we transform ourselves a little more: we find more peace, develop our focus and attention a little more, become stronger in ourselves.”
All paintings & neons by Elena Johnston & William Cashion.
All pieces are for sale. Call gallery for more information.