Henry Wolyniec didn’t notice at first, but after a cousin observed that his latest sculptural forms resembled cancerous tumors, he saw what was obvious to his cousin. “He really took me aback,” Wolyniec said. “But now it’s hard not to see it.”
Wolyniec, a Portland artist, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer two years ago. Curiously, he began making art that reminded his cousin of a tumor a solid half-year before he knew he was ill. As far as Wolyniec knew, the idea for the work sprang from a basement-cleaning project that resulted in him acquiring some of the material that he used to make this work. That his art resembles or somehow references his medical condition is somewhat astonishing to him, probably not coincidental and also not easily explained.
Wolyniec, 63, exhibits his new work in an exhibition opening Friday at Speedwell Projects in Portland called “Relief.” The title refers to the three-dimensional nature of the exhibition, which includes relief prints, wall-mounted sculptures and a documentary interview with Wolyniec. It’s on view through May 31.
Wolyniec considers it a community event. He collaborated with Portland printer and Maine Crafts Association master craft artist David Wolfe and printmaker Pilar Nadal on much of this work, and Speedwell is owned by his friend, the photographer Jocelyn Lee. When Lee offered an exhibition, Wolyniec’s immediate reaction was, ” ‘Huh? Why me?’ But I said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ I didn’t have to think about it too long. I really like the space and the aesthetic of the shows there.”
Over the 40-plus years of his creative life, Wolyniec has worked as a sculptor, painter and printmaker. Whatever idea comes his way, he is open to it. The idea for some of this new work began with a cleaning project at Space Gallery. Before he got sick, Wolyniec helped maintain the Space building. Among his tasks was clearing out abandoned wire cages in the basement that had been used for storage. They were simple structures, constructed with 2-by-4 frames and heavy, mesh wire. As he pulled the wire off the frames and wrestled it into compressed bundles to make it easier to haul away for recycling, he noticed forms emerging from the jumbled mesh.
“It turned into a sculpture right before my eyes,” Wolyniec said. “That’s where it all starts.”
Instead of taking the metal to the transfer station, he brought it to his West End studio, where he refined the forms, covered them with wet paper pulp and painted them. A few months later, he got sick and the abstract nature of the art took on a different meaning. “It started with a screen in the basement, and then the brain thing happened,” he said. “They can both be true.”
Being sick, he said, means always being on edge. “It’s a hard place to feel comfortable and to feel like you can plan. Not even the future, but tomorrow, next week and next month kind of stuff. But at a certain level, one can adjust to that and not allow it to be consuming. It’s definitely present in a way that doesn’t go away but doesn’t impinge on your complete ability to wake up and move through the day,” he said.
“What I got is aggressive and doesn’t allow people to stay alive for a long time, so there is that aspect to it. It’s not so much a (sword of) Damocles but a hanging, impending weight. It’s not debilitating, not really. It’s figuring out to think differently.”
Thinking differently has allowed his art to evolve and flow. His work has long been associated with grid-oriented patterns, and he’s always moved easily between two- and three-dimensional work. None of that has changed. What has changed is Wolyniec’s ability to respond to however he feels in the moment.
Because of his illness, he has less energy than before. But because he is no longer working at Space or teaching, he can take advantage of that energy and explore. He used to work in his studio mostly at night, after his day job. Now, he can make art “when I have the most energy at different times of the day, which is fantastic.”
Having that freedom also has given him the chance to collaborate with printmaker Nadal, something he has wanted to do for many years but never had the opportunity to pursue. Wolyniec and Nadal created what he calls “a total mess, a jumble of prints with unbelievable imagery” from a Risograph printer for display in the Speedwell windows. A Risograph printer falls between a photocopier and laser printer and is popular with artists, illustrators and designers because it’s economical. He’s also showing prints that he made in Wolfe’s shop.
“The whole idea of this show is about community and being connected with friends,” he said. “We’re all dependent on one another.”
WHAT: Henry Wolyniec: relief
WHERE: Speedwell Projects, 630 Forest Ave., Portland
WHEN: April 5 to May 31; noon to 6 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday
INFO: speedwellprojects.com or 207-805-1835