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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: February 6, 2018

Working together, a creative couple finds common ground with images and text

Written by: Bob Keyes

Images courtesy of the artists

Susan Webster and Stu Kestenbaum have been together as a couple since 1979, so they’re used to each other’s company and co-existing as a creative pair. She’s a mixed-media artist who makes drawings, prints and collages. He’s a poet and maker, the former director of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts – and Maine’s poet laureate.

They live in Deer Isle, and together the married couple have collaborated on a series of drawings and prints that also include text. She makes the pictures; he writes the words. “Work Together,” with nearly two dozen examples of their collaborative pieces, is on view through March 2 at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland. They will talk about their work at 2 p.m. Sunday at the museum.

Their collaboration started with a misunderstanding.

More than a decade ago, curator Bruce Brown invited Webster and Kestenbaum to show together in a couples exhibition at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, then in Rockport. The couple interpreted the invitation to mean they should create art together. “But when we got to the exhibit, all the other couples were exhibiting their work side-by-side,” Kestenbaum said. “We felt we misunderstood the assignment.”

It turned into a happy accident. They had worked together from time to time throughout the years, but without focus. The CMCA assignment added purpose to their project, which has continued now for well more than a decade. Most the work on view in Portland is new. They made the oldest piece in the show in 2014.

They see their work as a merging of art and words, where both are equal.

“The Light and the Dark”

Generally, each piece begins with an image from Webster, often an organic, abstract shape from nature, infused with mystery and a sense of darkness. She passes the image to Kestenbaum, who responds to her image with words – often just a few words made with stamps and by hand. The words are legible as text and can be read literally. They become a graphic element and central to the visual appeal of each piece.

Kestenbaum will sometimes pass the image back, and back and forth it goes.

“For me, it makes writing a physical activity in a different way,” Kestenbaum said. “I get to manipulate material. I get to touch stuff. It’s a different process of writing.”

Webster said the process is based on trust informed by years of working together as a married couple. “Here is my piece, do something with it,” she tells her husband.

Both work independently, in their own studios. They pass the work between them without words, then disappear to leave the other alone.

“We might talk about the series, we might talk about some broader views, but it becomes his and it becomes mine at different points throughout the process,” Webster said.

In the end, it is theirs together.

Their work feels spiritual, and sometimes heavy with grief. There’s reckoning in their work together, with layers of emotions and the weight of endurance.

“Work Together” – Susan Webster and Stuart Kestenbaum

WHERE: Maine Jewish Museum, 276 Congress St., Porland
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, by appointment; through March 2
ARTIST TALK: The artists will discuss their work at 2 p.m. Sunday at the museum

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