Shifting Perspectives

Local artists Wendy Harris and Willson Cummer re-evaluate their strategies

From time to time, artists reassess their work, as they first find success with one project and then feel the urge to move in a different direction. This could be a change in subject, a modifying of technique or even a shift in media. During the past year Syracuse artists Wendy Harris and Willson Cummer have both gone through a transitional process.
Harris has turned to a subject that fascinates her: clouds. A cloudy sky doesn’t disappoint her; she’s enthralled by what she calls “the extreme, ephemeral nature of clouds.” By viewing clouds in local skies on an ongoing basis, she’s developed a connoisseur’s perspective. “This past summer, the clouds were magnificent,” she noted.
Translating that perspective into artistic expression is another matter. As she pondered clouds, Harris also evaluated artistic strategies. In the end, she adopted a different approach: more acrylics and oils, a slightly more abstract style, and smaller canvasses. She once worked large; now many of her pieces are small.
In addition, she has largely abandoned the en plein air style of painting, which simply means painting outdoors. In her current work, she observes clouds, takes photos and ultimately heads to her studio for painting. “Plein air doesn’t work for clouds,” Harris said. “There’s a maximum of perhaps two hours for observing a particular sky. After that, things change.”
With a new project under way, Harris also devoted much energy to lining up exhibitions of her artworks. During 2013, she took part in 10 exhibits, including a group display at the Edgewood Gallery, a solo showcase at the Sparky Town restaurant, and a one-woman show at Bryan Memorial Gallery in Jeffersonville, Vt.
At the Bryan, her pieces didn’t depict Syracuse skies; they portrayed Vermont scenes. On one hand, Harris would like to paint clouds in other parts of New England or other regions of the United States. On the other, spending time out of town could be expensive. Thus, she’s investigating artist-in-residence programs.
While Harris is pleased with the transitions of the past year, there’s one exception: the sales of her artworks during the last four months of 2013. “Once the government shutdown happened, it was like shutting off a faucet,” Harris said. “People were nervous about the economy, and they cut way back on discretionary spending like buying artworks.”


Wendy Harris at her studio. Michael Davis photo.

Cummer, meanwhile, has focused on photographing public spaces, on interpreting places and scenes that people see on a day-to-day basis. He’s taken images of areas right below highways running through downtown Syracuse and documented Central New York parklands, particularly humanity’s attempts to restrict nature.
Last autumn he completed Dawn Light, a project initiated when he was recovering from depression. During early-morning walks in the Fayetteville area, he paid close attention to light. The Light Work Gallery is currently showing a selection of images from Dawn Light, and they document not only Cummer’s ability to showcase light but also the details he picks up in the photos.
One piece, for example, shows sunlight seemingly caressing the side of a building. In another, lush grass contrasts with what looks like a decrepit garage. In the best of the images, a cemetery sits across the street from an area enveloped by sunlight.
Even as the Light Work exhibition finishes its run on March 6, Cummer is already heavily involved in a new project. He’s photographing the State Tower Building, a downtown Syracuse landmark. This isn’t a straight-up documentary project. Rather, he’s using the building as a jumping-off point.

Dawn Light #10, Willson Cummer

Dawn Light #10, Willson Cummer (photo provided by artist)

For example, he might take a photo displaying a panoramic view of downtown, with the State Tower Building somewhere in the mix. Or he could photograph Clinton Square and catch just a glimpse of the building in the background. It’s a wide-open project built on the assumption that every image has to include the State Tower Building in some fashion. “I’ve found this work to be very interesting,” Cummer said. “It’s liberating to start with an idea and not be sure where I’m going with it.”



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