Nicki and I try to attend as many Guilford College art openings as possible, for three reasons: 1) I’m a Guilford alumna; 2) she teaches in the Guilford art department; 3) the quality of the artwork is always stellar, thanks to the curating genius of Terry Hammond. But the opening we attended on March 23rd was a special event celebrating the life and art of David Newton.
Unlike many of the people in attendance that night, I wasn’t drawn to be there because of a close student-teacher connection to David. Although he began teaching at Guilford the same year that I entered as a continuing education student, I never had a class with him. I knew him by sight (Guilford is a very small campus) but never had the opportunity to enter into a conversation with him. In fact, my only personal interaction with David happened four years after my graduation, when we both attended a writing workshop by Carrie Newcomer.
That day, I spent less than an hour interacting with him—first in a partner experience in which we witnessed each other’s journal writing, then in a small group practicing the art of Quaker discernment. But I left the experience feeling that I had just met someone really special. He had an obvious gift for deep listening, creating a genuine connection in the moment. I had heard that David was in treatment for colon cancer, and that day he looked thinner and older than I remembered. But he had the emotional energy and loving attention of someone who was vibrantly alive.
David died nearly a year ago in April 2011. The exhibit of his artwork at the Guilford art gallery is a retrospective that covers more than thirty years of artistic exploration in a range of media, including watercolors, sculpture, mixed-media drawings, etchings, and paintings. What’s astonishing about this exhibit isn’t just the range of materials he used in this course of his career, but the mastery he accomplished in each medium.
David identified himself primarily as a sculptor, and many of his mixed-media sculptures were whimsical in some way, reflecting his sense of humor. I had seen some of these 3-D works before and found them conceptually interesting, but not personally moving—with one exception:
David’s wood sculptures move me, and always have. They have a warmth and glow about them, and their nearly humanoid size creates an immediate and visceral relationship with the viewer. David wrote about this series (pictured here in the 2002 installation at Brown University): “Conceived of as an installation, this group of carved wood sculptures was a response to 9/11. The visitor was meant to sit on the carved bench, surrounded by calming wooden sculptures, of which there were five.” In the current show, there are three of the wooden sculptures, standing like quiet sentinels along a wall.
I spent a long time looking at the intricate detail of David’s watercolors and etchings. But all in all, my favorite pieces in the “Onward” exhibit are the three wooden pieces from “Grove” and the small mixed-media works on paper that he called the Byrdcliffe series. From his website: “A series of works on paper done at a residency at Byrdcliffe Art Colony, summer, 2007. Many of them show evidence of the research I have been doing into artistic and sacred geometry.”
The exhibit of David Newton’s artwork is up until May 4 at the Guilford College Art Gallery in Hege Library. To read more about David’s life, check out this GoTriad article.
The featured image at the top of this post was taken from the Guilford College Art Gallery postcard advertising this exhibit.