25 years on, Horn Island still inspires
> College of Art’s latest works, retrospective reveal trip’s influence
Special to The Commercial Appeal
A quarter century after the first few from the Memphis College of Art descended on undeveloped Horn Island, they keep coming back, enduring unforgiving heat, insects, no running water and — especially harsh for today’s art students — no cell phones or Internet, all for a chance at “disconnecting to get connected,” according to Don DuMont, the MCA adjunct faculty member who has been leading the trip for the past four years.
“The island is a hundred percent raw,” he says of the annual destination for MCA students, faculty and alumni. “There are no buffers, and the island does not discriminate. It will come at you, it will burn you up; it will eat you up. They may think, ‘How am I going to survive this for eight days?’ But after they get used to the idea, they start to look in, and by the second or third day, they’re not ready to leave the place.”
Two concurrent MCA exhibits celebrate the silver anniversary of the Horn Island workshop/art colony. The first — traditionally the annual opening exhibit of the school year — has been dubbed “Horn Island 25” and offers more than 150 works by students, alumni and faculty from the most recent excursion May 28-June 6. It runs through Oct. 2 with a reception at the college 6-9 p.m. Sept. 12.
The second, titled “Horn of Plenty: MCA Horn Island Alumni Reflect and Remember, 1985-2009,” is more of an invitational meant to honor the best of the best over the past 25 years, 37 works by alumni and faculty that provide a historical and creative summation of the project. It runs through Sept. 18 at MCA’s Downtown gallery, 338 S. Main., with a reception 6-9 p.m. today.
Ten miles off the Mississippi Gulf Coast between Ocean Springs and Pascagoula and barely a mile wide, Horn Island belongs to the Gulf Islands National Seashore and was frequently visited by distinguished Ocean Springs painter Walter Anderson, who spent much of the last decades of his life capturing the island’s essence.
Anderson’s lead helped give birth to the Memphis art trek as did founder/MCA faculty member Robert Riseling’s desire to re-create the type of off-campus art outings he had experienced teaching in St. Cloud, Minn. Then-MCA student Bill Nelson, who was based in Moss Point, Miss., near Pascagoula, suggested Horn Island, and “that’s all it took,” says Riseling. “I said this is the place for me.”
Nine students were part of the first expedition, which Riseling thought would be a one-time opportunity. Instead, he led such trips for 20 years, witnessing not only the maturation of his students’ talents but also the marriage of his daughter, artist Micaela Riseling, to fellow artist Larry Cooper, on the island.
More than two dozen students and alumni recently participated, and the results as seen in “Horn Island 25” are at times whimsical, profound, subdued and brash, a wild array of styles, techniques and voices tied together by both respect for the subject matter and the joy of self-discovery.
Highlights are many, and include the amusing pop culture mash-up by Michael Roy, “Left the Water at Base Camp,” which imagines Donald Duck surfing the waves of Japanese master Hokusai; the rush of words that effectively splash across the surface of Bob Burdette’s “Quietly Loud;” Michelle Duckworth’s distinctive ink on wood fantasies; Courtney Lollar’s transformative use of watercolor and acrylic into organic, lichen-like miniatures; DuMont’s sculptural infusion of Native American motif and myth in “Snapper Spirit Salute;” and Riseling’s “Drift Log on the Beach,” a distillation of the island’s personality into pure form and color.
The Downtown show is just as satisfying and carries the air of conversation among its pieces — works by Robert and Micaela Riseling, Larry Cooper, Leandra Urratia and others bounce off each other with the ring of shared memory and experience.
Yet for Robert Riseling, the best part of a 25th anniversary is witnessing how the Horn Island legacy has grown beyond its initial participants.
“There are so many people now all over the nation that have been on this trip over the years. ... We’re known around the country, and we’ve actually had students come to the school because of Horn Island. Every year at graduation, the students who receive the greatest honors, they’re almost always students who have gone to Horn Island. They become larger people than just students.”
“Drift Log on the Beach,” from Robert Riseling’s latest Horn Island trip.
“Left the Water at Base Camp,” by Michael Roy, imagines Donald Duck surfing the waves of Japanese master Hokusai.