Autumn de Forest at the Monthaven Arts and Cultural Centre in Hendersonville, Tennessee
by Steve Rockwell
On a sunny August day it’s a beautiful drive for some 18 Tennessee miles into the country from Nashville to get to Monthaven, a historic home in Hendersonville. Chances are that you’ll step on Johnny Cash Parkway at some point, the city’s main road. To the best of my knowledge, more recent residents of note, the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Taylor Swift don’t have parkways named after them as yet.
The property saw some Civil War action, skirmishes at least, having just been built as the conflict erupted, and subsequently pressed into service as a field hospital. The building now houses galleries and the offices of the Hendersonville Arts Council, who’s stated mission it is to collect, preserve and interpret local and regional art, the facility presenting exhibits of regional, national and international importance. To spend solitary quiet time in the historic rooms of Monthaven and not sense the fleeting passage of a Civil War ghost or two is next to impossible. The blame for this may lay in the building’s bucolic setting. In the stillness, reminders of Monthaven’s history come in the whispers and creaks of its walls and floors. The arts center wrapped these qualities appropriately into their slogan: Where Art and History Will Bring You Back.
The focus of my journey was to view Her White Room: The Art of Autumn de Forest, an exhibition of more than 60 of her paintings. This would be the first show in the state of Tennessee by the young artist. A much anticipated component of the event were master classes conducted by Autumn with area art students ages five-to-twelve and high school. The MACC mandate has a provison for art instruction spanning pre-school to adult, and the facility operates at capacity. Director Cheryl Strichik said, “We run about a hundred kids upstairs monthly and we can only fit so many kids up there.”
“Autumn de Forest inspired me,” said Strichik. “I’m a 64 year old woman and she made me want to soar! She had that effect on all of us. Her art was crisp yet funky, sharp and soft, colorful yet gray. She put hearts on her paintings and painted rows of big poppy’s or so I called them! She painted cool American flags and paintings of sneakers. Who does this? Only someone like Autumn. When she left here all the kids could not quit talking about her. One girl from her class she gave here, portrayed Autumn at her school for their Wax Museum Day. She dressed like her and did pigtails and held a painting she had done of Barbie. She certainly was loved by our adult patrons also, as I have promised her return in 2019/20 so they can do a master class with her! I must say after Autumn left we were even more committed to obtaining the land around us to build our educational arts facility.” As an update, the land has been by now signed for and Monthaven is closer to their dream of a free standing arts building.
De Forest’s approach to teaching is hands on. There is a sense of teacher and student working from the ground up. She draws from her working experience, sharing openly her own success and, more importantly, her signature way of imparting the enthusiasm born out of the pleasure of her own eureka moments. While the technique, or how-to aspect of the young artist’s teaching method may be the door-opener for a young student, there is also a budding philosophy behind it. De Forest states it this way, “I feel as though creating is honestly what makes the world interesting – what makes it not black and white, but rather beautiful and fantastic, and curious. I believe that art is what makes you see the world differently.” It is, perhaps, this open-eyed innocence that resonnates with her peers, standing in opposition to the worldly irony and cynicism that informs much of contemporary art.
Essentially, de Forest coaxes the innner child out of the child, as exemplified by her direction, “Now here’s the fun part of it, you can do whatever you want. So, the first thing I am going to do here is wet the canvas with a yellow, and then take some red and some orange, and I’m just kind a goin’ for it, not being super careful. You’re painting may not turn out to be exactly what you thought it might be – but it might be even better.” The threshold for the adult, is of course, the stifling fear of making a mistake, countered here instead by de Forest with the possibility of somethng great. Maybe so, maybe not. There’s the fun – art becomes a joyride. In one her videos posted almost ten years ago, de Forest chirps in her eight-year-old voice, “You can make it as crazy as you want. Just tell a story.”
It’s worth keeping in mind that de Forest, having begun her art in earnest at the age of five, is in some respescts, already a ten-year artworld veteran, with gallery representation and numerous museum exhibitons padding her CV. At an auction in February 2010 de Forest sold over $100 000 in paintings within 16 minutes. She was only eight at the time. One of her paintings went for $25,000.
De Forest is represented by Park West Gallery, reportedly the largest privately-owned art gallery in the world, laying the claim to more than two million customers since 1969. Sponsorship for de Forest’s Monthaven exhibit was provided by the Park West Foundation. Established in 2006 by Albert and Mitsie Scaglione, it began by supporting youth that aged out of the foster care system in Southeastern Michigan.
In her mission statement, Diane Pandolfi, Director of Park West Foundation describes the foundation’s mandate in terms very much in sync with de Forest’s contribution to the work. “As a former educator, I always believed in focusing on growing children in every area of their development, including the provision of rich experiences in the fine and performing arts. Art education goes to our core as human beings. It allows us to view and perceive the world in a way that is unique and differentiated. The arts allow us to get in touch with our inner souls as human beings and enjoy a deep level of beauty expressed as only the arts can do.”
This past April Monthaven opened an exhibition featuring another Park West artist, Alexander Renoir, great-grandson of master impressionist artist Pierre Auguste Renoir. Beauty Remains, has on display 40 or so of Renoir’s works, primarily oils on canvas. Among those will be a painting Renoir has created specifically for the Tennessee exhibition entitled, Moonlight and Magnolias, depicting a view of historic Monthaven, the 1860s mansion built in the late Victorian Greek Revival style.
In June Monthaven Arts and Cultural Center opens a show with about 15 American veteran artists that have used art as a healing process from PTSD. Assistance for the vets was provided by a group called CREATIVETS who funded the vets’classes at the Chicago Art Institute. Herein lies the power of art to engage and integrate a person on multiple levels. As such, it gets to the root of creativity – to bring into existence something entirely new, something that didn’t exist before. That in itself has to be life-affirming.
The encouragement to create, when sparked by the enthusiasm of youth is infectious. De Forest’s success with her peers is understandable: “It’s my passion to help people with their art. My entire goal is to change the world for the better with my artwork, and this is one of my ventures in doing so, that by telling, or teaching, or just showing that whatever you love, you can do it too, whether it is painting, whether it is drawing, or sketching, or designing. Whatever it is, if it’s creative, if it is work in your mind, or in your body, whatever your passion is, you can do it too. Just don’t focus on how good you are, focus on how much you love it. “