A Little Bit Country

Jay Bolotin’s take on Adam, Eve, prints and animating opera

To appreciate Jay Bolotin’s creative sensibility, imagine how an idea like, “Eve got a raw deal,” connects to a multi-tiered artistic endeavor that includes arresting visual images, words, songs—and possibly a full-scale opera set or an animated film of an opera. A recasting of Adam and Eve constitutes subject matter for the first part of the trilogy. Shed the notion that you can categorize the artist. Also, that one person is incapable of doing all those things well.

A small man with curly, grey hair, bright blue eyes, whose presence makes him seem at once electric and given to dreaming, he says, “I decided I wanted to do something with text in a physical way to make the words exist in the world, something William Blake aspired to do.” An exhibition of Bolotin’s work at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA), The Jackleg Testament, complete with a continuous-loop screening of his 62-minute animated opera that emerged from a suite of Bolotin’s woodcuts, makes very clear he’s fulfilled his goal.

I met Bolotin when he was in residence at SCMA during the exhibition’s installation. Perched on stools beside a number of large prints on one gallery wall for part two of the trilogy, The Book of Only Enoch he wielded an ebony pencil in order to add text beside the images.

Aprile Gallant, SCMA curator, described Enoch in museum materials:

The artist’s handwritten gallery annotations will give exhibition viewers a sense of the progression of the storyline, inspired in part by the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, (books of the Old Testament not included in the accepted version of the text). One of these versions includes the figure of Enoch, a man “who went to Heaven and lived to tell the tale.” Bolotin reimagines and rechristens this figure “Only Enoch,” the son of the only Jewish coal miner in Kentucky.

Moving from woodcuts-only, the seven-minute short of part two, currently in progress, represents a more fluid piece of animation than the first. Indeed, the images manage to be bold, the darks really dark, the colors strong, but also intricate—their strength is not found in broad strokes, rather through the conviction of execution.

Alongside William Blake, add a dash of Willie Nelson: Bolotin’s thumbnail is a Kentucky boy turned Nashville songwriter turned Cleveland artist. Asked how he dreamt up The Jackleg Testament, he responds, “We need a bottle of bourbon and five hours,” before he smiles.

He explains, “I worked all through the 1990s on a physically large project.” For Limbus: A Mechanical Opera, performed under the direction of Jonathan Easton, Bolotin fabricated giant mechanical sculptures. He continues, “The set was literally tons of steel and wood. Simultaneously, I made a series of woodcuts. I wanted to make the next thing less … huge.”

He smiles again. For a moment, it’s clear that despite his jocular tone, the bourbon and the five hours would likely yield a different story. But then he continues, in earnest: “Having taken prints into other forms onstage, I wanted to make something right in front of me.” He decided to animate the woodcuts. “I thought of cinema as a small space,” he explains. “It turned out to be the biggest thing I’ve made.”

The film traveled to the UK, Russia, and Prague—and the Santa Fe Film Festival. Unbeknownst to Bolotin, the Russians entered the film into the Santa Fe Film Festival—where it won in 2007. Unbeknownst to the Festival organizers, Bolotin wasn’t Russian. He says, “At the airport when they picked me up, the organizers were saying how good my English was. I thought they meant for a Kentucky boy.” Bolotin was surprised the phrase “Jackleg” is somewhat foreign beyond the South. He says, “It’s not disparaging; it’s more like being clever in a self-taught way.”

Self-taught ingenuity describes Bolotin, who began to make sculptures as a child. “I always had the inclination to make things,” he says. A songwriter since he was 13, he imagines his visual work as on a continuum from his songwriting, one that renders stories visible.

Bolotin attended the Rhode Island School of Design for a year-and-a-half and he worked for the sculptor Robert Lamb for about three years. He says, “I made molds for him and whatever else. He didn’t impart wisdom, exactly; he just talked. He said that we need people with head in the clouds but you have to keep your feet on the ground.” From a residency at the MacDowell colony, he took away the “necessity of immersion,” explaining, “You learn a great deal from time, from sticking with characters and letting the work winnow out.”

If generating imagery is not a terribly difficult thing for Bolotin, his bigger challenge is “getting a handle on what I’m creating. It takes time for imagery that once felt like an enemy to become a friend.”

Bolotin did not last long as a teacher. He says, “I couldn’t teach techniques, because artists should figure out techniques for themselves.” Clearly, so much about his artistic process is about process. Nearly every project seems to involve the mandate to learn something. For example, his very large prints rely upon both woodcuts and relief etching. Of Rachel Heberling, the printer on this project, he says, “The printing Rachel does is a formidable task.”

To learn how to bring the woodcut figures into motion through animation took over a year of “failures to figure it out,” he says. “I was pleased when the characters began to look like words would come out of their mouths. The world of computers likes symmetry more than I do. We had to reach a peaceful truce.”

Wrestling his expansive visions into somewhat conventional forms is nothing new for Bolotin. Even back in Nashville as a songwriter, artists like Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard championed his work while record executives “weren’t sure what to do with me.” He continues, “I take some pride in the fact that the record companies would say to me you’ve got ten ideas in that song. Go back and make it one. I couldn’t, though.”

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