What is happiness? Does it have mass? Does it have weight? Can you see it?
The answer is yes if “The Art and Science of Happiness,” on view in the gallery at Mabel Smith Douglass Library on the Rutgers University campus, is any indication. The cheerful array of brightly colored three dimensional works by Lyndhurst resident Patricia Dahlman resonate with good feeling as they serve up both questions and answers in reference to a subject that is hard to define and even harder to see.
For Dahlman, making art is about making happiness. “When I finish a work, it often comes as a surprise. Seeing it all come together makes me happy.
“I actually made a couple of works for the show,” she says in a phone interview. “When I was making them I thought about about the happiest events in recent years. That’s why I made the work about Barack Obama (referring to a piece called “Barack Don’t Let the Left Down”).
Dahlman says she that she often creates works that address social concerns and make strong political statements, sometimes in three, other times in two dimensions. They are a form of personal expression. “The subject matter grows out of my feelings, personal thoughts, reactions to political events.” She says she often models her work on photographs, such as those of the President, that she takes off the Internet.
Titles of the featured works alone speak of this artist’s concerns and the use of her art to influence change. Among them: “She Has No Health Insurance,” “No Health Care for Illegal Immigrants,” and “Freedom 1,” produced this year.
Using her art to make a statement is a form of validation, according to Dahlman. “It all comes together to make a statement in the end. That makes my work valid. Working in a political way means getting my voice out there. It gives me a sense that I am doing something to make the world better.”
Dahlman was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, where her father was in the television industry and her British-born mother was a homemaker. She discovered the joys of art at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, where she began her academic life by studying social work. “I had friends in art classes,” she says. “When I tried art I loved it. The rest, as they say, is history.” She graduated in 1975.
She also studied art at the Yale University Summer School of Music and Art in Norfolk. A New Jersey Printmaking Fellowship to Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper, two Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Fellowships, and a Yaddo Artist Residency are part of a long list of honors and awards. She has exhibited her work all over the United States.
Although she started her artistic life as a painter, Dahlman says the lure of three-dimensional art was always a subtext. “I always wanted to make sculpture, but it took a while before I got there. I also explored collage.”
At one painterly point, however, she had a eureka moment and realized she could use her painter’s canvas to build work in three dimensions. Starting with her canvas, Dahlman has invented a unique three-dimensional vocabulary — a combination of visible craft, combining unusual materials that are active in narrative affect, in elaborate constructions that often tell a story. Hand stitchery, used to assemble these works, also functions as a strong visual element.
“In the last few years I have focused on making sculpture. I cut out forms in canvas then stuff and sew them together. The stitching or fabric covering is like drawing or painting. I like the color, light, and surface the thread or fabric makes on the stuffed canvas.”
Happiness is not the only story that Dahlman is telling in the gallery. The works selected for this exhibition also include several that comment on issues such as the environmental destruction in the artist’s community and recent political events. “Some of my stitching functions as drawing in words,” she says. As material representations of her hopes for an improved future for society and the world, this aspect of her work functions as a link to the university’s 2010-’11 Global Initiatives theme.
The art in this exhibit, however, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to examining the subject, according to Ferris Olin, director of the Institute for Women & Art and curator of the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series. “The exhibition is the visual component of an interdisciplinary seminar,” she says. “It functions as a demonstration of the way in which art can be used as a significant vehicle for ideas and emotions, a way to expand knowledge beyond the textual.”
She notes that art can carry a lot of meaningful intellectual weight. “I think we often spend a lot of time talking about literacy. We forget that literacy includes the visual. These exhibits are opportunities to help understand concepts by using the visual.”
The display was organized as part of the Rutgers Institute for Research on Women’s 2010-’11 interdisciplinary seminar, “The Art and Science of Happiness.” The assembled art is staged to function as a material connection with a series of programs that explore how economic security, political stability, family, careers, health, community involvement, and other domains contribute (or not) to one’s sense of being “happy.” This year the emphasis is on the search for the solutions to the crises that threaten to undermine the precarious balances that we strive to maintain in our worlds. This is where Happiness comes in.
Olin says the assembled sculpture and needlework looks at happiness close-up and from a distance. Chosen from a field of the work of some 300 artists, the diverse array of constructions speak of the subject using a vocabulary that includes color, surface texture, and process.
Although it might be thought of as icing on the intellectual cake, this art makes a valid contribution as an idea as it provides food for thought. And like the icing, adds a rich and flavorful accent to the subject. Stylized landscapes and familiar objects and subjects are combined with pure abstraction to create a gallery environment that joyfully sings using a melody of surface, color, and shape. In each case the medium is as important as the subject. The rich mixture of high-keyed hue, luxurious surface texture, and in many cases the lyrical profile of the constructions is enough to brighten a viewer’s day without even thinking about the subject.
For those who question whether looking at art can create happiness and encourage change, answers can be found among the comments in a gallery guest book. One student wrote, “I like how you used a lot of color and large shapes for most of your pieces. It’s an interesting medium you used to describe your personal thoughts and public issues. more than anything…I am amazed by the feelings that your pieces are able to convey. The color schemes as well as the textures of the fabric remind me of my childhood.”
Another student was brief but trenchant in documenting the impact of the exhibition, writing, “I wish the world was made like your art.”
And, despite the state of the world at large, Dahlman says she is a happy person. “I am happy. There are so many horrible things happening but I am happy. Maybe I’m lucky.”
Art Exhibition and Artist Talk, Rutgers University, Douglass Library Galleries, 8 Chapel Drive, New Brunswick. Thursday, November 18, 5:30 p.m. Artist Patricia Dahlman speaks about her work in conjunction with her multimedia exhibit “The Art and Science of Happiness.” On view to December 10. 732-932-9407.