ROCKLAND, Maine — Tom Butler and Kate Russo like to think about their relationship — both artistic and marital — as two individual wavelengths, running alongside one another. Usually synced up, sometimes divergent, but always, generally, going in the same direction.
The couple, based in Rockland, have their work on display through Dec. 2 as part of the 2012 Biennial at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, along with 15 other artists from around Maine. To look at their respective submissions for the exhibit — Butler’s antique photo portraits altered toward the gently surreal, and Russo’s series of exactingly executed geometric patterns — one wouldn’t peg them as a pair. But what they lack in superficial similarity, they make up for in shared energy.
“You have a relationship with your practice, and then you’ve got a relationship with one another. Sometimes they sync up, sometimes they don’t,” said Butler, 33. “As we’ve grown together, the wavelengths have gotten closer. At first, it wasn’t like that at all.”
Butler and Russo met during the first week of graduate school at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Butler grew up in London and was primarily a sculptor. Russo, there to study painting, had grown up in Waterville, the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Colby College professor Richard Russo.
“We met at this student meet-and-greet type thing, and it was definitely an ‘eyes across a crowded gallery’ sort of thing,” said Butler.
“The first thing we found was that we argued a lot,” said Russo, 30. “There was this constant bantering back and forth. We’d engage in these long discussions. We still sort of do that, really. We’re just much more on the same page. Back then, it was definitely a love-hate relationship.”
Despite their fiercely held contradictory beliefs, they began asking each other for help. Russo asked Butler to help her build a box frame for a project. Then Butler asked Russo to take pictures for a series of photos called the Invisibility Machine, in which he hid behind a mirror in various locations around London to give the illusion of invisibility.
“I’m a terrible photographer, so I was amazed he’d ask,” said Russo.
“I had an excuse to go to the pub with you afterwards,” said Butler.
Eventually, Butler’s creative energy turned away from sculpture entirely and towards smaller-cale work — especially since he and Russo moved to Maine from the U.K. in 2010, after marrying in 2007. For the past three years ,he’s found photos and etchings in antique shops, vintage stores and random attics and basements, and, with each one, turned what was once a specific, personal portrait of a person or a group into something entirely different, simply by obscuring the face or head of the people featured in it. A young woman might have a face made of prismatic glass; an older gentleman’s entire head could be made of thick, almost furlike hair.
“I think what draws me to it is that I’m creating a barrier or a mask, something that obscures the identity of those people,” said Butler. “It’s really a mirror to myself. It’s about me wanting to hide in the corner and be veiled… I very much appreciate that kind of conspicuous invisibility. People want to hide, but everyone also wants to be seen.”
The series of photographs on display at CMCA come, originally, from random late 19th-century photography studios from all over the country, though more than half are from Maine towns. Though it’s nearly impossible to tell who they actually are, the people in those photos were clearly real people.
“I never want to know who these people are. It’s nothing to do with them. It’s not personal. These were real people, not monsters, and honestly, if I do find out who they are I don’t want to do anything,” said Butler. “I want them to stay anonymous.”
Russo’s work couldn’t look more different. Where Butler manipulates existing things, Russo starts with a blank page and creates an almost dizzyingly orderly world. Since 2007, she’s taken graph paper and colored pencils and created perfectly organized patterns out of tiny dots of color. It’s only when you see them in person are you fully able to appreciate the amount of obsessive detail Russo puts into each one.
“It’s more of a nervous state, rather than a Zen state,” said Russo. “There’s this kind of nervous energy I expend when I work on them. I always listen to music while I do it, and I’ll get to a point where I notice how many squares I can get done in a song. And then I get obsessive about beating it with the next song. It’s a very anxious thing. It’s a way of channeling that anxiety.”
Graph paper and colored pencil have been her preferred medium for some time, though she’s also done extensive work with needlepoint and with altering existing fabric samples. It takes her about 70 hours to complete one paper pattern, or about two weeks. There are ten of her patterns on display in the CMCA Biennial.
“People don’t make patterns anymore. It’s all done on computers,” she said. “We’re surrounded by them constantly, on cushions, on clothing. We live with these things as though they aren’t even there. In order to make them, you have to be kind of obsessive and patient. I’m both those things, so that’s how I started. They all have this kind of weird personality. Each one, for me, is more intense than the next.”
After the CMCA show, Butler’s work will be on display starting in April at Engine in Biddeford. Russo will give a presentation with her father, Richard Russo, for the Bangor Book Festival on their collaborative book of stories and paintings, “Interventions,” at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19 at the Hammond Street Senior Center in Bangor. Russo was recently featured on Kate Singleton’s popular art world blog Arthound, and will soon have some of her work on Buy Some Damn Art, Singleton’s web site that makes contemporary art available to buy at (generally) affordable prices.
True collaboration isn’t really Butler and Russo’s thing — but they do find complementary skills in the other, as well as the best sounding board either could ask for.
“I think that’s the best part, that if I need help, she can be there to help,” said Butler. “It always has to start with your own idea. Then someone else can help you do the thing that you can’t do. I think that’s where we really complement each other.”
Other artists at the CMCA Biennial are Luc Demers, Portland; Lauren Fensterstock, Portland; Cassie Jones, Brunswick; Lisa Kellner, Rangeley; David Stess, Cherryfield; Kitty Wales, Vinalhaven; Kenny Cole, Monroe; Grace DeGennaro, Yarmouth; Lynda Litchfield, Cape Elizabeth; Robin Mandel, Cushing; James Marshall, Brunswick; Jonathan Mess, Jefferson; Benjamin Potter, Belfast; Aaron Stephan, Portland; and Erik Weisenburger, South Portland. The biennial runs through Dec. 2. CMCA is at 162 Russell Ave. in Rockport; hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sundays.