In Felice Koenig’s comfortably cluttered home studio on Auburn Avenue late last week, the artist sat with C. Allan Ryan, an 86-year-old retiree, on either side of a paint-splattered table strewn with Prismacolor markers of every imaginable color.
The two were collaborating on a single abstract drawing – a blue squiggle here, a complex network of pink dots there – that will appear in Big Orbit Gallery’s exhibition “Felice Koenig: Drawing Together,” which opens Friday and runs through May 16.
The project, in which Western New Yorkers of any background can sign up to work with Koenig in 90-minute sessions of drawing and conversation from Friday through May 10, is an attempt to highlight the simple joys of drawing and its use as a tool for developing personal connections. Aspiring draftsmen and women can sign up through cs1projects.org.
It’s the latest local example of “social practice” art, an increasingly popular movement in which curators and artists strive to work more directly with their communities and audiences.
“Koenig will draw in real time with a series of participants, using the simple tools of youth – paper and colored markers,” said Claire Schneider, a former Albright-Knox Art Gallery curator whose CS1 Curatorial Projects is behind the exhibition. “Sitting opposite one another and working simultaneously on the same piece of paper, the goal is to play as a means of creating new bonds.”
As Koenig worked on one side of the drawing, which she would soon rotate so Ryan could add his own marks to what she’d started, she compared the act of drawing to other more seemingly mundane activities.
“What do you do with anyone? When you cook a meal for someone, that’s a special way to be together. Or if you go on a walk with no destination,” she said. “It’s kind of like going on a walk with no destination. I feel that drawing opens up a part of people that is not something they’re doing every day. It’s bringing people into the rarefied space of art creation.”
But that space – whether it’s her home studio or Big Orbit Gallery, where the rest of the sessions will take place – doesn’t feel “rarefied” in the slightest. It’s just Koenig, a piece of paper, an enormous supply of markers and a great deal of casual conversation.
In Ryan’s case, Koenig’s invitation to draw with her gave him an opportunity to reconnect with an old friend after more than a year of being out of touch and an excuse to come out of his “cave of personal hibernation.”
“The drawing helps a more intimate merger of who we are: two separate people, two different interests, two different lives,” said Ryan, a former telephone company employee who once translated Russian air-to-ground transmissions on Sakhalin Island for the National Security Agency during the Korean War. “You say, gee, we’re not on this planet alone.”
Nearly two hours into the session, Koenig and Ryan – who originally met through Al-Anon, the organization for friends and relatives of alcoholics – were getting on like old friends. The drawing and the conversation flowed effortlessly, and both seemed to sense that their session at the table would only strengthen their connection.
“So many people say they want to do art, but they’re intimidated,” she said. With this process, she added, “there’s no pressure. It’s not my drawing. It’s not their drawing. If we don’t like it we can throw it out. We can play and we can talk, and it’s a chance to really sit and be present for another human being.”
For Ryan, the exhibition is less about the drawing than the experience itself. The drawing, in a way, is merely a recording and reminder of the time he and Koenig spent together.
“Can you recall the best party you ever went to, or the best time you ever had on vacation, or the best couple of hours you spent with somebody?” he asked. “That’s what this will tell me in retrospect. It’ll tell me, there was Felice on the other side of the table, and it will encapsulate the experience.”
What: “Felice Koenig:Drawing Together”
When: 7 p.m. Friday through May 16
Where: Big Orbit Gallery, 30D Essex St.
Info: 856-2717 or cepagallery.org