Cover Story: Man Out of Time

Bolotin works on a tool he never used before, a computer.

Sean Hughes

Man Out of Time

The one thing in veteran artist Jay Bolotin's ramshackle farmhouse that's not like the others is the state-of-the-art computer in his upstairs bedroom.

The past surrounds Bolotin in the mid-19th-century white clapboard house he calls home. His kitchen appliances are decades old. Vintage family photos blanket the living room's wooden plank walls. Tattered books fill nearby shelves. Antique musical instruments hang from ceiling rafters.

It's as if a set designer pieced together the home with the goal of creating a place from a bygone era.

Bolotin and his home, perched on a steep hillside in the North Fairmount neighborhood, match perfectly. Like his home, he's also a creature from the past.

He wears clothes that are authentically vintage, usually a worn wool vest, white cotton dress shirt and dark, roughhewn trousers.

His speech is hushed, with extra politeness emphasized by his Kentucky drawl.

Bolotin's receding gray hair is cut short to his leathery skin. A lit cigarette seldom leaves his hand.

A small but rock solid man, he's one of those individuals who looks his part — master woodcut artist, an expert in a renaissance art form that goes back to the 15th century, a Country Western balladeer and a Kentucky farm boy. He's a true classicist, and yet ultra modernity in the form of a sleek flat-screen computer and the latest software has entered into his life and artwork.

The equipment might look as if it fell from outer space — or at least from someone else's office — into this room filled with antique bric-a-brac, but Bolotin understands its purpose. With this computer, he's bringing his well-regarded woodcuts into the 21st century and attempting to do something seldom seen before.

The potential payoff is a level of acclaim and success Bolotin, 55, has yet to experience in his long art career.

On Friday, the Contemporary Arts Center premieres The Jackleg Testament, what Bolotin calls a "woodcut motion picture" — meaning a movie created from elements of his woodcuts. Watch a sequence of the operatic musical drama, and it's hard to predict what the response will be.

Everything in the movie — its characters, landscapes and buildings, even the smallest props — comes from one of Bolotin's woodcut prints. Its images of grotesque people and period settings will be familiar to audiences who have seen his work before.

What's radical for Bolotin — and for the medium of woodcut printing itself — stems from the shiny white Apple computer tucked away at home. He's spent the last four years taking digital photos of his woodcuts, downloading them onto the computer and creating moving images from them.

The result of Bolotin's computer animation work — a skill he taught himself and learned by trial and error — is The Jackleg Testament, a variation on the Biblical story of Genesis with a live jack-in-the-box joining Eve on a journey of self-discovery.

Two portfolios of woodcuts and large prints from these woodcuts will be on display at the CAC to help illustrate the long path leading up to the motion picture. The 65-minute Jackleg Testament will screen regularly in the CAC's basement level black box theater.

The characters — Jack, Eve and a cruel ruler named Nobo Daddy — are puppet-like in appearance with large bulbous heads and small wiry bodies. They share deeply creased faces and exaggerated features — protruding chins, thick lips and hanging noses. They're intentionally ugly, and yet their ugliness makes them unforgettable and striking.

The Jackleg Testament is a musical with score and songbook by Bolotin. Its songs are a combination of the bluesy Country tunes and grassroots Opera music he's created in past theatrical works like Limbus: A Mechanical Opera and The Hidden Boy.

But the medium — a strange brew of digitally manipulated animation and shadowbox puppetry — is unlike anything Bolotin or many woodcut artists for that matter have done before. It's an undeniable personal breakthrough.

What's left, as Bolotin races to finish The Jackleg Testament in the days leading up to the CAC premiere, is to register the response to the work both in Cincinnati, his home for the past 24 years, and beyond.

"This work has gotten me more attention than I ever had before and I am not sure for the reasons," Bolotin says, with his eyes focused straight at me. "I don't consider myself a really hip person. I don't think I make work that one would read about in slick art magazines."

'A beautiful place to be'
Bolotin was born on a large working farm near Lexington, Ky., on March 14, 1949, and his childhood speaks to a South that no longer exists. His Lithuanian parents owned and managed the farm's crops, cattle and horses, but Bolotin says he spent much of his time with the African-American and Appalachian families who were tenant sharecroppers for his parents.

He surrounded himself with the down-home cultures of the people working his family's farm, the songs and speech of the Kentucky hills versus the affluence of Lexington high society preferred by his parents and sister.

Bolotin grew up in a scholarly if not worldly environment. His grandmother played records of Lithuanian cantors. His passion for classic literature and philosophy continues to this day.

But even at an early age, Bolotin expressed the dichotomy of high and low within himself. He loved and learned the Appalachian songs and the appeal of simple backwoods living far away from city streets while developing a love for art and learning.

"My sister enjoyed going into Lexington, but I preferred walking into the woods and exploring the cliffs and river," Bolotin says. "I could walk forever and often would travel great distances on foot. I was never nervous about getting lost. I never thought it was dangerous. You know, it's a beautiful place to be."

Bolotin lore says he began making sculpture from fallen trees at age 9 and writing songs at age 13, and it's difficult not to accept those statements as true.

Bolotin attended the Rhode Island School of Design for two years, 1968-70, leaving, he says, because he didn't fit in the world of students reading slick art magazines. His true education came at the hands of sculptor Robert Lamb, with whom he apprenticed after leaving college.

Under Lamb, who Bolotin credits for teaching him more than any school ever could, he honed his skill in making woodcuts and woodcut prints.

Bolotin's smooth drawl speaks to his formative years in the forests of Eastern Kentucky. Like many American artists, though, he also spent time in New York City.

It was at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire that he first met poet Isabella Gardner. He became her friend and a frequent guest at her Gertrude Stein-like salon in New York's Chelsea Hotel. He became close with novelist Hannah Green, artist Robert Frank and Frank's wife Odetta.

It was Frank who initially promoted Bolotin to art gallery owner Carl Solway, who was operating exhibition spaces in both Cincinnati and New York City at the time.

By the time Solway heard about Bolotin, the artist had left New York to live in an isolated cabin on Rural Route 62 some 15 miles east of Cynthiana, Ky. Bolotin reconnected with the Kentucky River and other childhood haunts like the small country town Oddville, Beaver Baptist Pike and a stretch of river nicknamed "Devil's Backbone." He was happy and productive in the Kentucky backwoods.

"Kentucky is an interesting place," Bolotin says. "You don't have to go very far to disappear quite easily."

Solway drove from Cincinnati to visit Bolotin and see his sculptures and remembers connecting with the artist immediately. He agreed to exhibit Bolotin's work in Cincinnati (Solway Gallery's first Jay Bolotin exhibition was in January 1981 at a space on Fourth Street), and their association continues to this day.

Bolotin seeks Solway's advice regarding new projects like The Jackleg Testament and asks for his clout when it comes to securing support for his work.

It was Solway who put Bolotin in touch with Hugh Davies, director at the Museum of Contemporary Art ; the second and perhaps most prestigious stop of the current Jackleg Testament tour. It was also Solway who helped generate funds to allow Bolotin to travel to Europe in February to record opera singer Nigel Robeson, who performs the role of Jack in the film.

Solway can speak forever about Bolotin and his artwork. But when it comes to The Jackleg Testament, even he is at a lost for words.

"I have enjoyed a professional and personal relationship with Jay for years, and I am a supporter of his work," Solway says, speaking in the office above his West End gallery. "But this is something unlike anything I've seen from him before, unlike anything I've seen from anyone. An artist like William Kentridge and his animation comes to mind, but Jay's film is different. I think it's going to attract a lot of attention for Jay."

'Very satisfying ways'
There was a time when Bolotin's art revolved around a single guitar and the idea of computer work was far from his mind.

Bolotin first came to Cincinnati 30 years ago as a musician. He'd already performed for 20 years in bars in the Northeast and across the South as a folksy balladeer and earned a weekly gig performing in the front room at Arnold's downtown.

Bolotin was already an artist of some renown by that time, but his singing and guitar playing was how Cincinnati audiences first came to know him.

His first trip to New York City was to record an album for ABC Paramount Records in 1969, when he took the bus to perform at The Bitter End and Folk City. In his early twenties he moved back south to Nashville and worked on an album of songs with Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson; the album was never released.

Dan Fogelberg, David Allan Coe and Dickie Betts recorded Bolotin's songs over the years — Bolotin's song "It's Hard to Go Down Easy" reached No. 6 on the Billboard singles chart with a recording by Fogelberg. Quite possibly, if he enjoyed greater success as a songwriter in Nashville and hadn't tired of touring, his visual art career might never have happened.

"Touring is hard," he says with no regret. "Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed and continue to enjoy music. But it wasn't for me. So I returned to my artwork, and yet I've been able to incorporate my artwork in very satisfying ways."

Everything Bolotin has done as an artist — from his first solo exhibition at Solway Gallery to his years in Nashville as a full-time musician to his first major Cincinnati presence, when his work made up the premiere exhibition at the Aronoff Center's Weston Art Gallery in October 1995 — leads to The Jackleg Testament.

He has much to be proud of. His woodcuts and woodcut prints are part of the permanent collections at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Museum of Modern Art in New York, Chase Manhattan Bank and Australian National Gallery (Canberra). There have been numerous shows throughout the years, mostly at smaller galleries in far-flung places like Dekalb, Ill., places in sync with Bolotin's rural upbringing.

A 1984 tour with other American woodcut artists and a 1984 group show at Manhattan's Castelli Graphics brought Bolotin's work greater attention. It was around this time that he also began to integrate his art as set pieces for musical works.

In March 1988, Bolotin premiered The Hidden Boy, a collaboration with the Bebe Miller Dance Company, at UC's Patricia Corbett Theater. Based on his relationship with Gardner, it would be the first of three projects Bolotin shared with Miller, a choreographer and director who has used film, text and original music in dance performances by her company since its founding in 1985.

In April 1988, Bolotin reunited with Miller, contributing music to "The Laundromat Song," part of the The Hell Dances, which premiered at St. Marks Church in Manhattan. Bolotin and Miller then took The Hidden Boy to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus and the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville in 1990 and 1991.

At its shows at New York City's City Center Theater, however, Bolotin received some of the most scathing reviews of his career. The New York Post theater critic summed up Bolotin like this: He needed to return to Kentucky and never come back.

Bolotin continued to emphasize his music. He wrote the score for Cincinnati artist Aralee Strange's Etta Stone: Film for Radio and performed on Miller's dance piece "Rain."

A newspaper article from the mid-1970s inspired his most intricate work, Limbus. In the avant-garde production that intricately combined actors and giant mechanical statues, a boulder rolls through a Kentucky farmhouse in between the beds of an 8-year-old girl and her infant brother but crushes their parents.

Bolotin created Limbus from top to bottom — its music, lyrics and sculptural objects. He was also one of the principal performers.

He went to Europe in 1995 to scout locations to perform Limbus, but the costs of staging the show prevented interested venues from booking the show.

'I don't consider myself a hip person'
His personal life also underwent changes. After separating from his partner Louise Jameson (currently a teacher at Northern Kentucky University), he helped raise his two children, Ezra Jay and Simone Hannah, in a small Main Street apartment in Over-the-Rhine.

As they grew older, Bolotin saw the street's influences making a negative impact. It would be 11 at night and children younger than his would be running up and down the sidewalks.

Bolotin wanted something quieter, perhaps a sliver of his own Kentucky childhood, and he found that in the steep hillsides and dirt roads of North Fairmount. So they moved to a house midway up a secluded hillside, before moving to a slightly larger house further down an unmarked dirt road.

Asked if his North Fairmount home is his way of bringing Kentucky to the city, Bolotin answers with a quiet, "I suppose so. One's childhood always stays with you."

Bolotin relocated his Main Street studio to Brighton around the same time, confirming a complete break with Over-the-Rhine.

Located a few doors away from Semantics Gallery and across from The Mockbee, the popular performance and exhibition space in a sprawling building that looms over Central Parkway, Bolotin's work space is once again at the center of a fledgling artist community. More importantly, he says with slight smile, the area is a quick 10-minute bike ride from home.

Like his home bases in Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood continually on the verge of dramatic renewal, and North Fairmount, a neglected hamlet of shuttered schools and churches, Bolotin seeks a critical rebirth.

"I consider everything that I do as tools dedicated to the same end," hesays. "Much of my visual work has an implied narrative just as my songs too."

To call Bolotin a renaissance man is to state the obvious. He sculpts and paints and creates woodcuts in the classic tradition. He composes, writes lyrics, plays music and directs the theater productions he creates.

The breadth of his work is reflected in the clutter of his studio inside a large building on Harrison Avenue.

"Oh, a renaissance man?" Bolotin asks surprisingly. "I don't know about that. I don't think that way. But it is true. I do paint. I do sculpt. I make the woodcuts. But I see it all as the same. My work is the same. What changes are the materials or the mediums I use."

Large sculptures from Limbus rest in the back room of his studio. They're massive wood sculptures of human-like characters, but what sets them apart from more ordinary sculpture work is that their large wooden pieces are mechanized.

Like many artist studios, past work, supplies and materials and personal items occupy every inch of the dusty floor and walls in the large two-room space. But the clutter is distinct to Bolotin and the classic medium of woodcuts, which he has made the locus of his arts career.

The industrial printer, a large metal press, occupies the center space of the studio's front room. There are reams of paper and the black ink needed for the printing. The prints hang from clotheslines strung across the walls.

Bolotin rests on a worn sofa pushed to the side of the room and opens up the Jackleg Testament portfolio.

"I try to make work that I would like to see myself," he says. "I tend to work on a piece until it's something I would like to see."

Bolotin gestures to the bold images of Jack, Eve and Nobo Daddy, leader of the grim metropolis Nobotown. His written text of the story surrounds the character images and covers whatever blank space is left on the portfolio's large pages.

'It's like crawling into your own picture'
Bolotin's vision of the world reflects a long-ago time of working farms and sharecroppers and shots of bourbon in neighborhood taverns. It's the world he knows intimately, and to some extent it's the world he attempts to re-create with his artwork, bringing new life to real-life spots he experienced like Devil's Backbone.

The portfolio is striking in detail and richness, pure Bolotin, but it pales to the dazzling imagery of The Jackleg Testament.

A woodcut, also commonly called a woodblock print, is a block of wood where the designs are carved and cut into the block. The technique for wood blocks has remained mostly unchanged for centuries, although means for reproducing woodblock prints can be as modern or as antiquated as the artist wants it to be.

Bolotin crafts his woodcuts the traditional way, using large blocks of wood (refusing to use linoleum or other softer materials) and carving designs into the block with various knives and chisels. The designs are raised edges along the wood surface, and it's these raised surfaces that transfer ink to the paper used for the two-dimensional prints.

A woodcut print can be any variety of styles using colored inks or basic black. Artists as diverse as Paul Gauguin and Erich Heckel created woodcuts, but Bolotin's images share more in common with traditional Christian images from 15th- and 16th-century Europe.

Even in the world of woodblock artists, Bolotin remains connected to the form's classic origins. He is and remains a man of the past, arguably a man out of time.

"What people are calling the new work is a matter of contention," he says. "Is it computer animation? It's wood and ink and I manipulate it in the computer. I don't know what to call it. So I call it a woodcut motion picture."

The same could be said of his home, which is as off the map as a house in the city of Cincinnati can be.

It's rained frequently the past week, and Bolotin states matter-of-factly that 5 feet of rainwater sits in his basement. The house, he says, is built to allow the water to flow through the basement and continue down the hill. But recently, for some reason, the water is slow to leave.

"Look," Bolotin says, gesturing to the gap where the kitchen floor meets the door to the basement. "The house has shifted a couple of inches down here in the last few years. It keeps moving, but at this rate I think I have another 100 years to spare."

There is coffee, bourbon and cigarettes before heading upstairs to Bolotin's bedroom and makeshift editing suite. On our way up the steps, being sure to duck at the low stairway ceiling, he laughs when asked if the house's electrical system is capable of powering the computer equipment without blowing fuses.

Looking at the elaborate computer set up, it's as if the entire house is doing all it can, straining even, to keep the computer humming. It's important work, since for the first time, instead of relying solely on his hands and using materials manipulated by past artists for centuries, Bolotin is creating something out of thin air.

When it comes time to show his latest handiwork, Bolotin doesn't open a portfolio cover and pull out prints and he doesn't open the studio door and gesture to one of his mechanical statues. He has to turn on the computer and hope the circuits and hard drives he knows nothing about click on and bring up his woodcut motion picture.

Bolotin knows woodcuts as well as anyone. Making a motion picture on his computer, that's foreign — or at least it used to be.

'I know what I'm doing now'
On the late April night Bolotin and I watch The Jackleg Testament, much remains to be done with the film.

CAC Associate Curator Matt Distel had just visited Bolotin the day before to check on its progress. Act One is complete except for some polishing. Act Two is nearly finished. Act Three still requires music to be mixed with the video.

Karin Bergquist, longtime singer with the band Over the Rhine and a past Bolotin collaborator, is the voice of Eve. Her vocals shift from angelic hushes to bold blasts of emotion.

She's a perfect complement to the Django Reinhardt-inspired Gypsy Jazz music, Folksy twangs and melodramatic Opera mixed through the film.

The Jackleg Testament is thick with archetypes — Jack and Eve; Adam, who is pushed to the story's side; forbidden fruit; and an omniscient ruler known as Nobo Daddy (voiced by Bolotin). The forms and figures are familiar from the portfolio Bolotin showed me at his studio, but the characters come alive in the motion picture, even on the small computer screen.

The story is as streamlined as a creation myth can be. Bolotin plays God and tweaks the myth to suit his own perspective on the world and his own experiences growing up in Kentucky.

Every image is dense with colors that lean toward darker shades of blues, crimsons and blacks. Talk of artist inspiration is brief, although the work of Belgian artist Frans Masreel comes to mind. His woodcut novel The Idea was turned into a film by Czech animator Berthold Bartosch in 1932.

Red Grooms, another Kentucky artist, dabbled in filmmaking, using a mishmash of animation and visual distortions. There are numerous short animated films that resemble woodcut prints in their simplicity. As far as animating two-dimensional art elements, Frida Kahlo's paintings came alive in Frida, while self-taught artist Henry Darger's paintings were animated for the documentary In the Realms of the Unreal.

Still, The Jackleg Testament looks, sounds and feels different from those works. It's an underground film in that Bolotin isn't a recognized filmmaker.

"I spent many years on this because a lot of the time I was learning and teaching myself what to do," he says. "I do plan to make two more of these motion pictures. I always saw it as a series of three stories. But I don't expect it to take as long. I know what I'm doing now."

The result is a dramatic work more practical that Limbus in its ability to travel and be screened in other venues. In fact, in addition to a stop in San Diego the film is booked by Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, Georgia Museum of Art in Athens and the Sarratt Gallery at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Weeks have passed since I saw the film's working print, and the premiere for The Jackleg Testament is fast approaching. Bolotin admits he still has plenty of work to do but is confident that everything will be finished — down to the wire, but finished on time.

He sits at a small side table adjacent to the bar at Arnold's, near the spot where he used to perform but now a spot where he comes to drink his preferred bourbon.

In public, Bolotin seems quieter and shier than he does in the privacy of his home or studio. He comes off as a wallflower, someone who blends in with shadows despite the fact that he's performed in front of numerous audiences through the years and is the creator of bold artwork that's anything but subtle.

Clad in his trademark vest and white shirt, he's just come from the CAC to discuss the latest installation plans for The Jackleg Testament. Flat panel TV screens will display segments of the film in the museum's galleries. One of his large statues, perhaps the 14-foot drummer from Limbus, will be a centerpiece of the display.

There also will be drawings and woodcuts to remind visitors that Bolotin remains a sculpture, a painter and a musician. But he's now a filmmaker, and it's as a filmmaker that his career has the chance of going places he's never imagined before.

"I always wanted to do a larger piece about intuitive things, about death, and not translate it into something else. This is about perspective; realizing something in a new way and that's exciting for me. It's like crawling into your own picture and looking around, which is something I always imagined doing."

THE JACKLEG TESTAMENT by Jay Bolotin opens Friday during the Contemporary Fridays event and continues at the Contemporary Arts Center downtown through Aug. 21.