Glass roots

Therman Statom: Stories of the New World
Through May 10
Orlando Museum of Art

Walking into Therman Statom's sprawling installation at the Orlando Museum of Art brings on visual overload in a stimulating way.

First impression: "Wow, a glass funhouse!"

Second: "Wow, it's wonderful and … weird."

Third: "Wait, what is it?"

Those are typical responses. There really isn't anything like Stories of the New World to compare it to. Certainly, the highly educated Statom was a student of Dale Chihuly and considers him a mentor, but Statom is on the edge of something new in the glass art movement. His OMA installation transcends the pure beauty of glass to tell a story that's both personal and universal, one of self-discovery.

In its most literal translation, Statom's exhibit begins with the launch of wooden sailing ships across a formidable blue ocean to find the New World, and the subsequent search by Ponce de Leon for the Fountain of Youth in what would become Florida. From there, the interpretation of progress and change lies in the mind of the viewer, aided by the artist's complex art stuffs — wall-sized paintings and video projections, a village of structures built from plate glass and mirrors, and countless objects in myriad sizes, shapes and colors suspended in glass boxes. Visually, Statom's world is a circus, at moments familiar and homey and at others, distorted and dizzying.

Buried in the visuals, there's a deliberate intention by the artist to weave his own journey of self-discovery. Statom, now 53, is an African-American with Seminole bloodlines; he was born in Winter Haven, Fla., in the 1950s, and is now an internationally known art force based in Omaha, Neb. (halfway between L.A. and NYC), where he can avail himself of enough of the cheap warehouse space his work requires. Statom's is not a childhood story of poverty, but of possibilities; he was born to a physician and a teacher who moved out of Winter Haven to the Washington, D.C., area and were able to afford the best education possible for their children. Statom himself says he was a spoiled kid, raised by his folks with freedom and the encouragement to be whatever he wanted to be. He marvels at how much the world has changed just from the time of his grandfather, a moonshiner in Polk County who was almost lynched a couple of times, to his father's military enlistment and the medical training that took his family beyond Florida, to the artist's return to Central Florida to build his most ambitious project to date at the Orlando Museum of Art.

Since the installation's Jan. 10 debut, Statom was chosen for the Alain Locke Award by the Friends of African and African American Art at the Detroit Institute of Art. On Feb. 9, he gave a talk on "Explorations in Transparency" to some of the country's most passionate African-American artists, educators and advocates. The institute explains that the award is given annually to "scholars and other individuals who have contributed to the advancement of African American art and culture" and "have exhibited exemplary courage, commitment, and leadership in promoting the legacy of Dr. Alain Locke."

"Alain Locke was an intellectual pioneer for black Americans, so to be associated with him means a lot to me," says Statom. "I always wanted to be an advocate for social change, to use my art as a venue to explore that."

Statom's work is all about change, he says. "A big part of this show is a reflection of my continual exploration of who I am, being from `Winter Haven`, and all these syntheses that are coming from it."

He's about change, too, in his personal life. After decades of schooling and experimenting in various media, from pottery to painting, he became a father in his 50s with his younger wife, Danish jewelry designer Jette Vogt. Statom's a down-to-earth guy and not prone to self-glorification. The day we talked to him, he was down with sniffles that he attributed to his toddler's exposure at day care. His schedule is as hectic as one might imagine, and ideas and offers come at a crazy pace that belies his casual exterior.

It's all the more reason to be excited by OMA's consideration of an extension of the show through fall. Official word from executive director Marena Grant Morrisey is that "the museum is seriously considering extending the Therman Statom exhibition because it is such a spectacular show, groundbreaking not only for Central Florida, but nationally as well as in the artist's body of work." Statom's looking forward to having a chance to revisit and revise the installation, and to organize outreach programs, maybe even in Winter Haven.

Custom-built to fit the Orlando Museum of Art, the exhibit was three months in the making on-site. Statom explains that while he starts with advance planning, many of the details are spontaneously refined as needed. He creates as he goes. It took a lot of collaboration on the part of the artist and the museum staff to bring it together. Statom particularly appreciated the input of OMA curator Hanson Mulford.

"He really encouraged me to go after this thing to make it something, not to hold back; he really motivated me to do things and just sort of amplified my own motivation," says Statom.

"Therman shows the discovery of Florida and then goes off in many directions about developments since then. It's a free-jazz version of history; he's not trying to tell historical facts or a particular narrative but thinking about the many interesting stories related to the exploration and discovery of the New World — the exciting, positive side and many other darker, tragic sides of those stories," Mulford elaborates.

As applause for Statom's visionary work resonates, it's further opportunity for OMA to prove that it isn't out of touch with relevant contemporary art. Statom may not be an artist you've heard of yet, but he is an artist of the moment.

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