For many of us, our shared American identity means football on Sundays, gas-guzzling SUVs, and unfettered capitalism. But what sits between our two shining seas offers a far more complex glimpse at the fabric of our culture.
Starting this Friday at Cannonball, San Francisco-based artist Alison Pebworth is showcasing her traveling-show inspired work Beautiful Possibility . Pebworth uses old-fashioned stylized fonts, vivid paintings and a sense of Americana/nostalgia to communicate the cultural experience of our country based on her travels across the states.
A painter by trade, over a decade ago Pebworth decided she wanted to delve into the world outside her studio.
"I was living this cloistered life, thinking about the social side of work without interacting with it. After a big show I started thinking, how do I start manifesting this life that I feel like I'm meant to be doing?"
She experimented with various concepts, and her project eventually evolved into a tent-show of sorts, where she would set herself up in various communities, neighborhoods, and cities to work on projects and interact with her surroundings.
"I love the road trip and weird America you can find out there. It's been just as important in shaping the America we are today as popular myths," Pebworth says.
"I'm fascinated by all aspects of the American traveling show. From the wild west show to the medicine show -- that I think is really foundational for who we are. When you look at contemporary America, TV is pretty much a medicine show. The ads are there to say what's wrong with you and offer a solution to feeling better. The TV shows keep you there so you can keep hearing these messages. It's the same format as the medicine show," she explains.
Her tent experiment led to a 2006 nomadic tour of sorts, Looking for Lost History. This time around, Pebworth decided to set up shop at various art spaces, letting them serve as her headquarters.
Her showcase at Cannonball will include a series of hand-painted canvas banners, a tour map, and a survey station polling visitors on their opinion of "Americanitis" -- a nervous condition originally identified in 1890 that was set to result from a "fast-paced way of life." As part of her tour, Pebworth is surveying people nationwide about whether they think Americanitis is recognizable today, and if so, to expound on symptoms, causes and cures.
The show will also include an elixir tasting, in the vein of 19th century "Americanitis Elixirs," designed to "relieve stress and calm nerves." Pebworth's elixir is a homemade, distilled concoction that changes with each stop along her route. She made the base back in San Francisco and adds edible elements from the local landscape of each region she visits. Visitors to her exhibition opening will get to sample the spirit from a communal vessel.
"Alcohol is distilled and I like the concept of distillation culture. After all, the melting pot is a distillation process," she says.
Not surprisingly, most original Americanitis Elixirs were 90% booze, Pebworth adds. (Hence the importance of happy hour for our modern day mental health.)
Everywhere she goes, in addition to adding to her elixir, Pebworth tries to soak up the local culture as much as possible. Thus far in Florida, she's visited Gibsonton, a famous carnie wintering town, as well as the Seminole Indian reservation.
Her tours across the country have offered an eye-opening look at our changing culture.
"Going across the north to a lot of post-industrial cities where the steel mills are drying up - people are doing a lot of interesting things. People are taking over empty lots and there's a huge movement towards do-it-yourself. In Detroit people are kind of urban homesteading. It's like old time homesteaders, raising chickens, learning farming techniques, how to scavenge," she recalls.
"Also the urban farm movement. That's really great to see, just the difference between traveling in 2006 and traveling today - the rise of the farmers market. There's more of a consciousness of eating local. It's great to see people learning how to do things themselves."
It'll undoubtedly be interesting to see what she observes about Miami. In the meantime, if you want to hit up Pedworth's show, the opening reception and elixir tasting is Friday, February 15, from 7 to 10 p.m. at Cannonball, 1035 N. Miami, Suite 200. Visit cannonballmiami.org for further details.
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