Wrangling the monster: Healing power of art uncovered in ‘War and Peace Project’ At Umass’ Hampden Gallery

Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2014
This loose and baggy monster can fill the walls of an art gallery, teach you Russian and expose you to one of the most celebrated literary works of all time.

After exhibitions in Russia, the international-in-reach and lofty-in-breadth “War and Peace Project” had its American debut Feb. 23 at the Hampden Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The exhibit is a collection of 747 collages, each incorporating a page from Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel “War and Peace.”

Contributors-cum-curators Lola Baltzell, an encaustic painter and mixed-media artist from Brookline, and photographer, writer and collage artist Trish Crapo of Leyden head the project. It has evolved from what Baltzell describes as a therapeutic outlet into a “loose and baggy monster,” a phrase borrowed from author Henry James’ description of the novel form.

A selection of the collages was shown at the Moscow International Book Fair in June 2012, after which the entire collection was exhibited at Yasnaya Polyana, the Leo Tolstoy Estate and Museum in Tula, Russia. Portions have been displayed in Boston and New York City, but the Hampden Gallery exhibit marks the first time the project has been shown in its entirety in the United States. It will be on view through March 13.

The origins of the venture can be traced back to 2008, when Baltzell was diagnosed with breast cancer. A year later, armed with a positive prognosis, she says, she was ready for a new artistic undertaking.

“I thought it would be really great to set up some sort of personal challenge,” she said in a joint interview last week with Crapo at Crapo’s Greenfield studio.

That challenge came from the curious mind of longtime friend Lucy Arrington of Cambridge, whom Baltzell describes as an “Internet troller.” Arrington had come across Ohio artist Matt Kish’s project “Moby-Dick in Pictures.” Kish had created one drawing per day over the past few years illustrating that classic novel on found paper like receipts, manuals and spreadsheets. “I was intrigued by the idea of doing a posting a day, and I was intrigued by the idea of a literary exploration,” she said. Baltzell, who majored in Russian studies at Grinnell College in Iowa, says she found further inspiration right under her nose.

“I was walking through my house and saw my old copies of “War and Peace,” in Russian,” she said. “It was kind of like, bingo!”

Armed with the Russian text, she used what was available to her in her studio to create collages: 5-inch-by-7-inch paper, acrylic paint, a map, a pamphlet and wallpaper. After making six collages, Baltzell says that without the company of collaborators, she felt bored and shelved the work in late 2009.

Fateful collaborations

The following year, Baltzell refocused the project, turning it into a shared therapeutic activity with a friend, Lynn Waskelis, a Boston artist who had been diagnosed with her second bout of breast cancer.

While Baltzell says they enjoyed themselves, they soon decided they were in over their heads, given the scope of the undertaking, and began to invite friends to contribute.

Baltzell and Crapo met in 2011 when Baltzell stopped at an exhibit in Orange of Crapo’s collage pieces. Because of the similarities of Crapo’s work to her own, Baltzell says, she knew the two would be a perfect match.

“It was love at first sight,” she said of the pairing.

Crapo, on the other hand, was drawn to the “War and Peace Project” because of a promise she had made to read the novel with her sister, Susan, who later died of breast cancer. Crapo says she didn’t finish the book, so her participation in the project would be a way to fulfill the vow.

As time went on the project took on more collaborators, with contributions by Baltzell’s college friend, Berlin-based Otto Mayr, and even two pieces by “Moby-Dick” artist Kish. The core group, known as “Team Tolstoy” is made up of Mayr; Arrington, the Internet troller; Baltzell’s friend Waskelis; Atlanta-based Christiane Carney Johnson; art student Emma Rhodes; and Adriene Wetmore of Boston, in addition to the two curators.

While the artists come from varied backgrounds, Baltzell says, the therapeutic value of art is where they found common ground. “We all kind of went in to it sort of as a healing thing,” she said.

Creative crossover

The group met weekly at Baltzell’s studio in East Boston, drawing inspiration from one another as they worked on their individual pieces. “It was a kind of a cross-pollination of materials,” Crapo said.

While each collage reflects the artists’ individual styles, Baltzell says, there is a certain amount of creative crossover.

“The whole point of working together was to pass stuff back and forth,” she said. She recalled a time one early spring when a certain shade of “yellowy-green” appeared in a number of collages.

Though the collaborators were given creative freedom, Baltzell says, she did establish a few ground rules: Each collage had to be on a piece of 5-inch-by-7-inch vellum paper, and had to include at least one word from the original Russian text of “War and Peace.” The relationships between imagery and text vary greatly, from “very concrete to not at all,” Crapo said. Her work remains close to the text, she added, due to her background in literature and her vow to her sister.

Using an image of a hand tucked into a pocket, taken from a magazine advertisement selling wool overcoats, Crapo says her collage, number 505, references both the common soldier and emperor Napoleon, who is frequently depicted in the novel with his hand buried in his coat.

Collage 731 by Carney Johnson incorporates foil gum wrappers of varied colors, arranged in a swirl pattern. On the artists’ collective blog, Carney Johnson explains that in this page, taken from the epilogue, Tolstoy is writing in circles about changing historical landscapes — giving birth to the swirls found in her collage.

The final collage, number 747, by Baltzell, is based on a birthday card given to her by her collaborators on her 50th birthday. She says she thought it was an appropriate end to the project — having work from all of the artists represented.

Russian response

The scope of the enterprise reached a turning point in 2011: After Carney Johnson contacted officials at Yasnaya Polyana, the Russian estate of Leo Tolstoy, about the project, the artists were invited to show their work at the estate. Baltzell says she was concerned that it might be seen in Russia as disrespectful, or that there might be copyright issues, but the group was met with enthusiasm by the public, the maintainers of the estate, the press and even Tolstoy’s great-great grandson, Vladimir.

“The doors had been locked, the press came in, then the doors opened and ‘whoosh,’ ” Baltzell said, describing the scene they experienced when a rush of people came into the room.

Back in the States, the curators arranged with Hampden Gallery director, Anne LaPrade Seuthe, to show the work there. But before last month’s opening, Crapo says, LaPrade Seuthe had to figure out how to best display the 747 collages.

Because each is on unframed vellum, LaPrade Seuthe says, she had to take care to avoid damaging the pieces. Ultimately, she and gallery manager John Simpson devised a hanging grid system that avoids perforating the works while still ensuring a pleasing presentation.

While the nature of the exhibit is collaborative as a whole, the curators and LaPrade Seuthe all agree that there is much value to be seen in each individual piece. The spacing on the grid must be consistent, LaPrade Seuthe said, so viewers can see each work individually, as well as the entirety of the installation.

The “War and Peace Project” will be on view through March 13 at the Hampden Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. On March 9 at 2 p.m., Crapo will read selections from “Sonya,” a collection of poetry based on the diaries of Sophia Tolstoy, the wife and editorial assistant of Leo Tolstoy. For information visit www.warpeaceproject.blogspot.com.