‘See the Beauty’: Robert Markey’s artwork holds stirring images, strong commentary, about violence against women and children

Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2014
Life is complicated and so is the artwork of Robert Markey of Ashfield. For over 30 years, the figures he has drawn, carved, painted, molded in wire sculpture or captured in mosaics have mixed beauty with messages about fragility and the abuse of power. Street children and orphans, women, farmers and laborers, homeless men and dancers are among his subjects.

A world traveler who has created community mosaic murals in Chile, Sri Lanka, India and Cambodia, Markey has also used his art as a form of commentary on domestic violence, child trafficking and other issues.

One of Markey’s most famous performance artworks was “ Super Bowl Scoreboard,” which was posted in New York’s Grand Central Station in 1993, 1994 and 1996, and received a lot of press, following news reports that Super Bowl Sunday saw more incidents of domestic abuse than any other day of the year. Markey displayed a simple scoreboard that tallied the Super Bowl football scores along with the probable number of women battered during the game, based on domestic abuse statistics of the time.

Markey’s latest exhibition, “See the Beauty End the Violence,” is a retrospective of his political work, combining paintings and sculptures of women and children, with written commentary about violence, assault and human trafficking — issues affecting women and children around the world.

It will be on view through Aug. 30 at the imagine Art Gallery, 70 Main St., second floor, Northampton.

“I was thinking of this idea and it came from the fact that I draw all the time,” Markey said. “When I draw something, the thing I’m drawing is beautiful.” Markey said he put together a series of the women he had sketched and painted, from around the world, into a 24-minute video, interspersed with statistics about domestic violence. “It wasn’t a great video, but it got my brain working on it and on how to use it.”

He said the representatives of the imagine Gallery became interested and came to his Ashfield studio to see his work.

“My paintings of women over the 25 years use statistics,” he remarked, referring to statistics about sexual assault, violence and trafficking.

“For me, it’s a little bit of a retrospective; I get a chance to see how this looks. When you do political work, if you have too many statistics people feel lambasted,” Markey said. In his 2013 exhibit about children and trafficking, called “Safe?” Markey used a single statistic: that 2 million children a year are trafficked into the sex and slave-labor industry.

A few weeks before the opening of “See the Beauty End the Violence,” Markey said he was trying to figure out which statistics would have the greatest affect. “In 1995, a woman was assaulted every 15 seconds,” he said. “Now it’s every seven seconds.”

Public art/political force

Among the paintings is “Collateral Damage,” a picture of Layla Al-Attar, a revered Iraqi artist and director of the Iraqi National Museum of Art who was killed along with her husband by a U.S. missile attack when their home in Baghdad was bombed in 1993. Through her translucent facial portrait, the rubble of her destroyed home appears.

Another of Markey’s works is a gold-leaf sculpture of a nude, whose tightly curled, kneeling, golden body appears to be blood-flecked. The work had been done in 1983 and, “It was a way of saying women’s bodies are golden and they need to not be abused,” Markey said.

Influenced by the ’60s

Markey said he came of age during the turbulent 1960s, in an era of civil rights, civil disobedience and opposition to the war in Vietnam. “My art has always had the political focus,” he said. “Most of my work now is public art.”

Most of the paintings and sculpture in this exhibit, however, celebrate the beauty of the people Markey has met in his travels and painted.

Markey said he travels overseas about twice a year, taking his ever-present sketchbooks with him.

“I filled up five sketchbooks this last trip,” he said. “I draw and draw and draw, because there are people everywhere. People sit down; they’re not just looking at cellphones. I’ll be drawing people on the beach and kids will come up and ask, ‘draw me.’ Then more kids come, then their families. ... I miss it when I’m home.”

Markey and his wife, Julie Orfirer, co-authored a book about their experiences in 2009 and 2010, making mosaic murals with at-risk children in the Pantanal region of Brazil. Besides the colorful birds and animals of the region, the dance poses of Michael Jackson were immortalized. Markey and Orfirer said Brazilian children love to dance and they loved Jackson’s dance moves. Their book is called “LEGAL! (COOL!) Making Mosaics with Kids in Brazil.” The book, written in English and Portuguese, is filled with images of the children and their words about making murals in their communities.

In Portuguese, the word for “cool” is “legal,” (pronounced le-gal’).

Markey says he loves Brazil, where street art is highly valued. “Here, you worry about getting arrested,” he said. “Over there, people ask you if you would do their wall. The street art is incredible. You get home and say: “Where’s the art?”

Festooned dragon

Markey’s secluded home, however, is filled with art — indoors and outdoors.

When not creating exhibitions or videos with a social message, Markey makes dragons of all sizes — as mosaics, copper or wire sculptures.

Because Markey’s home runs near the path of the proposed Tennessee Gas Pipeline, he put a copper-wire dragon sculpture out so the pipeline protesters on a march to Boston could make a wish and tie a ribbon onto the sculpture. Now, it’s festooned with ribbons.

Markey says he makes dragons because they’re fun. “They talk to me; they’re the lighter sculpture. That’s why I do dragons when (the political focus) gets to be too much.”

The imagine gallery is a nonprofit outreach of the imagine/Northampton church. It’s mission is to serve the community “with the best artwork we can find,” and to encourage and support developing artists. The gallery does not take fees or commissions from its artists, but is supported solely by donations.

Hours are Fridays from 6 to 9 p.m., Saturdays from 3 to 9 p.m. or by request during other times of the week by calling 585-5830. More information is available at www.imaginenorthampton.org.