The form that fills an empty space: Exhibit develops over two months at A.P.E. Gallery

Last modified: Thursday, February 04, 2016

The New Year is a time of new beginnings.

Gordon Thorne, founding director of the A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton, decided to leave his art space fairly empty for much of the first two months of this new year, as he lets a new artistic process unfold — gaining inspiration and developing material in conjunction with a fellow artist, and slowly refilling the space with work. During this time, Thorne and longtime friend and colleague Michael Tillyer are engaging in a sort of artistic conversation, each developing works in the gallery in response to the other. The endeavor will culminate in an exhibition of that work, along with that of a third artist, the late Genevieve Mae Burnett, with whom each was acquainted, Tillyer, quite closely. Tillyer is the director of Anchor House of Artists in Northampton, where Burnett’s work has been on view for years.

The A.P.E. show, “Incubation from Empty Space,” opened with a few pieces Jan. 8 and will unfold into a fuller exhibition over the next two months, closing Feb. 28. Burnett’s work will be unveiled Feb. 12 at Arts Night Out, and will be followed by a talk, “Girl Reading in Darkened Room,” given by Tillyer, about the life and works of Burnett, a local painter who had schizophrenia and who died in November.

Relationship building

“Over the years, Gordon and I have come to know one another and appreciate one another’s work,” Tillyer said. “There is a relationship there and we also have inner work that we reflect back and forth on. The gallery right now holds only a few pieces and we are installing different things and will continue to build upon that.”

“Michael and I have always worked in similar veins and it’s always fun to hang his work in the same space as mine,” Thorne said. “I am looking forward to what we each come up with.”

Both artists expressed admiration for Burnett’s work and Thorne says they are comfortable including her art in this show, even though she is deceased.

“She is an artist who worked out of necessity and whose work and writings come from the deep subconscious,” Thorne said. “I have always felt an intuitive understanding about where her pieces are coming from, the images she was drawing from within herself. ... I am interested to see how it all ultimately becomes integrated.”

At the gallery, so far

Over the winter holidays, during what he calls a time “of our tremendous consumerist excess,” Tillyer installed “Holy Family as Set in Darfur” — two figures made out of joined wood that has been torched to a charcoal black. A smaller maternal figure holds a baby in her arms. It is, he says, a remembrance of the massive suffering that is ongoing in other countries, such as Darfur in the western part of Sudan. There, in the aftermath of civil war, a humanitarian crisis has unfolded, resulting in more than 2 million refugees living in overcrowded camps that are constantly under attack.

In response to Tillyer’s piece, Thorne created animal sculptures from junk pile materials to surround the “holy family,” alluding to the Christian manger scene associated with the birth of Jesus and the Christmas holiday.

Other collaborative pieces have evolved between the two since that first installation and will continue to unfold, week by week, in the gallery space.

Tillyer said one of his works depicts a figure walking across a 12-foot glass grid. It is, in part, a response to a large grid-like design created by Thorne that hangs on the wall behind a desk in the gallery’s office space. Tillyer says he was struck by how Thorne’s work has evolved from a more minimalist sensibility of the ’60s and ’70s to the more figurative work he is known for today, and he encouraged Thorne to include that piece in the show. Now Tillyer is also developing work for the exhibit that uses a grid as an element.

A prolific artist

The third aspect of the A.P.E. show is the presence of Burnett’s work. Tillyer, founder of the Anchor House of Artists in Northampton, a program that helps to support the creative careers of artists living with serious mental illness, had known Burnett for about 25 years and became a close friend and supporter before she died in a nursing home in November.

Burnett, who originally was from an old, established Amherst family, created more than 700 paintings in her lifetime and accumulated 10,000 pages of writing in a library of bound spiral notebooks. Over the past five years, Tillyer has overseen Burnett’s collected works and has had a team of Hampshire College students helping to catalogue the work into a database at the Anchor House. As part of the A.P.E. show, Tillyer plans to exhibit many of Burnett’s paintings, as well as blown-up portions of her journals.

“I am giving a talk about Genevieve, who had very severe schizophrenia,” Tillyer said. “The talk is about the responsibility of setting up Genevieve’s legacy in the context of promoting appreciation of her life as an artist. She has a very specific and singular collection of paintings that need serious preservation. I am looking to establish an archive of her work and looking to fund that endeavor.”

Tillyer said Burnett was “very willful and very independent,” and mounted shows of her own work as a young woman. His admiration of Burnett and her art led him to found the Anchor House, which offers a subsidized studio for artists with mental illness, helps them show and sell collectable artworks, provides networking opportunities and helps artists access services and grants.

“Her work is fine oil painting and her subjects are raw views of the vision of her life,” Tillyer said, adding that the work draws from the tradition of 1940s and ’50s painters, such as Milton Avery and Arthur Dove.

Burnett also had osteoporosis and suffered a bad hip break, which landed her in a nursing home in recent years. Tillyer would take her back and forth to the Anchor House, but as her fragility increased, he ended up bringing drawing materials, journals and some of her paintings to Burnett in the nursing home. She had also taken up needlepoint based on her own drawings, but was diagnosed with lung cancer six months ago and succumbed to the disease.

“I think viewers will see change and transformation in this show,” Tillyer said. “It is kind of like a correspondence between Gordon and me and also, in a way, Genevieve, who had so much to say in her spiral notebooks. I want to communicate to people the wholeness of her life as an artist, and, in particular, a woman artist.”

The A.P.E. Gallery is at 126 Main St. in Northampton. Gallery hours are Tuesdays through Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. and Fridays from noon to 8 p.m. Closed Mondays.

Admission to Feb. 12 Tillyer’s talk about Burnett, “Girl Reading in Darkened Room,” costs $10, which will support the Genevieve Burnett Archive at the Anchor House of Artists in Northampton. For information, call A.P.E. at 586-5553 or visit


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