PORTLAND, Maine - Conversations about art happen every day - in classrooms, coffee shops and museums. But Portland artist Aaron Stephan wondered what it would be like to broach the subject with strangers in an unlikely setting. And the results of that excercise are part of his latest exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art.
Aaron T Stephan is primarily a sculptor, but in his first solo exhibition at the PMA, he's introduced an audio component.
"Hello. This is Sherry, who am I talking to?"
"Hi Sherry, this is Aaron."
"So would you like to hear what I look like. honey?"
"Are you into art at all?"
"Well I can't say I'm seriously into art."
"I made a series of recordings in which I called sex lines - the 1-900 numbers that you find in the back of newspapers. But all the calls involved me trying to figure out what that person's interpretation of art is," Stephan says. "Do they do and see art? Do they go to galleries, museums, do they make art? What do they understand art to be?"
Stephan says he was surprised by some of the responses, like this one from the phone operator. "I mean, art should be about tolerance and having a whole lot of respect for the ideas of others, and, you know, if something moves you, great, and if it doesn't, maybe it will move the next guy."
"My whole goal was to veer the entire conversation away from sex, away from ego, and just try to understand what this person - what their approach to art is," Stephan says.
The result, he says, was a series of recordings that included deeper conversations about art than he normally has on a day-to-day basis.
"I'm constantly interacting with the arts community, going to openings and things like that," he says, "but rarely do I have in-depth conversation about art. But I think because of the nature of these calls - that I'm talking to somebody that I do not know at all, I will probably never speak to again - I think that opened up to having this very candid conversation that I normally wouldn't have with my closest friends."
Phone Operator: "You probably won't even think it's art but I think Thomas Kinkade is pretty awesome."
Aaron T Stephan: "Oh sure." (Laughter)
Phone Operator: "I mean, OK, so it's on collectors' plates primarily, but I love the feel, there's something very homey, and very Norman Rockwell about it."
Tom Porter: "Do you think this tells us that art is more pervasive, perhaps, than people think - that it's not as elitist, and everyone has views on it?"
Aaron T Stephan: "Yeah, I think it's more pervasive, and I think we often break it down into these different groups - you know, you have this art community, and you have a community that's outside of that and they don't know anything about that. I just don't think that's true, and I think a lot of people use art to kind of express themselves, to maybe work through a lot of different problems."
Tom Porter: "Did you have to go through a lot of these calls before you found responsive ones, and some of them just weren't up for talking about it?"
Aaron T Stephan: "Absolutely. I went through a lot, and for the most part I think it was because I was working through the project, I was trying to figure out what it meant, you know, what I could do. There were certain things I didn't - you know, I did not want to call and talk about sex."
Phone Operator: "So what else would you like to talk about?" (Laughter)
Aaron T Stephan: "Do you go and look at art?"
Aaron T Stephan: "And most of the calls, at a certain point they kind of laugh and say, 'So, you're really calling to talk about art?' And you're like, 'Sure.' "
Tom Porter: "How many calls did you make? Hundreds over that time? Or dozens? What would you say?"
Aaron T Stephan: "Yeah. I probably had 50 hours of recordings."
Tom Porter: "Quite a phone bill to pay off!" (Laughter)
Aaron T Stephan's latest exhibition is titled "To Borrow, Cut, Copy and Steal." It's showing at the Portland Museum of Art through Feb. 8.