Thomas Birtwistle

SEE-January + February 2010
By Deborah Weisgall

Exhibition Hall, Piscataquis Valley Fair
2004, inkjet print, variable size—currently being shown at 16”x 20” and 24”x 30” 

Poignancy in jade green pickles, effort encrusted on an orange rubber glove, the gaudy pink promise of love in a state fair game booth, a stuffed bobcat perched in a classroom: Thomas Birtwistle photographs artifacts. He finds in them surprising and beautiful juxtapositions of form, color, and emotion.

A couple of years after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, Birtwistle moved to Maine. He lives with his family in Harmony; being able to say that he “lives in Harmony” may account, in part, for why he’s stayed. His work reflects what he says is “stuff that’s on purpose and stuff that’s accidental.” Well, that’s life. His sure and humane eye renders the ordinary breathtaking.

Birtwistle has found a grid: stacked cubbyholes. This scaffolding—its formal, abstract structure—lifts the image from document to art. A picture of prize-winning produce becomes a meditation on ripeness and the passage of time. “A lot of what’s going on at fairs is display,” Birtwhistle says. “There are conscious things and unconscious things—that mix runs through a lot of my work.”

Blue ribbons festoon the cubbyholes, looping and languorous. There are a few red ribbons, too. The bright colors have a lilting rhythm of their own that plays against the tiers of white boxes. Really, the awards seem more alive than the vegetables that earned them.

The beets have darkened; their long leaves droop across the top shelf. The carrots have faded, as have the squash; the cheeks of turnips blush pale violet. Their colors seem delicate, a fragile counterpoint to the ribbons.

The photograph’s luscious colors portray achievement, the cleaned-up results of the farmers’ best efforts. As Birtwistle observes, there is no evidence of the dirt and labor involved in growing them. The vegetables are disconnected and uprooted, transformed into decorative objects, or symbols. And, no longer edible, they will wither and go away.

Birtwistle’s day job is carpentry. The work supports his intention. “I’m not so much interested specifically in photography as I am in making art.” 

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