Filmmaker Olympia Stone does something remarkable every year or two — and it’s very tough to imagine anyone else who possesses her gift for both expansive cinematic scope and sheer human illumination. She selects a single major contemporary artist and then produces and directs a documentary that profiles them, and their work, in depth. It’s more intense and multilayered than it seems, for Stone wants to know — and ultimately does show — who each of these artists truly are as she uncovers the visible forces that spark their work to the invisible and ineffable elements that drives them ever forward. In this era relentlessly preoccupied and obsessed with the price of everything in the art world, the spirit of the artist is the north star that Stone uses to celebrate and investigate their work. Six films in, each Stone documentary appears to improve and refine the power — balanced with a light, often ironic touch — of her deft lens.
Stone’s first film, The Collector, explored the five-decade career of her late father, famed NYC gallery owner and art collector Allan Stone. Since then, she has created The Cardboard Bernini (about the celebrated, fascinating James Grashow; Curious Worlds: The Art and Imagination of David Beck; The Original Richard McMahan; Double Take: The Art of Elizabeth King; and up next, Actually Iconic: Richard Estes, which premieres next spring.
On Thurs., Nov. 7, at 7pm, you are invited to attend a retrospective of Stone’s films at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, CT. The event — Rewind/Fast-Forward: Celebrating the Artist Documentaries of Olympia Stone — will feature Stone herself as well as Grashow and King, who will add their reflections on being the subject of the Stone experience.
The Grashow documentary, The Cardboard Bernini, examines the artist as he spends five years building a giant cardboard fountain, inspired by the work of the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Propelled by a crucial event as documented in the film, Grashow is driven to experience the process of creation and loss by making an extraordinary artwork that will be destroyed in the end:
Double Take: The Art of Elizabeth King engages the viewer in the work of the sculptor and stop-action filmmaker, who embarks on each new project by posing a single question to herself: “Can this be physically done?” Tracing King’s creative flow, curiosity and obsessive drive to solve the inevitable artistic and technical problems in creating disconcerting sculptures and animations, this documentary explores King’s passion about the mind-body riddle, the science of emotion, the interface of human and machine, and those things that a robot can never do:
Rewind/Fast-Forward: Celebrating the Artist Documentaries of Olympia Stone is part of Bruce Museum Presents, a special series of monthly panels and talks featuring thought leaders in the fields of art and science. The evening will begin with a 35-minute montage Stone has specially created for this event, followed by a Q-and-A that will be moderated by Leonard Jacobs, formerly the Director of Cultural Institutions at the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs who serves as a consultant to Bruce Museum Presents.
Doors open at 6:20pm for a reception with light bites and beverages; the program begins promptly at 7pm. Seats are $30 for Museum members, $45 for non-members. To reserve a seat at Rewind/Fast-Forward, click here, or call 203-869-0376.
Here is our interview with the filmmaker:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
The most perceptive question anyone has ever asked me about my work was: “How is your filmmaking an extension of your family’s legacy?” I owe a lot of what I do to my father’s relationship with the art world. It makes me want to contribute my two little cents.
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
I’m not sure I’d use the word idiotic, but people do ask embarrassing-slash-inappropriate questions at times. For example, when I came out with my first film, The Collector, about my father, Allan Stone, I fielded questions about how much his art collection was worth or really personal questions about my parents’ marriage that just felt inappropriate and invasive. Another example: a viewer recently told me that I should change the musical score in a film to make the underlying emotion more explicitly sad.
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
Not so much weird, but I get a lot of people asking questions that are based on things they sort of learned in an art history class in college. Someone asked me if Elizabeth King’s work was a good example of primitivism, for example.
Do you go into filming with definite ideas, or instincts, as to what the takeaways about the artist will be, or is it a discovery process? If the latter, how do you know when you’ve found the core theme — the “Aha!” moment — that clarifies what your documentary is really about?
I definitely go into a film with a gut instinct about the subject — but from there, it’s always a discovery process. And yes, there is often a moment where a core theme emerges. For example, in Double Take, the film I made about the sculptor Elizabeth King, the “Aha!” moment was when I was interviewing her about her childhood and she revealed that her mother had polio and how deeply that affected her childhood, being surrounded by her mother’s braces and devices to enable her to be mobile. Elizabeth then revealed this amazing connection between all of the stringed puppet figures she was making in her 30s and her desire to have her mother walk again — that her work was an act of repair in some way that she herself had not even been conscious of. This was a key insight for me into understanding her work.
When I made Curious Worlds, learning about how grueling and desperate David Beck’s early years as an artist were — just imagining his 600 square foot studio, an unheated living space, and learning that David was stealing food on occasion, I really realized that the making of art was literally life and death to this artist. The level of his commitment, which had been pretty clear before, crystallized for me when I learned that.
How often do you film something, thinking you’re capturing one kind of scene, only to see literally as you’re shooting that the scene has veered in some unanticipated direction? Has an artist, say, ever asked to stop filming, or requested that you omit a particular shot?
When I was making my short film, The Original Richard McMahan, there was a moment when my camerawoman and I went to film him in his home that he shared with his mother and brother. It was immediately apparent when we stepped inside the home that something was not right. The mother was seated on a couch and barely acknowledged us, the home was filthy, and as we made our way into the kitchen, there were piles and piles of cans — jars of mayonnaise and random stuff everywhere. There was barely room to film, and the place was very dirty. We realized that Richard may not have been aware of how his home might look to an outsider, and while we could have included a lot more in this scene that would have revealed how desperate his home life was (and created more pathos in the film itself), we decided we could not exploit this desperate situation. In the end, I included a little bit of detail from the home so that the audience would get the gist of it without feeling like we had crossed a line, ethically.
The world’s most generous foundation owns a time machine. They commission you to go back in time and film a documentary of any length, any cost, on one of three artists, but with a catch: Frida Kahlo (who insists on being shot only on her left side), Marcel Duchamp (who insists on being unclothed and on an actual staircase), or Louise Nevelson (who insists you shoot only in black and white). If not one of those three, your documentary can be on any artist of the past you wish — but two minutes long. What do you do?
The word “sinister” literally means left side. I think a documentary called The Sinister Side of Frida Kahlo would be compelling. It is, after all, the left hand of the monkey that grasps her throat in her painting, Self Portrait with Monkey, and the left side of the deer that is shown in her painting, The Wounded Deer. I’d watch a film shot only on the left side of Frida Kahlo — I’d love that! Just to be a fly on the wall in her studio, even if it was just filming on the left side, would be fascinating. I’d want to capture the left side of her creative process: how she embraces her darkness and overcomes it.