A walk in the juror’s shoes
A conversation with artist and exhibit juror John Cecil

Mary Alice Hearn's silk work titled “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries - It’s the Berries!” hangs in the 30th annual Juried Exhibit at the Durango Arts Center. Juror John Cecil selected 78 works for the exhibit./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Jules Masterjohn

The moment I walked into the Durango Arts Center, I knew that the man with the neon yellow tape measure attached to his hip pocket, holding a strange, child-sized chair up against the gallery wall, must be Albuquerque artist Andrew John Cecil. Invited to select the artwork for the 30th annual Juried Exhibit, Cecil spent three days offering his talents as a juror, art advocate and exhibit designer to our community.

While I walked around the gallery taking in the 78 chosen works (more than 150 were submitted by area artists for consideration), I couldn’t help but notice his unusually intense concentration. As he progressed from an O’Keeffe-esque pastel to a large primary-colored mixed-media collage, and back to the small chair he had just hung, he paid absolute attention to each piece, as if he were memorizing color, textures and perhaps even smell. Waiting for the moment when his determination appeared to ease, I introduced myself and asked if we could talk about his selection process. Cecil’s intensity quickly shifted to a warm smile and he offered me a hearty handshake. At that moment, his stomach chimed in with a healthy growl, prompting a suggestion that we discuss the exhibit over lunch.

When we entered the restaurant, Cecil asked that we sit at a quiet table. After 25 years of working as a sculptor, the use of loud tools has dulled his hearing. As we got settled into our meal, we traded stories about our undergraduate days, when safety and materials hazards in the arts were little known. Cecil told me of his experiences working on large outdoor sculpture installations for some of the art world heavyweights such as Mark di Suvero and Richard Serra. He has seen a lot and has rubbed shoulders with “the big guys,” his skills and experience sought after as an installation technician. He is also recognized as a sculptor. His cast-bronze sculpture was recently included in the 2005 Toyamura International Sculpture Biennale in Japan, and he will show again in Japan this fall at the Koumi Museum.

His beginnings in Kalispell, Mont., (the “Santa Fe of Montana”) offered him the first concrete opportunity to see his future as an artist. Kalispell had the fortune of attracting a number of notable cowboy artists to the community and these painters and sculptors spent time in the high school mentoring young artists. By the time Cecil graduated from high school, he was hooked on art. He completed a B.F.A. at Texas Christian University and then went onto his advanced studies at Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit. Here he earned his M.F.A. in sculpture with an emphasis in painting. While at Cranbrook, he also began working in the school’s art museum where he learned and honed his skills in exhibit design and installation. Cecil uses those skills today as the exhibition designer for the National Hispanic Cultural Center in downtown Albuquerque.

As an artist, he is closely associated with sculptors from around the country who are forging a new tradition in art: the use of iron for casting sculpture. Historically, bronze has been the only “legitimate” metal for casting, but in the last 10 years, iron has become a popular choice for sculptors, due mainly to its affordability. “The great thing about iron is that it is a very democratic material. It takes real community interest to get a pour together, from finding old cast-iron radiators and bathtubs and breaking them up with sledge hammers into manageable-sized pieces to melting the pieces into a molten state.” Cecil will be an artist-in-residence at the University of Georgia in Athens this February, where he will work with students building large-scale sand molds that will culminate with an “Annual Iron Pour.” Students and instructors from several southeastern colleges and universities will get together to participate in the casting process.

A man of varied interests, experience and talent, as well as an exhibiting artist, Cecil brought tremendous energy to the Durango Arts Center’s juried exhibit. He spent six hours selecting artworks based on the criteria of “quality, content, execution,” and, as Cecil put it, whether or not it “struck something” in him. One of his goals as juror was to include as many artists as possible and to select a “good cross section of work.” In the end, however, it was the gallery size that limited the numbers of works in the show. Five more hours were spent laying out the artwork in the gallery. This is not a usual juror activity, but Cecil’s professional background in installation design made this a perfect fit. Besides, he just couldn’t help himself. “It’s just what I do,” he told me.

Cecil also spent time with a dozen Durango-area artists discussing their art as part of his juror’s duties. He sat with each artist for brief portfolio reviews, offering them encouragement to stay committed to their creative activities. One artist who met with him, painter Louise Grayson, asked Cecil for advice about her subject matter, “He said to me, ‘Just paint what you want and don’t be influenced by what the market wants.’”

Grayson said he encouraged her to paint everyday, “to just get into the studio, even if only for 15 minutes.” Though she entered her review feeling like she was “an old hat, stuck in 20th century painting,” she left feeling “all fired up.” Affirmed by Cecil’s support, Grayson stated, “No matter whether anybody else likes it, that doesn’t matter … I’ll keep making paintings.”

At the exhibit’s reception last Friday night, Cecil was recognized for more than his talents and supportive spirit. As he finished his address to the crowd, I overhead one elderly woman say to another, “He seems like a nice boy and he’s SO cute, too.”

The 30th annual Juried Exhibit is on display at the Durango Arts Center through Jan. 27. Gallery hours are Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. A concurrent showing of work not chosen for the DAC exhibit is on display at Steamworks Brewery.