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Eileen Doktorski: The Art of Redemption

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"Oblivion."

Not to be too cliche about it, but the moment you step through artist Eileen Doktorski's front door, you know you're not in Kansas anymore.

The slate-gray tile in her entry leads you to a wall mural of brilliant sun behind roiling clouds. On the floor, beneath the mural, huddles the sculpture of a nude with countable vertebrae, hands to face, hiding something, perhaps despair, desperation, or fear of apocalypse? Immediately, the art gets you thinking, wondering, feeling -- isn't that what art is supposed to do?

There's no hall tree holding hats, no big Chinese vase stuffed with umbrellas, none of the usual hallway accoutrements seen on HGTV. No, her hallway is a simple personal statement: An artist lives here. Doktorski, 54, of Temecula, both artist and art teacher, is head of Mt. San Jacinto College's art department for the San Jacinto campus.

Eileen Doktorski.
Eileen Doktorski.

In her house, there's art and more art -- abstract paintings, metal sculptures, hands of carved wood, ceramic hands, plaster hands with long, evocative fingers -- everywhere you look, you notice points of interest.

Her art isn't just in her house. Doktorski, who has has a BFA from Parson's School of Design, and an MFA in sculpture from Yale University has exhibited all over the country, and in museums in Poland and Korea.

Her dining table overflows with 35mm art slides as she edits and readies them to be digitized. She lives in a whirlwind of art.

"I'm usually so busy, I rarely cook," she says, waving her hand at the table.

Her enthusiasm for art is electric. When she trains her blue eyes on you, you can almost see brain synapses firing. She is intense, but with a smile. She talks rapid-fire, but joyfully. She is the kind of woman who buys a unicycle and actually tries to ride it. She also aspires to juggle, just not while unicycling. She believes in balance, but jokes that she also recognizes limits.

"Domestic Arsenal."
"Domestic Arsenal."

As a young girl, she wandered the New Jersey woods near where she grew up, infatuated with Mother Earth, especially with trees. She studied them in wind storms, watched them bend not break, and learned life-lessons from their resilience.

Twisting branches and roots in particular fascinated her, resembling hands grasping at life, evoking survival.

After outings in the woods, she'd come home with tree images planted in her mind's eye and sketch trunks, branches, leaves, doing her best to vivify them on the page. Much of her youth was spent developing her skills, but she didn't have being an artist in mind -- not yet.

On a family camping trip, when she was about 12, they visited art museums in Washington D.C. In the museums, Doktorski drank in wall after wall of gilt-framed art, all fine and good, but what really shifted her perspective though was when she happened upon a strange exhibit filled with branches and rocks.

"Oblivion."
"Oblivion."

"I got very excited to see these commonplace objects out of context," she says. "I saw the familiar in a way I had never seen before, and found myself wanting to create art having this kind of juxtaposition," she says. It pointed her in the best direction, and she's never looked back.

She took her first steps in the art world exploring drawing and painting. While she continues to paint, often painting directly onto her sculptures, she views herself primarily a sculptor.

"Sculpture is beyond words. Unlike theater and music and dance which unfold in time, sculpture or installation art remains fixed, affording the viewer opportunity to experience it in their own time," she says. "Sculpture is more an object. Objects dependent of their particular arrangement in a space become an installation environment."

Because there are no words as a go-between, the sculpture is an interpretive experience, engaging the imagination and feelings, she says.

Strong feelings conjured by natural objects like tree branches and roots never waned as she matured; she's still in love with the sweep and flow of them.

"Heart Murmur."
"Heart Murmur."

The inspiration for one of her pieces came when she was driving beside road construction and spotted a unique tree root that beckoned. She went home, but she kept seeing possibilities in the root, so the next day she went back for it with a friend who
drove a pickup. The workmen thought her a bit daft, asking for a root, but they gave it to her.

She unloaded the root into her studio, walked around it, looked over it, under it, exploring its possibilities. The creative process, including dreams, led her see the roots as veins and arteries connecting to a heart. She imagined the heart, writhing on a fainting couch. She added some sculptural elements and came up with a visceral piece -- a blend of the natural and the phantasmagorical -- called "Heart Murmur."

Another piece, "Lucid," invites a comparison between the flow of tree branches and the grace of the human figure.

The human form was also on her mind during a recent trip to Italy and Switzerland through a 2016 Institute for college and university professors program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities to study art, specifically Etruscan art, the mysterious and ancient civilization that preceded the Roman Empire in Italy.

In Etruscan paintings and sculptures, the subjects were vivid in gesture and expression, not like the Greeks and Romans which tend to be idealized, she says.

"It was like the difference between a formal portrait and an action snapshot," she says.

"Heart Murmur."
"Heart Murmur."

High on her list of thrills was to hold in her hands pottery produced some 2,500 years ago, to feel the heft, texture, and shape the original artist did.

Her tactile senses run strong, and she likes to hold things, cup them in her hands, when she can. Her sense of touch helps her to absorb essences. Through touch she better understands transformations. Take for instance a pillow. A pillow is soft, light and built for comfort. But what if you make a pillow out of plaster or concrete, an exact replica so it's indistinguishable, except by touch, from a down-filled pillow. Is it still a pillow? The name of an object, what it's called, isn't as import as what that object feels like, Doktorski maintains. Objects of nature and man-made objects embody mysteries she hasn't gotten to the bottom of yet, despite years of trying to do so through her art.

Doktorski is Polish by heritage and on a trip to Poland she visited Auschwitz, the Jewish concentration camp. Such a powerful experience, she says, but she was particularly unsettled by the stacks of shoes left behind.

"They were so real, so tangible, I connected on a whole different level with them, more with them than even with the photographs," she says.

"Domestic Arsenal."
"Domestic Arsenal."

Doktorski is all about heightening social awareness and the healing properties of art. In one of her most celebrated installation pieces, "Domestic Arsenal," the selection of artifacts includes ceramic, raku fired casts of objects that have been used in reported cases of domestic violence, child abuse and elderly abuse. At first glance, the installation piece looks like random objects piled in a room with walls plastered in newsprint. The pile of artifacts is far from random. Much thought and research went into choosing the items and what they represent.

For instance, a teddy bear isn't just some abandoned child's toy. In her research, she discovered a teddy bear is sometimes used by an abuser to press a child down during molestation, or worse, to smother a child to death. We don't usually think of teddy bears this way.

Another item: a child took a sharp object and scraped the paint job on his father's new truck. The father took a 2-by-4 from the back of the truck, made the child hold out his hands, and the father promptly whacked the child with the piece of lumber, breaking several bones. A facsimile of that 2-by-4 is another chilling part of the piece. This disturbing installation brings the dark subject of violence in the home into the light for increased public awareness and greater understanding. The work is dedicated as a memorial to victims of family violence.

"Oblivion."
"Oblivion."

Another installation called "Oblivion" portrays a man mesmerized by TV as his surroundings fill with the cast-offs of affluence. In many ways "Oblivion" is a wake-up call, a plea, a cry of dashed hopes as conspicuous consumption overtakes him, us, and our environment.

It's an indictment of greed, wastefulness, and mindless living -- the opposite of the kind of life she hopes others strive for.

Thinking about that can at times be difficult and painful. But those are places her art takes her.

She believes her art, though, can have positive influence, for people to be more aware, more engaged in living fully and sustainably in the contemporary world.

"Landfill Artifact: Bicycle Tires," 2009. Cast bronze. 18 x 12 inches.
"Landfill Artifact: Bicycle Tires," 2009. Cast bronze. 18 x 12 inches.

In her current series "Landfill Artifacts" she uses direct casts from landfill refuse as the basis for her art. She'll cordon off a visually interesting bit in the dump, make a mold and then cast it in plaster or bronze, and then surface it with mica powders, graphite or with gold leaf. She once spent an entire Valentine's Day at the landfill -- a different kind of romantic day representing her love for the process of discovery and art.

In her landfill art you might see a small Santa Claus, a doll's hand, a slice of lime... She is so taken with the stuff that get's tossed out. By directing our attention to it, she lifts it from the ordinary, transforms it, and it ascends to the status of art for the purpose of awareness and examination.

Some of her art is like a morality play underlining the need for cleaner, more responsible living.

If we pay attention, art like hers could very well be part of our redemption.

"Landfill Artifact: Doll's Head" (detail), 2009. Plaster, mica, and graphite powder. 18 x 12 inches.
"Landfill Artifact: Doll's Head" (detail), 2009. Plaster, mica, and graphite powder. 18 x 12 inches.

 

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