Innovation Ecosystem

Mira Cantor: A passion for life

An artist paints landscapes where her images become a dance of colors and her images become a dance of life

Image reprinted with permission of the artist and Artscope Magzine

One of a series of 100 watercolors by artist Mira Cantor from her show, "State of Siege," depicting the murder of George Floyd."There was nothing I could do except make these drawings, to show my anger at the situation," Cantor said. It's a body that can't move because someone else is preventing that movement. It says everything about a person who's unable to stand up for himself, unable to think, because of another person's aggression.

Image reprinted with permission of the artist and Artscope Magazine.

A seascape in oil and acrylic by Mira Cantor, capturing images from the Atlantic Ocean from County Clare In Ireland, resembling seams of pebbled coal or foamy twilit waves.

By Elizabeth Michelman
Posted 6/17/24
The Irish seascapes of constantly changing light capture a sense of movement and dance in Mira Cantor’s artwork. The artist responded to the murder of George Floyd by painting 100 watercolors that showcase a dance of aggression, preventing movement.
How does the way that microplastics are flooding Narragansett Bay change the content of the pigments of color when painting of seascapes in Rhode Island? Could the images from Cantor’s “State of Siege” be made into a series of postcards to be integrated into ongoing diversity work? In a similar kind of collaboration between musician Sting and artist Stephen Hannock, would RISD be willing to underwrite a series of public art installations that capture Rhode Island and its coastline in the 21st century marked by climate urgency and resilience?
The breakdown of highway bridges offers an opportunity to create an artistic vision of bridges in Rhode Island, where the disrupted bridges serve as a metaphor for the state’s disrupted neighborhoods and communities. In 1975, architects Norton Juster and Earl Pope launched a series of community conversations, “Shelburne Falls Observed,” as a way to empower residents of Shelburne Falls and Buckland to re-envision the connections between the rural communities, leading to the restoration of the Bridge of Flowers. The opportunity exists for Providence and East Providence to re-envision how they are connected. Perhaps Roger Williams University could take the lead on such a project.

BOSTON, Mass. – Mira Cantor has taught color theory, drawing and painting for 40 years, 25 of them as a tenured professor in the Art and Architecture Department at Northeastern University.

She has always been driven to learn as well as to teach through her art. I met Cantor in her studio a month before her March 2024 exhibition at Boston’s Kingston Gallery to discuss the paintings and drawings she’d completed during her 2023 sabbatical.

Cantor has spent the last 17 summers in County Clare, western Ireland, teaching an art semester abroad in the village of Ballyvaughan. She paints in a studio near the historical and geological refuge of The Burren, on the lip of the Atlantic Ocean.

Over the years she has hiked the beaches, caves and riven pavements throughout this up-thrust primeval seabed. From the eroding cliffs of its rolling limestone terrain, fossilized sea-creatures drop into the surf like fresh carrion.

Cantor’s broad “seascapes” of oil and acrylic abstract the power and history of this topography. They initially present as diagrams of rock strata replete with the textures and colors of ancient soils and the shapes of extinct life forms.

“Pink Cloud” delivers perspectives near and far in varying sizes and scales. One’s gaze slides across fogs of dull rose and muted teal and drips down through cliff-like layers into beds of murk and muck.

The horizontal swathes of “Listen,” alternating slate blue and ochre, resemble seams of pebbled coal or foamy twilit waves.

From the golden strand littered with detritus of “Leftovers 2,” a crab’s-eye view just picks out a distant line of breakers, green-topped hills, and a tiny, waning sun.

Small streaks and smears of colored pigment flicker over these vistas in constant motion. In the puddles cavort hot-pink squiggles. Cones and sliced ovoids ogle from their niches. In this arrested [portrait of] time and space, one’s personal boundaries slip away. One could dwell forever in the mire of past and present.

Asked how her diverse interests in geology, archaeology and history evolved, Cantor offers what seems to be a non-sequitur: “Dance.”

But as I learn more about her work and ideas, it becomes much more. This early talent and first love of dance, she explained, opened her up to worlds beyond her own narrow Jewish community in the Bronx.

As a child she would accompany her father to work in Harlem, where “people walked the streets and shopped just like I did, but their skin color was darker.”

During the summers, she worked her way through college by teaching Latin American dancing in the Catskills. She partnered at hotel competitions in Manhattan with dancers of all races.

MIRA CANTOR: Growing up in New York, I never felt it was a segregated place. I think my interest in people was sparked by the fact that I was meeting all different kinds of people. I was looking at different kinds of people, dancing with them. And [it was a] whole-body experience. It was a very important part of my life and I think it still filters through my work [in the] choreography of the forms, the placement.

The interest has always been there because of my interest in figuration and discovering movement and the body, working with dancers and choreographers. I worked for years out of my “performative” nature on soft sculpture, before delving into painting again. Drawing was always a part of my practice. It’s about discovery and finding things.

Elizabeth Michelman/Artscope: At first, I see your paintings only as abstract forms.    
MIRA CANTOR: In the natural world I go between figure and abstraction …I see everyone’s life as a slice of time. Maybe the way of reading these paintings is some sort of universal understanding. It is like a cave painting. It’s all about nature, about building the layers from the bottom up.

Elizabeth Michelman/Artscope: Was there a specific place that gave you these different kinds of imagery?    
MIRA CANTOR: Walking out the door of my house [in Ireland], initially you think, “Oh, this is one big open landscape.” There are no trees, and you feel like it looks the same, all the time. It doesn’t and that’s what’s fascinating about it.

The light is changing; the clouds are changing. It’s raining, or it can be very hot; it can be very nasty and cold. And it’s light until 10 o’clock at night. It’s this amazing kaleidoscope of light changes.

Elizabeth Michelman/Artscope: I’m fascinated by the orange triangle in “Time Capsule.” It seems disconnected from the other stylistic elements in the painting. When did that go in?    
MIRA CANTOR: The two triangles are the last things I did. I sat in that chair for hours trying to figure out which color to use. …It’s about the idea, a formal exercise, really. The color’s not working, or this is too big, or this isn’t flowing, or there’s no activity in this corner.

[In “Deep Time,” figuring out the fuchsia sky] drove me crazy. It can’t look like the sky; that would be too obvious. It has to be something that maybe is a sky – or maybe it’s lava in the earth. It can’t be an “it is.” And oftentimes, I go to the “it is” and I don’t like it – because “it is!” It has to be “maybe it is.”

Elizabeth Michelman/Artscope: Could you talk about your fossil drawings on paper?    
MIRA CANTOR: [I felt I was] trying to dig in the ground to come up with a fossil – things that I’ve actually picked up and found. I painted an image with sand and medium first, so it would adhere to the paper, then started to build up gesso and paint layers on top of it. That’s Irish sand.

I don’t mind if it starts flaking off because it’s the process of time changing the work, and that’s what my work is about, this change over time and layers of time.

It’s this constant ephemerality. Ireland has given me this sense of everything moving before your eyes; you see this light changing constantly and you understand we’re not staying in one place.

You know, dance is all about time. When I used to dance, you had to have the timing with the partner. I think when you’re painting – you talk about abstraction – something happens when you paint. Like the drips in the painting – I didn’t plan those drips to be in those places. Yet I feel like they work with the painting.

There are lots of things in the painting that are intentional. And so getting the two to dance together is really what I think I’m doing.

Elizabeth Michelman/Artscope: Two weeks after this interview, I called Cantor back. In a moment of serendipity while writing up my notes, I’d been wondering how to give some grounding example of her emotional sensitivity to social indifference to racial inequality. It leapt to mind that four years earlier, I had come across a grouping of her drawings just after the Pandemic lockdown in Boston.

Following George Floyd’s murder by four Minneapolis policemen, she’d shown a small body of new work, “State of Siege,” at a back room in Kingston Gallery in June of 2020. Returning to the same mental scene day after day, she’d dashed out 100 blue, black grey and orange watercolors. Out of mere puddles and stripes, she’d nailed a sense of threat and violation that had shocked me to tears.

MIRA CANTOR: I just drew it, imagining. There was nothing I could do except make these drawings, to show my anger at the situation. It’s about how the two figures become shapes interacting in an incredibly powerful way, with one prone, unable to act, and one aggressively on top. It’s a body that can’t move because someone else is preventing that movement.

It’s about dance, your body, and there’s a dancer and he’s holding you and he’s preventing you [from moving]. I thought: This image has to be seen. It says everything about a person who’s unable to stand up for himself, unable to think, because of another person’s aggression.

I’m always thinking of the whole world. And yet, I have to operate in the world in a very small space. I think you have an obligation to participate in the whole world, [even] while you’re operating in the small world of your own daily life. The spaces I’m trying to create speak to that.

 [Editor’s Note: This feature story is a modification of an earlier version that was printed in the March/April 2024 issue of Artscope Magazine, It is reprinted with permission of the author, Elizabeth Michelman, the artist, Mira Cantor, and by Artscope Magazine.]

Elizabeth Michelman is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI.

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