‘Curiouser and curiouser.” Such are the shadow boxes of self-taught artist Joseph Cornell. Not exactly an outsider, yet never quite mainstream, Cornell spent his life with his mother in Queens — but his wild imagination often led him far from home. Laboring in his basement workshop, he used a dizzying variety of bric-a-brac — feathers, photos, toys, bottles — to create strange, dreamlike scenarios and jarring juxtapositions within small boxes. This month, Mike Brayndick, playwright and artistic director of On the Spot Theatre Company, ponders the life of this singular artist with “How to Make a Rainbow.”
Brayndick was first introduced to Cornell’s world while on break from working toward his Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. “I was back home in Chicago for a weekend when there was a major Cornell retrospective at the Art Institute,” he says. “I was fascinated by Cornell’s connecting disparate things to create a new image that was resonant in the way poetry sometimes is.” Taken with the masterful mystery of Cornell’s work, Brayndick ended up writing his thesis on the artist.
In “How to Make a Rainbow,” Brayndick attempts to “show the relationship between Joseph Cornell [played by Matthew Stroh, above], his daily life and his work, and how his art grew out of tension between his need to create and his need to be there for his family.” (Cornell’s brother, Robert, was born with cerebral palsy). Moving between everyday life in the artist’s modest home and the infinitely rich realm of his imagination, the play’s collage-like construction mirrors the techniques Cornell employed to give expression to his vision.
Employing a cast inhabiting multiple roles, the piece presents an array of personalities: gallery owner Julian Levy, who helped launch Cornell’s professional career; the artists Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp; and poet Emily Dickinson. “In the play, Joseph Cornell is on a quest to connect to that wellspring of joy that he experienced as a child when his father was alive,” says Brayndick, “to not only reconnect to the past, but be most fully alive in the present. The production’s guiding principle is the value of the imagination and finding a creative core to one’s being, to counter the effects of time and the fear of death.”
Story by Thomas Connors