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Ordinary to Extraordinary, Inside the Box at the DAI

May 7, 2012

Nestled under the marble rotunda staircase of the Dayton Art Institute is the Experiencenter, the nation’s first interactive family gallery in an art museum, established in 1976.  The gallery is dedicated to the “you learn better by doing” philosophy of learning about art through hands-on activities, with a mission to initiate and enhance a deeper understanding of art for each museum visitor.

For over a decade Arlene Branick has organized the Experiencenter’s exhibitions and activities.   Her latest effort is “Inside the Box,” an ambitious installation featuring rarely seen objects from the Dayton Art Institute’s collection, new artwork commissioned by professional artists from the Dayton region, and the projects of fourth, fifth and sixth grade students from River’s Edge Montessori PreK-8.

Inspired by the idea of reinterpreting a simple form through thinking “outside the box,” Branick was impressed by objects from the museum’s inventory rarely on display in the permanent collection galleries.  For “Inside the Box,” some of these objects will be on view, including an Edo-era lacquered wood Japanese picnic set, an exact replica of the museum’s 1928 time capsule (the original is still in the cornerstone of the museum), an early 20th-century woven box basket from the Kongo used for storing personal grooming items, and a Qing Dynasty cricket box used to keep crickets close for their song as well as competitive fighting.

Arlene Branick with a work by Karen McGarry

Complementing the collection objects are newly commissioned artworks by area artists.  Lining the walls of the space, twenty-four boxes created by twenty-six artists show the variety of materials, concepts, and the various ways of working with a specific perimeter.  Each artist was given a simple wooden box and asked to transform something ordinary into something extraordinary.

Kettering artist Ron Hundt found the project a catalyst for continuing a collaboration with creative writer Janet Smith and calligrapher Ann Bain.  Together they created the piece “The Abbey Door.”  Over the past several years, the trio has worked on “Door Stories,” a series of vignettes created around the writings of Smith, documented in ink by Bain, and rendered in three-dimensional forms often featuring doors sculpted by Hundt.  Creating a moment when a visitor can imagine “being in an Abbey’s Garden and smelling the flowers and sweet scents of that time and place” is a part of the success of the piece beyond its simple box form.

Susan Byrnes’ “The universe itself withdrawn into a corner with the daydreamer”

Susan Byrnes’ work “The universe itself withdrawn into a corner with the daydreamer” is an abstract play on material and color, created with pigmented cast rubber and mixed media.  Through her process of automatic drawing paralleled with her sculptural practice, Byrnes took inspiration from the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard and his book “The Poetics of Space.”  She wrote: “I thought this was very fitting for the notion of the box and its corners within, and the cosmic nature of the cast rubber image.”  The invitation to participate was also a chance for Byrnes to experiment with the pigment casting and share the results with an audience.  Her hope for the work of art is it will “draw people into a little corner of space and gets them thinking about the productive possibilities of daydreaming.”

Each artist has an amazingly different approach to this project, and some of note include “Hermon’s Place” by Amy Kollar Anderson, “Up Stairs Down Stairs,” a ceramic architectural scape by Don Williams, “Stop-Motion” by Karen McGarry, “Creativity is a Life Skill” by Judy Campbell White, and “Blow Away” by Terry Welker.  Also featured are exceptional works by Julie Beyer, Shelley Bird, Netta Bits, Willis Bing Davis, Mike Elsass, Pam Geisel, Lisa R. Goldberg, Jean Koeller, Tracey Longely-Cook, Patrick H. Mauk, Kathy Verner Moulton, J. Pate, Marsha Monroe Pippenger, Christina Pereyma, Loretta Puncer, Janelle Young, and this article’s author, Shayna V. McConville.

In addition to the artist boxes and museum collection, boxes created by students of River’s Edge Montessori PreK-8 are also featured.  Instructor Bev Carr’s students participated in a workshop at the Dayton Art Institute in the fall, and spent the past several months in her classroom making extraordinary objects.  Thirty-four examples of their interpretations of the box will be on view.

The experience would not be complete without a number of activities for visitors of all ages.  As she pointed out the various elements in each activity station, Branick said “the most important thing always is that families experience and talk about art together and that the Experiencenter enhances their experience in looking at art.”  Its those moments when Branick comes across a child and an adult having a conversation about an artwork that she knows her mission has been accomplished.

“Inside the Box” remains on view through March 2013.   Learn more about the Experiencenter and the Dayton Art Institute’s upcoming events at

This article was originally published in the May 1st edition of the Dayton City Paper.

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