Carrying the Flame: John Frame
John Frame puts his imagination on display
While most of our imaginations are fleeting artist John Frame has spent the past five years preserving his.
Stepping into Three Fragments of a Lost Tale, Frame’s recent exhibition at the Huntington Library, you might think you’ve entered a dream. The space is dark and populated by figurines with eyes so vivid and piercing you can feel them stare back at you. These characters are intriguing, perhaps disturbing, but their world seems so fully realized it is hard not to find yourself fully entranced.
Three Fragments ran from March-June this year, but fortunately for those who missed it, the show is just the beginning. The Tale of the Crippled Boy, a feature-length film consisting of animated vignettes, not only builds on Frame’s current work, but is so ambitious it might take the rest of his life to complete.
It is already a high achievement to just have an exhibit at the Huntington, where living artists are rarely showcased. An exception was made for Three Fragments, which featured three dozen sculptures and incorporates wood carving, found objects, photography, music, and filmmaking.
For Frame, who received his MFA from CGU’s Art Department in 1980, creating this show and the resulting film required a complexity and depth of skill that’s developed over 30 years. “Every day – and I literally mean this – every day I try to learn something new; add a technique, treat a surface in a way I haven’t before,” he said.
As with most artistic achievements, Frame’s project is a mixture of perspiration and inspiration. The skills necessary to create his sculptures and bring them to life were honed over decades. Many of the materials used were collected through time-consuming browsing at flea markets, garage sales, and on eBay. But the concept came suddenly, early one morning in 2006, when Frame awoke unusually early and found himself half awake and half asleep.
Hypnopompic is the technical term for the state of consciousness leading out of sleep. It is usually fleeting, a short period of time when you have access to both your subconscious and conscious thought. Frame had gone to bed at one o’clock in the morning. When he awoke an hour later he saw the entire project – moving figurines, set designs, fabrics, even complex stories.
“It was almost as if the whole thing was complete, and I had this little window to look through to see it,” he said. “I was afraid to move. I didn’t even want to get up to go to the bathroom or make coffee. When my wife woke up I asked her to get me a paper and pencil and I started writing. I put down all the things I had been thinking about for four hours. Every time I captured a thumbnail drawing of one figure, another one would come.”
All these years later, intuition still drives his work. When he is in his studio, Frame said he is so immersed in the flow of activity he sometimes forgets to go to the bathroom or stop to eat. Of course, “flow” – a psychological state where one is fully immersed and focused on a task – was identified by CGU Professor Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, who came upon his discovery after initially becoming fascinated by artists like Frame, who lose themselves in their work.
While Frame has never met Csikszentmihalyi, he has seen the psychologist talk about flow, and found it perfectly described what had happened to him. In his talk, Csíkszentmihályi presented a graph demonstrating that one’s level of skill and challenge must be in sync to enter flow, and the higher the skill and challenge levels, the more intense the experience is.
“Creating something out of nothing is always a challenge,” said Frame. “In this project I gave myself that challenge, and I learned to photograph my work – which I had never done before. I learned to use Final Cut Pro, the software for professional filmmaking. Plus Logic Pro, the Mac music program. So the challenge side just went right off the graph, but it was coupled with a lot of technical skills. I was out at both ends, which I think is why I was able to stay in flow longer.”
Frame’s mastery of his craft was particularly influenced by Roland Reiss, CGU professor emeritus and former chair of the Art Department. “I think of Roland as a mentor figure,” Frame said. “Outside of class we would sit down and talk over coffee, discussing life and art. Really talk about things, broadly and deeply. Not just art theory and how to scope out a career. He was willing to talk about life, and I needed to hear that at the time.”
Reiss is pleased to see how those conversations have germinated: “From the start he marched to his own drum looking for something deep, profoundly moving, and beyond the current dialogue. I still hear that sound when I look at his work today. It has developed beyond what I could imagine at the time, into something quite personal, powerful, and extraordinary.”
CGU Associate Professor and art critic David Pagel sees these conversations reflected in Frame’s recent exhibition. “Working with his hands and carefully crafting actual objects are essential to the kind of insights Frame is after,” he wrote in the exhibition’s accompanying book. “His goal is to come to some kind of understanding of his life’s meaning, purpose, and point – that he did not know when he began – while at the same time inviting viewers also to come to some kind of understanding of their own lives.”
Themes such as life’s meaning, purpose, and point may seem grand, but they have intrigued Frame from the beginning of his career. And, though influenced by conversations, his recent work contributes something the spoken word could not: “I have a fundamental belief that art is a high and rarefied form of communication. We have it specifically to deal with things that other forms of language are not equipped to deal with,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do, communicate. I’m trying to reach people and touch them. I think it’s rare in our culture to have that kind of experience in the visual arts.”
For video and photos of Frame’s work, including an excerpt of The Tale of the Crippled Boy, visit John Frame’s website: www.johnframesculpture.com.
Pull-quote: “It was almost as if the whole thing was complete, and I had this little window to look through to see it.”