Sitting side by side at Bunnell Street Arts Center’s grand piano, photographer Jesse Egner and composer and visual artist Nathan Hall played a duet inspired by the dried winter stalks of pushki, or cow parsnip. Characteristic of their playful approaches to their work, the two artists have embraced a spontaneous collaboration during their monthlong residencies at Bunnell.
Egner picked up a cello for the first time in three years, he said, to join Hall’s concert last Friday at Bunnell that was broadcast on KBBI, and Hall happily promised to pose for a portrait later in the month.
Egner and Hall were also joined for the first half of April by Minneapolis-based screenwriter Karen Frank, an artist whose work is often rooted in historical events, as well as shaped by her experiences.
For classically trained composer Hall, finding ways to interact with his surroundings is an integral part of his work. Through his art, Hall said he is looking for “the connections to music with things like the landscape or ecology, climate change, human identity, or sexuality.”
As part of the LGBTQ community, Hall said he has tried to challenge stereotypes and transcend categorization of both sexuality and classical music.
“For me, music is a way to express nuance,” Hall said.
He said he hoped to spend his residency working on developing what he termed a “sonic portrait of Homer,” with an eye toward telling stories of people who might feel left in the background. Hall said he was interested in including “people like our elders, and especially people from our queer community, or LGBTQ folks.”
Hall said he has also been connecting with local musicians and searching out sights and sounds “that are a little bit unexpected or underappreciated.”
Drawing from a variety of inspirations — including a chaotic flock of seagulls on Homer Spit, the motor of a fishing vessel, and the oddly musical chime of a dishwasher — Hall has embraced the local environment.
“I’m even using things like the charcoal from the beaches to make musical scores on the walls, and water from the bay to make watercolor[s],” he said.
In his work more broadly, Hall has taken an aural approach to complex issues like sustainability and climate science. Transcribing data about changing temperatures or sea levels into a rising melodic line may sound abstract, Hall said, but “I think that’s where the magic of art comes in — finding connections that science can’t tell us on its own.”
It’s not all doom and gloom, Hall added. “I think we still need to see the beauty in what’s around us.”
Across the gallery from Hall’s charcoal scores and an array of instruments, multi-disciplinary visual artist Jesse Egner has added his own musical touch to the room in a series of cyanotype prints on vintage player piano paper.
Egner started experimenting with cyanotype printing — a chemical photo process that uses sunlight to transfer images to a surface, or allowing objects to become silhouetted, in a blue-hued print — at a three-month residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute before arriving in Homer.
The cyanotype process is a change of pace for Egner, whose recent work has focused on playful photographic portraits.
“For the last couple of years, I’ve been doing work that deals with different aspects of queer identity,” Egner said.
Moving to Brooklyn, New York from a much smaller city in Pennsylvania in 2018, Egner said he encountered many of the same struggles he was experiencing at home, and didn’t immediately find the welcoming LGBTQ community he was hoping for. Out of that sense of frustration, Egner said he started a series of self-portraits to “play with and manipulate and obscure my own identity.”
That sense of playfulness is an essential part of Egner’s artistic process as he explores and experiments with conceptions of queer identity. His portraits are “absurd, unusual, uncanny, often humorous,” Egner said. “My photos kind of exist in the space between reality and fantasy.”
When he is photographing someone else, the shoots are “playful and spontaneous,” Egner said. He explained, “when I walk into a space I don’t really have any specific ideas, because I want them to bring some [ideas] to the table as well.”
Egner said that’s one reason he always tries to meet people in a space that is meaningful to them. It makes the portrait about more than their physical body, he said. “It’s also a portrait of their mind and their personality, and who they are.”
Exploring the ways place and history influence character is something that’s also key to Karen Frank’s work. She started as a playwright, but switched to a focus on television and film when she ran up against a story idea that was just too big for the stage.
Frank recalled a pivotal moment when she got a call from her mom, who said, “We’re going to rob a grave.” That enigmatic line became the creative impetus for “Buried,” one of her first screenplays — a story about the divisive role of a fatal car accident in a small town.
As a writer, Frank said, “Even if I’ve been writing comedy or drama, a lot of it’s been historical,” a source of inspiration, she added, that can also sometimes be a hurdle. The sheer scale of producing a historical film or television series means that you need substantial resources, he said.
But that doesn’t mean she is giving up on the idea. Frank said she is currently working on a project that was inspired by a mid-20th century environmental disaster in a small town in Pennsylvania.
She explained that one strategy to adapt a screenplay to the big screen is to submit drafts to film competitions, or to produce a short film on a smaller budget, with the hopes of scaling up.
And while Homer may not be the setting for her next screenplay, Frank said she has found vignettes of inspiration in her everyday encounters around town. Little things like an offer to help carry coffees or just being in a place “where people know each other,” can help her shape a story, Frank said.
Hall has also had serendipitous connections during his time in Homer. “I think there’s these little moments of joy and surprise that maybe we take for granted every day,” he said.
“I’m here to have those chats, and to feel like, you know, ‘we’re not alone’ together.”