Found objects, neon light spark 'Alchemy' at Cooley Gallery

Assemblage artist Maureen McCabe and neon artist Mundy Hepburn both see their work as alchemical-based on the ancient art of transmuting base metals into gold. In their case, they're transforming found objects and ordinary stuff into fantastical, transcendental works of art.

In a rare collaborative show, aptly titled "Alchemy," the two artists have turned Old Lyme's Cooley Gallery into a visual labyrinth, well timed for Halloween. Hepburn's dancing, swirling neon forms hang from the ceiling, windows and walls, casting luminous fluorescent light on McCabe's mysterious, metaphysical boxes. And several of McCabe's pieces are punctuated with Hepburn's small neon forms, giving them an interior glow.

McCabe and Hepburn have known each other for 40 years, and although a common thread to their art is its sculptural form and highly technical execution, each artist's work is totally unique.

Hepburn, an Old Saybrook resident, has been experimenting with and creating art from molten glass since 1963 when he was 8 years old and saw Paul Geyer making glass animals at the Guilford Handcraft Fair.

A pioneer in the art form of luminous glass, Hepburn's work has been exhibited in more than 30 installations. A member of the Glass Art Society, he's made his living through glass art (doing many commissioned works) since 1980.

Hepburn describes his complex process simply.

"I make fresh, hot, gooey glass from sand and other really cool ingredients, and blow crazy forms," he explains.

The colors in Hepburn's blown glass sculptures are created using different gases-helium, neon, argon, krypton and xenon, with traces of air or nitrogen-at different pressure levels. He activates the glass with high frequency static electricity, creating swirling patterns of multicolored light.

"My work is visceral, preconscious," Hepburn says. "I go on searches for those odd junctures of reality that take you to the next step. All of my work is distillation, extraction, refinement of the essence. The essence is the essence of reality?a spiritual quest for the deep truth."

McCabe resides in Quaker Hill and travels the world on a quest for rare and unusual objects for her art.

"I don't travel on vacation, I travel for a reason," she says.

Renowned for her miniature boxed universes, McCabe has shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad and is the recipient of more than a dozen grants, residencies and awards. She recently retired after 40 years as a professor of studio art at Connecticut College.

"My work crosses all different cultures, hopefully has a touch of wit and a tremendous amount of historical reference," she says.

"It comes out of Dadaism and Surrealism, and collage-from the French, which means 'to glue,'" she explains. "I'm an expert on glue and use seven different kinds that are all archival, for each application-paper to paper, metal to wood..."

McCabe's references go back to 50,000 BC and end in the 19th century. Her fascination with ancient objects and their significance is rooted in her childhood.

"I was brought up Irish Roman Catholic when everything was mysterious and in Latin," she says. "I grew up outside of Boston, which has a rich tradition of pageantry, reliquaries."

Most of McCabe's pieces in the show are new. "Nostradamus," based on a French game of predictions, is built around the actual cover of a 1880s gameboard. "Cannon" embodies a 1930s pinball machine. "Allan Stone Cabinet" is a box she's had since 1975, in which magic squares spell out the word GOLD in numbers. "Alchemy" incorporates the themes of the show in ancient references and includes a blown glass double pelican by Hepburn.

A purely whimsical piece, "Purple Mermaid" is based on a Pre-Raphaelite painting by John William Waterhouse. McCabe decorated the mermaid with dragonfly wings and placed real jewels and tiny seashells in the surrounding scene.

"I made my mermaid a little thinner (than Waterhouse's) with a nicer tail and hair," she notes.

The artists agree that one thing they have in common is that they work mostly alone. Doing the show together "dragged us out of our little worlds," Hepburn says.

"Working with Maureen helped me understand who I am, and define what I'm doing," he says.

"It was fun to work together," McCabe says. "Mundy made stuff for me that I can't find"?

"...and I was proud to be collected by Maureen," Hepburn adds.

"We've been doing this kind of art all of our lives," he says. "It makes sense to us somehow, I'm not sure how-being alive and fascinated by all life forms. Alchemy is joining the physical and spiritual worlds. It's a universal experience everyone has."

"Alchemy" continues at the Cooley Gallery, 25 Lyme St., Old Lyme through Nov. 12. A gallery talk with the artists will be held Oct. 29 at 4 p.m. Gallery hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 860-434-8807 or visit www.cooleygallery.com.

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