, Salem, MA

March 27, 2014

The sad truth

Artist confronts sorry state of affairs with exhibit, parade

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — Sometimes we don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Artist Greg Cook captures this mixture of emotions in “The Saddest Forest on Earth,” a unique grove of trees he created for Montserrat College of Art’s 301 Gallery on Cabot Street in Beverly.

“It’s sort of like a poor man’s, do-it-yourself, wacky Disneyland kind of thing — but more disconcerting,” said Cook, who lives in Malden and teaches at Montserrat.

The exhibit will also serve as the finishing point for “The Saddest Parade on Earth,” which will feature banners and music and starts at 248 Cabot St. on “Sad-urday,” March 29, at 11 a.m.

Painted on cutout fabric and ranging from 6 to 8 feet tall, Cook’s trees wear sad faces, while a shower of tears falls through their branches. They occupy the gallery’s window and present their mournful expressions to the traffic and pedestrians on Cabot Street.

“The space is 3 feet deep; it’s like a shallow diorama,” Cook said. “Mostly, I do cartoony kind of work. I do some illustration, some gallery or fine art, and it all has a cartoony sensibility.”

But if his trees look like they belong in a comic strip, they are also sharing a serious emotion that Cook believes is common these days.

“I think a lot of people are feeling sad,” he said. “I think it’s been a tough decade with wars and recessions. There’s all this financial anxiety the last couple of years, all this fear about how you’re going to feed your family.”

Cook has made characters out of trees in earlier works and is interested in the way forests appear in our imaginations.

“I was painting things about early New England,” Cook said. “I was interested in the witch scare and the wars between the English, French and Native Americans.

“I started thinking of the forest as the haunted, magic forest, like in Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown.’ He thinks he sees his wife having an affair with the devil.”

Trees also figure in popular culture, from the enchanted forest in Snow White and the trees that throw apples at Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” to the PlayPlaces in McDonald’s restaurants, Cook said.

“It’s a mix of serious and playful things,” he said.

Cook is a connoisseur of parades and other kinds of public rituals, from the Honk Parade of street bands in Somerville and human sled dog races in Lowell to Haunted Happenings in Salem.

“I’m doing photography, documenting these community rituals that end up in a weird space between journalism and art,” he said. “I tend to fall in these in-between spaces.”

While parades may seem sometimes like corny relics of the past, they also tap into powerful feelings that pull people together.

“Community spectacles have different tones,” Cook said. “There’s a group feeling we don’t think about in our culture, because we’re so sleek and modern, but we still have these seasonal rituals we enact.

“We crave community ritual still. They give us connection, they’re fun, they add a sense of meaning to our lives.”

Cook’s parade will feature at least one accordion player — his wife, artist and teacher Kari Percival — along with flags and banners displaying sad trees.

“It’s going to be a loose group, with anybody who wants to come,” he said. “You don’t have to feel sad. It’s not required, but recommended. Dress dapper.

“You can bring kids in strollers. We’ll be on sidewalks the whole way. Then, there will be some sort of speech ceremony that tries to recognize our sadness and symbolically get rid of some of our gloominess. It will be relatively brief and polite.”

Cook, who also works as an art critic and blogger, studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

He will give a talk about his work “Remaking Our Sad World: From Community Activism to World-Building” on Monday, April 14, at Montserrat’s Hardie Building.

“The talk is about the relationship between, on the one hand, actions in the real world, trying to make it more fulfilling,” he said. “Then also, with the trees, it’s about inventing fantasy worlds.”

In Cook’s mixture of art and activism, difficult problems are addressed, but with a comic touch that lightens their burden.

“There’s a lot of sadness going around, and we hide it,” he said. “It’s embarrassing and humiliating and uncool.

“I’m embracing sadness but also making fun of myself for being sad.”


Exhibit: “The Saddest Forest on Earth,” March 24 to April 18, Montserrat College of Art, Frame 301 Gallery, 301 Cabot St., Beverly. Free.

Parade: “The Saddest Parade on Earth,” Saturday, March 29, 11 a.m., from 248 Cabot St. to Frame 301 Gallery, 301 Cabot St., Beverly. Free.

Lecture: “Remaking Our Sad World: From Community Activism to World-Building,” artist’s talk with Greg Cook, Monday, April 14, 11:30 a.m., Montserrat’s Hardie Building, 23 Essex St., Beverly, Room 201.