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Ft. Thomas Artist & Former Mill Worker Display Works at NKU

Life in the Belly of a Dinosaur: Mixed Media Collages by Robert Villamagna began in a steel mill.

At least the title did.

Currently on view in the Main Gallery of Northern Kentucky University’s Fine Arts Center through Sept. 18, the Dinosaur is the steel mill where Villamagna was working years ago. “I was so busy hating the environment I was in that I could not see the world I was in was changing.

“My mill boss was encouraging me to respond to my situation, and my surroundings, through my art.”

Talk about a sympathetic boss. And one whose advice has stayed with Villamagna. “It reminds me to make art that responds to my surroundings, both real and imagined.”

The NKU exhibit features more than three dozen current and recent collages, assemblages and mixed media works by an artist widely exhibited throughout the Midwest, including the Carnegie Museum of Art Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, The Mattress Factory Museum, Huntington Museum of Art, and the West Virginia Cultural Center.

Villamagna started using found objects in his work in 1987 – he calls flea markets his “palette” and says “Found objects and materials bring a kind of mystery to the artwork. I believe that comes from the fact that these materials are being used in a way that is totally foreign to their intended use.”

NKU Gallery Director David Knight observes, “Robert finds himself wondering about the person who made these materials, who use them, and who held them. He loves stuff with character --  items that show use, wear, and rust. Robert believes that an art or energy of the person is still contained in these things and it is now transferred into the artwork.”

There’s another lasting influence viewers will see in the exhibit, which features more than three dozen collages, assemblages and mixed media works: The childhood memories of reading comic books. His reading was eclectic – Batman to Donald Duck to Richie Rich and beyond, and always the ads on the inside covers.

While he was intrigued by the book that offered to teach him how to ‘throw his voice,’ “What I most coveted were the X-ray specs! Imagine! For the price of just one American dollar, a kid could actually obtain VX-ray vision!”

Knight suggests visitors “may see things they may find familiar -- from their past used in their own lives, whether it is an old ad, tin can, soda can or old magazines or book pages.  All of these items have been taken and put together with other materials to find a new meaning or create visual statements for the viewer. Some create happiness, some sadness and some make you think a bit.”

Villamagna teaches art at West Liberty University in West Virginia and at the Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.

No Better Place than Here: Mixed Media Collages by Randel Plowman is on view in the Third Floor Gallery of the Fine Arts Center. The starting point for the 22 works began after Plowman, NKU grad and adjunct professor and Fort Thomas resident, re-read Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.

“Each piece has several layers of time built into the,” Knight says. ”Randel is fascinated with the de-authoring of imagery and removing the materials from their original context, rebuilding and paring them with other images to build an unexpected meaning that leave each work open to interpretation, both intentional and unintentional.”

Life in the Belly of the Dinosaur/No Better Place than Here, through Sept. 18. Fine Arts Center, Northern Kentucky University, Highland Heights. Gallery hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. weekdays. Parking in the Welcome Center Garage. Artist reception 5-7 p.m. Sept. 10. Plowman will offer a free gallery talk at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 10.

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts