By Isaac Mell
Fri 2/1 – Sun 2/3
On Fri 2/1, Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell unveil their transformation of an early-twentieth-century relic, an electrical substation that powered Detroit Avenue streetcars.
Now a museum of contemporary photography and photo-based art, Transformer Station provides a west side presence for the Cleveland Museum of Art, which splits programming duties with the Bidwells. Watch the video with Fred Bidwell here.
John C. Williams, principal architect at Process Creative Studios, restored and adapted the 1924 station and doubled its size with an adjoining gallery—charcoal-grey steel to match industrial-era brickwork.
The couple curates from their personal art collection for “Light of Day,” one of two exhibitions which inaugurate the building.
“Some of these pieces have been in storage, and so they’re now seeing the light of day for the first time,” Fred Bidwell says. “I think it’s a good overview of what’s happening in contemporary photo-based art, but at the same time it’s our personal choice. In fact, although there are some pieces here by some very famous artists, there’s work here by very young artists who are just becoming known. I think all of these pieces, in their own way, are beautiful objects, and you really don’t need to know a thing about art, a thing about photography, to just look, and enjoy.”
In lieu of posted placards, Transformer Station offers URLs and tablets for guests to view an interactive museum guide. Yet the digital supplements can never supplant the originals.
“Obviously you could see a jpeg of this on the web, but you’d never have any sense of the size, and you’d never have any sense of the amazing detail here,” Bidwell says, using as an example Richard Learoyd’s side view of a reclining nude. “It’s a one-to-one to the actual subject. It was taken with a camera as big as a room, and when you actually stand in front of it you can almost see the model breathe.”
The second exhibition, “Bridging Cleveland,” displays a commissioned homage to Cuyahoga River bridges by Vaughn Wascovich, a former Ohioan now teaching in Texas.
Wascovich began his process by handcrafting panoramic pinhole cameras—inscrutable machines with a lifespan of a single exposure and an indeterminate scope.
“And then when he goes to the darkroom with these big paper negatives that come out of the pinhole camera, he literally paints them as they’re developing—breaking all the rules—putting fixer on first, and using hot developer, and all kinds of crazy stuff,” Bidwell says. “He’s painting them in real time, and that whole process takes maybe about two minutes, so you’ve got to think fast. And then the whole process goes high tech, because he takes that paper negative, scans it on a very high resolution scanner, flips it over to a positive in Photoshop and then makes these enormous digital prints. And so that’s why these pictures look almost like paintings. They’re really expressionistic; there’s a lot of chance happening and a lot of handwork.”
Bidwell identifies the bridges in these photographs as metaphors for Cleveland’s then and now.
“Many of these bridges, and sort of the whole infrastructure of Cleveland’s past, is about industry, and I think we should be very proud of that,” Bidwell says. “I think a lot of that industry will continue, but a lot of the future is really about arts, culture, intellectual property and technology and that sort of thing. And so bridges still are important, because we need to get from one place to another, but their uses will be different, and I think that’s good, that’s inspiring. Change is always positive.”
Hours for the inaugural weekend open house are 12pm to 9pm Fri 2/1 and Sat 2/2 and 12pm to 5pm Sun 2/3. Across the street, Rising Star Coffee Roasters also stays open for these hours. The Touch Supper Club food truck serves eaters Fri and Sat evening. The Bidwells also recommend dinner at an Ohio City restaurant or bar before stopping at Transformer Station. Admission to Transformer Station is and will remain free.
Isaac Mell grew up in South Euclid, OH and attended American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He welcomes conversations with potential employers, collaborators and friends.