‘Acquae Obscurae’

Art show, party explores mythological Neches River critters
Story by Andy Coughlan

In 1894, Sir Randolph Foxton-Twickenbush, the great British adventurer, steered the steamship “Good Queen Bess” into the mouth of the mighty Neches River in search of the broad-mouthed squintabass, a creature so huge and so fearsome that no one who had encountered it had survived to tell the tale. Existing only in half-whispered stories passed down through generations, the mighty fish lived hundreds of fathoms deep in the darkest parts of the river. Foxton-Twickenthorn, accompanied by 20 men and his trusty guide, Claude Boudreaux of St. Martinsville, and financed by the Royal Society of Aquarian Fauna, peered deep into swamp and marshy undergrowth for the animal that would cement his reputation as the greatest explorer in the world — and the financial remunerations that accompanied the title….”

How this particular story ends is anyone’s guess, but visitors to The Art Studio in March will get a chance to speculate on the creatures at “Acquae Obscurae: A Menagerie of Neches River Critters,” March 1-29, with a reception, 7-10 p.m., March 1.

The show is the brainchild of Beau and Karen Dumesnil, and the couple encourage everyone to submit a piece for the show and have fun.

“The idea for Neches River Critters came about, funnily enough, because I am a harbor tugboat captain on the Neches River,” Beau said. “Before I was a captain, my friend, he was the engineer of the tugboat, he and I were commenting on the depth finder which would occasionally, when backing down, the disruption of the propellers backing over the depth sounder created disturbances which would read ungodly numbers — 2,815 feet, you know, random numbers. We would joke, ‘I wonder what we would find in the Neches River at that depth?’ So it just stuck.

“We began to build things around the time of (Hurricane) Ike, Neches River critters. They met with some success and we followed that up with, ‘Hey, why don’t we combine a happening like ‘Caravanserai’ (held at The Studio in October 2012) — I thought that was a great idea — why don’t we have an art party?”

Beau said he decided to draw on the idea of a Victorian club, like the Royal Society in London, where explorers and wealthy patrons would gather to show off their latest acquisitions, and brag about their specimens. He wanted to expand the idea of the group show and open the event to anyone who wanted to play with the idea.

“I created a very broad context for people to use their creative outlet, as to what kind of animal would one find on a Royal Society expedition into the great Neches River trench — what would they come back with?” he said. “So the sky’s the limit within that broad context.

“I want people to explore the depths of their creativity.” Beau burst into laughter. “You can use that, that’s a good one.”

Beau certainly walks the walk of the show’s philosophy — that creativity can and should be fun.

Karen and Beau also encourage people to attend the opening reception in costume.

“We want to make a real creative environment,” he said. “Not just for the visual artists, but for performing artists as well.”

Beau said that attendees in costume will be living pieces of art that are part of the exhibition.

“They can be animals or they can be explorers — and they can tell tall tales like people would in the Royal Society,” he said.

“Like the old safari hunters,” Karen said.

The artwork will fall into one of three formats for the visual artists: “Live” specimens, “Dead” specimens and “Too Big to Catch” specimens.

“The ‘Live’ specimens will be mounted, displayed or hung in a mobile format in an aquarium built in the main gallery,” Beau said. “These will also include people in costume who choose to come as amphibious-type arthropods.

“The ‘Dead’ specimens — taxidermy — which will ideally be in jars, which will be mounted on pedestals in the rest of the gallery.

“Then there are the things we couldn’t catch — artist representations of these creatures, akin to what National Geographic has.”

These drawings could be similar to Dührer’s “Rhinocerous,” which is a twisted version of the real thing, drawn from accounts, with all the unreliability that entails.

There really is a medieval book with a barnacle tree in it,” Karen said. “The man who wrote the book said he had a reliable account from an Irish priest who said he had seen one. It is a tree with barnacles growing out of it, and when they open up, geese fly out of them.”

The book was “Topographia Hiberniae,” an account of the landscape and people of Ireland, written around 1188 by the Welsh monk Giraldus Cambrensis, aka Gerald of Wales. Before people knew about migration, Barnacle Geese were thought to develop from the barnacles as they were never seen to nest. The similarities in color and shape also contributed to the myth.

The couple want people to approach “Acquae Obscurae” with the same sensibility. This is not the first idea they had. Beau, Karen and artist Andy Ledesma originally had an idea about mythological creatures.

“But we’d killed them all and they would just be stuffed in a gallery,” Beau said. “This evolved into what we have now. We’d always wanted to have a big party, we’d always wanted to have an installation — and it just grew into this.”

They also thought about a robot show.

“There’s more things you can do with sea creatures than robots,” Karen said. “Besides, Beau has always wanted to build a submarine real bad.”

“Yeah, that’s part of my history,” he said.

The pair are quick to point out that the aim of the show is to stretch the imagination, not to make some sort of “green” statement.

“The intention is not to indict the refineries around here for having polluted rivers,” he said. “It’s just a way to express ourselves creatively. Now if people want to go that route that’s fine and dandy, but that’s not my intention — I just want to see what people can come up with.”

For all of the fun that the Dumesnil’s have, the artwork is not a joke. They take the creative act seriously, and believe it is important that people have an outlet to express their creativity.

“You can be as serious as you want, but don’t take yourself too seriously,” Karen said.

“Too often we find ourselves trapped by vocabulary,” Beau said. “I don’t want that trap to exist for this show. I don’t want people to feel like they have to explain, ‘The dichotomy of the Surrealism versus the trepidation of the individual leading this elemental force of conviction….’ I want to be all inclusive.

“The creative process exists and some people may be at a higher level than others, but we’re all going down the same path.”

The idea of the show is not to make “perfect” creatures, but to allow the imagination to go exploring. Karen referenced Dan Reeder, an artist and teacher who works with paper maché.

“He says, ‘Let’s make something ugly together,” she said. “He works with kids, and if they try to make something symmetrical they get always frustrated. So he has them make monsters and things.”

Karen said that part of the goal of the show is to show people that everyone has a creative side.

“You hear people say, ‘Oh, I’m not creative,’ but you watch their everyday projects — decorating their homes or making a meal — and they are creative,” she said. “We start throwing out ideas about what we’re doing with this and they will start throwing out ideas. They are brilliant, yet they don’t think they are creative. I think that’s sad.”

Beau said that he doesn’t want people to feel intimidated by the idea of being in a gallery show.

“In fact, it’s the complete opposite,” he said.

The couple said they are keen to build on the recent growth in the arts in Southeast Texas.

“In the past three years I have seen more participation, more people just genuinely having fun, in the arts scene,” Beau said. “It’s a fusion of the arts. Since the economic crash, our youth have not left this area, and it’s up to us to keep them here, to keep it fun and exciting and to keep the scene going, so that we keep all this talent here. The economy has gotten better and we live in fear of losing all these youngsters and creative minds to bigger markets.

“You can hone your craft here. The real buzz is that we are keeping these young people here. I’m really excited and that’s what I’m trying to continue with this show, I want to push this forward.”

For more information, call 409-838-5393, or visit the “Acquae Obscura” Facebook page.