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Ed Hallahan|Butler Institute of American Art

Updated: May 25, 2018

“Betwixt” collaborative installation by Ed Hallahan and Jackie Moutan, Weller Gallery at Fellows Riverside Garden, 2016 (Photo Credit: Lily Martucci)

Edward Hallahan earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting and drawing from Youngstown State University and an Master of Fine Arts in sculpture and drawing from The Ohio State University. His work in museums as a Preparator in Exhibitions includes The John Michael Kohler Arts Center, The McDonough Museum of Art, and The Butler Institute of American Art (BIAA). He has taught at YSU and Kent State University Salem, and currently teaches at Penn State University Shenango. He is the coordinator and instructor for the Arts Honors Program for high school juniors and seniors at the Butler Institute, and is an arts instructor for Good Grief at Camp Frederick. Hallahan also works as a performing jazz musician, playing the upright bass. As a visual artist, he works in wood, carved and constructed sculpture and installation. His last exhibit was at Fellows Riverside Gardens, the Outdoor Art Gallery, in 2016. His collaborative work with Jacki Mountan  (fiber artist), was awarded a 2015 Ohio Arts Council Merit Award. His collaborative work with Redhand, performance art and installation, (with William Barron and Dennis Ryan), has appeared at Lorain Community College, Westminster College, Erie College, YSU Working Class studies, YSU McDonough Art Museum, BIAA, and the Cleveland Performance Art Festivals.

Power of the Arts coordinator Karen Schubert interviewed Hallahan by the courtyard fountain on the YSU campus.

KS: Ed, thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about your interesting life as an artist in our community.

EH: Well thank you, and it’s a wonderful privilege and I appreciate the opportunity.

So we’re meeting behind behind the Butler Institute of American Art, where you work in the exhibits, exhibit design, preparatory work. Tell us a little bit about the work you do at the Butler.

It has to do with all the hands-on work at the museum, I guess. The stuff you don’t see. Normally people walk into a museum and they just see paintings resting on the wall [laughter] in repose, kind of like you view the dead bodies of the paintings. Picasso said when the painting leaves the studio it’s dead. I have that fantasy sometimes, looking at paintings in the museum. [laughter] But what I do is handle a lot of the art work and physically put up the art on the walls or the sculpture whatever it is framing matting, lighting, some minor curatorial stuff.

I also teach a class at the Butler for high school juniors and seniors. It’s called Arts Honors and it’s created to be a transition experience between high school and their college. Most of these students have intentions to go on in the visual arts so it’s an opportunity to stretch their experience a little more than what they would get from high school, a little more like what they would get in college.

I’ve heard art faculty at YSU say that one challenge that young people have today in studying the arts is that they haven’t—because their entertainment is so much more digital than it has been before—they don’t have as much experience working with their hands. Do you find that they are having to learn spacial relationships or how materials function more than they might have or is that just grumpy older people complaining about kids the way we always have? [laughter]

I think it’s affected their sense of concentration a little bit, their ability to focus or stay on track, but their sense of spatial reality—I don’t know, the ones I get—seem to be o.k. with that. The hands-on experience is probably more natural for them than for other people. I think the digital thing is hurting our sense of— changing our sense of reality. And maybe that’s a better word— I never did buy that idea that it’s only a tool, you know, like a gun is only a tool, a computer is only a tool, it’s what you do with it. Everything inherently has its own nature. I think that’s true of machinery as well. You are what you eat.

But we have the great human capacity to overcome obstacles and once we integrate stuff— I don’t believe we’ve integrated computer technology enough. Or put differently, we have to grow a different side of our human nature that would help us to get a better control of it. We have to get out of this entertainment consumer kind of fascination and get down to some serious business or else we’ll continue to have compounded problems.

What was your pathway into the arts? Do you remember yourself as a teen, as a young man and your exploration? What was your impetus?

My mother was very artistic and I think she was a main motivation for my interest. She was very hands-on and made stuff and encouraged me to do that as well. I also had a very good art teacher in high school, and music teacher as well. Those programs were very strong when I was in high school. But it’s something I always did and never questioned. I guess if I had come up in a different environment, I might have come out differently. I don’t know.

Do you remember seeing the arts as a kind of entertainment or was it something deeper, more a way to engage with yourself, and the world? or yourself in the world?

Yeah. It was a way to engage myself in the world. It has its entertainment side, but once you’re involved in the process of it, entertainment is not the word to describe it. It’s work, but there’s also  very rewarding feelings, and sometime ecstatic feelings, but it has nothing to do with entertainment.

So the process of engaging creativity and solving problems is just something deeper than having fun; even if it’s enjoyable it’s more substantive.

I think so. The enjoyment is the short-lived part of it. (But oh words are hard sometimes.) I think there’s a constant enjoyment with the process, actually, or happiness. I’m very happy with it. I can’t think of doing anything else, and I wouldn’t change what I have done, but it’s not entertainment like going to the movies or something like that, where you’re passive. It’s totally active and I think that’s what I like about it. We’re a creative species and we have this creative capacity. With me it’s always been a process of creation. I mean, I can’t see any other reason for being a human being other than to create something. [laughter]

You’re getting at a question that’s so deeply philosophical and really interesting. By talking about art being dead after it’s on the wall and about how movies are something that we passively take in, is it really, for you, is it really for you about the work of the artist? Because I know, I’m a writer and we talk about how we create but then that work isn’t complete until someone reads it, there’s that culmination of that. But do you not feel that way about film? about art?— that the heart of art is really more in the creation?

I think for me it really is more in the creation and the process. It must be because I don’t make an extreme effort to show my work a lot. It’s finished when it’s finished. It doesn’t take another viewer to see it. I think there’s a deeper magic. I think when you do art in the process of making it, it has an immediate audience, which is a larger kind of reality, and not just an objective viewer at the museum. In other words, I think the reason for doing it is on a plane of action that is every day kind of experience. Like breathing. I breathe, and I don’t need anybody to tell me that I’m breathing to complete my breath. I take it in and I exhale it. Do you know what I mean?

Outdoor gallery, Fellows Riverside Garden (photo credit Ed Hallahan)

Outdoor gallery, Fellows Riverside Garden (photo credit Ed Hallahan)

I do know what you mean.

So I think an ideal world would have no audience, [laughter] but participants, who were just making art. Of some kind. Or science.

But making.

But making. Yeah. And experiencing that process. It’s kind of an unrestrained activity, at a certain point.

Your wife Jackie Moutan is also an artist, and you collaborated, I saw your incredible installation at the Weller Gallery in Fellows Riverside Garden, and your work is carved wood pieces and she works with textiles.

She’s a fiber artist and we combined our two approaches.

Tell a little bit about that installation, the process of collaborating with her, and what the installation was about.

Well the one at Fellows was about a new group of works; we actually built them for Fellows, for that space. A lot of times, when you have the time, you take the space into consideration. And that will effect the making of the objects. There was a large piece at Fellows that actually was in Columbus as well, a large table with sculptural chairs and so we just knew that piece would just sit really nice in that space. The pieces on the wall were especially made for that space. Living in this ongoing kind of making activity there’s a lot of fluidity in terms of the objects. So they can come and go, depending on the situation.

A lot of it’s temporary in nature. But working collaboratively with her is no problem. Working collaboratively, in general, that’s another thing I seem to do. Not only do I work with her but I’m involved with a couple other artists in a performance installation group called Redhand, and we’ve been doing works over a period of twenty years, on and off. Not a lot has been here in Youngstown, but in other locations. When the Cleveland [whispers] (there’s a cardinal right there), performance art festival was going on, it was a major venue for performance art worldwide, and we performed there quite a few times during its history. Another one of those kind of like time—

Time and space?—

Live time and space kind of feel about it. So I think that’s another part of my make up, this idea of time and space and being a musician I work collaboratively with other musicians, too. And that’s also time-space kind of format. Working collaboratively is something I’ve always done but I like my alone time in the studio as well.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the time and space elements regarding the arts in the Mahoning Valley because a lot of the arts are homed in these beautiful, historic, architectural gems, with, if I could use some hyperbole, terrifying maintenance needs, but they’re so amazing.

They are so amazing.

But then you also have these soulless strip malls in the suburbs, like where you’ve played, at Barrel 33 in Howland, just acres of parking because no one lives there. You couldn’t possibly walk there. And you just open this ugly door and step into a space that has been completely transformed. It’s so visually rich, and it has some of the best food in the area, and just the music coming through that place is just off the charts, it’s so good. So I think that’ really interesting, too. I want you to talk about your work as a musician, but if you’ll just indulge me in on question first: so a strip mall is not designed for really good music. So what is it like, acoustically, to play in a place like that?

It’s always kind of risky and sometimes it’s good but a lot of times it’s not perfect so you just kind of adapt to it.


Yeah, it’s not a concert hall, but jazz has a unique way of adapting itself to just about any situation.

Two books Ed recommends: Arts with the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen & The Gift by Lewis Hyde

You play the bass.

The upright bass.

How did you come to fall in love with jazz?

Oh, I think I was in junior high school. There used to be a program on television called the Today Show. That really dates me. [laughter] And Dizzy Gillespie was a guest on this program with his bebop group and I saw and heard that, and I said, That’s it.

You know, the former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia, gave a commencement speech at Stanford in which he talked about being an immigrant and learning, not only English, from the kinds of shows on television, but also learning about the arts because in those days, the best artists of our time were daily features on these daily programs. And that we’re losing something important if we don’t continue that tradition—

Tradition of showing the best.

So what’s the name of your band?

Oh, right now I pretty much freelance. I get a lot of gigs currently up in Erie, Pa. I was just there over the last weekend, Saturday and Sunday.

They have a great arts scene in Erie.

Yeah, I think they do. A lot of good musicians everywhere.

You have some formal training in music. Is that right?

I have some formal training in music. I studied some at Dana School of Music and was kind of like a music and art major for awhile and then just evolved more over to art. My master’s degree is in art, in sculpture, from Ohio State. I’ve just always done them simultaneously. I think in some strange way they feed each other.

What do you tell your students who are looking toward an art degree? It seems wildly impractical and I imagine the pressures for practicality are greater than they’ve ever been.

I think they are. Because things are more financially at risk, especially for parents. The cost of education is incredibly stupid. But what I tell them is just, you have to do what you have to do. You know who you are at this point, you just kind of follow that. And there’s no easy answers for any generation.

That’s right and not everyone is making a living with art. They’re often working jobs to stay alive and keep the lights on, and finding good space for the—

That’s especially true for writers. And poets, I think.

I think so, too. I only know a handful of rich poets. [laughter] But it is so worth pursuing, that’s a point well taken.

Oh, for sure. I’ve been fortunate to always be involved in the arts, whether it’s teaching it or some kind of performance way. And I haven’t had to do jobs that weren’t somehow related to art. For the longest time, really. Working in a museum is a safe art place.

And I read recently, I was astonished to read that the arts, nationwide, they constitute 4% of our economy, which is one percent smaller than agriculture. So there really is an economic engine that is driven by the arts. So it’s not impossible.

No, it’s not impossible. I actually think the arts are becoming much more important, in light of other kinds of economic and technological realities.

So as we continue to lose jobs to automation, the the one thing we will never lose jobs to is creativity, right? Is art. Making art.

Being creative. Yeah. I think they help us understand who we are as human beings. Not everything contributes to that understanding. I think it’s important to be really open minded. The pressure for younger people is to find something, to focus in on something. That’s not always the best way to go. It’s just practical. Like you said earlier, we have this pressure to be practical these days, but the soul and the human spirit doesn’t live that kind of practical kind of life. We just have to pay attention to a larger frame of our human needs.

What do you— sometimes people ask me, because I’m not from here, they ask me my theory on why this area is particularly artistically rich. It’s a working class town, lots of manufacturing, it’s a town of the kids of immigrants, so why— what’s your theory?

I think it was particularly rich in terms of our immigrant history and those immigrants brought with them strong European traditions or African traditions where art was a part of everyday life. And it’s just like, that’s the way it is: you do you sing, we dance, we make stuff, and I think that for some reason somehow continued here. And I think our location, too, between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, but I don’t know. It’s just the way it was. It was part of life.

That’s a great answer. So what do you have coming up? Any installations? Any shows?

Our group Redhand is gearing up for a performance installations at Butler North, hopefully in the fall, it’s going to be part of a performance art night. There might be live music as well as spoken word, in addition to our performance. It’s still in the process. But we’re gearing for sometime in the fall or maybe winter. So that’s happening. Oh I continue to gig around, and in the studio make some new pieces, but nothing on the books for any art show.

[After our interview, Ed said he’d been thinking of his remarks “on Picasso, when he said that when the painting leaves the studio and is on the museum wall it is dead, means that his creative involvement in making it is overthat living creative process is over. But we can say that it now needs an audience ( as you pointed out)it’s new life as an object in culture has begunits transformer function beginsits need for an audience begins.


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