“Crayfish Family” in foreground by Kristin Gjerdset; the cat images of Kathleen Mulholland and linocut by S.V. Medaris seen in background
I title this a “celebration” blog, as after viewing the “Critters” art exhibit today, I believe it was a show worthy of being recognized. The Plymouth Arts Center in Wisconsin brought together the work of fourteen Wisconsin artists, reflecting their connection to animals. Each created meaningful, respectful responses to the lives they chose to depict, whether a domestic farm animal or a wild life. I fully admit I was a participating artist so there is some bias, but I am truly honored to have shared the space with kindred spirits, whose work showed creatures as a subject worthy of reverence. I found myself contemplative, humored and inspired as I spent time in the gallery.
Upon entering I was introduced to the work of S.V. Medaris: “23 Weeks Until Thanksgiving Dinner,” a small reduction woodcut/letterpress. The print shows a turkey chick standing, facing forward with chest out, yet its neck stretched, turning its head away with beak pointed upwards. We see only one eye looking downward at its body. The white of the eye is shown, reflecting to me a type of panic (…or maybe it is my guilt reflected for eating creatures full of personality and spirit). It seems as if the chick is aware of its future final day. I found that each of Medaris’ works shared a similar insight into the psychological state of the animals, whether playful dogs or a proud rooster. She causes one to pause at our consumption of them. I also really appreciated the many lines of woodcut used for her images, giving enthusiasm to the paper’s surface.
Another artist found at the beginning of the exhibit, was Rachel Durfee. Birds and butterflies are the main types of animals present in her mixed media pieces here. “Of Being in Significance” is a woodcut and watercolor, as well as a poem, of a monarch on patches of green, appearing like a depiction of stained glass. The colors are bright and vibrant but when one looks closer, the eyes bulge out, the wings are only partially open and the context is a butterfly pressed against the ground surface. The butterfly is dead. Durfee eloquently speaks in her poem about finding the monarch and how it moved her. One of my favorite lines is “embraced by a story vast and deep.” I love the fact she recognizes the individual life of even a butterfly having a history, as we as humans do.
Cathy Jean Clark is another artist inspired by Lepidoptera (the scientific word for the scale winged insects known as butterflies). I had to keep returning to “Chrysalis I, Monarch” – an etching, chine collee and litho piece. The composition is a rich combination of techniques and forms – from the carefully gold threaded edging outlining the picture to the buildup of layers found through line and aquatint. As a viewer, I just wanted to keep exploring it, for as I did I kept finding things to look at; from the many milkweed seeds and their white hairy wisps floating about the page to the muted green chrysalis with its bits of gold. The inclusion of a map type image of the U.S. and Central America gives it a scientific element in teaching one where the monarch lives.
My own work in the exhibit looks at insects and other small lives present in our world. My most recent painting made for this show, “Spider Dew” is a wolf spider I came upon one fall morning in my garden. I was drawn to the complex patterns of lines and circles, created as a result of her web. I know depicting this subject is a risk in many ways, as spiders are seen more often negatively, but I hope the viewer is convinced the spider, too, gives visual beauty to our lives.
“Spider Dew” by Kristin Gjerdset
There are a few artists whose pieces certainly cause one to smile. Bill Reid’s delightful, whimsical sculptures of brightly painted and patterned metal animals fit that category. For this show, he presents three creatures – a “Wallabeest of Burden,” “Watermelion” and “Bat Weightings in Wings.” Within the structure of each animal are little vignettes of small sculptured animals interacting, causing our imaginations to be awakened, and making up possible narratives for what’s happening. It’s clear Reid has fun in constructing and creating, and passing that passion along to his viewers.
The 16” x 16” acrylic paintings of Claudette Lee Roseland appeal to play in a different way. Each focuses on a different animal – cats, birds, frogs, dogs, fish and cows – and how they can be placed in a linear structure as well as a more scattered, colorful space. My personal favorite among the group is “Cats.” Roseland depicts a line of red cats at the top of the image within a light yellow strip, each in a different, distinctive cat pose. Below them is an abstract expressionist style colored environment in which one sees parts of more red cats. I think the piece reflects well the natural behavior of cats.
Mary Ulm Mayhew’s plein air style oil paintings of animals are fresh, showing deftness with the media to show the proportions of each animal. The portrait of the dog “Bella” is a standout for me, as she captures the physical individuality as well as the penetrating eyes of a dog, a look those of us who have them as companions know so well.
Kathleen Mulholland’s images of cats are similar but deal with the penetrating look we get from our feline friends instead. Her two large mixed media pieces of cat’s portraits are the most compelling in this respect due to their size and the amount of textural complexity. They seem to be built up with multiple layers of lines and colors created by watercolor and other mixed media. The presence of time and effort is apparent and makes me respect them for simply the process alone.
Raymond Gloeckler’s wood engravings share in this characteristic of hard work and thought put into the development of his images. Gloeckler describes his woodcuts as “employing whimsical and satirical imagery. Often birds and animals are personified to exhibit human like characters.” “The Critics: It has been brought to our Attention, hence we dare to postulate after Due deliberation, that children’s art is great!” is one such piece that reflects the above mentioned. A female deer like being stands facing a man like moose, under which there is a child like figure, simply created of geometric forms between them. I was astounded at the amount of line work showing their shapes dimensionally and in a convincing manner, along with bringing the characters to life, showing joy as “children’s art being declared great.”
Richard Bronk’s craftsmanship with wood is apparent. While I do not know much about the creation of wood works, I thought “Bad Moon Bison Run” was a rich visual experience simply for the number of types of woods inlaid together. They all blend together so naturally and cohesively. When he says, “it can be so intrinsically beautiful that anything from it becomes an object to admire or desire,” he is successful. This piece also makes one think about the narrative – why do we see only the back end of the bison? Why does it appear to be disappearing within the surface? What is the relationship to the moon? Is this perhaps about the near extinction of the species or a hunting event or has the animal naturally met its demise? It makes you think about how to interpret it.
Mary I. Hager shows us the lighter side of animals by selecting brilliant reptiles and amphibians as inspiration to make life size mixed media sculptures. When I dropped off my work for the show, Hager had already submitted hers. I remember having an immediate attraction to her “Chameleon” piece made up of bright blue beads for the body with green ones for the animal’s pattern. While it is abstracted in color choices, it matches the actual proportions of the species and seems to be alive due to the convincing natural pose.
Karen Robison presents works which are “part of a series called ‘Bird Skull Series.” Each is an assemblage containing a bird skull, as well as other found objects, along with utilizing painting to give a color theme, often muted. There is a fascination to the pieces in wanting to investigate what is included, then looking at the title to give a “why” as to how they look. The skulls are placed in the middle of the square composition, often in a framework. In a sense, because of the framework, the skulls seem as if they have been placed on a small altar to which we come to consider. They make me think of the reliquaries found in Italian cathedrals.
Patrick Robison mixed media and glazed stoneware pieces of animals show both his talent at creating an amusing narrative and depicting a creature that has been observed. “Tree Rat Ghost Ship” has the story element, as Robison created a ship stacked full of acorns with a “tree rat” skull placed at its prow instead of the expected carved female figurehead often found on old vessels. For his “Garden Turtle” sculptures, he made life size reproductions of them held up by metal rods, the rods attached to a piece of worn wood. These pieces are playful as well as showing how a turtle naturally swims by its leg positions.
I saved Clarence P. Cameron’s piece for last, as he carved out of soapstone one of my favorite animals, the owl. I can understand why he has been creating them in “various media for fifty years.” There is certainly no end to the number of ways one can imagine or observe them. In “The Gleaner,” the white soapstone brings out a horned owl crouching down on a branch. I was most drawn to the incised blue lines on the surface that brings out the feather patterns and contours, as well as the details such as eyes.
All in all, it was a well-put together exhibit, showing the various ways “critters” are woven into our lives. Thanks to Larry Basky and the Plymouth Art Center for organizing and inviting me to be a part of this show.