Mid-Shore Arts: Listening to the Earth Art of Stewardship at RiverArts by Mary McCoy

An egret stalks through the dark water of a marsh in Karen Klinedinst’s iPhoneography print “The Scout.” With its painterly touches and eerie glow, it’s strange and dreamlike, and it gets immediately under your skin. As environmental artists and the curators of this year’s annual “The Art of Stewardship” show at RiverArts, Howard and I chose the theme “Listening to the Earth” to encourage artwork and poetry that, like Klinedinst’s, is inspired by paying close attention to the world around us. What we were looking for is the kind of honed awareness that germinates an open, honest understanding of our situation and responsibilities as part of the community of this earth.

Karen Klinedinst’s iPhoneography print “The Scout.

Does art have the power to effect change? It’s hard to forget an image like “The Scout.” It’s achingly beautiful, yet there’s death everywhere. Rotting vegetation and the skeletons of trees are part and parcel of this intricate and delicate environment. A marsh is a fertile place where fish and crabs spawn and egrets find abundant food, yet stay on high alert lest they, in turn, become dinner for an eagle or raccoon. The strength of Klinedinst’s image is that it takes in and reveals the wholeness of this place. The making of a powerful painting or a poem requires a journey into attentive awareness. It’s a fascinating and nourishing process not only for the artist but for viewers as well, if they, too, approach it with similar open, inquisitive mindfulness

Kate McGraw’s poem, “A Boy and his Dandelion,” may seem at first to be chiefly about a child’s sense of wonder at seeing the flower’s seeds fly into the air, but it’s much more. McGraw summons the thrust of the wind and the scents radiating from the boy’s warm body, skillfully pulling us into the physicality of the moment. She uses words to paint the gossamer, glinting fragility of the tufted seeds and the mystery of where they are going, complete with a hint of their procreative objective. The boy himself imagines them as paratroopers, bravely adventuring into unknown places, and with this, a tingle arises in the back of the mind. This is a primitive urge—to ascribe intention to inanimate objects, to think of them as having aspirations and emotions, in short, as having consciousness.

What leaps to mind is the beliefs of indigenous people in tree spirits, water spirits and the like. These are people who live intimately with the land, aware of its every mood and cycle and the intricacy of the relationships of its plants and animals. Like Klinedinst’s egret, they are wholly dependent on their environment. Far from being quaint and naïve, might their superstitions have a certain wisdom? If we think of animals and plants as having consciousness, however different from our own, we might pay more attention to the ways they live and how their interactions and well-being affect our own survival. Such an approach would develop empathy for species besides our own and encourage a developing understanding of the interdependence of all life on earth.

There’s a prickly sensation of taut vitality emanating from the antler forms in William Willis’s large painting. They feel alive and

Who’s Afraid of the Dark by William Willis

sentient. Behind them are half-hidden forms, perhaps an animal hide stretched to dry, a bowl, a doorway, an abstracted tree—layers of activity and history giving witness to Willis’s search to find vital force in his subject matter. There’s something almost scary about this painting which Willis acknowledges with the title “Who’s Afraid of the Dark.”

It’s actually quite unnerving to think that nature is alive and aware of us and that humans are by no means in control. Gary Irby succinctly calls up the creepy feeling of an animal watching from the shadows with the piercing eyes and bristling sticks of his sculpture “Nature’s Watching.” But even more powerfully, this work mischievously prods at the sense of guilt and looming doom that lurks in all of us in these days of runaway fossil fuel extraction, snowballing pollution and escalating climate change.

You might think that art and poetry about earth stewardship would tend to scold our profligate ways—or weep over them, but few of the works in this show could be classified as “protest art.” The closest are Irby’s “Nature’s Watching” and his ceramic pot with two talking heads conspicuously facing in opposite directions with the title “Discussing Selling our Environment.” Also in the running is Rebecca Clark’s “Oblivion” with its beach-goer blandly cocooned behind sunglasses and earbuds, oblivious to the devastations of storm and fire raging behind her.

Most of the show’s works are focused on exploring and celebrating the breadth of the subject: earth and its ecology. There are whales, domestic birds, wild birds, wild animals (deer, lions, elephants), insects, Eastern Shore waterscapes, and Antarctic ice. There is the vastness of huge clouded skies and the intimacy of a ladybug stalking aphids on a fragile flower.

Curiously, with the exception of Anita Kusick’s lush fields of flowers in “Gathering (Pike Farms – Conserved by Peconic Land Trust),” none of the works are about farming. Farmers are the principle stewards of land on the Eastern Shore, and it’s heartening to see more and more of them transitioning their land to organic from “conventional” farming (that is, planting Roundup-ready GMO crops managed with glyphosate and other chemicals). Likewise, it’s cheering to witness the widespread use of cover crops and forested shorelines to keep farm runoff out of waterways and to note the reintroduction of diverse crops and animal husbandry. Supported by a host of government programs, farmers are making a difference, as are hunters and organizations such as Ducks Unlimited that work to reestablish healthy habitats for wildlife.

“Nature’s Watching” by Gary Irby

In the call for submissions, we said “Art should bristle with energy and keep tugging at your thoughts.” It’s only when art has this kind of power to stimulate thought and encourage further investigation that it can trigger change for the better. The sense of childlike wonder that so many of these poems and artworks evoke is crucial in reshaping of our attitudes, and the edgy sense of danger in several of them acts as a much-needed spur to work for sustainable ways to live harmoniously with our earth.

If we fail in this, it’s serious. Life on earth will likely continue, though predications are that numerous species, including humans, will have disappeared and insects will be dominant. Quilter Christine Kamon chose to accompany her graceful “Dragonflies” with a quote from writer and artist Clive Barker that posits an idyllic future time when all traces of humans and our activities will be long gone and dragonflies and hummingbirds will flit in a golden afternoon. It’s a beautiful scene but one we’d like to postpone as long as possible.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

Recommended reading:
David Abram’s Becoming Animal
David Hinton’s Hunger Mountain
Andy Goldsworthy’s Time

Exhibition Dates: April 4 – 25
315 High Street, Suite 106
Chestertown, MD 21620 United States

Art Review: Joanne S. Scott at RiverArts by Mary McCoy

Visiting Joanne Scott’s show, Elements, at RiverArts is almost like visiting her studio. On view through February 25, it’s a chance to see what this accomplished Chestertown artist is working on currently, but you also get a fascinating taste of her work over the past five decades.

Half the show presents recent work, intriguingly mixed with an equal number of works dating back as far as 1965. It’s a teasing glimpse, kind of a half retrospective, of Scott’s fresh and engaging work, and it makes you wish you could see more.

Deeply influenced by her many years of living near the water, both in the Chesapeake region and on Maine’s Monhegan Island, Scott is primarily a landscape painter. She explores both open vistas and intimate views of the living world, always experimenting with color, composition and ways of capturing the mood of each moment. Throughout her work, there’s a sense of awe at the beauty and pure aliveness of the natural world.

“Orme’s Buy Boat,” watercolor 1972

The broad marsh flooded with light in “River Marsh,” an acrylic painting from 2017, hums with vitality as the billowing, heat-hazed trees beyond lean inward as if in conversation with two luminous white clouds. In her close-up paintings of flowers, such as “Eight Poppies” from 1985, each blossom is an individual, full of energy and character. The effect is even more so in her three new poppy watercolors painted in 2017 where each flower is animated with sketchy pencil lines and crisp washes in delicate shades of pink casually but succinctly defining their papery petals.

In work that is all about close observation, Scott explores how shadow sculpts the deck of a buy boat, how leaves spread out to catch sunlight, and how the weightlessness of a luminous moon underscores the quietude of the nocturnal earth below. Her work has always hovered between realism and abstraction. Sheets of ice around a boat dissolve into washy fields of textured color, while the clouds towering over a flat Eastern Shore landscape become a study of color and radiant energy.

Part of the pleasure of Scott’s work is that she celebrates the things we love so much about the outdoors. There’s a warm, familiar feeling about her water-rounded pebbles, graceful boats and rippling water. Without pretension or romanticizing, she paints them in a clear, forthright way.

But while her work may seem effortless, there’s a great deal of skill and planning behind it, and it’s fun to scout out her methods in the underlying sketches and the layers of brushstrokes describing shimmering light and water. Through decades as a working artist and teacher of drawing and painting, Scott has honed her process, and there’s a sense throughout this show that she revels in finding both bold and nuanced ways to convey her experience of each scene. Perhaps that’s why she included “Belfast Series #3 Study and Print” from 1986. It offers a fascinating look at how the study, a confident pencil sketch of light and shadow falling across a gabled house, served as a planning tool for the print, an inviting aquatint etching.

“Heron Point Look Out,” a watercolor from 2011, says a lot about her skill in conveying her deep affection for our watery landscapes. In this snow scene, she captured a grove of slim trees glimpsed in a slow, graceful dance as if mimicking the marshy creek below as it winds out to the river. Masterfully simplifying her forms, a few strokes of gray wash convey a distant riverside house and the merest suggestion of Chestertown bridge beyond.

“Heron Point Look Out,” watercolor, 2011

There’s something about the work of an elder artist that is spare and radiant—look at de Kooning’s late paintings or Matisse’s cut-outs. Scott, too, has found this uncomplicated simplicity, and it’s a pleasure to share in her appreciation as she reveals our familiar world in pencil and paint.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.


Spy Review: The Caprichos: Goya and Lombardo by Mary McCoy

In a burst of curatorial inspiration, the Academy Art Museum is presenting The Caprichos: Goya and Lombardo, on view through February 25. The exhibit not only inaugurates the Museum’s new Artist-in-Residence program with Brooklyn printmaker and sculptor Emily Lombardo but also offers the rare chance to see a complete set of “Los Caprichos” by the famed Spanish artist Francisco Goya.

Pointedly taking on the traditional role of apprentice to the master, Lombardo set herself the daunting task of creating a set of 80 etchings, “The Caprichos,” matched one-on-one with the 80 in Goya’s series. On loan from the Art Gallery of Ontario, “Los Caprichos” is a dark, acerbic commentary on the follies and depravities of Spanish society of Goya’s day. Late in the 18th century when most artists were busy pleasing their aristocratic patrons, Goya made the radical move of creating art as social commentary. The new genre, aimed at raising social awareness, smoldered along for a while, then from the 1960s onward spread like wildfire through all the arts.

In “Los Caprichos,” Goya explored every human foible from vanity and lust to abuse of power and the pitfalls of superstition. There are salacious bridegrooms and their avaricious brides, nannies terrorizing children with blood-curdling tales, vain and pretentious aristocrats, and strange animals and hobgoblins torturing people in their dreams.

Francisco de Goya, Fran[cis].co Goya y Lucientes, Pintor, Plate I from “Los Caprichos”, 1799, Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift of Joey and Toby Tanenbaum, 1999.
Emily Lombardo, Emily Lombardo Printer, Plate I from “The Caprichos,” 2013, Etching and aquatint, Academy Art Museum, 2016.

Lombardo’s version is equally as dark as she explores a dizzying variety of issues. Far from getting bogged down in this enormous task, she approached it as an opportunity to develop an extraordinary range of cultural and personal commentary. Basing her compositions more or less on Goya’s, she put a contemporary spin on some of the very same issues, including the cultural norms of marriage, child-rearing, fame, and politics (Trump appears three times). With others, she makes broader leaps referencing the ever-present dangers of long-range missiles and nuclear war, the aggrandizement of celebrities, the Ku Klux Klan, and specifics such as the use of animals in scientific experiments, the vacuous nature of the art market, and the politics of gender in restroom use.

Given that there are 160 etchings in the exhibit, each with its own caption, it takes quite a lot of work to view and digest this show, but the art is fascinating and highly entertaining. And it’s amusing (or telling) to realize partway into it that both artists are manipulating a favorite human pastime. By nature, we love to gossip and gripe about the failings of our fellow humans.

Francisco De Goya, Spanish, 1746–1828 Might not the pupil know more? Plate 37 from “Los Caprichos,” 1799, Art Gallery of Ontario, Gift of Joey and Toby Tanenbaum, 1999.
Emily Lombardo Does the pupil know more? Plate 37 from “The Caprichos,” Academy Art Museum, 2016.

We know perfectly well that gossiping is a bad habit, but these two artists turn this guilty pleasure on its ear with their unflinching cataloguing of the darkest and nastiest elements of human life. In the process, they force us to honestly confront the reality of human weakness.

It’s long been the role of the artist to step back and consider the human condition. Throughout the history of art, artists have sought to awaken understanding of it whether through celebrating the beauty and tragedies of life, the uplift of religious inspiration, or the complexity of human experience so compellingly revealed in such transcendent portraits as Rembrant’s paintings of his own face.

The Academy’s Artist-in-Residence program was designed as a time of concentrated “reflection, research, engagement and artistic production” free from the obligations and concerns of the artist’s everyday life. In awarding Lombardo this month-long opportunity, including the daily use of its printmaking studio, the Academy gave her the chance to focus her energies on her exploration of how art can shed light on the deep issues of the human condition. It was also a remarkable opportunity for visitors to get to know an engaged working artist both in her studio and through the printmaking workshops that she taught. In an era when artists are stereotyped as being aloof and disconnected, this kind of personal contact is especially valuable.

Almost as an antidote to the darkness of “The Caprichos,” Lombardo is also exhibiting “The Soothsayers,” a series of pale-hued, floating orbs spread across the walls and ceiling of the Museum’s atrium. Modeled on the 20-sided polyhedron that floats inside the familiar Magic 8 Ball toy used for divining the future at teenage sleepovers since the 1950s, these geometric orbs are made of folded marbled paper embossed with updated answers such as “Reset,” “Winter Is Coming,” “You Are Biased,” “You Are Needed,” and “The War Is Not Over.”

In these chaotic and discordant times, we could all use the wise advice of an oracle, but as none actually exists, we’d do well to follow Goya’s and Lombardo’s warnings. However we like to think of our time as enlightened, freed from racism, sexism and superstition, recent events prove that it may be every bit as corrupt, discriminatory, inequitable and fear-ridden as Goya’s more than two centuries ago.

Dark as both “Caprichos” are, both offer glimmers of hope. In Plate 43, where nightmare creatures taunt a sleeping figure, Goya’s caption reads, “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of their wonders.” In a culture which insists, as most cultures do, that it’s heretical to question the status quo, it’s actually the most important thing to do. Knowing full well that we can’t rely on oracles or on politicians, it’s vital to use the arts and every other means to question, hone awareness and cultivate clear and honest understanding. This process is the only thing that will keep history from continually repeating itself, that is, the only thing that will save us from ourselves.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.




Art Review: WarFront/HomeFront at the Kent County Arts Council Gallery

Silhouetted against a pinkish-red background, several doves perch on a rifle held high by a soldier’s arm. This poignant image is just one of many in “WarFront/HomeFront, Through the Eyes of Our Military” on view through December 3 at Kent County Arts Council. After languishing for years, the former Town Arts Building is open again and hosting a show that vividly celebrates the healing power of art.

Whether the glowing red background connotes blood and fiery violence or the radiant pink blush of sunrise, hope and love is not clear, and the tension behind this riddle tells the terrible truth that while war is waged to bring peace, peace never lasts.

“Birds over Peace,” Patrick Sargent (U. S. Air Force), screen-print on paper made from Walter Reed hospital scrubs, 13 ½ x 6 ½ inches, 2015

Created by Patrick Sargent, an Air Force veteran, at a workshop at Walter Reed National Military Center, “Birds over Peace” was screen-printed on paper made from worn-out scrubs from the hospital. Many of the show’s works were created in similar workshops, and many use handmade paper pulped from military uniforms by recovering soldiers in a powerful metaphor of transformation paralleling the soldiers’ transformative healing through making art.

“WarFront/HomeFront” is a heart-rending, provocative and soulfully beautiful exhibit drawn from the 600 works in the ART/ifacts Collection of The Arts & The Military, a grassroots organization that actively engages wounded veterans in the arts. They are joined by drawings and paintings of wounded soldiers from the Joe Bonham Project by artists from the Society of Illustrators and the International Society of War Artists.

Little boys love to play with toy soldiers, but the melted and mutilated toy soldiers scattered across Malachi Muncy’s “To Play Army” will never be played with again. The words scrawled across the paper pulp painting where they are imbedded blurt out a painful message that recurs throughout this show, “I Didn’t Know What It Meant To Play Army.”

“To Play Army,” Malachi Muncy (U. S. Army), pulp panting and ink with toy Army men embedded in paper made from pulped military uniforms, 11 x 17 inches, 2013

Military service was romanticized when Muncy was growing up as an Army brat, and like many young people with limited prospects, whether white, black, Latino or Native American, he chose the military as a way to obtain training and education. After two deployments to Iraq and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, he has turned to art, as well as other therapies, for healing.

Art engages experience on many levels. The viscous feeling of clay between the fingers and the sweep of an arm brushing color across a piece of paper are strongly physical. The artworks these actions create stimulate both eyes and brain in a process that probes memory and belief, digesting experience and feeling in order to work toward understanding.

Chosen by Guest Curator Tara Tappert, Executive Director of The Arts & The Military, and KCAC Co-Executive Director John Schratwieser, the exhibit includes paintings, drawings, ceramics, poetry, found object art, and many handmade paper works created from old uniforms. It’s a show in which art has a double mission, serving both as a therapeutic process and as a compelling advocacy tool teaching visitors about the inward experiences of individuals in the military.

It’s in some of the Joe Bonham Project drawings that personal stories come to life with intensely affecting strength. Civilian illustrator Jeffery Fisher’s watercolor “A Fitful Sleep” is a powerful image of a wounded soldier, arm bandaged, sheets pulled into sweeping diagonals, grimacing face turned away. The sense of aloneness in his nightmarish physical and mental pain is palpable.

“A Fitful Sleep,” Jeffrey Fisher (Civilian), watercolor and graphite on paper, 27 ½ x 18 inches, 2012

Through the process of creating, these wounded soldiers are able to discover ways to examine and express their wartime experiences in a safe and nourishing atmosphere. In one of the exhibit’s most inspired works, visitors may do the same. Across the gallery’s double windows hang several pairs of combat boots. These regulation boots have obviously been worn—despite the mandatory spit shine, they are scuffed and creased, each by an individual soldier. (No one wears a pair of boots in the same way as anyone else, as Van Gogh’s paintings attest.) Visitors are invited to write wishes, prayers or stories on paper provided and put them into the boots. Just a few days into the show, they were already brimming with handwritten notes which, at the end of the show, will be added to those collected from previous exhibits of the ART/ifacts Collection.

Interaction is crucial to the process of art, as it is to the process of healing. Wounded veterans worked together to pulp old uniforms into paper, to pose for drawings, and to organize workshops. It took great courage for them to open up through art to work on their own healing, and it takes courage to experience this show, but do it. You’ll be richer for the experience.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

Art Review: Review: Julie Wills at the Kohl by Mary McCoy

Wishes are weightless, ephemeral things, however urgent and heartfelt. We know perfectly well that they won’t get us anywhere, yet we still make a wish when we blow out our birthday candles or see the first star come out at night. In her exhibit, “Wishes Are Horses,” on view at Washington College’s Kohl Gallery through October 22, Julie Wills deftly shifts the gloomy phrase “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride” to hopefulness with a simple change of verb.

Julie Wills, “Untitled (for Felix González-Torres and all other lovers),” driftwood, found coins & domestic debris, party lights, birthday candles, matchsticks, ribbon, cloth, tobacco & twine on linen-covered supports, 54″ x 77″ x 11

The first thing you see at the exhibit’s entrance is a magical horse made of a piece of driftwood heaped with tobacco bundles and a string of lights called “Untitled (for Felix González-Torres and all other lovers).” Burnt matches and birthday candles provisionally stand in for its ears and mane along with a few coins and washers hammered into the weathered wood. It’s a kind of roundup of talismans ranging from ancient Greek to Native American, underscored by the words “wishing on every thing in sight” etched onto some of the lighted bulbs.

This sympathetic nod to the irrational urge to wish sets the stage for a deeply personal look at human yearnings so tender that we tend to keep them secret and unspoken. Like many artists before her, including González-Torres with his bare light bulbs evoking festivity, inspiration, revelation and impermanence, Wills uses the symbolic and associative power of found objects to summon up sensations and snippets of memory. Again and again, her choices of basic, no-frills materials familiar from earliest childhood trigger curiosity and rouse thoughts of how we might see things a little differently.

Julie Wills, “Zodiac (book of hours),” sandpaper and pencil on Stonehenge drawing paper, 22″ x 22″glacial pace of the changes we desire most dearly

Mounted on an old shipping palette spray-painted black, a spherical lightbulb stands in for the moon and a severed bird’s wing calls freedom and flight to mind. Wills often layers bits of text into her works, and around the bulb are a few words about the act of soaring. A feeling of beauty and uplift arises but it’s an odd sensation given that it’s stirred by a slightly disheveled bit of feathers and bone and a lightbulb unabashedly trailing its power cord. How the flagrant homeliness of this sculpture creates such magic is a puzzle, not unlike a Zen koan, and it has the same illogical effect of opening a previously unknown part of one’s mind.

Many of the show’s works are about the stars and how we like to gaze at these bright pinpricks hovering in the infinite sky and how we like to wish on them. The night sky is a place of dreaming, of possibilities, of the ancient stories playing out with the seasonal shifting of the stars overhead. But Wills brings it down to earth in funny, childlike ways. The dark, circular skies flecked with tiny stars appearing throughout the exhibit turn out, on closer inspection, to be nothing but worn black sandpaper. It has a gritty texture. It’s very physical. It’s nothing like the untouchable, unreachable midnight sky.

Magical thinking is what’s behind this show, but it’s very self-aware magical thinking. Wills is not concerned with seducing the eye with beautiful or inspiring images but with conjuring understanding from bits of the mundane world we inhabit day after day. Musing on these works, the feeling arises that the mechanisms of understanding life derive from living itself but that it takes a very pointed awareness to sort them out.

Do wishes work? Wills’s optimism about the answer shows in a horizontal row of lightbulbs etched with the words “The world tells me I’m darkness but I know I am light.” Confidence begets the power to act. It’s personal conviction channeled with focus and energy that keeps us wishing and working to make our wishes come true.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.


Mid-Shore Art Review: “frag-men-ta-tion” by Mary McCoy


Perhaps the most fundamental error of our times is our habit of seeing the world as a collection of unrelated phenomena. On view at Massoni Art through October 8, “frag-men-ta-tion” examines the anxiety so many of us are feeling in these unsettled times of divisive politics and failing ecosystems.

It’s a diverse show, but if there’s anything its eight artists (plus a few gallery artists) hold in common, it’s a profound awareness of the ongoing nature of change. Darlys Ewoldt’s patinated copper sculptures evoke dynamic swirls of energy, Shelley Robzen captures the fleeting gesture of a wave in pure white marble, and Catherine Kernan describes the complex interweavings of watery ripples and reflections. The dazzling array of facets angling across Kenneth Schiano’s abstractions seem caught in the act of constantly adjusting to one another’s presence, while both Grace Mitchell and Alessandra Manzotti conjure ever-shifting swaths of atmospheric light flooding surfaces scarred by weather and time.

There’s a thread of optimism running through this show that lies in the thought that when things fall apart, possibilities open for reassembling the fragments to form a new and better whole. Larry Schroth literally used fragments of his own work, cut up and collaged together into new compositions as the basis of his richly textured archival digital prints. For encaustic artist Karen Hubacher, the process was more painful. After a devastating studio fire, she retrieved beeswax tinged gray with ash and created worlds within worlds with layers of labyrinthine textures inspired by the mold that grew in the wreckage.

Grace Mitchell, “Mountain Meditation VII,” oil on panel, 30″ x 24″

But it’s the exquisite beauty of Grace Mitchell’s luminous landscapes that pulls most on the heartstrings and breeds a specific longing for the health of the earth. Each glowing panel is a reflection of earth’s own beauty. Composed of many, many ultra-thin glazes of paint that Mitchell repeatedly scraped, sanded, gouged, and daubed with casually descriptive strokes of paint, they radiate deep saturated color and an equally deep sense of the successive changes wrought by time. Creative and destructive forces are palpable in these paintings, with their visceral references to mist and rain, verdant growth and decomposition, plays of sunlight and darkness, and the injuries and scars that are part and parcel of life on earth.

Landscape painting has long shaped our collective view of the earth and its beauty. Both in the West, particularly in 19th-century Romanticism, and the East—think of ancient Chinese mountainscapes, this genre has defined the beauty and spiritual presence of the earth, water and sky, affirming how the complex interconnections of topography, light and atmosphere give rise to particular feelings from elation to foreboding.

In an era when nearly everything—from food, clothing and fuel to news and entertainment—is provided by multi-national corporations that draw on sources and influences too various to easily comprehend, it’s a great tragedy that we no longer recognize how all the elements of life are related across both the physical and spiritual realms.

Mitchell’s “Mountain Meditation” series underscores this shortcoming of vision. For millennia, mountains have been universally symbolic of ascent into sacred space. Inspired by 11th-century Chinese paintings of the Zhangjiaje mountains in the Hunan region, Mitchell painted a strangely vertical peak again and again in shifting guises of color, light and mist. It’s a place of bewitching beauty, yet it is weathered and scarred. Coming on the heels of her previous series of mountain paintings exploring the devastation left by the coal industry, Mitchell’s images of this peak are lovely but poignant. Whether by the hand of man or by the ravages of time, it is clear that it will ultimately be worn away and disappear.

The inevitability of change is a subject Mitchell has profoundly considered as the titles of two of her other series illustrate. “Solastalgia,” a term coined by the Australian philosopher, Glenn Albrecht, refers to a particular psychological distress suffered by those whose familiar environment has been dramatically changed or even lost, notably observable as more and more people are affected by our changing climate. The other term, “Epoquetude,” defines what Mitchell calls “an antidote” to the disquieting realization that we are destroying our environment and too many of its species, possibly including ourselves, by offering reassurance in the knowledge that the earth will ultimately survive us, as it has survived countless cataclysms in the distant past.

Change is the only certainty in life, and this show reminds us that what holds true within a painting or a sculpture also corresponds to the larger world—every element, large or small, affects all the others. By reordering these elements, even in subtle ways, we ultimately change the whole. Whether for better or for worse is an open question.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys the kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

Review: FABRICation at the Academy Art Museum By Mary McCoy

Take your time when you go to see FABRICation, on view through July 9 at the Academy Art Museum. If you don’t allow yourself to stand and look and enjoy getting thoroughly lost in the colorful, animated details of its large-scale fabric artworks, you’ll lose out on savoring their intricacy, vibrant energy and thoughtful ruminations.

Erin E. Castellan, “Window,” acrylic, latex paint, thread, fabric

The show’s co-curators, Reni Gower and Kristy Deetz, are both university professors steeped in the history and practices of art. Their work and the work of the show’s other five artists is directly informed by art history—from Western art’s tradition of realism to 20th-century explorations of abstraction and cultural commentary. But all of it has to do with fabric and how the slow, physical process of creating art is becoming almost an alien activity in our fast-paced digital world.

Virginia Derryberry conjures complex stories about identity and the stages of life’s passages in her enormous quilts in which she combines traditional quilting, embroidery and trapunto with drawing and found object art, in this case actual dresses painstakingly stitched in place.

For Rachel Hayes, abstract painting and minimalism were the point of departure for her large fabric constructions. Her quilt, “Making Modern,” stitched from colored rectangles of fabric and vinyl chosen for their varying amounts of transparency, is bold and eye-catching, and its nuances entice you into looking closer. This is one of her smaller pieces and it’s worth googling photos of her large, outdoor works to see how deftly she uses “feminine” fabrics on a monumental scale to explore how power and fragility may be joined in a potent balance.

The exhibit offers a wide range of approaches. Susan Iverson’s graphic abstractions hand-woven into richly-hued strips of wool hung side-by-side form a quiet meditation on the lush trees and warm sunlight around her secluded woodland home. In contrast to her careful craftsmanship and formal presentation, Natalie Smith’s mixed media “Future Future Garden” is loose and casual. An amiable study of the process of bridging abstraction with the materiality of found objects, its simple brushstrokes painted in gray and green on unstretched canvas form a grid of small crosses that suddenly dissolve into a web of string and bits of cloth mimicking the brushstrokes yet occupying real space.

Reni Gower, “Fragments Encircled,” mixed media

In “Relativity Veil #1,” Deetz makes mischief with the Western painting tradition of realistic illusion. From a distance, her two wood panels appear to be wrapped with crinkled fabric but close-up, the illusion disintegrates into dense networks of small brushstrokes. To rub in the joke, she left a rectangle of bare wood in the center of one panel and a tromp l’oeil painting reproducing the same woodgrain in the center of the other.

In two exuberant, candy-bright works, Gower takes the energy of Abstract-Expressionism, Color Field painting and Pop Art to extremes with overlapping strips of canvas, cheesecloth, nylon and aluminum screens, plastic and anti-slip rug pads thickly brushed, splashed and printed with brilliant shades of acrylic paint. Artists such as Hans Hoffman, Jackson Pollock, Kenneth Noland and Jasper Johns leap to mind but these pieces are veritable explosions of color and activity. So densely layered that their physical depth is almost sculptural, they offer a host of shifting perspectives. It’s fun to peer at them from different angles and see the changing relationships of the intricate, colorful details dancing across their variously solid and see-through layers of materials.

There’s a feminist aspect to this show in that all its artists are women and all work with fabric, but be advised, this is just a sub theme underlying and supporting the real thrust of the exhibit. Fully aware of the stigma, “women’s work,” historically attached to anything to do with cloth or sewing, these artists craftily play with concepts of the feminine as intuitive, nurturing and reflective in contrast to the cold rationality of our current technological culture. Their works are as large and bold as the work of the male artists who predominate in our museums, yet what they are communicating is not so much about gender and marginalization as about how art can be an antidote to the loss of our own humanity as we careen into constant immersion in the virtual world of digital technology.

Erin E. Castellan delights in the freedom she finds in saturating fabric with acrylic and latex paint highlighted with hand-stitching. Her two highly tactile works owe much to the accidental effects of the energetic gestures and free-flowing colors that the Abstract Expressionists reveled in, but to invite close and detailed observation, she augments the painterly patterns of drips and textures with dense patches of embroidery which pucker and pleat the cloth to hilarious effect.

The accompanying wall text reveals Castellan’s interest in “slow viewing,” a practice as essential to understanding and enjoying art as it is to life. In contrast with the passive states our various digital screens encourage, like the other artists in this show, her process of working is one of active experimentation and discovery. By being fully engaged with her physical materials and the effects they produce, she hones her awareness of how colors make us feel, about how certain shapes and gestures can reference landscape, human figures, physical sensation or emotion, and how art can take us into realms where it becomes possible to contemplate the complex relationships underlying the richness of human existence.


Art Review: “What’s Next?” at Kohl By Mary McCoy

In these uncertain times, can art make a difference? That’s the question looming over What’s Next?, a compelling show on view at Washington College’s Kohl Gallery through March 10. Each of its five artists is immersed in investigating one or more of the pressing issues of our times. Whether it’s the environment, race or the economy, the depth and emotional impact of their explorations will touch anyone who bothers to look or care about such things.

Ben Marcin Silver Run, MD, 2009 Archival pigment print 30 x 40 inches Ben Marcin appears courtesy of the C. Grimaldis Gallery

Ben Marcin Silver Run, MD, 2009
Archival pigment print 30 x 40 inches
Ben Marcin appears courtesy of the C. Grimaldis Gallery

Their topics and mediums are invigoratingly diverse, but what these artists have in common is passion and an eyes-wide-open approach to the subject matter. While the show explores a range of concerns, its dominant theme is race and ethnicity. The show’s two African-Americans, Washington artist Larry Cook and Christie Neptune of Brooklyn, NY, both take on the culturally-imposed strictures on black identity. Likewise, Colombian-born Carolina Mayorga, now a naturalized citizen living in Washington, explores the conflicting identities of personal heritage and immigrant status.

A scattering of lottery tickets and scratch-off cards littering a table and the floor in Cook’s “Black Economics,” succinctly conveys the pathos of the hope-against-hope lifestyle of millions of African-Americans deprived of educational and economic opportunities. Neptune’s deeply introspective video entitled “Pulling at My Labels,” follows her ritualized self-examination as she studies her own image with the aid of her camera and literally tears away labels printed with stereotyped designations. It’s a mesmerizing study of the process of deconstructing the self whose spare sets and rigorous investigation strikingly echo the Buddhist practice of stripping away the illusion of self.

There’s also something of a Zen koan in Mayorga’s video and performance, “Maid in the USA.” Those who attended the show’s opening reception were rewarded with her live performance, doubling a similar performance in a video screen on the wall. Both found Mayorga diligently sweeping the floor, her face bland and blank, a black X of tape across her mouth blocking her from speaking. But in bizarre contrast with this stereotyped image of the subservient Latino worker, she wore a brightly-colored traditional Colombian dancing dress, its long, full skirt sweeping lace-trimmed ruffles along in rhythm with her broom and revealing her as a beautiful, regal member of a rich and noble heritage. Like the irresolvable conflict presented in a koan, these two roles can’t rationally coexist. The tension of this dissonance coerces the mind to open, releasing a flood of insights into the cause and effect of cultural biases.

This kind of consciousness-raising is the whole point of issue-oriented art. It illuminates our current problems, acting less as a finger pointing blame than as a vehicle of awareness that challenges us to find intelligent solutions.

Carolina Mayorga Maid in the USA, 2012-17 Video and performance art

Carolina Mayorga
Maid in the USA, 2012-17
Video and performance art

Rachel Schmidt, a white artist, also from DC, credits saving her non-biodegradable trash for six months with making her more aware of her consumer habits. Neatly wrapped in photographs of manicured lawn grass or of an untouched primeval forest, large piles of this trash join a video and some conveniently-placed lawn chairs in her installation “Nostalgia Monument: Float Trip Edition.” “Float Trip” refers to the video projected on the wall in which small groups of partying people drift, beverages in hand, down a river in canoes and inflatables. Oblivious to their surroundings, the river that Schmidt has tellingly erased from the video, they seem not to engage with nature or even notice it and are content, even happy, to enjoy the scripted fun of their “recreational experience.” The “nostalgia” in Schmidt’s title refers to her conception of the work as a monument documenting and commemorating the enjoyment of nature for some future time when access to nature has become unavailable, however the effect of the video seemed, at least to this writer, more to spotlight our present-day consumerist view of nature as a kind of ever-sunny theme park.

Interestingly, the show’s one white man, Baltimore photographer Ben Marcin, straddles several issues, including race and environment, with his suite of photographs of distressed homes. You can read much of our country’s history in his four images. There’s a hobo shack in Baltimore built by a man put out on the streets by the 2008 crash, and a skinny, tall row house pocked with bullet holes stands alone on a desolate city lot, a representative of contemporary inner city decay. An empty house standing on a barren prairie tells of the 1930s Dust Bowl, one of our first environmental disasters, and an abandoned Eastern Shore farm house bears the scars of economic troubles going back at least to the depression following the Civil War but now betokening the modern-day challenges of changing agricultural systems and the pressure to develop land.

Less confrontational than the other artists, Marcin nonetheless inspires a nuanced consideration of the complex causes behind his houses’ decay. But whether subtle or passionately direct, each of these artists uses art to trigger thoughts and questions, and you can’t help but leave this exhibit more aware and awake.

Perhaps the most telling part of it all was observing people’s reactions to Mayorga’s live performance. Some briefly watched her sweeping before walking on, others stopped and stared seeming either amused or thoughtful, while still others, whether out of embarrassment or indifference, totally ignored her. By its very nature, performance art is in-your-face. Rather than hanging quietly on the wall or at least politely distancing itself to a theater stage, it occurs up close in real space and time. There’s a powerful metaphor in the reactions of gallery visitors to Mayorga’s performance for how we react to the issues at hand, particularly the political situation we’re now confronted with.

In their vigorous churning up of their concerns, these artists offer an earnest invitation not to ignore or joke about our current situation but to investigate, learn and address it head on. The show’s brave premise that art can make a difference parallels the increasingly urgent recognition that the only way to affect the changes we need to survive and prosper is for individual citizens of this country (and the world in general) to band together and as the T-shirt says, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”








Art Review: Nara Park—“Believe” at Kohl Gallery by Mary McCoy

Paradox is the foundation of Nara Park’s crumbling walls filling the Kohl Gallery. When you first walk in, it feels as if you are entering the disintegrating remains of an extensive sacred temple built of solid blocks of rose-colored marble. Jagged walls rise above human height blocking your view of the mysteries beyond only to tumble down to the floor in a confusion of rubble. The gaps in between offer enticing glimpses of what seems a mysterious labyrinthine structure.

But the coolness and weightiness of stone is absent. There’s none of mineral sparkle of polished marble, only a plasticky gleam. Solid stone is revealed as hollow boxes folded from sheets of plastic printed with a faux marble pattern. Manufactured as decorative packaging boxes, they simulate the beauty and elegance of the marble but have nothing of its weight, solidity and durability.

Park has purposefully conjured the presence of sacred space in this deeply experiential installation only to instantly undermine it. Its title, “I Was Here,” succinctly calls up the deeply human need to make a mark, to commemorate, to create something strong, stable and unchanging, but her materials infer that it’s a hollow wish.

Stone symbolizes stability and permanence. It’s the material of monuments, gravestones and temples of every faith. But while Park’s faux stone temple briefly summons its power, it’s all a charade, a fact underscored by a series of jokes. The brownish faux stone of the fallen rubble doesn’t match the blocks in the wall, and plastic tabs, the final adhesive fold holding each box together, are left visible here and there. As if that weren’t enough, the marble pattern of the blocks repeats over and over so that a darkish spot constantly reappears, making polka dots across entire walls.

“I Was Here,” Nara Park, plastic packaging boxes

“I Was Here,” Nara Park, plastic packaging boxes

Once the impression of weighty stone is left behind, the plastic itself holds a certain delight. Rigid but thin, it’s hollow inside and slightly translucent, so that the light passing through creates a pleasant glow. Thanks to today’s high-definition digital printing, the repeating photographic image of real marble lends the blocks a quality of nuanced natural loveliness. Park’s installation is beautiful but decidedly artificial, and that’s what gives it its dissonant potency.

Simulation is rife in contemporary culture. It has its merits (faux fur saves animals’ lives) and its faults (fake wood paneling can make for some very tacky architecture), but there’s the niggling worry that so much artificiality points to, even encourages, a surface understanding of life and a concurrent loss of insight into reality.

Park toys with this thought in three small wall sculptures made of bits of wood coated with stone-textured paint and layered like stone strata. These are more cerebral than “I Was Here” and seem to function primarily as intriguing studies into the curiously tactile effects of the textured paint and the rhythmic patterns of stone formation and erosion, perhaps in preparation for some future project.

The exhibit’s other smaller sculpture, “Believe,” is more thought provoking. Backed into a tight alcove, it’s a simulation of a wishing well, its sides built of more hollow blocks made from dark, faux stone wallpaper. The traditional round well is compressed into an ellipse and holds black aquarium sand instead of water. Still, there are coins lying in the sand—visitors have made wishes, and you are invited to do so, too.

“Believe,” Nara Park, wallpaper, aquarium sand, coins

“Believe,” Nara Park, wallpaper, aquarium sand, coins

The question arises (as it inevitably does even at real wishing wells) as to whether it really works. The inference is that perhaps it’s not the magic of natural stone and pure water welling up from the depths of the earth that causes wishes to come true, but the focused impulse for good things to happen. It’s an idea that fascinates Park, and she will collect the coins at the end of the show to donate to Easels and Arts, Supporting the Arts in Kent County Schools, effectively making some wishes, at least, come true.

It took Park eight days to install the thousands of blocks in “Believe” and “I Was Here,” and that doesn’t even touch on the amount of time it took for her to fold each box back in her studio in Washington, DC. That someone has gone to so much trouble to create artwork that will prick the visitor with curiosity and wonderings about the several threads of its provenance is noteworthy, in and of itself.

The blatant artifice of stacking plastic boxes to simulate a stone temple not only questions our deeply seated infatuation with our ability to manufacture simulations of nature and experience, it challenges the power of any object of human creation. To build a temple is to commemorate beliefs and culture and ultimately, ourselves. But every memorial will eventually crumble, a truth that Park emphasizes by the ruinous state of hers and the presence of thinner, gray blocks in its lowest strata, a subtle suggestion that the pink temple was a refurbishment of the remains of an earlier version.

The law of impermanence applies to everything in the physical world, from plastic to stone to the human body. Neither synthetic nor organic will ultimately endure. The final paradox is that Park’s hollow boxes aren’t empty—at least of meaning—and her wishing well may indeed be magical.

Informed by the hours of labor it took to create these works, the complex web of ideas she is pondering, and the reactions and understandings awakened in the visitors, it does seem they hold something ineffable. It’s the apprehension that belief itself has power. Just as when we believe we are happy, we will smile at others and spread our happiness, if we believe in power of art to stimulate insight, we are opening a door to let it in.

The exhibit continues through October 23 at the Kohl Gallery, located in Gibson Center for the Arts at Washington College. Hours are Wednesday through Friday 1:00 to 6:00 and Saturday and Sunday 11:00 to 4:00.

Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys the kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.

Art Review: Marcy Dunn Ramsey and Michael Kahn by Mary McCoy

There are two shows on view at Massoni Art through June 18 that interweave both on the gallery’s walls and in the mind’s eye. Full of playfulness and joy, the graceful silhouettes of marsh grasses and leafy aquatic plants caught in watery light are the subject of both Marcy Dunn Ramsey’s “Playing on the Edge” and Michael Kahn’s “just this.” There are a few broader views of tidal wetlands, sometimes with dry land in the distance, but most of their images are so close up that you feel you are practically part of the scene.

It’s a funny thing to see two artists—one a painter, one a photographer—exploring such similar ideas that their images look almost alike, at least at first glance. Ramsey’s “Shallows” and Kahn’s “Aquatic Plant Series 1” both present confusions of reeds and arrow-shaped leaves spiking up from the calm, shallow water where their reflections float above the bits of decaying reeds and leaves that lie ghostly beneath the water’s surface. One is a colorful oil painting, the other a subtly toned photograph, but both present intimate views of the abundant life that flourishes in the wetlands bordering our waterways.

Although the two didn’t conspire to create lookalike images, both are long-term Massoni artists and well aware of one another’s work. There’s no doubt that each has inspired the other, at least in terms of the formal aspects of subject matter and composition but both artists have their own unique voices.

Marcy Ramsey, “Shallows,” oil

Marcy Ramsey, “Shallows,” oil

Ramsey has been specializing in kayak-view perspectives of our local wetlands for many years. Her exuberant canvases filled edge to edge with colorful, dancing reeds and their watery reflections have been shown internationally and are familiar to anyone who follows art on the Eastern Shore.

Kahn, on the other hand, eschews color in favor of the luminous, infinitely subtle range of shades offered by toned silver gelatin photography. Internationally known for his stunning photographs of sailing vessels slicing through billowing waves, in his quieter moments, he, too, explores the intimate details of wetlands, those fragile, ever-changing thresholds between water and land.

Wetlands are essential to the health of the planet. The ecological significance of these fecund borderlines where water and land mingle can’t be overemphasized and thankfully is becoming much more widely appreciated. These two artists, along with many others, are helping to put the focus on the delicate beauty of these long overlooked places.

There’s a feeling of enchantment as you glance around the gallery and find yourself surrounded by shimmering water and stands of marsh grass. Both Kahn and Ramsey are fascinated by the rhythms and abstract qualities of the never-quite-vertical reeds and their reflections in rippling water, and both delight in capturing sunlight and the reflections of clouds on the water’s surface. It’s like being in the midst of a visual conversation about the meeting of water, sky and the earthy life cycle of plants as they grow, mature, die and return their nutrients to the fertile marsh.

True to the character of wetlands, everything in these works is in transition. Tides are moving in and out, light is shifting, and the grasses and leafy plants are changing with the seasons. These are joyful, playful images as both artists happily explore the distortions and calligraphic squiggles created by the reflections of grasses in rippling water and the comic dimples encircling stems emerging from the water. As animated as cartoon characters, these grasses reach and bend and gesticulate to one another. Kahn finds two groups of leafy plants and reeds seeming to carry on a discussion, while Ramsey captures reeds dancing together in sweeping curves and angles. The yielding gentleness of the tip of a reed slipping into the water in Kahn’s “Aquatic Plant Series 3” is echoed by the broken but still upright reeds in Ramsey’s “Threnody,” whose title refers to a lament or wailing song.

Still, the differences between these two artists’ works go beyond painting versus photography, chief among them being the contrast between Ramsey’s vivid, often surprising colors and Kahn’s silvery tones.

Michael Kahn, “Aquatic Plant Series 1,” toned silver gelatin photograph

Michael Kahn, “Aquatic Plant Series 1,” toned silver gelatin photograph

Kahn takes you into quiet, contemplative realms. Seeking out subtleties and radiance, he finds pure beauty in the collective gestures of reeds reaching skyward and such delicate details as droplets of water on leaves and sets them off against rising mists and the glow of an unseen sun. His images shimmer like molten silver and lean into transcendence and spirituality.

Ramsey, by contrast, is a mischief-maker. Marsh grasses, generally light green or beige in real life, show up in her paintings in wacky hues from bright orange to turquoise to maroon or even lime green. What looks like a realistic scene at a distance (note the almost photographic sheen of the water in “Shallow”) disintegrates close up into networks of lines and dabs of color hovering over strangely tilted, flat expanses of blue, aqua or green connoting water. Her canvases are as lively as illustrations in a storybook and equally as compelling.

While faithful to the beauty of these marshes, they are also filled with little jokes. Unlike the perfectly mirrored images in Kahn’s photographs, Ramsey’s don’t necessarily match what’s being reflected, and when they are distorted in rippling waves, their colors can turn into something resembling the stripes on a T-shirt. The realism of her paintings, if it can be called that, comes from her deep familiarity with marshes—the way their grasses grow and tangle, the way reflections play across the water. Within these parameters, she’s free to poke and prod and experiment with color, line, form, composition, with just as much abandon as any Abstract Expressionist.

The flavor of Ramsey’s and Kahn’s works may be very different, but the most significant thing they share is a sense of wonder as they explore the unique character of these places at particular moments in time. Poised tenuously on the threshold between land and water, these wetlands teem with vitality. You see things growing, flourishing, dying back, and decomposing—nature busily fulfilling its own potential. It’s a kind of affirmation of the rightness of the ongoing cycles of life that somehow puts our own lives into perspective.