“If science and facts are not enough to persuade some people that climate change is an existential threat, maybe storytelling and art will convince them,” says Carla Massoni, owner/director of MassoniArt in Chestertown. Although she didn’t say so initially, we both knew and later confirmed that President Trump is chief among the climate deniers she had in mind.
“As a birthday present to myself,” she says, adding, “My birthday is in September. I invited artists to come up with art of environmental consciousness. Climate change is of great concern to me. So, with the rainforest fires out of control in the Amazon and now Indonesia, I thought of trees as a focus. But I gave them a challenge to create art on that theme without images of trees. On ‘tree-ness,’ instead.”
Responses to her “Trees” challenge grace every wall, every corner of her High Street gallery. As you enter at street level, you’re greeted by Joe Karlik’s “Quiet Conversation” in his collage that incorporates a bird’s nest, music notes and images of Darwin and Christ. Sculpted birds by Susan Hostetler fly above, as they do at intervals throughout the show. At the top of the beautiful staircase by furniture-maker/artist Vicco von Voss, installed for the gallery, not just for this show, you can’t miss Heidi Fowler’s untitled quilt-like statement with pages of forestry-journal text ironically surrounding a cellphone tower with fake branches. Turning the corner into the first gallery upstairs, Lindsay Mullen’s Eden-ish “Cathedral of Light,” on a canvas the shape of a church window, reflects a brightly lit scene outside or perhaps ecologically inspired stained-glass. In her art statement, Mullen writes of trees, “Countless failed attempts to reach the divine leave scraggy remnants hanging as abstracted reminders, each becoming parts of the whole—gently paying homage to that same divine.”
Deborah Colter’s “Sage Advice” shows what can happen when we get it right in building structures for human enterprise. Green is well-preserved, while in two other abstracts we see what happens when we get it wrong—sterile environments with no human connection. Nearby, Patrick Henry depicts the devastation caused by careless development as logs from cleared land are left to rot in a marshy stream.
In the next gallery, photographer Anne Nielsen, introduces small black-and-white nudes in woodland settings culminating in “Parsons Creek Ghost Forest,” a large color shot of her muse amid a landscape of dead-by-drowning trees. It’s accompanied by Nielsen and Robert Ortiz’s “Memento Mori Box”—a nest, pinecone and other tree accessories nestled in a coffin. Katherine Cox’s series of graphite drawings beginning with “Raft Underbelly” suggest desperate means of escape from water swallowing the land. Meanwhile, Vanna Ramirez’s “Every Time the World Falls Apart” says it all with her forlorn clay sculpture of a broken-to-a-crawl environmental refugee.
In “Forest Story I and II” oils, Grace Mitchell evokes primordial melancholy in a doomed community of trees. The prize for meticulous artwork, if there were one, should go to Stu Cawley for his pen-and-ink “Orthopedic and Vascular Surgery” of a leaf detailing every vein of its flora anatomy. Spanning the back wall of the final gallery is Simma Liebman’s “Frottis Paraffine,” numbers 81-88, which she’d never seen before it was mounted at MassoniArt as her studio is too small to display all eight images of a snow-covered forest shot from a car driving past to create serial oil-and-wax images on photo transparencies. Voss’ “Water’s Edge,” in black walnut and cherry wood, suggests in its grain a placid stream with carved ripples popping up. Whether creating furniture or art, “It is my honor to listen to what the tree is speaking,” he writes.
The art-as-literature imagery in “Trees,” inspired by Massoni’s reading of Richard Powers’ “The Overstory” and Pulitzer winner Annie Proulx’s “Barkskins,” speak thousands upon thousands of words on the subject of our future on planet Earth. You can look at yourself in the mirror and see a yellow oak embroidering your face in Kenneth Schiano’s “If a Tree,” or you can peer into the sun without blinking through Eve Stockton’s “Woodland Skyscape” woodcut.
Where would we be without trees? Good luck finding oxygen to breathe.
The 30-plus artists in this insightful show, each making a unique contribution, are Katherine Cox, Grace Mitchell, Simma Liebman, Paula Shalan, Anne Nielsen, Robert Ortiz, Heidi Fowler, Lindsay Mullen, Lisa Lebofsky, Patrick Henry, Eve Stockton, Mark Gardner, Emily Kalwaitis, Stu Cawley, Deborah Colter, Linda Richards, Nicole Fall, Vanna Ramirez, Takashi Ichihara, Joe Dickey, Marcy Dunn Ramsey, Blake Conroy, Karen Hubacher, Michael Kahn, Alessandra Manzotti, Ken Schiano, Joe Karlik, Susan Hostetler, Vicco von Voss, Zemma Mastin White, Jeremy Newman and Allison Ciancibelli.
Steve Parks is a retired journalist, arts writer and editor now living in Easton.
Through Oct. 13, MassoniArt, 203 High St., Chestertown, 11 a.m.-4.p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 10 a.m-4 p.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays, Mondays-Wednesdays by appointment; October First Friday and closing reception, 5-7:30 p.m. Oct. 4
Admission free; 410-778-7330, massoniart.com