The Portland Phoenix

Art Seen: ‘Witchgrass’ looks differently at nature

"Rose Hips and Chokecherry," colored pencil and acrylic on paper, 11 x 14 inches, 2021, by Hilary Irons. (Courtesy of the artist)

"Rose Hips and Chokecherry," colored pencil and acrylic on paper, 11 x 14 inches, 2021, by Hilary Irons, is part of "Witchgrass" at Speedwell Projects in Portland. (Courtesy of the artist)

Nobel Prize-winning poet Louise Glück’s poem “Witchgrass” lets Mother Nature speak for herself:

 “I was here first, /before you were here, before/you ever planted a garden. /And I will be here when only the sun and moon/ are left, and the sea, and the wide field.”

Glück’s defiant words in “Witchgrass” inspired the four-artist Speedwell Projects exhibition of the same name (through Oct. 30) at Woodfords Corner in Portland. The show features artists Josephine Chase, Karen Gelardi, Hilary Irons, and Juliet Karelsen. 

Josephine Chase "Passengers II"
“Passengers II,” acrylic on metal, 4 x 4 feet, 2019, by Josephine Chase. (Courtesy of the artist)

Most art in Maine past and present draws on the natural world, but the four artists in the “Witchgrass” show do not simply describe what they see in landscapes and still lifes. Rather they remake nature in response to their own ideas and perceptions of it, often drawing on craft traditions and needle arts.

Chase graduated from Maine College of Art & Design last year and is now in graduate school in Vermont. She draws on her Liberian-American heritage to transform domestic objects into edifying art. “Passengers I and II” are the doors of a Toyota Corolla that once belonged to an aunt and became a junker in her family’s yard until she resurrected it (along with an abandoned MG) and painted floral patterns that look like wallpaper and textile prints on them. My guess is that we may be hearing big things from Josephine Chase in a few years.

Gelardi writes, “Observational and invented nature drawings appear as surface patterning on fabric sculptures and become the subject as they are translated into appliquéd fabric banners, and subsequent works.” Her colorful hand-made ropes hang from the wall and coil on the floor, joined there by “components” that read like little fabric logs.

“French Knot Sunflower,” assorted fiber under glass dome, 12 inches high x 14 inches diameter, 2020. (Courtesy Kyle Dubay)

Irons, a co-founder of the artist-run Able Baker Contemporary gallery in Portland and now director of exhibitions at the University of New England, writes, “My practice is anchored in the tradition of finding transcendent meaning in the non-verbal language of observational drawing and painting.” Her colored pencil and acrylic on paper pieces have the magical presence of fantasies from children’s picture books; while Irons’ drawings and paintings of flora and fauna have the character of illustrations, they are imagination made manifest.

Karelsen says she “makes work that has magical and fantastical elements. Fabricated in fiber and man-made materials, the flowers, mosses, lichen and plants she creates allude to artificiality and human-created circumstances (global warming, the greenhouse effect, climate change) while at the same time they describe through brilliant colors and textures what is at stake.” Her hand-stitched and embroidered artificial flowers, whether displayed in vases or under glass domes, evoke the artifice that humans impose upon the natural world.

The beauty of “Witchgrass” is that, as the poet warns, humanity will not outlive nature. These fanciful objects will be left long after the bright minds and nimble fingers that created them have been stilled. Then they too will disappear.

“I don’t need your praise,” Glück concludes, speaking to the self-sufficiency of all that is wild.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.

“Drawing,” ink on fabric, thread, rope, size variable, 2017, by Karen Gelardi. (Courtesy of the artist)

“Witchgrass,” through Oct. 30 at Speedwell Projects, 630 Forest Ave., Portland, 207-805-1835,

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