Category Archives: Michigan Artist

Thinking with Animals

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Reintroduction II (Grey Wolf) by Emily White

Animals. They share our beds, our homes, our back yards.  We love them, as friends and as dinner.  And in some ways our relationship with them reflects a confused and self-contradictory understanding of our place in nature, a place that is being reassessed in the early 21st century as we confront climate change, animal cruelty and mass extinction.

Our fraught  relationship with animals forms the premise of Thinking with Animals, a thoughtful collection of  exquisite artworks currently on view at River House Arts in Toledo. Artists Jessica Tenbusch and Morgan Barrie have curated this exceptionally beautiful show, and share the gallery walls with the work of fellow artists  Julie Bahn, Emily White and Breanne Sherwood.

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Artifacts/Ecofacts (detail) by Jessica Tenbusch

Jessica Tenbusch employs silver and bronze casts of natural objects such as animal bones, insect exoskeletons and bits of plants in dialog with highly refined manmade materials to create a series of lapidary landscapes displayed in a grid pattern.  The overall effect is one of beauty and order that invites close looking.  Each single component of her piece Artifacts/Ecofacts is a complete work of art but together they constitute a world of minute perception.

Morgan Barrie’s two large photo collages riff humorously on the well known Netherlandish Unicorn in Captivity  tapestry owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She adapts the decorative plants from the original tapestry by introducing  plants native to the upper Midwest, such as purple coneflowers, black-eyed susans and joe pye weed, digitally collaged on a dark background. nature-9-dogIn the center of the composition formerly occupied by the mythical unicorn are life-size domestic companion animals, the dog  and the cat, surrounded by what appears to be modern storm fencing of the type available at Lowe’s or Home Depot. The dog in Tapestry is a handsome boxer and, as it happens, her own family dog . Though chained, he seems to be comfortable in his confinement, while the feral-looking cat in Captivity lurks within the fence, scheming to  escape.

Fiber artist Breanne Sherwood is clearly in love with the substance of nature. She shows a particular  affinity for the decorative qualities of bird plumage in Relics of Santiam, embellishing  disembodied avian wings with carefully embroidered and appliqued threads and tulle. They retain their anatomical identity but the delicacy of the artist’s handling imparts reverence to these relics of departed creatures. Sherwood’s more ambitiously scaled One Yard, One Bird applies human organization and emotional tenderness to a fatal event.

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One Yard, One Bird by Breanne Sherwood

The intimidatingly-sized and accomplished paintings of wild animals native to North America  in Emily White’s two artworks Reintroduction II (Grey Wolf) and Velvet (a truly disturbing  life-size rendering of a moose shedding the velvet  skin of its antlers)  dominate the gallery.  They  look as if they could easily grace the walls of a natural history museum.  The landscapes in which the animals stand are surrounded by highly finished birch plywood, framing the wilderness in civilization. Easily missed in the paintings are the artist’s sly additions of human technology into the natural environment.

Julie Bahn’s work is the most directly political of the group.  She addresses human consumption of animals for food  and consumerism in One Hundred Twenty Eight Days of Protein.  A silver plate is piled high with the broken bones of consumed animals, embellished and be-dazzled by Swarovski crystals, ready to be re-cycled and re-consumed as art.  Her soft sculpture Hug Me, is a tantalizing visual enigma. The large vinyl fish with strangely human eyes hangs limply from the gallery ceiling, a glittering tag around its neck, inviting us to engage with it as a fellow creature, not just as dinner.

Artists, always the shock troops of changing cultural attitudes, are thinking hard about the way forward in our relationship with nature, and in the process creating art that resonates, questions and inspires with its beauty. The work in Thinking With Animals ably addresses the complexity and ambivalence of our evolving thoughts about animals, humans and our place in the environment.  

For more about Thinking with Animals and River House Arts, go here .  If you’d like to read more about animals and art, go here.

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One Hundred and Twenty Eight Days of Protein by Julie Bahn
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Leslie Sobel

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Lake Michigan Deep Blues by Leslie Sobel at WSG Gallery

Artist Leslie Sobel both loves nature and fears for it.  An avid hiker and outdoorswoman,  Sobel’s encaustic paintings, monoprints  and three dimensional  assemblage celebrate the mystery and majesty of nature while describing the effects of human-caused climate change. They are often based on personal observation of the landscape but can also be inspired by online aerial images of glaciers or maps of open territory at the poles.  One of Sobel’s great ambitions is to see the lands of the far north and Antarctica before they are forever changed by global warming.  “I am affected by solastalgia,” she says.  Sobel describes solastalgia as “nostalgia for a place one has never been and that is no longer there.”

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Spring Rain II

Three of Leslie Sobel’s encaustic paintings are on view now in Ann Arbor at WSG Gallery, as part of their 16+16 members invitational show, on  view until February 4.  All 3 works in the exhibit relate to a single transcendent moment Sobel experienced while hiking at the crest of the Sleeping Bear Dunes.  She and her companion were alone, a rare occurrence.  As she looked out over the brooding seascape of Lake Michigan and the clouds rolling above, Sobel had a profound sense of the small and temporary nature of human existence in the face of nature.  These somber thoughts inspired the creation of several encaustic paintings  which feature only the stormy sky and Lake Michigan,  separated by a distant horizon.

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Row of Pines by Leslie Sobel

In addition to these private meditations, Sobel does public commissioned artworks, most recently her downtown PowerArt Box. Based on her painting “Row of Pines”, it is one of several selected by online popular vote through Ann Arbor  Arts Alliance’s PowerArt Project.  The aim of the program is to install  reproductions of works  by Washtenaw County artists on power boxes throughout the city in order to add visual interest to the streetscape and to discourage tagging on utility boxes.  Phases 1 and 2 have been completed and now Phase 3 is in the planning stages.  The Arts Alliance is actively soliciting sponsors for individual power boxes. For more information go here.

Sobel’s interest in the natural environment has also led to her participation in numerous artist-in-residence programs in national parks, where she is often paired with scientists and naturalists working there.  She recounts with special pleasure a recent residency in Colorado’s  Canyon of the Nations National Monument, where she worked alongside archeologists, biologists, anthropologists and geologists.  “I was surprise how much these ruins tied in with my interest in climate change–the people who lived here didn’t die. They had to move because they had depleted and degraded  the local natural resources. When archeologists searched the middens (trash heaps) of the abandoned settlements, they found that earlier ones held the remains of deer and antelope, while the later ones had the bones of chipmunks and mice.”   In the later middens. they also encountered human remains showing signs of cannibalism, a grim reminder of true scarcity that led to their departure for points further to the southwest where it is believed  they  became the Hopi nation.

 

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Climate Change Game

 

In at least a partial fulfillment of her dream to see the far north and south latitudes before they are changed forever, Sobel is planning  an extended visit to the Yukon in 2017.  She will camp and create in Kluane National Park at the invitation of scientist and researcher Seth Campbell of the University of Maine. Like so many worthy projects, this is an unfunded labor of love; Sobel will be soliciting funds for the trip soon in a GoFundMe campaign. For more information about Leslie Sobel, go here.

Cathy Jacobs

Cathy Jacobs doesn’t remember not being an artist.  As a child she sat at the vanity of her upstairs bedroom drawing obsessively for hours.

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Starry Sky by Cathy Jacobs

“I was always drawing from the time I was 3 or 4.  When I was 7 or so, I thought I can be an artist! I had a vision of a sort of Salvador Dali character in a beret and a pencil mustache.”

In fact, she remembers dressing up as the surrealist master for Halloween one year.  This seemed perfectly natural to her, since art was a man’s world at the time.

“I always thought I’d grow up to be a man” she says, laughing.

The image Starry Sky that was chosen for the PowerArt Project box now installed at Miller and Main in Ann Arbor, comes directly from her childhood memories. She vividly recalls  looking out of her bedroom window at the night sky and the  houses in her Ferndale neighborhood. “I didn’t like that they were so uniform, so I invented columns and balconies for them in my mind,” she says.

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Interface by Cathy Jacobs, 2012

Jacobs’ interest in painting and drawing  was a constant throughout her childhood and adolescence and was followed by college art studies. She studied painting at Wayne State University where she earned a B.F.A. and continued at Eastern Michigan University where she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Painting degree in 2015.

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Breakfast of Champions by Cathy Jacobs, 2010

Jacobs’s paintings from this period are figurative and show a strong interest in fantasy and storytelling. Fairytale archetypes and mysterious situations, puppets, dolls and queens populate her pictures. They have the quality of half-remembered dreams, fascinating and just out of reach.

Her work at this time was well composed and expertly painted, but Jacobs felt dissatisfied. She wanted the color, translucency and light in her paintings to escape from the picture plane and from narrative imagery. She experimented with various sheer or translucent materials–metal screen, gauzy silk and the like–collaged onto her paintings. The  kind of lightness and atmosphere that she wanted  seemed impossible to achieve with the media at hand.

But then, in 2014, Cathy Jacobs discovered weaving. Finally, this new medium allowed her to escape the painted canvas and the drawn image.

“It immediately took hold of my imagination. Through weaving, I found that I could express the full spectrum of colors and moods, but in real 3-dimensional space…I learned weaving and all of a sudden all the things I was thinking about in my paintings, the depth you would get through layers of color and translucency, I found I could get in 3 dimensions.”

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Portal by Cathy Jacobs, 3 views, handwoven linen, aluminum screen, mirror, metal hangers

Cathy Jacobs sees the way before her clearly now. “My current focus is in weaving panels of linen that, when layered together create vibrating fields of color.”  She has already had some success, exhibiting  her woven panels at Sofa Chicago 2015 on Navy Pier, and in the 2016 Architectural Digest Design Show in New York City.  This fall, her work will be featured in  World of Threads in Ontario, Canada.

Jacobs enjoys both  the process of weaving and  “the sense of finality and completion that comes when I finish a piece.“  She seems to have found the means and medium to bring to the real world the contents of her imagination. Every working artist knows that this clarity is a temporary thing in a long creative life.  Cathy Jacobs is a young artist and the future may see changes in her art practice,   but for now  she is happy in her woven world.

“It feels like a really good fit, ” she says, smiling.