Jim Nawara @ WSU Art Department Gallery

PHENOMENA IN LANDSCAPE: Paintings, Prints, Drawings, & Photographs 1969-2017

James Nawara, Professor Emeritus of Painting and Drawing at Wayne State University, PHENOMENA IN LANDSCAPE, Retrospective Exhibition, 2017 Image Courtesy of Lucille Nawara

The exhibition by Jim Nawara, now Professor Emeritus of Painting and Drawing at Wayne State University, spans forty-eight years and includes more than one hundred paintings, prints, drawings, and photographs. The exhibition begins with Nawara’s imaginary landscapes seen from an aerial viewpoint that were made in the seventies and eighties. Next, an engaging series of thirty-two black and white photographs (1969-1989) presents sometimes quirky subjects selected mostly from Detroit area urban landscapes. Some these compositions were influential sources for subsequent oil paintings and large watercolor paintings that Nawara has produced from 1990 up to the present. No longer seen from an aerial viewpoint, these representational landscapes are based upon observation and interpretation of actual sites that are carefully selected.

Nawara has stated that he often prefers depopulated, nondescript, or non-picturesque sources, “The subject does not need to be obviously beautiful, grand, or pristine. I once found the foundation of an abandoned house more intriguing than an idyllic nearby waterfall. A large globe light set in a library lawn below a harvest moon, the geometric pattern of a partially demolished Detroit factory, and the stark, nighttime shadows on snow covering a backyard garden all became painting subjects.”

James Nawara, Installation image, Early work, Image Courtesy of DAR 2017

In the earlier imaginary landscape subjects, the terrain was seen from a low-altitude aerial viewpoint. Although invented, these compositions evolved from actual landscapes viewed from commercial flights, light aircraft, a helicopter and once a hot air balloon flight, as well as the artist’s interests in geology, optical phenomena, and prehistory. At a distance, the work might suggest abstract color field painting, exemplified by abstract color field painters like Jules Olitski in the 1980’s. Upon closer observation, the details reveal a plausible landscape that provides illusions of crop growth, archeological sites, subtle patterns, rock formations, long cast shadows, with both actual and illusionistic textures. These works have a feel for abstraction, something that would be carried through in Jim Nawara’s later work.

James Nawara, Trace, acrylic on linen, 1973

As an undergraduate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Nawara studied under the mentor and famous photographer, Kenneth Josephson and also worked as a commercial photographer in Chicago. He went on to graduate school in painting at the University of Illinois, and studied photography there under another well-known photographer, Art Sinsabaugh.

James Nawara, Thirty- Two early Black & White 8 x 10″ Photographic Images

After completing his graduate degree in Illinois, Jim Nawara moved to Detroit to take a position as a drawing instructor at Wayne State University. His thirty-two photographs in this exhibition, most of which were taken in Detroit, have seldom been exhibited. He chose the rigor of always composing and printing the images full frame, un-cropped. The dates of these images overlap Nawara’s shift from aerial view subjects to landscapes based on ground-level views of actual sites. He was intrigued by the idea that an artist might be able to make art out of a “mundane” subject.

James Nawara, RESTEEL, oil on Linen, 1991

In the large industrial urban landscape, RESTEEL multiple layers of broken walls and windows of an abandoned factory draw the viewer into the painting. The foreground, mid-ground, and background all have their characteristics concerning light, shape, and color. It is an example of magical realism that presents an abstraction that is grounded in realism. In the foreground, the lower right brick structure plays off the left sheets of corrugated red metal, while the interior plays with a sliver of light. The imagery is divided into thirds both vertically and horizontally. It is a grid that provides us with a solitude that brings us back to multiple viewing. Each section of this oil painting is meticulously rendered, another reason viewers are compelled to take a long, hard look and become enveloped by this vestige of Detroit’s industry.

James Nawara, Blue Fence, oil on linen, 1999

In the small oil painting, Blue Fence, from 1999 is another example of Nawara’s strong composition, illusionistic space, and placement of color. He painted the blue fence, as well as a wedge of a red, white and blue sign on the far right in crisp detail. The fence, sign, shed walls, roof, and tree are carefully layered, like flats on a stage. It is evident that placement of these compositional elements is like an abstract collage.

James Nawara, Night Garden, Watercolor, 2007

Nawara’s Night Garden demonstrates a high level of technical facility with the watercolor medium. He poetically creates the stillness of fallen snow in his wife’s vegetable garden, illuminated by a strong floodlight on the back of their studio.

Working from a photograph, Nawara translated the textured snow with granulated watercolor washes, particularly as seen in the snowdrifts and snow-covered birdbath. This was an ephemeral subject, as all the snow melted by dawn. The entire painting was done with just three granulating watercolors, Holbein Ultramarine Blue Deep, Daniel Smith Lunar Black, and Holbein Prussian Green.

James Nawara, RHOMBUS, 40 x 50, oil on linen, 2008

Nawara’s 2008 40” x 50” oil painting RHOMBUS was used on the announcement for this exhibition. A rhombus is a geometric term for a parallelogram, like the shape of a diamond on playing cards. The rhombus in this painting is formed by a broken branch and its reflection in a flooded young woodland. Nawara was intrigued by the shimmering soft focus of the water surface, and the reflections of trees appear softly blurred by breezes, while the actual branches were rendered in sharp focus. Magic realism is in full play with this abstract composition, far from anything a traditional landscape painter would contemplate. Jim Nawara was pleased when a former student described his exhibition as “dreamlike”.

I had an opportunity to ask the artist a few questions:

Ron Scott: The title of your exhibition is PHENOMENA IN LANDSCAPE. What are some examples and what do you mean by Phenomenon?

Jim Nawara: Anything that may be of visual interest that is happening or that has happened in the landscape; also the evidence, or traces of natural and human activity in the landscape.

RS:  When did the move from aerial imagery to horizon-based landscape take place and why?

JN: Actually, I made my first real drawings when I was about six years old and these were graphite pencil aerial view landscapes! This was after my first airline flight from Chicago to Minneapolis. My dad worked for Northwest Airlines, and he took my brother and me on a round trip to give my mom a one-day break. I was blown away by the views out the window and made drawings of what I saw as soon as I got home. Many years later I started drawing and painting aerial views again as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. Then after about twenty years, I moved away from aerial view landscapes in the late eighties. I felt that I had plowed the aerial view field thoroughly, and I wanted to move to other aspects of landscape.

RS: How much of the work is plein-air and how important is that process to the work?

JN: I have started a few paintings outdoors; but being a slow painter, I have never completed one outside. I found it stimulating, and I just kept seeing more and more information that I wanted to put into the painting! I use quick graphite sketches and photographs to define the compositions. I worked outside for two consecutive days on RESTEEL, the six-foot painting in this exhibition. Each day within two hours of my arrival the wind increased moderately, and the six-foot canvas turned into an uncontrollable sail pulling itself and me down the street!

RS: What role has photography played in your artwork? How is it used?

JN: My photography experience in and out of school has given me a good understanding of the differences between human vision and the way a camera records an image. This is crucial in understanding how to use a source photograph effectively for another medium.

RS: How would you describe the difference in oil on canvas work, and the works on paper? Is it more than scale? Is there something inherent in the media?

JN: Yes, oil and watercolor are just inherently different mediums with their characteristics and qualities. I enjoy both and often alternate between the two. The major difference is the fact that transparent watercolor dries rapidly and allows you to move forward quickly in a painting. However, you are very limited in removing color that has dried into the paper. Therefore, I have to plan out each watercolor several steps ahead. Oil paint allows you to move forward and back more easily, but each has its particular, wonderful charms.

RS: Which (living or dead) artist’s work are you most attracted to, and why?

JN: There are many wonderful artists who made excellent work. The first three that I immediately think of are Edwin Dickinson, Georgio Morandi, and (always) Johannes Vermeer. Check them out in books or online, but better yet, try to see some actual work in museums.

RS: What attracted you to these abandoned Midwest locations?

JN: I never select a site to paint because it is abandoned, though some are.   I primarily consider my paintings abstract organizations of shape, color, light, and space. The paintings are always interpretations filtered through time, memory and imagination, as well as the physical process of painting. I often choose urban landscapes, but when I select a natural subject, I am interested in the effects of human activity great and small on the landscape. These events may be grand, unimportant, profound, or peculiar. I want to engage the viewer and to express something that is ineffable. My watercolor painting Lock shows a mosquito-ridden abandoned canal lock in Ohio that provided enough visual interest for me to make a painting.

The work in this exhibition spans Jim Nawara’s forty-six-year career as a professor of drawing and painting at Wayne State University. Artists and colleagues that know Jim kid him about his “brief” resume, a reflection of his record as an active exhibitor participating in solo and small group shows as well as more than 250 international, national and regional group exhibitions, not to mention the public and private collections that house his work. In 2007 Nawara had an exhibition at the Muskegon Museum of art, Overviews & Afterlands, that exhibited 22 works of art where the curator remarks say, “His landscapes are without figures, yet notated with marks of human activity and man-made forms. They are based on observation but driven by invention. They reflect the passage of time: changing light and shadow, remnants of man-made forms, the layering of a medium during the creative process.”

Jim Nawara earned a B.F.A from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an M.F.A from the University of Illinois, Champaign

The exhibition continues through Friday, December 8th, 2017

Wayne State University Art Department Gallery

Hours: Tuesday – Thursday 10 AM – 6 PM, Friday 10AM- 7PM

Art Department Gallery, 150 Art Building,  5400 Reuther Mall,  Detroit, Michigan 48202

Frederic Edwin Church @ Detroit Institute of Arts

Church: A Painter’s Pilgrimage

Church: A Painter’s Pilgrimage, currently on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts, presents a dazzling selection of works made by one of America’s most well-known and successful Nineteenth Century painters. Frederic Edwin Church is best known for highly rendered visions of manifest destiny- expansive, breathtaking views of the American west and South America. Church traded mainly in paintings of virgin land- land untampered with by humans (the people who had made their homes in such landscapes for millennia are mostly absent from Church’s paintings, save as the odd bit of picturesque window dressing). Land that was considered the God-given right of Church’s audience, described by the DIA as “white, Protestant, American.” One thing that A Painter’s Pilgrimage makes clear- through an excellent guide of subtly pointed remarks provided by the DIA- is how much the romance of that Nineteenth Century American, white, Protestant narrative is still with us, buried deep in our cultural bedrock.

A Painter’s Pilgrimage showcases an unconventional body of work for Church- paintings made during a journey the artist took around the Middle East and the Mediterranean in the region then known as the Levant. Church rarely dealt with human history directly in his iconic American landscapes- in A Painter’s Pilgrimage, stately ruins and picturesque cityscapes layer over one another like condensed timelines of Western civilization’s cradles.

Frederic Church, Nature and Civilization, Sunrise in Syria, Oil on Canvas, 1874

Wandering the dimly lit galleries (necessary to protect the paintings) it’s difficult not to be swept away in the grandeur of Church’s vision- every single work is simply dazzling. Church was, first and foremost, a great painter. A devout Christian, he invested all his works with spiritually symbolic shifts in light, focus, and atmospheric cataclysm. His wildly billowing clouds, lurid red skies, and sublime scale speak to the greatness of his God’s creation. The visual rearrangement and condensing of human monuments that he engaged in while painting Middle Eastern landscapes speaks to the desires of the artist and his audience, who clearly felt a sense of ownership of this ancient landscape and how it ought to appear. The dreamy genre painting Al Ayn (The Fountain) combines various types of architecture from different places and eras to describe the arch of civilization’s rise and fall.

Frederic Church, The Fountain, Oil on Canvas, 1882

It also features human figures placed in the foreground, an unusual move for Church, but one that completes his romantic vision of the East. Al Ayn could be an illustration of the history of Orientalism- problematic as the image is, it’s so beautiful that one can’t help but be drawn in by it. This frisson persists throughout the show- how does one look at paintings that are so vested in the West’s destructive view of landscape and people, that are themselves posters for Colonialism, racism, manifest destiny, etc…. and yet are so intoxicatingly lovely?

Frederic Church, Erechtheum and The Parthenon Study, Oil on Paper, 1869-70

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives is the stunner in a galaxy of stunners. Just beginning to get over Church’s grand but achingly overdone visions of Classical architecture (his Parthenon is so painstakingly rendered and devoid of the freshness of his smaller, on-site studies, which are sprinkled throughout the galleries like shimmering dewdrops, that it quickly gets exhausting to look at) an encounter with Jerusalem renews the eyes and stops the breath. It’s clear that this was probably the most significant site in the Middle East for Church- the epicenter of the Holy Land.

Frederic Church, Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, Oil on Canvas, 1870

The painting is just what its title says- a view of the ancient walled city from atop the Mount of Olives, where twisted, gnarled trees reach toward the sky, symbolizing the suffering of Christ. The sublime distances roped into the view. The layers of light. The sunlit olive branches pulsating over the deep-shadowed valley. The pure, blinding light at the focal point- the Dome of the Rock at the city’s apex. Here, Church breaks atmospheric perspective- everything is far too sharply in focus for the distance, which increases the otherworldly feel of the view. The odd little comb of perfectly angled shadows of the row of columns to the right of the Dome. The dazzling tips of roiling storm clouds massing along the horizon- the vast, perfect lapis blue of the sky beyond. This is a genre painting that transcends genre- an enormous confection of kitsch that transcends its kitschiness. This is the paradox of Frederic Edwin Church- a painter with truly sublime vision and (for contemporary viewers) deeply problematic politics. That vision makes the seduction of those politics hard to resist. These paintings present a crystalline vision of my childhood daydreams of a vast, mythic, mysterious East. This strange familiarity suggests that Church’s vision- the vision of manifest destiny- is still with us. A Painter’s Pilgrimage is canny to that vision, and provides a great contextual, historical lesson in its making.

Frederic Edwin Church: A Painter’s Pilgrimage is on View at the Detroit Institute of Arts from October 22, 2017 through January 15, 2018

 

Joyce Koskenmaki @ CCC Arts Center’s Kerredge Gallery

Configurations, New Work by Joyce Koskenmaki at the Copper Country Community Arts Center’s Kerredge Gallery

Configurations, CCC Art Center’s Kerredge Gallery, Installation image photo of artist and director by Eric Munch. Photos of art courtesy of artist.

For many years, my wife and I have kept an eye out for the art work of Joyce Koskenmaki. Every time we pass through the town of Hancock Michigan on our return to our home in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula we stop at the Copper Country Community Arts Center hoping to see, among other artists, a new Koskenmaki drawing or painting. Her remarkable palette, finely constructed surfaces, eloquent drawing and moody allegorical sensibility never fail to translate the northern landscape into unique lyrical compositions.

During our last trip, we had the opportunity for a brief visit to her studio in an old Hancock elementary school building, as she was preparing her paintings for her exhibition, “Configurations, New Work by Joyce Koskenmaki,” at the Community Arts Center. Serenaded by what sounded like Sibelius sonata, roughly, but touchingly, performed somewhere in a distant classroom by music students, we found our way to her studio.

A little hindered by a recent fall and surgery she introduced us to her studio and new work and as we explored she told me a little about herself and the new work. After studying painting at the University of Iowa and a full career teaching art in a number colleges, including eight years at Kenyon College, she returned to her home in the Keweenaw to settle and make art. Being of Finnish descent Koskenmaki might find a particularly homey familiarity in the Finnish culture there in Hancock–many streets have Finnish names, Finlandia University is located there and even the Kaleva Café is named after the visionary Finnish Epic poem, The Kalevala—and the atmosphere of this northern town smacks of typical towns in Finland. Most importantly the enchanting landscape of the Keweenaw, albeit much of the forests were decimated by a hundred years of copper mining, inspire Koskenmaki’s dialogue with nature.

She explained that at the University of Iowa she worked in a mainly abstract expressionist style and her encyclopedic website has many extraordinary examples of her abstract sensibility as well as an array of figurative and abstract oil paintings, water colors and pencil drawings.

Joyce Koskenmaki, “Two Old Birches,” acrylic on panel, 20”X20”

Koskenmaki knows trees. Unlike most landscape artists who struggle with the seeming chaos of the forest, Koskenmaki knows the tree through the forest. She knows how to see the bush, its unique moments and its articulate statements, like only a northern forest woman can.

She clearly listens to them and knows their idiosyncrasies. She knows their moods and the relationship between them and in characterizing them she uses all of her talents. Her drawing of trees could be said to be anthropomorphic but that would minimize their stature. They are their own beings. Their complexion is composed of amazing tinctures of light and dark from a panoramic cosmetic kit. Her drawing explores with delicate sympathy their articulate lines and are composed of deft touches of the brush and the spaces between them carry a rich theatrical presence.

In the Kalevala, this great oral epic poem of the Finland, nature is an active drama, and its characters—ancient mythic characters, trees, plants, the sky, animals, the sea—play out the drama of the origins of the Finnish people. It is a passionate battle between poets, warriors, and lovers in the northern wilderness. In the past Koskenmaki has illustrated the Kalevala with great understanding and brings that vision to her characterization of trees in the new work.

Joyce Koskenmaki “Three old red pines,” watercolor, color pencil, casein, “18×24”

In her watercolor of three old red pines the complexion of the bark is saturated in deep reds and orange and the prickly, out-reaching branches explain the edgy, tentative relationships of that world. There is a passage in the Kalevala of dialogue of three pines that she may be illustrating but the watercolor itself does the job of creating an almost Shakespearean stage for them.

Joyce Koskenmaki, Joyce Koskenmaki, Two old birches, acrylic on panel, 20”x20” “The Heart,” pencil and color pencil, 8”x8”

Koskenmaki’s drawings of the birch tree perhaps more than the watercolors show an anthropomorphic indulgence in the representation of their bark being sutured together like so many parts of the human body. Her own and her husband’s recent surgeries have perhaps sensitized her to this perception of the fragility of nature itself. In fact, in many of the birch tree renderings there is a direct depiction of the interwoven twigs and branch system that correlates to the architecture of the human heart. In all of her work there is an omnipresent sense of her own being, her dramatic hand, in the making of her work.

There’s an active art scene in the Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula area with many interesting painters especially. The nearby town of Calumet has two galleries including former Detroiter Tom Rudd’s Galerie Boheme which shows Rudd’s smart sculptural work and his wife, Margo McCafferty’s fine architectural landscapes. In the past the Copper Country Community Center has shown many Detroit artists including “Driven: Motor City Art,” (2007), an exhibit curated by Rick Vian and Sue Carman Vian which included an amazing selection of 21 Detroit artists.

Joyce Koskenmaki and Kerredge Gallery Director Cynthia Cote

 

“Configurations: New Work by Joyce Koskenmaki” continues at the Kerredge Gallery through November 4, 2017.

 

 

A Family Affair @ Ellen Kayrod Gallery

Parish, Parish, Parish –  An exhibition of painting by Tom, Shirley, and Erin Parish

Installation image, Courtesy of Shelia Kniffin, 2017

In downtown Detroit, where Grand River Ave. meets and Griswold St. in the Zemco Textile building, circa 1977, Tom & Shirley Parish lived and painted in a loft on the 6th floor. They each had a studio, as did the young daughter, Erin who has just turned 12 years old. At the time, Detroit was going through some of its hardest times, making this kind of space affordable for artists but back then, the family had some concerns about safety. Fast forward thirty years, Tom Parish, Emeriti’s Professor of painting from Wayne State University now works in his studio in Southfield, as does retired art teacher Shirley Parish, and Erin Parish has just opened a one-person exhibition Meet Me Halfway at Art & Art Gallery, in Miami Florida. This will be her 32nd solo exhibition. These three artists from one family are presented together in the current Ellen Kayrod exhibition, Parish, Parish, Parish, in mid-town Detroit, connected by oil paint and an incredible sensibility of purpose to their paintings.

Erin Parish, Shirley Parish, Tom Parish, (left to right) Image Courtesy of Lucille Nawara

Erin Parish, after her undergraduate work at Bennington College and an MFA at Queens College, NY established herself as a Miami-based artist who paints fields of colorful abstract forms. Most recently these circular forms are activated through a vivid palette of repetition that evokes a sense of space, depth, and volume. The work is a combination of canvas, mixed media and, polyester resins that communicates contemplation as it draws the viewer into this new abstract experience.

Erin Parish, Auspicious Flying Dream, Oil on Canvas, 2008

She says in her statement, “Things, in my paintings as in life, are always in the process of becoming: the edge of things about to be, flux, impermanence, thawing, growth, and the change of the seasons. Spring was a most joyous time of year after a long white winter with low gray clouds and a little sun in my hometown of Detroit. This touches on the Buddhist insistence on impermanence and how this resonates with me.”

And in a recent book by Deepak Chopra, The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire, he captures an idea that resonates with her paintings, “At a deeper level, there is really no boundary between ourselves and everything else in the world… we are all constantly sharing portions of our energy fields, so all of us, at the quantum level, at the level of our minds and our “selves”, we are all connected.

Shirley Parish, Red Bird, Oil on Canvas, 2017

Shirley Parish, Egret, Oil on Canvas, 2017

Shirley Dombrowski Parish has been working with oil paint imagery for forty years and has exhibited extensively through out the Detroit Metro Area since the late 1970’s. This new work based on bird symbolism comes after a period that focused on cloud creations where she described that work for the Detroit Art Review, “The painting of the sky began after many years of studying landscape. I try to capture light and breeze. I am aware of the constant shifting of light reflection of the sky, the sunset, water. The light is forever changing. These paintings are perceptions of experience, a visual poetry.”

But in recent years these elongated bird creatures have provided the subject matter that brings representational ideas out of abstraction. The painterly surface, rich and controlled, provides a bookmark for her recent work. She describes her several summers of vacationing on Beaver Island as an influence on her interest in the bird motif. She says in her statement, “After studying birds for two years, I decided to give a new twist to the sky. Creating the paintings has been a great adventure. These works of large birds capture feeling that can only arise through the painting of birds. The consciousness of the bird has empowered my creativity, gathering information through the inner-self, manifested through conscious and subconscious intelligence.”

Tom Parish, Sogna, Oil on Canvas, 2017

In Detroit, the Ellen Kayrod Gallery has become a familiar space for artist Tom Parish to reveal new work. For nearly thirty years he as made a sojourn to Venice, Italy to capture the architectural compositions of water and light. His time in Venice is always spent on observation and capturing images photographically during a two-, sometimes three-week stay. The images are both inspiration and part informational in creating what I have called a magical realism.

In the work Sogna, the image is a salty worn section of architecture and swirling reflections of light on water combined with reflection-struck water in the turbulent canal. The underlying strength in Parish’s work is always compositional. Here we get a slice of sky and a corner of open sea with a building facade having exterior and interior space to ponder. Parish reaches back to everything he had experienced in his reading to his observations of Cezanne, combined with a lucid imagination, to form special longitudes of form and gentle reflections of light.

It took an American painter, Thomas Parish, from Hibbing, Minnesota, home to the musician Bob Dylan, to find the landscape in Venice, part of the shallow Venetian lagoon and an enclosed bay that lies between the mouths of the Po and the Piave Rivers. His Venetian landscapes expose the beauty of both, the architectural setting and swirls of reflective water that transcends a soft blend of magnitude and mystery.

Ellen Kayrod Gallery Parish, Parish, Parish –  on view until December 8, 2017

 

Susan Aaron-Taylor @ NCRC Gallery, Ann Arbor

Strata is Susan Aaron-Taylor’s work at the University of Michigan NCRC Connection Gallery

Susan Aaron-Taylor’s dynamic, charged sculptures, on view currently at NCRC Connection Gallery at the University of Michigan, confront the viewer like visitors from another world. Beginning with an image drawn from a dream or an astral journey (Aaron-Taylor is a student of Jungian psychology and shamanic practice) she curates a collection of challenging, specific materials into forms that utterly transcend craft. Aaron-Taylor’s sculptures are charged with an eerie liveliness- sharp, appraising eyes, extended claws, bared teeth, sensuous, bejeweled fur- and seem to exist in their own open-ended narratives, in which time assumes a dream-like quality, collapsed and overlapping. Susan Aaron-Taylor: Strata is a retrospective, encompassing different bodies of work that explore, from different perspectives, a channeling of massive power.

The studio where Aaron-Taylor nurses her visions into corporeal forms is a bright, warm space, part alchemical laboratory, part cabinet of natural curiosities. Leading me around her studio, Aaron-Taylor opens drawers, draws back curtains, pulls out boxes, revealing piles of glittering stones, cords of elegantly twisted wood, curls of birchbark, mounds of multicolored felt. Beginning with an armature of found wood, each form is carefully and lovingly built, of bones, shells, quills, beads, crystals, cacti, and a hand-stitched felt “pelt” into an incredibly powerful assemblage that seamlessly evokes a recognizable animal- cats, polar bears, water rats. These creatures feel both archetypal and individual. Each projects a state of emotional extremity that could vary from viewer to viewer- the half-reclined posture and exposed bones of “Guide,” for example, presents a puzzling paradox between title and content- power invested with touching vulnerability.

Susan Aaron-Taylor, Guide, Cholla Cactus, Shells, Handmade felt, Petrified Wood, Animal Skull, Banded Iron, 12 x 29 x 14″ All Images courtesy of Tim Thayer

Each clearly has a story to tell. Though they come from a very personal place, Aaron-Taylor is reluctant to reveal her own associations with her sculptures- she finds it more interesting to learn what they evoke for viewers. It is a tenet of Jungian psychoanalysis that each symbol that appears in a dream has a meaning unique to the dreamer.

The vivid blue dressing that surrounds “Water Rat” could be a ruffled skirt or a watery environment. The rat is depicted with her forelegs raised toward the sky in a gesture that could be read as despair or exaltation. The rat is clearly a mother- her body is studded with erect nipples tipped with shimmering beads. It’s an unusual combination of signs- lowly rodent and fertility goddess.

Susan Aaron-Taylor, Water Rat, 16 x 11 x 18″, Handmade Felt, Stones, and Stitching

The ladder that “Polar Bear” climbs straddles multiple worlds- it could represent a conduit to the shamanic upper world, or index a cage through which the defiant, porcupine quilled face of the creature snarls, depending upon the angle by which one views it. Either way, the being’s survival is uncertain. It’s elongated legs balance precariously on diminutive masses of ice that threaten to float apart in warming seas.

Susan Aaron-Taylor, Polar Bear, 19 x 17 x 13″, Wood, Handmade Felt, Geodes, Porcupine Quills, Cabochons, and Beads

“Tiger Teapot” adds yet another intriguing layer of imagery, being both a functioning teapot (it technically contains an inner chamber, lid and spout, though Aaron-Taylor points out that her teapots “can only really be used for a return to those childhood tea parties where what was being served was imagination and wonder.”) and a sly, enigmatically smiling creature mid-prowl.

Susan Aaron-Taylor, Tiger Teapot, 12 x 19 x 10″, Handmade Felt, Wood, Geodes, Cabochons, and Porcupine Quills

The tea service format ropes the ritual act, the gathering around vessels invested with fragrant brew, into the dream-symbol narrative Aaron-Taylor presents in tantalizingly vague, multifaceted flashes of insight. Expertly weaving the half-remembered visuals of dreams with iconic objects that resonate with ritual, Aaron-Taylor sets the stage for viewers to have their own experience of journey and revelation. With her incredible command of materials and craft and the profound, yet somehow light-hearted feel of her sculptures, she makes for a good guide.

Susan Aaron-Taylor: Strata is on view at Connections Gallery, North Campus, University of Michigan, from September 5 through December 12, 2017