The art that fills the “Glorious” Mutualism exhibit celebrates the interrelationships between plants, animals and humans. Curator Erika Lawlor Schmidt hoped that artists would explore the world of regenerative biodiversity that exists all around us. One is not disappointed when entering the generous exhibition space at Stone Valley Arts in Poultney’s historic Fox Hill building.
The entries run the gamut from painting, collage, printmaking, to sculpture and photography. Interpretations on the theme of “glorious mutualism,” itself a marvelously inventive phrase, are as varied as nature and humanity themselves.
Dale Lot’s “Talking Tree” greets the visitor with “Hello there!” and a list of all the ways that trees benefit humans. The painted tree, with exquisitely carved eyes, nose and lips, is like a character out of “Lord of the Rings,” with its own exhortation, ”Don’t cut me down!”
Eva Schmidt’s digital drawing print “Wisdom” also includes anthropomorphic trees — in this instance they resemble giant redwoods that dwarf the humans below them. All-seeing eyes, drawn from various animals, stare out from the trees, giving one the sense of nature possessing a deep wisdom.
Schmidt’s “A Walk in the Woods” sets the cross-section of a tree set against sepia tinted arches. Contemporary photos of forest habitat are collaged in. The central image of concentric tree rings forms a natural mandala, drawing the viewer inward and inviting a contemplation of time.
A tender photograph of “Virginia and Carly,” by Darlene Pyle, is a quintessential Vermont portrait. The human animal connection is vividly real as both the cow and young girl lean into each other, with eyes closed as if basking in the warmth of each other’s nearness.
Joan Curtis situates a figure in the midst of the natural world in her painting, “At One with Nature’s Wiles No. 3.” Curtis is a masterful colorist and the painting abounds in sculptural forms and textures. Her work portrays an imaginative, idyllic world portrayed with a freedom of line and imagery that enhances its magical quality.
Jill Burks and Erika Lawlor Schmidt use various printmaking techniques. Burks’ “Winter Garden” makes use of objects commonly found in nature, like twigs and berries. The artist makes a collagraphic plate by gluing these elements in place, then applying ink and creating a print. In the “Winter Garden” diptych, the view is like looking at landscape through a stained-glass window.
Lawler Schmidt’s works, on the other hand, are monotypes that employ a sophisticated use of oil-based ink and layered printmaking techniques. Her works, “Passage/Gravitational Attraction 2020” and “Rocks” that react to the draw of the moon, are dreamlike and illusionistic and emanate the artist’s deep feeling of “being in the presence of a connective yet unseeable life force that moves, shapes and holds us together.”
Hearkening back to a historical past, W. David Powell’s colorful digitally collaged prints, “Country Idyll” and “Harold in Italy,” seem to have an almost medieval quality while the third print, “By the Time I get to Phoenix” brings us unexpectedly into the present with a young woman in a bouffant dress carrying a huge egg on her back. One cannot help but wonder if she is carrying history in that egg.
Todd Bartel, a consummate collage artist, uses time-honored and experimental methods to create his intricate puzzle-piece creations. “Proportions and Table Manners” is a collection of vintage ephemera, with text and image. At the center, two figures reminiscent of Adam and Eve stand below an apocalyptic scene of a volcano and tree with a lightning bolt cutting nature in half. Close examination of bits of printed historic texts speak of symbiosis, commensalism, antibiosis, parasites, all allusions to the ways humans and nature interact. There is a sense of journey in the piece, as if humans are always on a journey back to origin.
A second Bartel collage, “Glorious Mutualism, Asymmetrical yet Reciprocal — 21st-Century Commensalism,” features two main images. On the left, a man is attempting to cut a huge tree into pieces with a hand ax. There is an arboreal infusion of oxygen moving from the tree into a huge disembodied arm, also tree-like in form. Bartel’s questing intelligence, love of history, skill, and concern for the present offer work that is deeply reflective and thought provoking.
“Quell,” a fabric collage by Janie Cohen, involves a collaboration with an anonymous artist, and with mice! Employing her wry sense of humor, Cohen takes an inherited old Bread and Puppet screen print on fabric, by a now-anonymous artist, and gives it new life. The print shows a person on a ladder attempting to extinguish the flames from a burning house. Cohen then hand-stitched the mouse-eaten top left corner to a backing, so that the flame imagery is enhanced in an uncanny way. She states that “this is a gift from the little rodents who share this beautiful piece of Vermont” with her.
An aerial sculpture, “Murmuration,” by Ruth Hamilton, hangs dramatically in the clean white space of the gallery. The myriad flock of hand-cut, sewn, stuffed and painted black birds soars overhead, reminding us of the magical experience of seeing the synchronous flight of birds flying south in the fall. Hamilton speaks to the innate sensitivity and tuning between the birds and sees them as a symbol for the kind of cooperation that the human species so desperately needs in the present moment.
Liz Schafer’s “Entanglements,” an assemblage of a deep red heart in a barnboard box, reminds us of what is absolutely key. In fact, a key sits prominently at the center of the heart. Its obvious presence is a clue. Shafer suggests in her statement that if we can unravel our conflict with control and vulnerability, we might realize that what we have been seeking has been here all along. If we can just open our hearts to the gifts that nature so freely offers, we might be able to rejoice more fully in the wonder of the glorious mutualism that inherently exists.
Disclaimer: B. Amore, artist and writer, is also included in the exhibit.