NORTH ADAMS >> For some, the idea of drama in nature requires the participation of animals, but painter Joyce Zavorskas sees the movement of the land itself as a powerful passion play. Zavorskas documents what she perceives in her paintings of natural erosion in the beach areas of Cape Cod capturing geological vehicles for tales of survival.
"In April we had a 400 foot swathe of cliff totally collapse as if there was a big earthquake or something," Zavorskas said in an interview. "It collapsed onto the beach and rolled out onto the ocean, and it was just a jumble of different textures and colors, and growing things that were on top of the cliffs and now they were down at the bottom of the cliffs, and were trying to survive down in the sand, whereas before they had a nice growing environment up above."
That's exactly the kind of natural scene that inspires Zavorskas, who lives in Orleans and focuses her work on the National Seashore in Truro and Provincetown. A survey of Zavorskas' work, "Measure," is featured at Outside, a gallery at 10 Ashland St., where the exhibit opens Saturday and runs through Oct. 31.
For over a decade, she has devoted herself to capturing images of natural erosion in beach areas, which, for her, represent so much of the human struggle, and also are one way that nature uses randomness and destruction to create the kinds of textures and patterns that mesmerize her. Her fascination with the artistic implications of the phenomenon began well over a decade ago as she grappled with her own parents' mortality.
"I knew that they weren't going to be around much longer, but I wasn't conscious of that," she said. "I started to do imagery of trees and shrubs that were at the top of cliffs clinging to life, even though they were going to pitch over the edge any minute. They clung to life and were very optimistic, as if each day was a joy to behold. They had a wonderful, enduring spirit, so I began to appreciate the magnificence of the dunes. It was a refuge for my spirits as well as being a source of strength for me, spiritual strength. I looked at these dunes and they were survivors, so to speak."
Zavorskas says she had never noticed this drama unfolding before because she had spent so much time walking on top of the dunes. When she decided to walk down and look up, the changed perspective at the beach altered her artistic and philosophical one, as well.
"I realized the immensity of the dunes, and how fragile they were because of gravity, wind, and rain, and the rising seas," said Zavorskas.
That was in 2003 and her efforts to capture this landscape continue. As a child, Zavorskas, though born and raised in Weymouth, spent a lot of time on Cape Cod. Her grandfather fished and she had extended family there. Her summers spent on the Cape shaped her love of nature and also cemented the lifelong relationship she has had with the landscape there.
Zavorskas has painted since she was a child, and her earliest job, right after college, was in advertising illustration. She moonlighted during those years taking further art classes and pursing etchings and lithographs. The very things that drew her to those forms are exactly the same as what compels her to capture the erosion of the dunes.
"I didn't want to be specific anymore," Zavorskas said. "I wanted to be surprised and discover what would happen if I had a blank etching plate in front of me and just began to play with shapes and patterns. So even back then in the '80s, I was exploring different things that were random."
Zavorskas moved from the etching studio to pleine aire painting in order to get outside and away from the studio fumes, moving onto a printmaking, as well, with a stint in a Boston gallery where she melded her own ideas with the contemporary art she took in.
"I started to apply my paint very thickly in crusted layers, almost like looking at any familiar place over time," she said. "The layers of paint were like the layers of time passing. I felt it engaged the viewer more with the surface of the paintings, instead of being smooth, plain old paintings almost like a photograph. To me, I was almost trying to mimic the surfaces of the clay and sand and heath and heather and all the things I see in nature, I'm trying to emulate that with paint and a paintbrush."
Zavorskas says she scrutinizes the erosional landforms for rhythms and patterns that she connects with, always looking for compositions as she wanders in the dunes, just getting lost and taking hundreds of photos for future reference. The images that come out of her do more than capture the voice of the landscape, though. They express Zavorskas' voice as well, the final link between her and the landscape she has traversed her entire life.
"I'm a quiet reserved person, a typical Yankee," she said. "I don't ever say half of what I'm feeling, but when I paint, it all comes out. My paint brush talks for me."
IN THE GALLERIES
Who: Joyce Zavorskas
What: "Measures." Cape Cod shorescapes — oils, monotype prints, viscosity etchings
Where: Outside, 10 Ashland St., North Adams
When: Saturday through Oct. 31 (opening reception Saturday, 3-5 p.m.)
Hours: By appointment