'Gardens of Delight' isn't just about splendor
SPENCERTOWN, N.Y. — In Otto Marseus van Schrieck's "Still-Life with Insects and Amphibians," the forest floor is in a state of upheaval. Snakes coil, bearing tongues and teeth. A mushroom explodes from the ground; another is toppled. Petals wave in the wind. And a butterfly veers away from the fray, like a bomber climbing abruptly after a drop.
For Great Barrington artist Stephanie Anderson, this 1662 oil-on-canvas and other centuries-old forest floor paintings are inspirations for her own contemporary creations. On a recent Thursday morning, she pulled a book from a shelf of her home studio, surveying some of these pieces.
"This is definitely the launching point for me," she said.
She was surrounded by several of her dozen floral drawings in "Gardens of Delight," a group show at the Spencertown Academy Arts Center that opens this weekend and runs on Saturdays and Sundays through June 16. The exhibit includes art by South Egremont-based artist Marilyn Orner as well as Amy Bergeron, Marianne Van Lent, Mary Ellen Riell, Laura Shore and Pamela Stoddart. The center's website says that the exhibition "depicts sumptuous, as well as playful garden imagery," but that description doesn't really capture Anderson's works. Like the other artists' pieces, Anderson's drawings stem from plant life, but her black-and-white art also pays homage to nature's wild side, its darkness.
"It's the same celebration [of nature], just a little creepier," she said, laughing.
The rampant activity in Anderson's works immediately conjures past forest floor painters. Her drawings are crowded, joining creatures and flowers in ornate but expansive depictions.
"I'm doing what they did: They took plants and animals and things and just stuck them together [where] they didn't necessarily belong," she said.
Distortion also helps. In "The Foragers," a graphite-on-clayboard piece, birds with enlarged air sacs and scaly wings hover over sunflowers.
"Whenever I have birds or animals in it, I like to emphasize the more reptilian aspects and make them just a little bit off so they're not quite what you recognize," Anderson said, noting that she once read something about crocodiles being closer related to birds than to other reptiles.
The sunflowers aren't what you would expect, either. They face away from the viewer, curled, shadowed and connected.
"I just emphasized how sometimes they can get really gnarly looking and a little strange, so I sort of fused them together to make more monolithic flowers," she said.
Anderson, who has illustrated three children's books and often paints with watercolors, likes to work from life. She doesn't keep a garden but often grabs fruit from farmers markets to stoke her creativity. A bitter melon is the focus of one drawing in the show. For a while, she had the fruit sitting on a clayboard, a surface that she relishes using for her pencil pieces.
"It accepts the graphite in a way that I really love because you have to work it into the surface. You can't just leave it on top. When I put down a line, I don't just leave it. I have to go over it," she said.
It allows for more in-the-moment revisions than watercolor painting.
"In watercolor, once you put something down, you don't necessarily have the freedom to lift it back up," she said.
She appreciates having that control.
"I've done tons of paintings of flowers over the years. Those are watercolor paintings, and I've really enjoyed doing them," she said, "but I think that because I'm introducing these creatures and because I'm creating my own little world, I like the idea that I'm working in the pencil. It's the slowest thing I've ever done, and I kind of like that."
Orner (who also goes by Orner Cromwell) has works in the show that shift from some of her normal output, too. Still-life paintings line the walls of her South Egremont home studio, but she has been increasingly turning to her garden and other natural surroundings for inspiration. It isn't that big of a departure.
"You're doing a lot of the same things whether you're painting a thing or whether you're painting something that is alive," Orner said on a recent Thursday afternoon. "You're still dealing with the same issues of surface and light and dark and pattern texture."
Dark green, white and red hues mingle in "Catalpa." A catalpa tree two fields over from Orner's house prompted the oil-on-board.
"When it's blooming, it's beautiful," she said.
Last summer, some flowers in the corner of her garden led to the painting "Coreopsis."
"It's only just coming up now," Orner said.
Orner's garden and others in Berkshire County may not quite be ready for their close-ups, but splendor can be found elsewhere to elicit floral art.
"Sometimes what inspires you isn't what you see in your work," Orner said. "You could be inspired by something that is beautiful, and it moves you, and it has nothing to do with what you do."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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