A hub for artists in the Berkshires and beyond
GREAT BARRINGTON — Though a verdant landscape can be seen through the windows behind them, the 19 bronze sunflowers looming at the back of L'Atelier Berkshires' gallery are in decay. They droop, their heads bowed, leaves shriveled, roots exposed. Still, their creator, Natalie Tyler, saw glimmers of beauty in the withering Italian fields that served as the pieces' inspiration.
"I began to think about the thin line that exists between what is beautiful and what is grotesque," Tyler once wrote in an artist's statement for "I Girasoli." "How could something so close to death be so enrapturing?"
Soon, the artist was thinking about the plants' resemblance to malnourished models, about the beauty standard of gauntness. The human figure thus influenced the 4-to-7-foot pieces she began creating while pursuing her MFA from the California College of the Arts, and the connection between nature and human beings continues to guide the Great Barrington artist's bronze and glass sculptures today. It also directs her curation.
"I show a lot of nature-based artists," Tyler said during a Tuesday morning tour of the gallery.
On display through June 10, "Luster" features works by artists from near and far: Catherine Bohrman, Emily Gilman Breezly, Janet Cook, Ella Delyanis, Keith Emerling, Lisa French, Mercedes Nunez and Duke Windsor, among others. Much of their work explores humanity through other life forms.
"She tells stories about behavior and morals but with animals, but they're based on either human experience or things she read," Tyler said while looking at some of French's oil on paper and panel works in the exhibition.
French will have a solo show at the gallery opening in July; a faculty exhibit for IS183, Art School of the Berkshires, where Tyler teaches, will precede French's display in June. L'Atelier Berkshires isn't just an exhibition space, though. The bottom floor is a studio where Tyler works and holds glass casting and mold-making workshops for two-to-four students at a time. A kiln, tables and materials fill the room.
"This is what made me decide that this was going to be the spot because I was like, 'This studio's amazing!'" Tyler said after descending the stairs to her workshop.
Tyler opened her gallery and studio space in 2015 after moving to Great Barrington from North Adams. An Assets for Artists grant brought the Encinitas, Calif., native to the Berkshires. Before then, she had been living in New York City and California, refining her artistic process. Tyler sculpts pieces in wax and builds molds around them. She then melts the wax, replacing it with either bronze or glass. Bronze was her first love. During her undergraduate years at University of California, Santa Cruz, she took a bronze casting course. One of her first assignments was to to make a small figure.
"From that point, I was really hooked," she said. "I felt like I was looking at her and seeing my future in the metal and in the wax. I tried to sculpt in clay, but the weight of the clay — I wanted the tension. I wanted thick areas and thin areas, and I wanted to really play with form and push the limits of what was possible. And with wax and casting, I could do it."
When heated a bit, wax can be quite malleable.
"In the warmth of your hands or the sun, it can get to be like putty a little bit more, and it's sculptable at that point," Tyler said.
While wax is a constant in her process, the artist works with glass more than bronze these days. At the front of the gallery, visitors will notice her crystal glass rendering of an African kob's skull and horns. At the back, they will see several encased skulls, including one that was based on a chimp skeleton at the Berkshire Museum. More often, she works from a friend's skull collection.
"The reason I sculpt skulls and things, it's not so much about death, but it's more about structure for me, an understanding of structure and form that we start with. But it's also about leaving history behind, what we leave behind," she said, noting that some of her other work focuses on climate change.
Though the building regularly displays paintings and hosts paint-and-sips, Tyler's artistic focus means that sculpture is at the core of L'Atelier Berkshires. Out front, Housatonic native Robert Wilk's red sculptures have drawn many people into the building.
"People are intrigued," Tyler said. "I think sculpture's had it rough over the years because there's times where it's a lot easier to find a place to put a painting on the wall in a house. People haven't been as familiar with sculpture, but I think that's changing, and especially in this area, with all the outdoor sculpture exhibitions. People have space, too, here."
She hopes that Berkshire residents are visiting all of the county's exhibition spaces. She prints a seasonal brochure that lists galleries throughout the Berkshires, encouraging tourists and natives alike to explore the entire county.
"I think it's important to have that connection. I don't see a divide between north and south county," Tyler said. " ... I would like to see people break that boundary more."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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