Ester Barkai wrote a wonderful review of the exhibition currently up at the Maude Kerns Art Center. The exhibition has been receiving such a good response from the community. I attended a gospel performance at the Maude Kerns in the exhibition space with our work and I was moved to tears throughout the performance...the journey taken really astounds me, and sometimes I don't understand how I got here.
Ester Bakai is a contributing writer for the Eugene Weekly.
Made to Fit: A Heartfelt Collaboration at Maude Kerns Art Center
By Ester Barkai
The day “Singing the Animal, Singing the Earth” opened at Maude Kerns Art Center, Stephen Colbert opened his late night TV show citing a report that human-caused climate change had officially killed off its first mammal species. “Was it murder?” the comedian asked in a soap opera voice, then “Yes it was. We humans did it.” The species in question, the Bramble Cay melomys, was a small mammal found on an island close to Australia. Colbert paid tribute to the species by hoping it had a good life getting to eat left over vegemite out of Nicole Kidman’s garbage. The tribute was funny and light, frightening and tragic; as any jokes about a human caused extinction of a species would be.
“Singing the Animal, Singing the Animal” at Maude Kerns Art Center is both light and tragic as well, and for the same reason. The fear of a trend for loss of biodiversity is the theme that inspired the show and nearly all the art in it depicts animals. The artists, Christopher St. John and Shelly Fredenberg, come at their subject from more than one perspective. Working largely with drawings and ceramic sculptures, they have filled the space at the art center with an impressive group of installations, sculptures, ceramic plates, paintings, and drawings of all sizes—from wall size to moth size. Regarding representational styles, images of animals vary from realistic to whimsical to totally surreal: a three-dimensional turtle apparently grows flowers on its back and a chocolate rabbit with a human smile seems okay with the fact it’s covered in snails.
The first artworks, going in on your right, are a stylized group of terracotta sculptures by St. John. Reading the title of these works encourages you to personify their stance. Large Praise Rabbits are intimate, quiet creatures that stand on pedestals and look up at you, or perhaps beyond to the heavens. Each piece creates an implied line that moves up and invites you to do the same.
Against a different wall St. John displays other types of rabbits—wild, gestural and dynamic mural-sized drawings that are best seen from across the room. Just beyond St. John’s giant rabbits, Fredenberg’s Snail Suite crawls almost imperceptivity (white against the white wall) towards a high window. In the opposite corner a display of moth sculptures and paintings hang on the walls as moths might in real life. The Moth Suite by St. John is an ink on paper series of more than two-hundred images. Fredenberg’s carved stoneware moths hanging on an adjacent wall are larger than life.
This show is a tribute to animals. It is a love poem to variation of species written in ink and mud, supported by variation of artistic styles, media and scale. Executive director of the Maude Kerns Art Center, Michael Fisher, encouraged the artists to fill the space and use it however they wanted. He wanted them to create an experience that would immerse the viewer. How does he feel about the outcome? The two artists have exceeded his expectations.
St. John says the inspiration for depicting animals came in part from a reading of E.O. Wilson, the famous entomologist who has been speaking of biodiversity loss for decades. Loss of habitat results in loss of species. “And what,” asks St. John, “are we going to do about it?” He feels a responsibility to address the issue with his work. His goal is to present the subject differently in hopes of bringing attention to it.
Tying personal tragedy to animal imagery, the artists think of the small gallery as being a shadow to the larger, lighter main space. The Nine Passages From a Gift of Sorrow series by St. John are ink on paper drawings. They build strange but convincing images of animals that seem in different stages of despair. The drawings frame Fredenberg’s installation Beyond Recognition which stands in the center of the room. The center piece speaks to a loss the artist suffered when nine people, her sister included, lost their lives in a traffic accident. This smaller gallery, more intimate and dark, intertwines personal loss with loss of species.
Christopher St. John and Shelly Fredenberg met at Maude Kerns Art Center. St. John teaches life drawing and Fredenberg has a studio at Club Mud Ceramics Cooperative, the center’s ceramic on-site studio space. St. John had been working as a figurative 2-dimensonal artist then one day, says Fredenberg, he asked her to teach him to work with ceramics. Now she shares her studio space with him and they work together. This exhibit is not a let’s-slap-a-theme-around-existing- work type of show. It is a true collaboration in which the artists worked together and all the artwork—there’s a considerable amount—was created especially for this space. It is a unique show for the Maude Kerns Art Center, and indeed, for Eugene.
“Singing the Animal, Singing the Earth” at Maude Kerns Art Center until March 27nd.