Environmental artists Catherine Bell Smith and Char Norman explore humanity's relationship with nature in Not Sheep Gallery's March exhibition
Catherine Bell Smith is used to the weird looks. Recently, she was hunched over in her Upper Arlington yard, gingerly inspecting leaves dropped by her neighbor’s magnolia tree, when someone approached.
“My mailman, he was like, ‘You know, Cathy, they make rakes for that,’” Smith said. “I get that a lot.”
In the end, Smith collected about 1,200 magnolia leaves for “The Downfall of Light,” an installation at Not Sheep Gallery that's part of “Altered Perceptions,” a duo show with Smith and fellow environmental artist Char Norman. Smith air-dried the sturdy leaves, coated them in acrylic, strung them with jewelry wire and hung them chandelier-like to create a series of cascading, floor-to-ceiling pieces that evoke a sense of suspended animation along the gallery's walls.
“It’s mimicking the process of leaves falling,” Smith said. “It's almost like taking a photograph, but then by reiterating it — saying it again and again and again — you highlight the normal process that nature takes, this whole cycle of birth, growth, death.”
Smith began thinking more deeply about nature and humanity’s relationship to it years ago while pulling honeyvine milkweed in her garden. After yanking it out, she learned that milkweed is a host plant for monarch butterflies; without milkweed, the monarch larva can’t develop into a butterfly. “I realized that I was killing the environment for the things that I love. … That grabbed my conscience,” she said. “When you discover these things, it becomes personal. I walked through life for so many years in the foundry — I did work in metal and stone — and didn’t understand my environment. So finding these things and understanding how this all works together… it changed my life.”
Smith began to notice other things, too, like all the plastic bags stuck in trees and bushes along the side of the road. The phenomenon inspired large-scale piece “Current,” which, at first glance, appears to consist of wood panels embedded with white, circular ornaments. But upon closer inspection, the swirly layers of light and dark brown are actually catalpa tree pods, red pine bark and several trumpet vine pods. And the white circles flecked with bits of red, gray and blue? Those are carefully coiled plastic bags from Lowe’s (gray), Giant Eagle (blue) and other stores.
“It's not good enough to just hang the bag. You need to say something with it. So the whole coiling and weaving process is something that is very deliberate,” Smith said. “It’s important that we have action, not just observation.”
Using a unique form of sculpture, Char Norman’s pieces similarly explore the symbiotic relationship between nature and mankind. Most of her works begin on a loom, where Norman makes woven pods that can represent a womb or a burial shroud (or sometimes both). "I like that idea of the regeneration,” she said. “I’ll put seeds and healing herbs in my weavings, and sometimes they sprout.”
The pods are then combined with wood and other materials — including garbage — scavenged by Norman. “I'm always picking up sticks and dead leaves and little bits and pieces I find everywhere,” she said. “People leave me dead things on my doorstep.”
In “No Words,” a cross section of bark from an ash tree (destroyed by the emerald ash borer) contains three red, woven pods that hold brassy bullet casings — a commentary on gun violence and the way in which human beings are born into a culture of violence that can also be our undoing. Nearby, “Colony Collapse” suspends from a branch a series of black, woven pods in the shape of a honeycomb. Inside each pod is a black and white image of crumbling buildings printed on homemade paper and coated with wax. “I wanted to relate urban decay to the honeybees,” Norman said.
Often, Norman’s travels inspire her pieces. While visiting South Carolina, she became enamored with the beautiful Spanish moss draped over the trees. “People think that Spanish moss is a parasite, but it actually isn't. It grows on a host tree, but it helps that tree. It provides a habitat for insects and birds. And it has no roots,” she said. “So I was thinking about that, and realized that's kind of like the immigrants. They come; they give up everything. They have no roots. And they actually help us. They add to our culture, add to our economic development.”
The thought inspired Norman to make the piece “Huddled Masses,” a series of upright twigs topped with a dense patch of Spanish moss and multicolored weavings. “I did all the different colors to signify all the different cultures that are coming together to enrich us,” she said.
“These aren't just people painting about the environment,” said Not Sheep Gallery owner Caren Petersen. “They're actually using elements of the environment and re-creating things that are beautiful.”