Resources that Inform Rendering of Images
Jo Anna Poehlmann's elegant, boxed artist's book was inspired by a trip to the Netherlands. The tulips and small creatures that adorn the tall narrow pages continue the artist's interest in drawing nature in the fashion of the old Masters as seen in museums across Europe. Upon Poehlmann's return from the Netherlands, she realized that it would be useful to have more visual information to draw upon, and she turned to librarian Max Yela for resources. A rare 1597 publication by John Gerarde entitled The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes contained engravings of many plants and among them were examples of tulips. Focusing on red and white parrot tulips, Poehlmann used drawing, photocopying, and watercolor to create an edition of accordion-fold books. The boxes she used for the edition are from Japan and once contained a collection of eggs.
Resources from Special Collections also informed Maureen LaWent when memories from her visits to a cabin in the American Legion State Forest in northern Wisconsin needed renewal. Over a three-year period, LaWent worked on a painting that recorded an encounter with a young doe found at the side of the highway and, a year later, the observation of an immature turkey vulture and immature golden eagle feeding on a deer carcass. LaWent found herself struggling with proportions and positioning of the subject matter. Yela directed her to A Handbook of the Anatomy of Animals, a portfolio of drawings from life attributed to Wilhelm Ellenberger, Hermann Braun, and Hermann Dittrich. The drawings show deer carefully rendered to scale, as well as drawings of the skeleton and muscle tissue. In addition, LaWent used books by John James Audubon and Rex Brasher to capture the form, proportions, and color of the turkey vulture and golden eagle. She found it particularly interesting that Audubon worked with dead birds painted in his studio, while Brasher worked in the field with live birds as his subjects.
Revealing the sacred in nature, Irene Mitkus spent time poring over the illustrations in a facsimile edition of La Biblia de Alba, a book produced by Moses Arragel between 1422 and 1430. Evident in Mitkus's Book of Sacred Trees, are motifs of leaves and fruit that resemble the tree forms in Arragel's Bible. The shape and texture of the tree trunks in her linoleum-block prints are particularly reminiscent of these early renderings. Sadly, Irene Mitkus died in November of 2000, so I was unable to talk with her, but I am well aware that she left behind a reputation as a conservation binder and book conservator, especially for the Milwaukee Public Museum. This book also exemplifies her love of binding.
Another source used by Mitkus was an 1857 publication, The North American Sylva by François André Michaux. Without the opportunity to interview Mitkus, I began looking through this text for the trees featured in her book. The renderings of leaves and fruit in Michaux's text were realistic in detail and color, while Mitkus embellished her renderings with references to spiritual myths associated with various species of trees. In this way she continued an interest in myths connected to certain trees that began with stories of the sacred oak that were part of her Lithuanian heritage (see the section on Resources for Content for further discussion).
In the sculpture by Ney Tait Fraser one can see the influences of her primary resource, Black Elk Speaks. She not only fused written descriptions from this book into her sculpture, but she also used the book's illustrations by Standing Bear to inform her work. Fraser's wooden panels are fitted together and covered with ceramic tiles and river stones. The panels represent the four corners of the world using different colors for each corner as described by Black Elk. Each section is inscribed with symbols specific to each of the four compass points. In addition, every panel includes depictions of Rainbow People, the magic teepee, butterflies representing the dead, and horses. All these images are described through word and image by Black Elk and Standing Bear.
Pamela Schermer used reproductions of Baroque Italian and Dutch still lifes found in books to inform her painting of ripe fruit on the verge of spoiling. The collection Nature Morte del Seicento e Del Settecento edited by Patrizia Consigli Valente extended Schermer's experiences with Baroque still life paintings in museums here and abroad. While Schermer's depiction of light and her use of certain colors reveal contemporary influences, the art historical references were mentally stored so that she could paint from memory. Of particular interest is the role of the landscapes that create the background for the still life compositions. The dark backgrounds of the Baroque paintings are lightened to reveal lush vegetation, waterfalls, lakes, and a variety of birds.
In contrast to the very literal translation of resources for Schermer's images, Valerie Christell "found" the images in her artwork in a very unexpected way. She came to the project with two ideas: to investigate a monograph collection of Francisco Goya images, and to find out more about shamanism as a pathway to new directions. She took notes on the Goya images and felt she had completed what she needed from that resource. Following her curiosity about the role of shamans in Native American culture, Christell requested books from Special Collections that might inform her. Rather than getting descriptions of shamans and shamanism, she found that the resources from Special Collections' holdings of American Indian literature recorded the actual teachings of shamans. As she read, she tried to make sense of the stories that seemed confusing and foreign. It was not the narrative nature of the stories that struck Christell, but rather the metaphors in the myths and a sense that concepts were being alluded to, but not directly revealed. In an effort to make sense of her readings, she began keeping a journal, writing down quotes. At this time her research was disconnected from art making. It was during this process that Christell had a vision that needed to be drawn-she described the vision as "abstract images of the unseeable."
Pertinent to the work in this exhibit, Christell began reading Healers on the Mountain by Teresa Pijoan (1993), a collection of Native American writings, including myths. At some point after reading an Inuit myth entitled "Raven," Christell felt compelled to record another vision she had of a space defined by slender vertical shapes. In the story of Raven Man it is revealed that he must carry sacred sticks used for starting ceremonial fires. He wearies of flying with the fire sticks and chooses to go inside a whale cow. Much to his surprise he finds himself in a warm dry room where the ceiling is held up by the whale's spine and the walls are made of the whale's ribs. A tube runs along the backbone, feeding an oil lamp that sits on a table at which sits a beautiful woman named Inua, the whale cow's spirit. The story continues with a series of events that are metaphorical and difficult to understand. The space of the whale's belly and the concept of ceremonial fire appear to be connected to the work Christell completed for this project. Like the myth itself, the work raises questions of meaning, especially considering that the artist can not explain how the image relates to her own sense of reality.
In each of the above descriptions, Special Collections resources served as information for the artists. In the next category, artists appropriate images from the resources they used.