A new exhibit at the Pratt Museum presents a collaboration between artists, composers and musicians. “Denali: Artists Respond to Music Inspired by Wilderness,” which opened last Friday, also shows how the land and wildlife of Alaska not only can be a muse to artists, but a force that compels their creativity.
The exhibit features the work of the Elements Artist Group, six women working in a variety of media, and the art they created listening to nine pieces by Composers in the Wilderness, an annual program in Denali National Park where composers take a guided backpacking trip. For the nine works created by the 2017 Composers in the Wilderness group, two artists did paintings, box constructions, tiles or quilts.
Mostly from the Fairbanks area, but also San Diego and Cantwell, the Elements artists all have connections to Denali National Park, either through artist residencies or frequent visits. Last Tuesday, five of them visited Homer for a talk at the Pratt’s annual meeting and visited with the Homer News that morning.
“Our pieces don’t illustrate the music,” said artist Margo Klass of Fairbanks. “Rather, our pieces are responses to the music filtered through our understanding — our relationship to the park.”
In the exhibit, the pairs of works are displayed next to a music stand with the score. A QR or quick response code by the art provides a link to the Composing in the Wilderness website at bit.ly/ele2018. Visitors with smart phones or tablets can scan the QR code, connect to the website and an audio of the musical piece, and wearing ear buds listen to the music while looking at the art.
The exhibit also uses a neat little tech trick the Pratt pioneered in Homer with a previous show, Nathan Shafer’s July 2018 “Dirigibles of Denali,” where smart phones, QR codes and a computer innovation called Augmented Reality would show additional elements connected to the exhibit.
The idea for the exhibit came about in 2015 when Elements artist Mary Bee Kaufman of Homer and Cantwell made a painting sparked by music written by Christina Rusnak. The idea resonated with other members of the Elements Artist Group. The Elements group started in 2003 when a dozen fiber artists started meeting to exchange ideas and help with each other’s creative growth. The group has since expanded to include other media.
“We’re all very serious in our work,” said artist Ree Nancarrow of Fairbanks.
“It’s a group of equally complex professionals,” Klass said. “It’s for the professional support and the personal support and really valuable critique — and the chance to develop ideas.”
Kaufman approached Stephen Lias, director of the Composing in the Wilderness program, about collaborating with her group, and he shared the idea with the other composers. They gave an enthusiastic “yes.”
Composing in the Wilderness in 2017 not only took composers into the Denali wilderness, but after their immersive experience they stayed at remote Coal Creek Camp in the Yukon-Charley National Preserve, where they had four days to compose works for a chamber ensemble. The compositions had a twist: Each composer drew the names of instruments to be used in the piece.
Composing in the Wilderness is associated with the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, held over two weeks every July. At the festival a chamber ensemble, Corvus, presents concerts, and in 2017 the ensemble performed the compositions of the Composing in the Wilderness group. In 2017, the Corvus musicians were Katie Cox, flute; Mara Mayer, clarinet; Andie Springer, violin; Charly Akert, cello, and Joe Bergen, percussion.
The Elements artists also added a bit of randomness to their creativity. Drawing the names of compositions out of a hat, the artists paired up with the music.
“That’s why we did it by lottery too,” Klass said. “They took a chance; we’ll take a chance.”
That random connection resulted in some synchronicity in the works. Though the artists work independently, not aware of the other’s approach, in some works common themes or motifs developed. In response to composer Christian Dubeau’s “Savage,” Kaufman and Klass created works that have the same arrangement of lines and patterns. Kaufman’s “The Clouds That Roared” has a series of strong vertical lines with a smaller band of shorter lines and a wave pattern between. Klass’ box construction, “Evocations,” has a cluster of birch branches and then a smaller band of birch twigs at the bottom. In the back of the box she has a piece of rusty, painted metal with a wave pattern.
A similar magic happens in the responses to Christian Rusnak’s “Tundra Tapestry.” Quilter Charlotte Bird of San Diego created a work that shows the tundra surface, the plants and lichens one sees if you crouch down on hands and knees. Tile artist Nancy Hausle-Johnson made nine tiles showing the plants and animals of the tundra. Both have a similar color palette of rusty brown, gray, and dark and pale greens.
“We all have a response to Denali in different ways,” Bird said. “We’re listening to the music and respond to what the music says.”
Elements artist Susan Campbell of Fairbanks said it’s hard to separate the art from the music — and the wilderness. A poet, some of Campbell’s artist books include her original verse.
They’re responding to the music, Bird said, “but also grounded in our response to wilderness. … What we see and hear in the music is intertwined.”
“Denali: Artists Respond to Music Inspired by Wilderness” is funded by a Community Arts Development Grant through the Alaska State Council on the Arts. The project also received support from Composing in the Wilderness, the National Park Service, the Fairbanks Summer Art Festival and Alaska Geographic.
It has been on tour since July 2018, starting at Tonglen Lake Lodge in Denali, and was at Bear Gallery in Fairbanks, Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage and Griffith Gallery, Stephen F. Austin University, Nacogdoches, Texas — where composer Corinna Anne Hogan is working on her bachelor’s degree in music.
Like Bunnell Street Arts Center’s 1ox1o show, the Element artists restricted themselves to works that could be no larger than 18-inches cubed. That allows the exhibit to be packed in four special art shippers boxes with a total weight of 122 pounds.
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle in each box,” Bird said.
The show stays at the Pratt through May 25, and from here will go in June to Centennial Hall at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center and in January 2021 to the Rozsa Gallery, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, where Libby Meyer lectures.