OCTOBER 5, 2012
If ever there was art that communicates the exuberance of nature, Katherine K. Allen’s work is it. On view at Adkins Arboretum Visitor’s Center through Nov. 30, her captivating exhibit of botanical works, titled Dance of the Seasons, teems with the energy of life. On Sat., Oct. 27 from 3 to 5 p.m., there will be a reception with the opportunity to talk with Allen about her unusual way of making art.
Allen delights in experimenting. In her sunny studio in a forest clearing near Easton, she paints, stitches by hand and by machine, collages, and screen-prints ink on top of plants so that when she lifts them away, their silhouettes remain, preserving the details of their leaves, stems and seedheads with photographic crispness. Over the past eight years or so, she has been developing this unique method of creating botanical artworks that are as inventive as they are energetic and colorful.
While earning her BFA from the University of Arizona and MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, Allen studied a wide variety of art mediums. She went on to work as a sculptor, then moved on to art quilts, before focusing on creating botanical art on fabric.
She explained, “I took everything in art school, and now this represents the snowball effect of it all coming together.”
Small brushstrokes in pastel shades of yellow, salmon pink, lilac and blue dance around the tall grasses that fan across the surface of “Tangible Light.” Within the silhouettes of the plants, splashes of bright color show through from an earthy green-brown layer underneath. It’s as if both the plants and the air are pulsing with activity.
When Allen makes an artwork, half of it comes from the outdoors—the plants she gathers from the garden, woods and wetlands to screen-print onto her fabrics—and half from the artist herself as she stains and brushes her fabrics with colorful expressionist gestures of paint.
The curious thing about Allen’s work is that the background is on top. Her images of ferns, grasses and leaves are really empty spaces where the layers beneath show through. Allen is playing with what artists call the figure-ground relationship. She may do this with layers of acrylic paint and screen print inks or with layers of natural silk or cotton fabric. Often she uses a kind of reverse appliqué in which, instead of sewing a cloth shape on top of the fabric, she stitches shapes through two or more layers of cloth and then trims away sections of the top layer or two to reveal what’s underneath.
Although her works look spontaneous, they require careful planning. Each layer contrasts with the others but must work harmoniously to form a unified whole.
“I always enjoy that you have to be thinking all the time, and you have to keep that feeling of freedom,” Allen said. “It’s a funny frame of mind to be in.”
The show includes some small pieces, but mostly Allen works on a larger scale. “Glass Garden” stretches across an entire wall of the Visitor’s Center gallery like a Greek temple frieze. It’s a wild, animated garden of wetland grasses and ferns in subtle autumn hues, and again, the air is full of life. Random stitches and French knots scatter across the surface like tiny insects buzzing in the sunlight.
Stitching, paint and screen-printed plant forms merge into an image so full of life and intricate relationships that it can’t help but conjure the mysteries of interconnection between plants, earth, water, air and sunlight and the unquenchable urge of the life force.
This show is part of Adkins Arboretum’s ongoing exhibition series of work on natural themes by regional artists, sponsored in part by Caroline County Council of Arts. It is on view through Nov. 30 at the Arboretum Visitor’s Center located at 12610 Eveland Road near Tuckahoe State Park in Ridgely. Contact the Arboretum at 410-634-2847, ext. 0 or email@example.com for gallery hours.
Adkins Arboretum is a 400-acre native garden and preserve at the headwaters of the Tuckahoe Creek in Caroline County. Open year round, the Arboretum offers educational programs for all ages about nature and gardening. Through its Campaign to Build a Green Legacy, the Arboretum will build a new LEED-certified Arboretum Center and entranceway to broaden educational offerings and research initiatives promoting best practices in conservation and land stewardship. For additional information about Arboretum programs, visit www.adkinsarboretum.org or call 410-634-2847, ext. 0.