Art in St. Claude Avenue gallery reframes environmental problems, by Mary Rickard

May 28, 2014

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Art and science don’t often intersect, but 14 mixed-media artists found inventive ways to express the environmental significance of water in the lives of Louisianians during Ebb & Flow, a three-year resident artist series sponsored by Studio in the Woods.

Megan Singleton, Studio in the Woods’ most recent resident, presented her organic art project during an opening reception at Byrdie’s Gallery on May 10 as part of the St. Claude Arts District’s Wetlands Art Tour. The first annual art walk showcased more than 75 artists in 23 venues with the purpose of drawing attention to the issues of coastal erosion and wetlands restoration.

Carol Scott, an art professor at Our Lady of Holy Cross College who participated in the walk, found particularly interesting the “very conceptual” renderings that used actual materials gathered from the wetlands.

Ebb & Flow has focused on man’s relationship to water—river, marshlands and Gulf—but resident artists approached the topic from their personal perspectives. For example, Sarah Quintana composed songs about the Mississippi. Monica Haller created an installation in an empty Plaquemines Parish house, Benjamin Morris wrote poetry, and Rebecca Snedeker created maps later incorporated into a book, “Immortal City: A New Orleans Atlas.” Artists are sensitive to the environment and have always been the “bell-ringers” for the problems in society, Scott said.

To create her project, Singleton, who hails from upriver in St. Louis, explored Big Pass in multiple trips by canoe and Lake Hermitage in a boat with Studio in the Woods’ environmental curator, David Baker. Singleton collected phragmites, banana stalks and Chinese privet, boiling them with soda ash to break down the noncellulose materials. She then pulverized the plant fiber to make pulp. She doused the pulp paper with washes in a 2-by-8-foot mold and used satellite imagery as a pattern, simulating the surface of the marshes. Water was removed by passing the strips through a giant press.
“Megan was one of the hardest-working artists we’ve ever had,” Baker said. Singleton also dipped Chinese privet roots in clay and paper pulp to suspend from the ceiling of the gallery.

The previous Studio in the Woods resident, Haller, born in Minneapolis at the headwaters of the Mississippi, focused her project on eroding edges of land in Plaquemines Parish. Haller created a studio in an ancestor’s abandoned home, built before the 1927 flood. Her multimedia installation included architectural remnants as well as mounds of river sediment. A neighbor, Albertine Kimble, called the sediment “liquid gold” that is gradually slipping away, eroding her local culture, community and way of life. Haller explored ways to experience the river through sight and sound. By piping in sounds recorded on a hydrophone, visitors could hear the drone of ships, vehicles crossing a distant bridge and more immediate aquatic life.

“The arts can often engage people who ordinarily would not be interested or involved with issues surrounding coastal erosion and wetlands restoration by reframing the problem,” said Ama Rogan, managing director of Studio in the Woods. “Artists have an important role to play in tackling our environmental challenges by bringing imagination, resourcefulness and hope to what sometimes appear to be intractable concerns.”

Other Ebb & Flow resident artists included: Roy Staab, Wisconsin; Katie Holton, Ireland; Nina Nichols, New Orleans; Andy Behrle, Washington; Mary O’Briend and Daniel McCormick, California; Isabelle Hayeur, Canada; Emily Nelson Corazon, Virginia; Laurel True, Michigan; and Sebastion Muellauer, Germany.

Singleton’s sculpture and pulp paintings investigating native and invasive flora that clutch Louisiana between their roots can be seen at Byrdie’s Gallery, 2422 St. Claude Ave., through June 9.