Ever since – even before – Joni Mitchell penned the words “and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” humans have been seeking to do just that. A return to the “Garden of Eden,” the original utopia. Paradise.
Contemporary scientific studies reported in medical journals repeatedly point to the health benefits of being in natural spaces. And more than 100 years ago, Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement advocated the importance of designing cities around spokes of greenery.
The Rowan University Art Gallery is building on this with the exhibition Cultivated Space, on view through July 16. When the daily bombardment of news proves to be too horrific, what better salve than to escape to a garden, here, one cultivated by artists using natural and recycled fibers and materials.
Tufts by Fritz Dietel, Cultivated Space Installation Image, 2022. Image courtesy of Rowan University Art Gallery
A visitor enters the gallery through a forest of sorts – tree-like sculptures by Linda Brenner. Many were carved from Christmas trees that had been discarded, as well as other felled city trees. Brenner carves them in honor of the places from which they came – the site of a demonstration in response to the murder of George Floyd, for example -- and uses salvaged materials gathered from abandoned factories to Florida beaches. The result is a colorfully painted cacophony of whimsical shapes and forms.
“They are like something you’d see in fairy tales,” says Gallery Director Mary Salvante. She curated the exhibition as a team project with Syd Carpenter, whose previous exhibition at the gallery, Earth Offerings: Honoring the Gardeners, focused on African American land ownership and farming, and Marsha Moss, a Philadelphia public art curator. While the exhibition grew out of Carpenter’s ideas, each curator put together a list of artists whose work addresses the theme.
Artwork details by Anonda Bell, Henry Bermudez, Linda Brenner, Fritz Dietel, Steven Donegan, Rachel Eng, Darla Jackson, Martha Jackson-Jarvis, Mi-Kyoung Lee, Michelle Marcuse, Sana Musasama, and Joanna Platt. Courtesy of Rowan University Art Gallery
The 12 artists in the exhibition represent different cultures, with birth places ranging from Australia, Venezuela, and South Africa, to Rochester, N.Y. and Lynchburg, Va. Many are professors and gallery directors. They have won awards from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, Pew Fellowship, Puffin Foundation, and National Endowment for the Arts. Others have exhibited in such venues as the Hunterdon Museum of Art, Museum of Art and Design, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, Studio Museum in Harlem, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cranbrook Museum, and many others.
“Our shows tend to focus on artists taking action on issues such as the environment, feminism, and LGBQT rights,” says Salvante. “As a university gallery we can extend the classroom discussion and cross into other academic areas important to our audience. We believe in the power of the visual – how non-verbal communication resonates for people who may not otherwise have awareness of the issues, offering insights or a perspective they hadn’t yet considered. We never hit anyone over the head with messages, we want people to come to their own conclusions while also experiencing something of beauty, looking deeply at what the artist is trying to communicate.”
Going past Brenner’s whimsical forest, one encounters Sana Musasama’s “Fallen Yet to Rise” installation on the floor, composed or ceramic pieces and organic materials, from light and black-colored sand, crushed glass, and pine mulch. It is part of her Maple Tree Series. Native Americans taught the Dutch how to tap maple trees for syrup, as an alternative to the slave labor in the sugar cane plantations, according to Musasama’s statement in the gallery guide.
“It’s infused with her way of storytelling,” says Salvante. “The organic materials resonate with the natural environment. It’s like walking along the beach at high tide, and you see the line when the water recedes. The glass suggests water, or a tidal pool.”
From this floor assemblage, outstretched hands, made of ceramic, appear as if the appendages of oppressed people trying to dig their way out.
Martha Jackson-Jarvis’s “Umbilicus II” snakes its way around the gallery floor, suggesting a figure or a living creature, ornamented with jade, glass mosaic, and cypress. Covered with what look like seeds, it promises renewal and regeneration.
Mi-Kyoung Lee creates beauty out of industrial waste. “Yellow Forest 2” is like a shimmering yellow tapestry made from twist ties and zip ties.
And speaking of beauty, Steven Donegan has created a woven cotton tapestry, more than 12 feet wide, based on his Philadelphia backyard, with snakelike vines that relate to other works in the show. The sculptor began by making a digital painting. “There is so much going on in the three panels,” says Salvante.
Rowan University Art Gallery, Cultivated Space Installation Image, 2022. Image courtesy of Rowan University Art Gallery
A reimagining of the Garden of Eden takes up the entire back wall of the gallery. Titled “Neither Shall You Touch It,” the mixed media on cut paper assemblage includes at its center biblical characters Eve and Lilith. “Lilith represents another stereotype of femininity; the witch or whore,” writes artist Anonda Bell, Director and Chief Curator of the Paul Robeson Galleries at Rutgers University Newark. “As Adam’s first wife, she was an independent thinker, with a mind of her own. She was eventually banished from the garden into the ether, to be replaced by a more compliant wife, Eve.” Eve appears here with a full rib cage, perhaps a reference to the biblical account of Eve being created from one of Adam’s ribs.
Surrounding the women are glow-in-the-dark dragonflies, butterflies, bees – all those pollinators that are essential to the ultimate garden story – but, sadly, this garden is not the Eden of our dreams. “It is not one of lush fecundity, nature’s splendor, but of probably doom,” says Bell. “The Tree of Knowledge references environmental fluctuations, read as part of a larger narrative brought about by long-term climate change.
Another work, titled “Eden” by Joanna Platt, is a Brutalist cement panel that has fractured, and through the ragged opening we glimpse a garden – a video of a garden, actually, filmed on a sunny summer day at Philadelphia’s Bartram’s Gardens. There’s a voyeuristic delight in getting just a peek of a natural oasis through this harsh concrete material, a suggestion that nature will prevail, despite it all. We need it.