she ought to have wondered
The Alice project is an adventure into the realm of childhood and curiosity. But also, like Lewis Carroll’s underlying themes, it’s an archetypal story about time and memory, about love and grief, about seeing the magic in ordinary things and abandoning all caution to take a risk. There’s a shadow of menace here, and also a glimpse into the timeless dream we call life, ever drifting, impossible to hold, flowing through us all.
My inspiration is a vintage copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass that belonged to my mother as a child. Uniquely, this version is illustrated with photographs from a 1915 silent film production by the Nonpareil Feature Film Corporation. There is no publication date by Grosset and Dunlap, but it’s estimated to be 1916-1919. My mother would have been 8-10 years old when she received the book.
So the book is not just an old and well-loved story, it’s HER book, and its tattered pages still bear the smudges of her fingerprints. Now, in a kind of time travel collaboration with Carroll and the silent film, I’ve re-cast my mother as young Alice, as grown-up Alice, and as several other characters in the stories. Her daughter, son-in-law, grandsons and great granddaughters also play roles, blithely spanning the divide of more than a century to inhabit one golden afternoon together.
Although best known as an author, Lewis Carroll/Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was also fascinated with the new invention of the camera and made many portraits of family and friends, including Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired the Alice stories. I wonder if photography was in his mind’s eye as he imagined Alice’s adventures? One passage in particular seems to be visualized as if captured in a photograph:
Years afterward she could bring the whole scene back again, as if it had been only yesterday – the mild blue eyes of the knight – the setting sun gleaming through his hair, and shining on his armor in a blaze of light that quite dazzled her – the horse quietly moving about, with the reins hanging loose on his neck, cropping the grass at her feet – and the black shadows of the forest behind – all this she took in like a picture…
Although many artists have illustrated the Alice stories since John Tenniel’s original drawings in 1865, very few versions have used photographs. Perhaps the medium seems too real. But photographs, like stories, can capture a moment, even an imaginary moment of reverie. As with Carroll, I delight in using simple props to create a timeless world of imagination, especially objects that have a personal history. Soon, I’m lost in my own curious adventures in the wonderland and dream-time of art-making.
Ever drifting down the stream
Lingering in the golden gleam
Life, what is it but a dream?
The Book of Birds: An Artist's Requiem
The Book of Birds: An Artist's Requiem speaks from a quiet and profound place of myth and memory. The project began on a sunny winter day, turning to a vintage guide to birds of North America for inspiration: The Book of Birds, published in 1932. Although each of us might read the same book, we each also read a different book, one overlaid with with our own perceptions, emotions, memories and imagination. In turning to this book, I was naturally drawn to the illustrations, but also to the text, which is much more narrative, personal, and lyrical than the text of guidebooks today. I also felt a deep sense of poignancy in entering a realm where so many of the birds are now extinct, endangered, or greatly reduced in numbers. This project is an attempt to create in some tangible way my personal experience of the book, a book that exists only in my imagination. Inevitably, it is also a vehicle to explore my persistent themes of beauty and loss, transience and grief, wonder and mystery, and the quotidian and intangible passage of time.
The Book of Trees: An Artist’s Field Guide
The Book of Trees project is inspired by a vintage field guide, Our Trees: How to Know Them, published in 1908. I was struck by the intimate relationship implied in the title – what does it mean to know a tree, not just identify it? To know a tree in all its stages, from seed to maturity to death and renewal? To feel the pulse of its roots underground and the scratch of its bare branches against the winter sky? To sense an entirely different measure of time and memory? To mark my own brief moment in the tree’s long arc of existence?
This project represents my personal experience of the book, a field guide that exists only in my imagination. Here, each tree speaks in its own quiet and eloquent voice, of myth and memory, curiosity and wonder, loss and grief, birth and renewal, and the enduring solace of beauty.
Because of Blue
Azure, indigo, sapphire, turquoise, cerulean, ultramarine, cobalt, teal, cyan, iris….
Because of Blue is a celebration of the infinite range of blues in a single blue jay.
As an artist with a reverent curiosity about the natural world, I am a constant collector of leaves, pods, shells and other commonplace wonders, mostly gathered near my home. A few years ago I began photographing the specimens in my collection, inspired in part by the carefully classified and preserved specimens in the vast collection of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Rather than simply documenting the specimens as objects, however, my intent is to convey the mysteries that I feel in their presence, exploring themes of fragility and endurance, beauty and decay, chance and destiny, life and death.
With these contradictions at heart, I begin with a simple background of white paper and the morning light from an east window. I have become acutely attuned to the daylight variations in my east bedroom and to the constantly shifting angle of the light as it moves across my floor in moments, hours, days and seasons. What pulls me to this little patch of sunlight is, most of all, my sense of play, delighting in the infinite, radiant, magical variations drawn in the shadows as I turn and place each object in the light. It is an intuitive, improvisational process, akin to drawing and collage, using a variety of props outside the image to alter the fall of light within my frame. I work quickly as the light moves, using my camera to preserve each specimen in an ephemeral framework constructed solely of light and shadow.
In the course of this process, I sometimes witness a startling moment when the mundane reality of the specimen undergoes a quiet metamorphosis. Here, outside of time, place, and scale, a tattered leaf or pressed wildflower enters an ambiguous, metaphorical realm. Hovering between specimen and poetry, science and art, the moment challenges me to measure the immeasurable: the inevitability of loss and the transcendence of beauty.
It seems that our experience is always viewed through the lens of memory. Time, with its constantly shifting layers, leaves its track, a sometimes ordered but often random trace, the fleeting evidence of the passage of our lives. Unlike a photograph that can be snapped in an instant and held forever suspended in the moment, a drawing marks the passage of time, its lines tracing a path across the page, while the mind follows the hand in its own reverie.
The Traces images are my attempt to blur the boundary between drawing and photography, between the suspended now and the ever-shifting vestiges of time. Working at an east window with morning light, I shoot through layers of scratched/drawn Plexiglas, glass and acetate, as if peering through levels of time and memory. Some of the images are then printed as negatives, as well as positives. I'm intrigued by the remarkable fact that every frame contains two images, each coiled inside the other, a moment inside a moment, a parallel universe inside another dimension of time. The rarely seen negative universe is full of surprises and often comes closer to my vision of a true drawing.
In addition to being an artist, I think I've always been part scientist, curious about the small natural wonders that I encounter each day and intrigued by scientists' efforts to collect, classify, define and measure everything from microscopic specs to vast ecosystems, from extinct birds to the human heart. We seem to be driven to measure things, yet no matter how precisely we measure, something vital always seems to be lost in the process, perhaps in the act of measuring itself.
The Weight portfolio uses old scales to reflect the futility of measurement. I love the simple design of the scales, their rusted faces and clock hands, their tippy balance mechanisms and innocent expectations of accuracy. If only it could be so simple. How much does a moment weigh? A word? A memory? A love? A loss? How can I reconcile the limitless presence of the world with my own fleeting and finite existence? These images are still life compositions balancing between stillness and life, poetic attempts to measure what is, in the end, always a mystery.
alchemies of the ordinary
conjuring second skins
pierced by eyes
those shocking transparent truths
of the mortal in the mythic
the immortal in the mundane
artifacts of the imagination
dancing in the fire of ancestors
drumming with wild desire
to spinning oneness
fooling no one
except the gods
we are shamans
performing secret rituals
pretending our childhoods away
daring the darkness
to take us.
julie meridian 2006
Map of the Universe
It is my quest, my challenge, and my delight to conjure something tangible, using the materials and skills at hand, to approximate a vision that is only half-dreamed and still evolving, a vision that is, even at best, just beyond reach.
My Map of the Universe is at once very abstract, extremely personal, and quite a bit whimsical. It evolved in a very organic way, from using Plexiglas to create layers of lines and marks in front of featured objects, to featuring the Plexiglas itself. At a certain low angle of light, and with a deep black background, the lines and marks and even the dust on the surface of the Plexiglas seem to glow with the tracings of invisble cosmic particles and celestial orbits. It was only a matter of awakening, of seeing the possibilities that had been there all along, and marking the beginning of time with a question: What if...?
This is my Theory of Everything. This is my time beyond time.
Since the beginning of my memory, the forest has always been my muse and my solace. Trees fill my senses and speak to me of light and shadow, time and memory, mystery and possibility. I yearn to know each one as a singular individual and to mark my own brief moment on its long arc of desire. These photographs are my mark – layered, reflected images of transitory encounters, collected into a personal arboretum.
There is an old abandoned greenhouse on parkland near my home. The small locked structure has taken on a life of its own over the years, with wild plants and even trees growing inside, pressing their branches and leaves up against panes of glass that are streaked with mold, mineral deposits and dirt. Peering through the glass, I am intrigued by the interplay between the wild and desperately contained inner world, the ordered grid of the panes, the obscured glass, and the reflections of sky, plants and stones outside. I have returned to this structure may times as the weather and seasons change and as the plants grow, die and renew. Even the glass continues to evolve.
Another intriguing greenhouse that I have visited is a “hoop house” – an arched metal frame covered with milky translucent plastic. This greenhouse was empty at the time, but stepping inside was like entering a glowing lantern, as the plastic seemed to both capture and diffuse the light of the setting sun. Skeletal remains of fallen leaves that had adhered to the outer surface of the plastic were illuminated, as if suspended in the sky. A ragged tear in the plastic revealed a glimpse into a realm beyond the one we think we see, a sky beyond the sky.
The best time to look for wasp nests is in winter, after the residents of the colony have died (except for the queen, who hibernates elsewhere). Then the magnificent gray structures are exposed in the bare branches of trees and shrubs. Constructed with layers of paper pulp that the wasps produce by chewing wood and plant fibers and mixing the mush with a kind of spit, each swirling application reveals subtle variations in the colors of the fibers. I am curious and amazed by these ingenious homes, entranced by their neglected beauty, yet still wary of the danger implied by the former occupants. In this series I have cast my mother as queen, the sole survivor, who will emerge in the spring to begin a new home and a new generation of her family.