Nov 18 2008
Last Friday, I attended the opening a show at the Launch Pad Gallery in Portland. I was inspired by the quality of the art as well as the appropriateness of the message. Rebecca Shelly’s theme is one that fits our current economic struggles, suggesting that growing our own food can help lead to more independence as well as community-building.
Here’s a clip from Rebecca’s artist’s statement for the show:
“In World War II, our country created “Victory Garden” posters to market the idea of growing home gardens to help with the food supply shortage. They proclaimed that people could fight for the war in their own gardens. Once again, we might be faced with this dilemma. Today, these posters instead of growing vegetables to help fight a war would support a local economic structure. Instead of the term, “Victory Garden” I feel that “Local Victory” would be more fitting today. It is similar to the slogan, “Think Globally, Act Locally.”
I was really drawn into these paintings. When you see them in person, you are more aware of the abstract qualities inherent within the works. The piece above, for example, has some really wonderful sections which, when you zoom into a closer focus, makes you more aware of the fact that Rebecca is really a master of abstract form. I learned later that most of her artworks are much less illustrative than this particular body of works.
Another thing that’s not easy to see in the photograph is the fact that this painting was created in two layers. The bottom layer is watercolor guache on paper, whereas the top layer is acrylic on acetate. The employment of separate layers also helps the viewer to be more aware of the relationship between “positive” and “negative” space in the work.
One of the things that I learned from reading Rebecca’s blog is that some of the artworks in this show were conceived from photographs from her childhood. She was raised by parents who grew their own food. She mentioned to me during the opening that she grew up with the illusion that this was a common experience for everyone, to find out later that few people actually shared this experience of growing up with a close relationship to the earth. In the blog, she credits her father’s gardening journals as one of the impetuses for this body of work:
“I grew up working with my parents in the gardens, but I have not focused before on why they chose to grow certain things. My father chose to grow things to maybe influence growth of other plants or to distract insects. Some varieties worked better than others and with organic gardening there isn’t much time to make mistakes. Once something worked, he would keep working that or try something different the following year. His journals were a way to look back and document what worked and what needed to be changed.”
Of the early photographs, Rebecca notes, “These are what I consider documentation of my childhood rather than just a nostalgic image. I am not commenting on how wonderful it was, but more how interesting this was for a child. At an early age I knew how things grew, and the work that needed to go into this.”
Just as interesting as the works themselves is the way that the artist chose to display them. By incorporating the framed artworks into a wall-drawing of posts and shadows of plants, Rebecca created an installation that brings the viewer into the narrative of the garden.
Rebecca also included 3-D props of plant shapes which occupied the floor space in front of the artworks. On these, she wrote statements and questions that might help the viewer to consider their own relationship to food.
Ben Pink, the founder and curator of Launchpad Gallery, mirrors Rebecca’s concerns in his statement about the show. Problems such as “rising food costs, mono-cropping, pesticide use, loss of genetic diversity in food stocks and reliance on fossil fuels to transport foods hundreds if not thousands of miles from the farm to the store; Shelly sees the modern-day Victory Garden as a small, yet potent way to meaningfully address these issues, but also as catalyst for relationships, a place to re-connect people with their local community and truly create a sense of place.”
In addition to artworks inspired from the images of her own childhood, Rebecca also directly borrowed from the imagery in the WWII posters which were a campaign to encourage Americans to plant victory gardens, as a way of supporting the war effort. She combined the imagery with collaged text from gardening books of the same era (click to enlarge any of the images on this page):
These smaller paintings in the exhibit echo the didactic tone of the 40’s propaganda posters, yet she pushes beyond the earlier war-effort message to one which is contemporary to our own times. The mixed-media and layered approach brings the viewer into the artwork in a more intimate way. What was before a message of pedantic pronouncements becomes, under her skillful hands, more of an invitation to participation.
I couldn’t help but to relate the timing of this exhibition to the victory of our recent American election. Living in a politically liberal community, there’s an air of excitement about the changes to come. Despite the plight of financial and housing markets, there’s a charge of optimism for change. Though its only a small part of the solution, we see many of us who have already taken up the cause for organic gardening. A walk through any Portland neighborhood will reveal that many of our neighbors have become urban farmers. There’s also a taste for bartering and a large population that supports bio-fuels and bicycling. Perhaps one of the answers to these difficult times is a backward glance at the ways of the past.
Here’s some more installation photos from the show:
I thought it especially poignant when a group of young children approached the artist to ask her questions about the inspiration for her mixed-media paintings. For me, this brings the message of her work full-circle. The work is inter-generational, inspired by her own experience growing up in the garden. Now she shares this with others, including the new generation that is emerging.
In addition to the artistic contribution, Rebecca is starting up a project that involves giving away starter plants to people who may want to begin gardening but may need an introduction to the concept:
“Sometimes I think people want to have a little push to do something. That is why I want to give free plant starts to people…. Already, I have received a great amount of interest in this project. A gift is great and when that can continue to give and inspire, that is probably one of the most amazing things an artist can offer.”
In order to make the work MORE available to the general public and in keeping with the propaganda roots of this project, Rebecca has created accessibly priced limited-edition posters of some of the work in the show (click image at left to view these posters). They are available through Launchpad Gallery. The gallery is located at 534 SE Oak Street, Portland, OR. The exhibit continues through November 29th. (view the gallery’s website for hours, or call for an appointment: 971.227.0072)
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