A garden of artful delights

In your torment of impatience for spring, that perennial temptress, consider this: It took local nature sculptor Tom Jordan seven years to finish his first piece (which he describes as an “unnamed dragon”).

What’s more, the earthy fodder for Jordan’s art is actually the harvest of the winter months. The dried vine tendrils, seed pods, moss and pine-cone scales with which he painstakingly creates his sculptural animals became an inspiration to him while he was working toward a degree in forestry and natural resources.

“I was taking a class during the winter,” he remembers. “There were no leaves to [study], only [dried] buds and scales.” But, as inevitably as the seasons change, this winter waste soon presented new artistic possibilities. Jordan started seeing pine-cone scales as dragon scales, thorns as teeth; he then began collecting these husks of former life, giving them a fresh start in the form of his elaborate, whimsical beasts.

“Leaf Creature” features an insolent horn and curly beard subdued by penetrating, hawklike eyes, while the slim “Serpent Scepter” bristles with thorns, its toxic mouth stretched in a bright hiss. “Earthling” is nothing less than love in miniature — an ornate, impossibly delicate dragon with transparent leaf wings and a fragile outstretched claw.

Since Jordan collects his materials in gardens (as well as on mountain hikes), his pieces are a literal sampling of Blue Spiral I’s current exhibit, In the Garden.

More cryptic are Daniel Nevins’ oil-on-wood paintings. Featuring dreamy-faced men and women whose round heads and flat bodies have been widely compared to medieval religious icons, the oft-floating figures in Nevins’ work seem mired in perpetual bliss.

But this is a thinking man’s bliss. “I read a line in a Tom Robbins book: ‘Art should give us what life does not,'” Nevins quotes.

The artist’s vision is driven by music as well as literature (he plays guitar and mandolin). “I don’t get inspired from other [visual] art,” he points out. “But music can take me to all kinds of places.”

The title figure in Nevins’ “The Fiddler” wields an almost evangelical power over the audience, a rapt group of five whose expressions of awe and remorse reflect the fiddler’s lure. The title of another work, “The Day Before the Night Before the Fall,” bespeaks the artist’s gentle humor; the sight of a happily caressing Adam and Eve (waist-high in a silver river amid a riotous garden) further trumpets Nevins’ version of paradise.

“Some artists just sort of document daily existence,” Nevins relates. “I hope I can do something that gives someone a heightened experience, like magical realism — real, but with a sense of magic and possibility.”

The possibility of absence takes central focus in the radiant oils of Florida artist Kenneth Kerslake. What he calls his “patio” series, begun in the mid-’80s, was inspired by a visit to Tuscany a few years before. He found the intense heat and light of the Italian summer similar to those of his stateside home, and the transforming power of the sun continues to pulse through his work.

“In Italy, I was introduced to the piazza, where [people would] talk, have a glass of wine,” he remembers. “The furniture was always … the way the people had left it. If they were talking, the chairs would be together. If they were arguing, the chairs would be left askew.”

When he started the series, Kerslake became entranced with the chair as a metaphorical subject. In all of the patio pieces, the deck chairs are empty, leaving the viewer to wonder at the mood of their departed occupants. “[The paintings] are about the notion of place in the world … the place between external and internal light,” says the artist. “A Glass of Wine, A Good Book” displays eye-searing scarlets and yellows that could only have descended from the rays of a midday Florida sun.

In the ’60s, Kerslake was known for controversial works indicative of the times. And while the patio series makes no overt political statement, there’s a palpable emotional undercurrent brewing beneath the paintings’ smooth surface.

Ron Slaughter’s thickly layered, pointillist-styled tree oils are huge, both literally and figuratively. “Scotch Broom” is six feet high and nearly 10 feet long. Others, such as “Pear” and “Crabapple Study,” are so vividly textured with color and shadow they seem barely contained within their gilt frames — and nearly audible. Slaughter offers this challenge: “Because of the movement involved [in the painting], the tree can seem confined by the canvas. I look at the painting as a starting point. It’s up to the viewer what they want to do with it.”

“It’s an evolution of 20 years of work,” explains Flat Rock-based David Voorhees, speaking about his fluid porcelain vases. Whether it’s a wisteria-festooned punchbowl or a three-sided homage to the trillium — not merely adorned with that flower, but shaped like it, too — the polished elegance of Voorhees’ forms remain a provocative contrast to the natural images that grace them.

Also embodying the joys of spring in three dimensions are the astonishing birdhouses of Bryant Holsenbeck (one is composed entirely of pencils); the gypsy-hued, wool-and-bead tapestries of Tommye McClure Scanlin; and Don Bundrick’s sunnily sinful “Snakes in the Garden,” a huge oak chair swarming with wooden, cartoon-faced renditions of those ancient tempters.

Speaking of antiquity, Mary Carmichael dates the “encaustic” technique she uses in her oddly glowing paintings back to the early Greeks. “Encaustic is an ancient process [meaning] literally ‘to burn in.’ It’s come back into favor as a medium. I like it because you can build up body — [the coating] does its own thing.” A special wax is applied to the surface of the painting, giving it a unique platinum finish. Her “Water Garden” — with its glazed-over purples and greens — convincingly evokes an underwater view.

Like the cult of spring, the work of Suzanne Stryk is a weird and wonderful marriage of science and mysticism. Her gouache-on-paper paintings feature city skylines, obscure symbols and pictographic writing sprinkled along the tops and sides of the picture, while the animal world takes center stage.

“Nature is my thematic obsession,” says Stryk. “I’m always thinking of the relationship between nature and culture. … It’s an encroachment, culture pushing animals in a different kind of direction. In the background [of the paintings], the observatories, temples, churches, represent our life on earth, with nature in the foreground.”

Her “Conference of the Birds” has the dire clarity of a nightmare. The birds are indeed conferring, ominously poised in the middle of the painting and staring out, smug-eyed, thick with answers.

But Stryk’s most startling series consists of dozens of tiny paintings paying homage to individual insects. The expertly detailed images have an ordered, scientific appeal, while their richly colored bodies and the tiny symbols scattered within each frame proclaim that these are tributes, not dissections.

“[The symbols] relate to people’s need to write about creatures, collect them, analyze them, and describe them,” she explains. “Some of the insects are beautiful, some humorous, some terrifying. [It’s about] the intuitive and analytic approach … the shapes and colors and designs, and how the insects contrast with each other — the moods they have which relate to people.”

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