Human nature

John McKah’s “Full Moon” is all chilly solitude; the painting’s titular orb is pale and unassuming amid bare tree branches.

But Jay Pfeil’s Oriental-influenced “Morning Magnolias” shows inky trees laden with delicate blossoms.

This collection of outdoor scenes is as much a study of mood as it is of nature.

“These artists are absolutely all environmentalists,” promises Deborah Squier, curator of Original Nature, currently showing at 16 Patton.

The show is decidedly not your average easy-on-the-eyes collection of pastoral landscapes or frothy coastal scenes; Original Nature goes deeper.

Squier, whose own work hangs in the show, can often be overheard in the gallery talking heatedly about environmentalism, politics and her own desire to do something about the threatened ecosystem.

“The Earth is a garden,” she insists. “Once you take away … nature, you take away our soulfulness, our humanity.”

A speech given by Dr. Michael Lerner, president of Commonweal — a nonprofit health- and environmental-research organization in Balinas, Calif. — inspired the show. Lerner charged that “climate change, ozone depletion, toxic chemicals, habitat destruction and invasive species [are the] five great drivers to the age of extinction.”

“He says this age is unprecedented in terms of speed,” Squier explains. “We know that’s happening, and the best we can hope is that people will come to understand sustainability — a reverence for the garden.”

Unable to shake Lerner’s voice, Squier sent out an invitation to a group of artists, asking them to respond in paint. “The emphasis is on the ‘silent witness’ to [natural] mystery as well as our relationship to the ‘earthbody,'” she says.

The 10 artists took Squier’s challenge personally, answering the call in as many different ways.

John Smith photographed “Clingman’s Dome” with an eye toward revelation: In the foreground, a curved line of dead trees is awash in a fiery swath of sunset. Contrast that with the soft forms of Squier’s pastel “Snow Coated Spring,” which shows a stand of willows sunk into wet blue snow.

Antoinette Prince’s “Pisgah Blush” is an abstract, idealistic watercolor rendered in smudgy hues of yellow, red, pink, blue and green, reminiscent of childhood finger paintings. A single white orb, positioned off center, pairing organic form with intense color.

A world away, Dawn Rentz’s “Spiraling Ginger,” done in a striking palette of umber and brick, is an orderly, geometric study of plant life, its images aloof but animated.

Despite the show’s dire ecological undercurrent, the various renderings are, for the most part, uplifting.

“The goal is consciousness,” Squier says. “Hopefully [through art] we’ll feel a greater sensitivity and responsibility to support nature. …There’s an image and it may stop you, pull you in, and then there’s a dialogue. There’s what the artist puts into the work — his own original nature — and the viewer picks that up.”

What McKah puts into his work, among other things, is a lot of time.

“I started this in spring, last year,” he says of “Under Cold Mountain,” the large oil that greets visitors when they enter the gallery. “It’s still not finished. The paint is still wet.”

He’s not joking.

McKah went to the same spot in Cruso (southwest of Asheville) three times a week to accurately capture the scene.

“With the book and now the movie [Cold Mountain], people in the area are saying, ‘I hope civilization comes [to this area].’ Do you know what that means?” He shakes his head at the idea of developers moving into the protected wilderness.

“When you do a painting, it involves part of your life: meeting people, spending the time to study the light conditions,” McKah explains. “That’s one of the reasons why you paint — it’s not only a painting, it’s a happening.”

McKah’s “Dead of Winter,” tucked away at the back of the gallery, is the only truly harsh image submitted for the show.

“She crashed into my studio,” McKah says of the painting’s central subject, a dead bird on a blanket of snow.

“The tragedy was, it was so close to spring,” he continues. “I picked her up and she died in my hand. I don’t know how to tie that into the destruction of nature, but I wanted to include it in the show. We see more death in nature these days.

“The dead bird isn’t going to sell,” he notes.

Squier agrees that Original Nature isn’t just about “pretty pictures.

“Sometimes I think art feels like a luxury,” she muses. “But then I think that in 40 years, this may be all we have of nature.”

Original Nature runs through Saturday, June 28, 2003 at 16 Patton (16 Patton Ave. in downtown Asheville). Gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Call 236-2889 for more information.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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