THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
At the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago,
August 12 thru December 10, 2017
by Bruce Thorn
Chicago’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum might not be on the art crowd circuit but it has turned out to be an almost perfect environment for artist Sharon Bladholm to exhibit her work.
The natural world of plants and their reciprocal relationship with humans has long been a central interest for Bladholm, a sculptor and printmaker who is active in a variety of media including ceramics, bronze, glass, mixed media, watercolor and monotypes.
Aspiration, Respiration, Transpiration and Transmutation, 2014, Bronze, 22”x12x4” Photo by Eric Bladholm.
When one steps back from the hype of the contemporary scene, away from major galleries and museum shows, a far distance from Artforum and the New York Times, away from the haze of newsworthy auction prices, that is where you will find most artists these days: working to make their own way with whatever modest jobs, sales and exhibition opportunities that they can manage to obtain.
Bladholm grew up in Highland Park, IL, the daughter of a middle school art teacher who was active as an abstract painter and ceramicist. The family spent summers camping on a 40-acre plot south of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, where her father built and utilized a small painting studio while Sharon, her mom, sister and two brothers tented it under the stars, exploring the outdoors. She was always encouraged by her parents to make art and those memorable times outdoors grew into a lifelong interest in botany and ecology.
Bladholm is a self-taught artist who has cobbled together her own program of study with mentors and classes as needed. Early in her career, she developed an expertise in design and fabrication of leaded glass, which enabled her to make a modest living.
Bladholm’s prominent influences include: Edgar Miller, whom she once met in his old age, Charles Rennie Macintosh, architect and designer of the Glasgow School of Art, Stephan De Staebler, Preston Jackson and German Expressionism. The Arts and Crafts Movement, spearheaded by John Ruskin and William Morris, also comes to mind.
Bladholm’s content is specific and highlights mankind’s interdependence with the natural world, the pressing necessity for humans to develop a better working relationship with the environment, for the sake of health and survival.
RAINFOREST, ceramic and living plants, 2017, 15x12x9” Photo by Louise Rosenberg.
Her renderings of plants twist and turn like figure models. They are anthropomorphic and suggest secret lives. There are some 250 potted plants in her studio and she has helped to create and manage a 16,000 square feet outdoor garden beside the studio building in Garfield Park.
Bladholm has joined several scientific research expeditions to Amazonian forests in the capacity of team artist. In 1993, she accompanied the Rainforest Action Network to live with and document an indigenous Yanomami tribe for a month. In 1999, she accompanied the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History and Conservation International on a research trip to the Peruvian Amazon.
She returned to the rainforest in 2009 to the Andes for the express purpose of discovering and documenting rare orchids. Her most recent trip back into the bush was with Project Amazonas in 2016, researching seeds and doing reforestation work. On this expedition, she discovered some wild Amazonian earthstars (Geastrales), international fungi that now reappear in her work with metaphorical zeal.
The exhibition includes a large wall mounted grouping of ceramic earthstars, flying like asteroids (Earth Stars: Above and Below, 2017). Also included are some 10 drawings of orchids and one of Geastrales, all done with watercolor on vintage ledger papers.
Not surprisingly, Bladholm has come to admire and respect indigenous life styles, their animistic beliefs and recognition of plants as sentient and interdependent beings. The plant world communicates and shares in symbiotic relationships not just with humans and animals, but also with each other.
Pin Hook Bog, 2017, monotype and etching on rice paper, 36x26” Photo by Jyoti Srivastava.
Bladholm is an artist on a mission to spread a message about sustainable living on the planet and to share her love of botany. She succeeds quite well at that, with a genuine and warm connection to the natural world that does not become preachy.
While she enjoys working in several mediums, others might long for a higher level of commitment and virtuosity in any one particular area. Her bronzes don’t yet match the degree of ambition possessed by Preston Jackson or Stephan De Staebler.
Bladholm’s drawings of orchids on ledger paper are lovely studies. Will they be compared to naturalist works by the likes of Elizabeth Twining, Ferdinand Bauer, Alexander Marshall or John James Audubon? Perhaps not.
Yet, we must take artists on their own terms and, for Bladholm at this time, the urgency and consistency of the message seems paramount to the art object. She’s probably right about that.
Bruce Thorn is a Chicago based painter and musician. He has degrees in painting and drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a Contributing Editor to the New Art Examiner and a contributing writer to Neoteric Art.