Artist Lucy Mitchell fills her curiosity cabinet

Island artist's exhibit at Columbia University.


At one time, it was popular among the wealthy classes in Europe to collect and display natural and manmade wonders and display them artfully arranged inside a glass-fronted case or as a collection taking up an entire room. These displays went by various names including cabinets of curiosities, wonder rooms or, in German “Wunderkammer” (literally wonder chamber).

Reviving this tradition, artist Lucy Mitchell has for many years been creating displays made up bits and pieces she has collected throughout her travels and during her ongoing nature walks, along with small pieces of her artwork. Last year she was asked to design and populate a cabinet for, appropriately, Columbia University’s Center for Archeology. The West Tisbury artist’s creation will be on display on the second floor of the university’s Schermerhorn Extension building through the end of the year.

The cabinet, which was provided by the center, has four shelves. Each has a unique arrangement incorporating shells, rocks, branches, bird skeletons, eggs, and other found treasures from the natural world, along with handwritten letters, labels, diary entries, and various small works of art. The piece is titled “Still Life with Questions.”

“I’m kind of riffing on the idea of old curiosity cabinets, which were intended to show the world in a cabinet,” says Ms. Mitchell. “People would have these collections of general knowledge. They’d collect things from around the world. Animal specimens or anything odd in nature they loved. Those were called naturalia, and they would add articialia — things that had been crafted like a cup made out of a shell decorated with gold.”

Similarly, Ms. Mitchell’s artwork is often based on nature. She is known for her series of wrapped branches, created by fully encasing delicate tree branches with thin paper that has been decorated by the artist with intricate repeating patterns. “The designs are usually nature-based,” says Ms. Mitchell. “They mimic growth patterns or lichen, or trails that insects make in wood.”

She explains her passion for the process, saying, “I just like the natural forms and I like the idea of a sort of skin over things. There’s a sort of severance of looking closely at nature. There’s something wonderful about the way it transforms the object. I like the mystery of people not really knowing what’s underneath.”

A sampling of these wrapped pieces are included in the cabinet at Columbia, as is a globe wrapped artistically in paper. Other nature-enhanced or manmade objects include a book of seaweed pressings, pages filled with writing or design work, and folded paper models. Clearly Ms. Mitchell has a fascination with paper, and the possibilities it presents both in restructuring and decorating with designs or words. One project she is currently working on is a series of seaweed herbarium books.

The cabinet was first unveiled in New York at an event on March 23 that included a panel discussion. The quartet of participants gives an idea of the many facets represented by the exhibit. Included in the talk were anthropologist Zoe Crossland; art history professor Aimee Bessire; science historian James Delbourgo, who authored the book “Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum”; and awardwinning conceptual artist Mark Dion.

Ms. Mitchell, who was born and raised on the Island, and whose sister, Julia Mitchell, is a tapestry artist, has been collecting all kinds of things for years. It was only fairly recently that she started incorporating her finds into her artwork.

“I’m more of a random collector,” says Ms. Mitchell. “I collect things that make up sort a diary of a walk or a visit. My studio has always been full of things. It took me a long time to start using things in art.”

In her artist’s statement Ms. Mitchell writes, “I’d say collecting is based on beauty, association, memory, knowledge, and a surreal sense of magic. My studio is a true cabinet, a repository and archive for things found on walks around and about. There is a sense of preservation, of admiration for seemingly minor things. I keep adding to the seaweed herbarium, leaf collection, groups of likely sticks, intriguing rocks, broken glass, and other appealing things. These objects are sometimes studied, mostly just admired, used as elements in work, examined and copied for their extraordinary marks and patterns.”