When artist Elizabeth Whelan was given the chance to develop a theme for a show at Featherstone, she dug back into her childhood for inspiration.
“My father is a scientist,” she says. “Many years ago he brought me back a gift from a conference he had attended. It was a gorgeous rendition of DNA by a well-known illustrator. I still have it. It showed me that artists could portray science subject matter in a really captivating way.”
As curator of the current Featherstone show, “Inseparable: Science and Art,” Whelan has proven that statement to be true. Now hanging at the arts campus’ Francine Kelly Gallery are works of art by 34 artists, each of whom was given the task of creating something inspired by one of the elements in the periodic table. In painting, sculpture, mixed media, and even jewelry, the participants really stretched their imaginations to bring a somewhat intangible concept to life visually.
Some artists, like Tara Kenny and Lucinda Sheldon, used one of the metal elements to create their work. The former created a sculptural piece using her chosen element — aluminum, in the form of a plate and a chunk of the metal, half buried in some lava rock inside an acrylic cube. Shelden, a jewelry maker, made a copper bowl and covered the interior with blue enamel.
Basia Jaworska’s painting “Dream Under the Stars” has the look of a tube sculpture made of neon, her choice of inspiration.
Other participants played off the sources or traditional uses of their chosen element. Jack Yuen’s piece provided a colorful spray painting of an oyster. His artist’s statement begins, “What do fluorescent paint and oysters have in common? They both contain zinc.” Yuen then goes on to describe the health benefits of his chosen element.
Scrimshaw artist Darrel Morris chose a considerably less healthy element for his wonderful, intricately carved sculptural piece, titled “The Widow”: Arsenic. The piece features a young woman in Victorian dress, a swan, and a black widow spider. The swan, as Morris explains in the text accompanying the piece, was a symbol typically used by apothecaries in labeling the poison. As the artist explains, “Women in particular were fond of arsenic as a way to kill their husbands or fathers. It was so prevalent that it became known as ‘inheritance powder.’”
Beth Smith’s semiabstract painting references airplanes and heart monitors, two of the devices that benefit from lithium.
Along with the curated portion of the exhibit, there are also a number of paintings by Whelan herself, all inspired by science. Three large portraits titled “Earth,” “Air,” and “Water,” depict a woman in a goddess-style tunic variously floating on water, reclining on the grass, and standing facing the wind with her hair and garment billowing behind. On the adjacent wall are a series of smaller abstracts titled “Water,” “Air,” “Earth,” “Fire,” “Space,” and “Time.”
Adding a more human, personal element to the show are a series of portraits of Vineyard women working in various branches of the sciences, including Kara Shemeth, Megan Carroll, Shelley Edmundson, Ph.D., Amandine Surier Hall, Emma Green-Beach, and Luanne Johnson, Ph.D.
During the opening on August 25, local fashion designer and co-curator Stina Sayre added another “element” to the themed exhibit with a very imaginative science-based costume show inspired by five different science projects. Models donned bubble wrap, emerged from a mesh “embryo” and showcased quantum theory hats. The fashion show attracted an overflow crowd that thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle. Some of the pieces will continue to be on display on mannequins at the gallery. “It was a chance for Stina to be an artist,” says Whelan, “and express her creative nature through clothing and costumes.”
All in all, the exhibit not only showcases the range and creativity of local artists, it also offers visitors a chance to learn a bit about the periodic table. Whelan required each artist to include a written piece about their chosen element and how it inspired them.
“People really delved into the stories in their own way,” says Whelan. “You can’t leave the show without having learned something. It showed me that artists could portray scientific subject matter in a really captivating way. I now find myself very interested in turning toward those concepts as material to work with in the future.”
“Inseparable: Science and Art” will hang through Sept. 15 at the Francine Kelly Gallery at Featherstone. The gallery is open every day from 12 to 4 pm.