Marion Belanger ’90 M.F.A. and Martha Lewis ’93 M.F.A. had traveled in the same New Haven art circles for years, but it wasn’t until both applied to create an installation for the New Haven Agricultural Experiment Station that the two decided to join forces.
An agency that analyzes soil and tests ticks for Lyme disease might seem an unlikely venue for art, but when the building was set to be renovated it triggered the city’s Percent for Art ordinance, which requires that 1% of construction costs for all new or renovated municipal buildings be allocated toward commissioned work.
Both Belanger and Lewis were finalists and decided to collaborate on a permanent artwork called “Roots & Wings,” which draws from the station’s photographs of specimens and historic objects. “We’ve been going through their archives on plant pathology and etymology,” says Belanger. Many of these images are beautiful, the artists say, but inaccessible to the public. Their installation — which will include specimens, bespoke wallpaper, and framed prints — will allow these hidden archives to be seen.
It was a short leap from this collaboration to a commissioned work called “The Underneath” that the two artists are presenting as part of City-Wide Open Studios on Oct. 26-28 at Yale West Campus. All artists participating in this Alternative Space Weekend were asked to create work that addresses the theme “Wellbeing.” Images of root studies at the agricultural experiment station led them to consider soil and roots as the focus of a more ambitious site-specific work that incorporates photos, video, and other elements.
“One of my neighbors was building a structure and had an excavator and could access the underneath,” says Belanger. The result is a series of black-and-white images of the living layers beneath the earth’s surface, the dense tangle of roots against the dark, contoured soil.
“Life underneath allows the aboveground to happen,” says Lewis. “We think of dirt in terms of decay and darkness and death, but it is also healthy and nourishing.”
The shared work will include quoted text, a video showing compost in transformation, and live earth. “This will be improvisational by nature,” Lewis says, adding that she likes working with a specific site — in this case a room formerly used by Yale School of Nursing — and incorporating existing elements like window shades and drop-down light fixtures.
Belanger is a cultural landscape photographer who often turns her camera lens on boundaries — in the Florida Everglades, or at the edges of the North American tectonic plates. Photographing the latter, which was the focus of both an exhibit and a related book titled “Rift/Fault,” took her to cities like Hollister and Daly City, California, both impacted by underlying faults, and to Heimaey, Iceland, where volcanic ash has destroyed more than 400 homes.
“This is not a political or economic boundary,” Belanger says. “It can’t be controlled.” Many of these images have a dramatic, desolate quality, and the artist notes that landscape work by its nature serves as a commentary on the ailing state of the environment. “All landscapes today are political,” she says.
Since graduating from Yale, she’s met regularly with a group of five women photographers who graduated from Yale School of Art in the late 1980s. They call their group the Birthday Club as they’ve structured their meetings around five-year birthday milestones. “The art world is so heavily male dominated,” Belanger says. “Over the years, we’ve really supported each other.”
Lewis weaves elements of science, text, mathematics, abstract shapes, time, and mortality into her art. She was recently a year-long artist-in-residence at the Yale Quantum Institute, where she presented three-dimensional drawings based on math and string theory. For the past three years, she has created an installation for the Eli Whitney Museum Barn, a 200-year old spacious wood barn that has served as the backdrop for artists’ imaginings during City-Wide Open Studios. Last year, her installation emerged from her work at the Quantum Institute — utilizing magnetic core memory and video projection along with thick woven strands like a giant loom. This year, she is doing something more personal, piecing together a quilt that has been a life project she’s never found the time to complete. She’s calling it “Inhabited Constellation — a Quilted Pantheon.”
The quilt-in-progress features an embroidered swatch from her grandmother that was once part of her baby blanket, and embroidery her mother did from one of Lewis’ childhood drawings. There are the artist’s first embroidery attempts at age 8, and more elaborate designs done later, many of them featuring mythological creatures. The fabric, too, has meaning, says the artist: It comes from an ex-boyfriend’s shirt, a childhood smock dress, a scarf from her father, a denim jumpsuit. Lewis is inviting the public to join her at the Whitney Barn in a quilting bee noon- 6 p.m. Oct. 13-14, to sit and knit, sew, or crochet, and examine the vintage sewing supplies she’ll have on display from her own family history. “I like the idea of spending the weekend in the barn, sewing and talking to people about handwork and mythology,” Lewis says.
“Inhabited Constellation — A Quilted Pantheon,” by Martha Lewis
Oct. 13 & 14, noon-6 p.m., Eli Whitney Barn, 920 Whitney Ave., Hamden. Other exhibiting artists include: Susan Clinard, Alexis Brown, Dave Coon, Maura Galante, Clymenza Hawkins, Briah Luckey, Kiara Matos, Sara McGrimley. Special musical performance Saturday at 2 p.m. by the Secret Bunker Stringband. Green Leaf food truck serves Persian food both days. Details on “Inhabited Constellation” are here.
“The Underneath,” by Martha Lewis and Marion Belanger
Oct.26-28, noon-6 p.m., West Campus, 137-141 Frontage Rd., Orange. Details on “The Underneath” are here.