A cedar log carved into a double helix with a chainsaw. A collection of wood veneer scraps twisted and wrapped to look like a tree trunk. A round sculpture built out of woven straw that is implanted with mushroom spores.
These are just some of the works on display at the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany as part of “Bernheim: A Natural Muse.” The exhibit celebrates 35 years of artist work at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, just south of Louisville.
Martha Slaughter is the visual arts coordinator at Bernheim, and she works with visiting artists who come to create new work there. Here’s how it works: Artists propose a project and, if selected, spend two to four months in a cabin onsite working on the idea. Slaughter said the hope is always that being at Bernheim will influence the artist and the art.
“Bernheim’s mission is to connect people with nature,” Slaughter said. “And the arts programming is a way for people to have a deep connection with nature through the lens of an artist.”
Artists from all over the world — Korea, Germany, Japan, Holland, as well as the United States — have come to work at Bernheim, often using natural materials found on site. In all cases, the work itself is designed to return to the land in some way: to decompose, to be recycled back into the earth.
“To live in a cabin and work in the studio for two to four months, it really is a very interesting way to expose them to our neck of the woods, our area,” Slaughter said.
The ephemeral nature of some of the artwork makes a retrospective challenging, said Slaughter, who curated this exhibit.
For example, Cathleen Faubert is an “olfactory artist,” which means she works with fragrance. As part of her residency in 2015, she collected plant materials from different parts of the forest and boiled them down to their essences to create a “scent map” of Bernheim.
To include Faubert’s work in the retrospective, Slaughter chose several photos of Faubert’s workbench, cluttered with bottles, beakers and droppers. There is also a companion book available that covers the artists’ work in greater detail.
Slaughter said one of the most thought-provoking artists she’s worked with at Bernheim is Mei-Ling Hom, an installation and sculpture artist from Philadelphia who is also a farmer and environmental activist. Hom devised a way of implanting mushroom spores into straw, then weaves the straw into large organic shapes. As the sculptured piece sits on the ground, the mushroom spores spread underground like a cloud, enriching the soil.
The exhibit will be open through April 9, with an opening reception on Feb. 5 from 6-8 p.m.
(Featured image: “Todd Smith Connect” by Natalie Biesel)