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The mixed-media installation in the Gittins Gallery at the University of Utah transports you to a place, possibly from your childhood, where there was beauty and magic in the leaves and branches of your own backyard or a secret hideaway in the woods. It reminds you of stories and people and feelings. In “gather-piece-stitch,” Céline Downen has created an experience of place using found objects from nature along with fabric and bits of poetry.
As the title of her exhibit suggests, “gather” is the first step in Downen’s art making. Comparing it to a bird gathering sticks and bits of other material for a nest, Downen is a gatherer of memories, stories, and all manner of objects left behind by nature. With 9- and 4-year-old sons to help her, she collects piles of natural materials from their backyard or hikes in the canyons. “A lot of my work is about the process of gathering the different materials that I use. That’s just as important as what the final work turns out to be,” says Downen. “So there have been a lot of adventures, or quests, as my boys like to call them, gathering leaves and sticks and sumac berries and things like that.” There’s much creative potential in the discards of nature. “It’s for your art, Mom,” the younger one will say as he presents a stick.
Another element of her art involves fabrics. Growing up with a mother who was a costume designer, Downen spent a lot of time backstage watching the creative process. But she didn’t really learn to sew until her son was born and she was able to take a quilting class. Then her husband gave her a book on quilts of Gees Bend, those folk art quilts assembled from clothing and other fabrics with a practical, natural aesthetic. “That changed everything,” says Downen. ”I think quilt making was a way for me to have a kind of language that my mom spoke but on my own terms. I love storytelling. I think quilts are a way of telling stories.”
Then, using natural dyes, Downen colors fabric to incorporate into her art. Drawing on her undergraduate degree in photography, she uses the simple cyanotype (blueprint) process to capture images from nature on paper or fabric that also become part of the art. She pieces together all these elements, stitches and ties them, and creates spaces that are nest-like, reminding viewers of places they’ve been, of past engagements with the natural world. Every object has a memory and a story for Downen but a different memory and story for viewers.
The culmination of all this gathering, piecing, and stitching (and two years of graduate work) is a mixed-media installation in the Gittins Gallery. There are five different parts of the exhibit, each creating a different space and experience for the viewer. One reminds a viewer of a special childhood meeting place in the woods: pieced strips of cloth printed with leaves hang from a structure pieced together from tree limbs; pillows printed with cyanotype images fill the bottom of the nest like soft leaves, inviting friends to nestle in; the leaf-printed hangings that enclose the space contain bits of handmade paper printed with original poems by schoolchildren, reminding the viewer that such hideaways are sacred, creative spaces.
Another piece of the exhibit contains similar elements but a different story. It is the story of a neighbor’s pine tree that regrettably had to be cut down. Downen gathered limbs and pine needles from the tree. She and the children printed the images of the limbs on fabric using the cyanotype process. The pine needles form a kind of basket in the midst of the hanging images.
A favorite vacation destination in Port Townsend, Washington, is remembered in another part of the exhibit. It incorporates driftwood collected on the beach, along with shells and other mementos gathered by the family last summer.
A handmade quilt is the centerpiece of another piece that celebrates the aspen trees that paint the mountains yellow in the fall. The yellow side of the quilt was dyed using yellow aspen leaves Downen and her boys collected. Stitched into the quilt is blue fabric with white aspen leaves made with the cyanotype process. The border of the quilt is a gray color, dyed first with staghorn sumac berries and then dipped in rust-infused water made with rusty nails.
The collaborative process Downen used to create this exhibit is as important to her as the finished project. It’s all about community; the community that begins with her family, her neighborhood, and other art students at the U. Based on her concepts, other arts education majors created curricula to take into schools where they teach. One student teacher took natural elements into the after-school program at Madeleine Choir School and Park City Day School and asked the students to write haiku poems inspired by nature. Not only did some of these poems end up in the exhibit, one of the students decided to form a poetry club at the Choir School. “This is a great example of what we hope for in arts education,” says Downen.
Through her graduate program, Downen combined studio art with arts education, ending with a Master of Fine Arts degree in community-based arts education. She will spend the summer vacation hanging out with her family, no doubt gathering more art-making materials from nature. And she will dream of her next community collaboration, perhaps an art center, perhaps outreach in schools, or even in senior centers, such as the one in Millcreek, where she finds participants benefit from art experiences as they age. Big hopes and lots of ideas will percolate.
At the heart of her deliberations is the belief that art “is too important” to ignore. It fosters inventiveness, says Downen, who is determined to find a place for it in her communities.
“gather-piece-stitch,” an exhibit by Céline Downen, Gittins Gallery, in the U of U Art Building, Salt Lake City, May 31 – June 10, with a reception Saturday, June 4, 5-8 p.m.
Sue Martin holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.