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Nature’s Constant Flux: Laura Amussen’s Art in the Garden

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Laura Amussen’s sculptures appear to have been made by Mother Nature herself. Over a twenty-year art career that includes a curatorial practice, college professorship, artmaking, and exhibitions, Amussen’s work has been often compared to Andy Goldsworthy and Tara Donovan, who use organic and synthetic materials (respectively) to form repetitive, undulating patterns and structures. A 2006 graduate of MICA’s Rinehart School of Sculpture, Amussen is a multidisciplinary maker who works in large-scale, site-specific installation, sculpture, mixed media, video, projection, photography, and performance to comment on natural phenomena, climate change, and human relationships, and to envision spirituality at micro and macro levels.

It’s a treat to be able to experience Amussen’s work in person during Covid restrictions, in a multifaceted outdoor (and also indoor) exhibition as part of the Art in Our Gardens program at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, a sprawling garden and estate built in the 1930s by Harvey Ladew. After traveling to England and Italy, Ladew designed extensive gardens with more than 100 topiaries, which he considered “living sculpture.” The Garden Club of America awarded Ladew the Distinguished Achievement Award for “creating and maintaining the most outstanding topiary garden in the country without professional help.” Ladew puts on exhibits for visitors, who can tour the gardens without a guide and engage in other on-site events and programming.

According to Amussen, the Art in Our Gardens program began several years ago to encourage regional sculptors to display contemporary works in the wildflower meadow and other areas in the gardens. Artists John Ruppert and David Hess have exhibited as part of the program in the past. For her show, Amussen created three new large-scale, site-specific works that respond to the architecture, gardens, and history of Ladew Topiary Gardens and conducted research in its Oval Library, where director Emily Emrick pointed out a sprig of ivy that was creeping through the grate on the floor. That single detail became the impetus for two of Amussen’s works created for her solo exhibition, Flourish.

Flourish is on view at Ladew through October 31, 2020. Visit Ladew’s website for tickets and more info.

 

Cara Ober: You have always utilized unusual natural materials—often sourced from the outdoors, gardening shops, and hardware stores—in your artwork. Why do you work with those materials? How do they allow you to think or design in unique ways?

Laura Amussen: I have always been drawn to the natural world, and thus frequently employ natural materials and/or artificial natural materials. A collector at heart, I have bins and bins of materials that I’ve gathered over the years from a variety of sources. I have a hard time throwing anything away, and thus also have bins of remnants from other projects—most recently, boxes of artificial flower stems. Sometimes, the materials inform the work directly, other times research dictates what materials are used. Transformed into visual expressions, these materials provide poetic narratives and become metaphors for psychological, spiritual, and ecological associations. For example, a mandala comprised of hundreds of lunaria annua seeds is titled “The Essence of the Essence.”

Can you talk about the theme of the show and the objects you created for it? How does the history of Ladew impact your work?

While exploring Ladew Topiary Gardens’ 22 acres of gardens and the historic Manor House, I found myself reminded of Mother Nature’s unwieldy propensity to consume abandoned or unattended structures and objects. The three site-specific works created for Flourish highlight details I observed. In the Oval Library, a single sprig of ivy creeps through a grate on the floor. Visible through the window—just beyond the threshold—the ivy blankets the ground. Its presence threatening to overtake the inlaid drop-leaf gaming table and side chairs before making its way to the oval partner’s desk. One can easily imagine—if given time—the ivy swallowing these interior relics whole, as Mother Nature creates topiaries of her own. “Checkmate” brings this playful fantasy to life. Artificial ivy spreads across the floor and over the furniture, leaving visible only traces of the objects beneath.

Taking cues from the ivy infiltrating the Oval Library, but also inspired by the follies, gardens, and topiaries found in Ladew’s gardens, “Oval Library Topiary Folly” is a merger of both landscape and architecture. A large oval gazebo provides the framework for this structure, as again artificial ivy and flowers overtake the building.

Most of these artificial flowers were bought secondhand, a choice I made deliberately. By using repurposed artificial plastic plant material, I hope to draw attention to our world’s ecological concerns regarding plastic consumption and pollution. The artificial materials were also chosen out of necessity. The exhibition is on view for five months, June through October; due to the ephemeral nature of live flowers, they obviously would not have lasted for the duration.

Inspired by the abundance of seedpods that blanket Ladew’s wildflower meadow, “Embedded” in the seed is the blossom waiting to unfold, rendering the seed larger than life and drawing parallels between nature and femininity, as pink and red flowers burst from a giant green seedpod.

How has Covid affected your art-making and opportunities for exhibiting?

I had a solo exhibition titled Nurture in Baltimore Clayworks’ Artist Space Gallery which was slated to open mid-March, right as the Covid-19 shutdown began. Needless to say, the exhibition sat installed, yet unattended for months. The artist reception was necessarily canceled as well. During the first few months of the pandemic, when the flow of uncertainty and fear swelled, followed by the murder of George Floyd, protests, more murders, division, more and more deaths, and immense political unrest, I found it very difficult to concentrate and be productive. I grappled with so many emotions, my practice felt completely irrelevant and unimportant as Covid and police brutality ravaged on.

When I expressed these thoughts and concerns to my friend Zoë Charlton, her response was this, “Art IS important in that it generates conversations, mediates hard times, and brings respite….Moments of JOY are important right now.” I was so thankful for her words of encouragement.

I’m also thankful that I had to continue production on my Ladew works. The exhibition had to be installed, even though the opening and reception were delayed and the Manor House/Oval Library—where “Checkmate” is installed—was no longer offered as part of the tour. Working on these new pieces offered me reprieve from the horrific things unfolding around me, which I had no control over. Working calmed me and provided solace. Sometimes a deadline is needed to keep forcing you forward. Another big lifesaver has been that I started hiking five miles every day in March when the lockdown began. At some point, I realized I was practicing a walking meditation, an act of present-moment awareness. I started noticing the smallest details, the way nature was in a constant state of flux, birth followed by death, then birth again, incessant change. Through macroscopic photography, I’ve been documenting the minutiae of the daily shifts occurring on the forest floor, in particular the fungi. These experiences have inspired a new body of work which I’m starting soon.

How would you like for visitors to experience your work at Ladew? Are there a lot of photos you are seeing from those who have come through? If they take photos, what is the best way for you to see them?

There are only a few days left to view my exhibition Flourish at Ladew Topiary Gardens. I’ve heard that “Oval Library Topiary Folly” has been a hot spot for selfie-taking. I’ve been tagged on a few posts but wish I could see more images people have taken over the past five months. It makes me smile to think my art, in some way, has been bringing people joy during these difficult and tumultuous times.

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