To ancient peoples, reed was vital to well being and thus brought on significant meanings; as a useful natural form it represented the connection with life. Thatch roofs on their homes symbolized protection. Giving off a sweet smell with maceration it symbolized purification. Made into candles it meant light. Crafted into a flute it communicated beauty and was viewed as an initiator of an otherworldly voice.
Today reed isn’t valued as a rich material, providing little if any residual semblance for human life. But as an organic item, it is still a direct reference to nature which artist Mary Day explores in her Turning: Reed Sculptures and Drawings exhibit at Sunderland Gallery thru May 25.
In her artist statement, Day referenced a poem, “Burnt Norton,” by T.S. Eliot that inspired the show’s basis and title. An excerpt reads: “Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
The poem provides various contradictory ontological thoughts such as this: each one seeming to build on yet break down each other, sometimes playfully, sometimes heart wrenchingly, as does Day in her work.
Seeing her delicate reed sculptures, it is evident the meditative thoughts gleamed if only purely through the process of the weaving itself—a process, like philosophy, that has gone on for hundreds of years. In actuality, Day’s work represents this immeasurable idea of understanding through form.
In “Gratitude,” “Prayer” and “Serenity” Day uses familiar shapes--crescent, orb, and basket—to reel us in gently, representing her quoted “needs to be balanced,” giving the seemingly simple forms depth.
The indefinable is felt in the back gallery with “Cosmology,” a set of nine pieces representing to Day the solar system. Some of the pieces propped on pedestals, some on the floor, the shapes appear unbalanced yet remain still. The floor pieces angled, open at one end like a record player speaker, almost seem like they are moving across the floor. The smaller ones invite viewers to look into their infinite landscapes. Abstract drawings behind the series denote various angles photographed by the artist of these pieces, another layer to their ponderous nature.
“Life is short,” Day said, “we try to make it as balanced as we can even when its leaning one way or the other.”
Digging deeper into the fragility of human nature, Day takes on the story of Cain and Abel with a set of sculptures named after the Biblical characters. Unlike the rest of the pieces in the show, these two in hourglass form, are cinched at the center with red reed, lined with straw through the middle. The red gives immediate call to death in the form on Abel who was slain by his brother Cain, the first born of Adam and Eve. The straw, like reed, another reference to nature, is also used throughout art history for life and death, and worthlessness.
With all of this deeply philosophical, provocative work, the “Connections” series in the middle of the gallery refreshes. This set of three sculptures, one little orb-like and two peanut-shapes, act, with their title, to connect the here and now. Playfully rotating with people walking around, the sunlight brings in delicate shadows of patterns from the reed throughout the space, reminding us of the present.
The award-winning artist, whose design can be seen on the Emerging Terrain Silo Project on I-80, explained: “The materials set up the paradox of human value, how humans are or are not valued. One of the questions I'm very preoccupied with is ‘what does it mean to be fully human?’”
With this beautifully rendered and philosophically loaded show, Day succeeds in thoughtfully and delicately bringing light to the dark and dark to the light, bringing the modernly challenged material of reed into contemporary significance. So ends Eliot’s poem: “Be remembered; involved with past and future. Only through time, time is conquered.”
Mary Day, Turning: Reed Sculptures and Drawings, is on view at Sunderland Gallery at Saint Cecilia Cathedral, 100 N. 62nd St. thru May 25. Visit cathedralarts.org for more information.