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FairfaxNew MPA exhibition focuses on creative use of wood

New MPA exhibition focuses on creative use of wood

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Whether wooden sculptures assembled layer by layer or colorful assemblages made from quilt batting, the latest exhibits at the McLean Project for Arts (MPA) are tactile tributes to the artists’ creativity.

“Intersectional Painting: Works by Sheila Crider” now is on display at MPA’s Atrium Gallery and features 3-D abstract forms and hangings. The other exhibit, “Give and Take: Building Form,” is on display at MPA’s Emerson Gallery and includes abstract wooden sculptures by Emilie Benes Brzezinski, Rachel Rotenberg, Foon Sham and Norma Schwartz.

Both shows, which opened Dec. 2 last year and were underwritten by Pamela and David Danner, will be on display through Feb. 19. The artists described their materials, methods and motives during a Jan. 20 online discussion.

Crider, a West Virginia native who focused on African studies while attending the University of Virginia, said her artworks examine the idea of community using quilt batting. The artist found the material, which bears a lot of weight, at a thrift store in Paducah, Ky.


“It takes a lot of abuse – the cutting, stitching and weaving, all of that – unlike paper,” she said.

Quilt batting maintains its body and stiffness, said Nancy Sausser, MPA’s exhibitions director.

“It drinks a lot of color,” Crider said. “I soaked some of it up with canvases and plan to do series of artworks with those canvases. Sometimes it soaks all the way through.”

Crider recalled assigning herself a project after visiting a textile center and began stitching, weaving and braiding cloth.

“I wanted to create something that was more pictorial and narrative,” she said. “I’ve been doing stitching and weaving all along, but didn’t relate it to community until this series of work.”

Crider was working on a series of grid artworks when she decided to make them three-dimensional.

“I will allow the work to direct me in a certain way. I’m always trying to push the work in a way I haven’t taken it [and] find a way for the work to go further than it’s been.”

Rotenberg, who joined the meeting in the dead of night from outside Jerusalem, said she delights in “building and putting things together, finding new forms and discovering what can come out of what I’m building.”

Rotenberg begins with series of drawings and works through many iterations until something clicks with her. Themes, generally having to do with relationships, tend to emerge as the works progress, she said.

The artist uses cedar from west coast of Canada, saying the wood “stays straight and smells terrific.” Once she has assembled a form that is working artistically, she further refines it by cutting and sanding.

“That’s where the excitement comes from,” Rotenberg said. “Can I build this thing that I drew? The sculpture takes on a life of its own. The commitment is to make it work.”

Rotenberg said she hopes people standing in front of her artworks will feel a sense of energy.

“They’re like my children,” she said of the sculptures. “I had to bring them up, then they create their own relationships after that.”

Sham, a professor of art at the University of Maryland College Park, was displaying his artworks for the first time at MPA. He produced the sculptures over the last decade using materials come from fallen trees in Maryland and Virginia.

“It’s more like extending the life of the tree, philosophically,” he said.

The human-sized artworks, inspired by his travels to the Grand Canyon and Utah, came together block-by-block in layers.

“I make preliminary drawings, but when I start building, I go on my own journey with the wood around me,” Sham said. “They do have cracks and openings, gaps in between them. The journey is inside the pieces.”

Brzezinski could not attend the discussion, but instead contributed comments via video. The artist, who was born in Switzerland and started her art career in 1970s, was in England during World War II.

She and her family went to California, which she called a “paradise,” and her father took them on trips to Oregon, where the beaches were strewn with driftwood.

“You have to search it out, find the extraordinary piece,” said. “You don’t want to overdo [the woodworking]. You want the work to speak for itself.”
Schwartz, who was born in Argentina and moved to Spain, said that like Foon Sham she shapes wood in ways that seem natural.

“It’s a memorable material, so sensitive in a sense,” she said. “I love it when my sculptures are touched.”

A teacher and psychoanalyst, Schwartz said most of her artworks’ names are concepts in psychoanalysis.

“The only thing is pleasure,” she said. “My only objective is to transmit some kind of beauty.”

“‘Give and Take’ is a thrilling exhibit to visit in person, said MPA executive director Lori Carbonneau.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of MPA, which over the six decades has shown works by more than 3,000 artists, Carbonneau said.

“Intersectional Painting” is open during the McLean Community Center’s regular operating hours. “Give and Take” is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 1 to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. MPA officials are limiting attendance at this exhibit to six people at any one time.

For more information, visit mpaart.org.

Norma Schwartz’s wooden sculpture “Vessel Standing” is among artworks now on display at the McLean Project for the Arts. (MPA photo)
Rachel Rotenberg’s sculpture “Side by Side” is on display at the McLean Project for the Arts. (MPA photo)
“Sprites,” a wooden sculpture by Emilie Benes Brzezinski, now is on display at the McLean Project for the Arts. (MPA photo)
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