As is often the case with artists from Maine, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts played a pivotal role in shifting the studio practice of painter Juliet Karelsen.
In 2015, she went to Haystack and learned to make stitched “paintings,” using a needle and thread to preserve quiet moments in the woods with small textured renderings of forest jewels – colorful lichen, mushrooms, fiddleheads and mosses. For an artist accustomed to working with paint, the opportunity to work with fabric was new, exciting and experimental.
For a new exhibition at Speedwell Projects in Portland, Karelsen is showing examples of what happens when she takes that experiment to the next level and creates three-dimensional objects from fabric that look like rocks, boulders and tree stumps, on which lichen and moss grow.
She learned to make these sculptural pieces during a follow-up workshop at Haystack in 2016, taught by fiber artist Susie Brandt of the Maryland Institute College of Art. “I had never made anything 3-D, and always been terrible at it,” she said. “I had this attitude, ‘I’m a painter.’ ”
A few hours under Brandt’s tutelage, Karelsen learned to be comfortable working in sculptural forms.
For this pop-up exhibition, “Universal Forest,” on view only until Feb. 9, Karelsen is sharing gallery space with Kenny Cole. He is showing paintings in the Speedwell window gallery that explore America’s lack of diplomacy, leadership and decorum in the age of Trump. This series, he said in his artist statement, was originally on view in Camden before it was taken down in what he describes as “an act of pre-emptive self-censorship” because the coffee shop where he was showing them worried Cole’s art would alienate customers.
There is no such worry in Portland, where Cole’s fiery, dramatic paintings of rage are tempered by Karelsen’s quiet walk in the woods. She’s created about 30 pieces for “Universal Forest.” In various forms and configurations – from small orbs that look like planets to large mounds that resemble rocks and diarama-like view boxes – her work references painting, stitching, tapestry, rug-making, embroidery, fantasy, landscape, textile, miniature worlds and science. She’s interested in the macro and micro, from astronomy to mycology. Her pieces suggest the delicacy of Queen Anne’s Lace, the resiliency of moss and the wonder of the solar system.
“In a world where daily interaction with plants and trees and moss and lichen (etc!) is increasingly rare, even disappearing, my work points to the importance of taking the time to slow down, notice and protect the jewels of the forest, the world and the universe,” she writes in her artist statement.
In addition to her time at Haystack, the other point of influence on Karelsen for this work was the fabric artist Nancy Hemenway Barton. Karelsen saw an exhibition of the late artist’s work in 2017 at the University of New England. She bought the catalog, studied it and drew inspiration from Hemenway and her commitment to her material over time. Hemenway’s art motivated Karelsen to continue to create, she said.
“Universal Forest” isn’t a political show. This isn’t an exhibition about climate change. But Karelsen’s love of nature – indeed, her dependence on it – is evident in this work.
“This is more about what’s at stake,” she said. “It’s about the feeling of being in the woods and the chemistry – the word I use is ecstasy – that I feel when I am in the woods.”
WHERE: Speedwell Projects, 630 Forest Ave., Portland
WHEN: On view through Feb. 9; First Friday Art Walk reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday