Home is where the art is for Joan Backes.
Her sculptures at Studio 21 Fine Art are small iconic house shapes made out of wood, twigs cast in bronze or resin in primary colours, chewy like jelly candy.
The house shape, like a child’s drawing, is a symbol that pulls at the heart strings. However, the artist’s houses are complex in meaning, with ideas about ecology, place, shelter and the emotional location of home. Apart from food, shelter is one of the most basic, universal and enduring intersections of man and nature.
Backes is an American artist who is building a house by the sea in Nova Scotia. “I taught at NSCAD twice in 1999 and in 2007 and I loved it there and I loved being in the painting faculty and I thought it was wonderful up there,” she says in a phone interview.
She has deep roots in her childhood home of Wisconsin in the snowy, northern, Midwestern United States. There she became attached to houses and trees, which she portrays in this show in amazingly intricate paintings of bark patterns.
“My paternal grandfather was an architect,” says Backes, who lives outside Providence, R.I., and has studios in both Providence and New York.
“I remember him. He designed the first house we lived in when I was an infant and I remember him talking to my mum about the plans for the house he was designing for our growing family which had four kids.
“That house was designed particularly for us. It had everything we could need.” That house had the kids’ bedrooms upstairs, the parents’ bedroom downstairs, an open kitchen and a rec room in the basement where the kids had parties for their friends. A shuffleboard was marked into the floor.
“It was a really interesting house,” says Backes, adding, that sadly, it’s not in the family anymore.
Backes, who taught for 11 years at Brown University in Providence, first started working with house structures in 2007. They included Paper House, which twinned her interest in trees and houses.
Paper House had exterior walls of recycled, shredded paper. “There were sheets of music in this house, which were composites of pieces by different composers, all inspired by the sound of wind through trees. I had a stack of drawings and I asked people to draw their favourite tree and it was interesting. Everybody had a favourite tree.
“I would try to do these houses so the viewer would be curious about them and want to go inside.”
She made a stick house at Anna Leonowens Art Gallery in 2007, a bamboo house in Bangkok, and a storybook house in Germany, inspired by Brothers Grimm fairy tales.
In this show, she exhibits two large house structures outdoors on the gallery’s terrace. They are steel rod structures. One is a stilt house based on one of four permanent stilt houses in Sweden. The other is a giant house shape under which people can stand to look out to both a modern apartment building and an historic, shingled house.
The artist’s houses started out more elaborately and have become minimal. “They’re becoming more of an iconic house shape.”
The only house with walls at Studio 21 is a small Plexiglas structure lit from within by a globe. It’s like a beacon and conveys all the comfort of the lit house in the wilderness, except the light is cold and office-like not incandescent like candlelight.
She frustrates the idea that home is one, permanent place. Her houses are all over the world and her materials have come from all over the world and she thinks globally. She anchors her tree pieces in place.
The Berlin series, at Studio 21, is of delicate bark drawings inspired by the pattern on birch trees she saw in Berlin. “I learned that in Berlin these birch trees are getting a fungus and they fall down.”
Backes’ paintings of bark up close are amazing in their detail and suggest aerial landscapes with deltas.
“They can take a month to do but they’re worth it in the end. I started that series in 2000 and I haven’t stopped. I keep making them.
“I’ve alway been looking at trees. When I was a kid all the elm trees died on our street. They were like a bridge over our street and it was dramatic, and when they were cut down I didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t find my house.”
Halifax artist Susan Wood exhibits exquisite, elegiac ink and watercolour collages on paper of flowers and insects at different stages of life.
This new series is called Seven Flowers That Shaped Our World and is inspired by Jennifer Potter’s book, Seven Flowers: and How They Shaped Our World (Atlantic Books, 2013).
The seven flowers are the lotus, lily, sunflower, opium poppy, rose, tulip and orchid. In her book Potter describes them: “Here are the flowers of healing, delirium and death; of purity and passion; of greed, envy and virtue; of hope and consolation; of the beauty that drives men wild. All seven demonstrate the power of flowers to speak metaphorically, if we would only care to listen.”
Wood’s drawings are pure poetry. She depicts each flower from full bloom to dessicated form in panels of tactile, sometimes decorated papers in nostalgic browns. The panels stretch like enlarged, elegant film strips.
Wood’s art connects strongly to Backes’ work in its theme of nature and its connection to wood through paper.
Yet it is not minimal; it is ornate, patterned, soulful. The plants cast shadows like ghosts whispering to be remembered. The drawing is lush and sensual. The dead insects exist in another world.
Wood was born in Saint John, N.B., grew up in Amherst, lives in Halifax and taught at NSCAD from 1990 to 2012. Her show, Earth Skins, Three Decades of Drawing by Susan Wood, organized by the MSVU Art Gallery, is still touring. In 2005 she was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts.
Both exhibits are at Studio 21 Fine Art, 1273 Hollis St., to Oct. 8.