Atlanta artist Katherine Mitchell, long recognized for her delicately layered grids and palimpsests of concentric circles, has tried for years to reconcile her decades-long concerns in visual art, namely an appreciation for geometry and structure as symbol rather than direct portrayal of something else, with environmental concerns, her own and those of the larger community. With Hearing the Trees: Chapter III, two dozen works made from 2015 to 2021 on view at Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA GA) until October 2, the artist finally found the way to connect her two concerns. In so doing, she has created from the most personal of explorations a universal message of beauty, fragility and witness. (The artist will give a gallery talk September 14 at 1 p.m. It will be filmed and available through MOCA.)
The health of our trees, and by extension our forests, is a bellwether of the ecological state of our planet. Mitchell found her “door” in, as she describes it in her artist’s statement, in the form of an ailing white oak that shares her front yard. (Interestingly, the ancient Celts believed that the entrance, the door, to another realm, was to be found in the roots of the mighty oaks that ruled their forests. The origin of our English word door comes from the Old Irish word for oak: daur.)
Fearing the premature demise of her oak, in 2015 Mitchell began making a series of writings and drawings, not as studies for larger works but as talismans for the healing of the tree and, by association, for all trees and for the earth itself.
She is often inspired by literature, and for this body of work she found a guide and kindred spirit in the writings and example of naturalist and essayist Henry David Thoreau, whose dictum “[a] forest is in all mythologies a sacred place” became Mitchell’s thesis. It is an appropriate inclusion; her work reflects a quiet and devotional intention often reserved for the sacred, but the rigor and the precision of her practice circumvents any sentimentality that could taint its delivery.
Mitchell maintains her relation to the grid, at least as a starting point. She adds acrylic washes of earth colors — in this case, taupe, mushroom, ochre and blue (yes, blue is an earth color, so realized Mitchell after a 2016 experience of the color of the Aialik Glacier in Kenai Fjords in Alaska).
She often embeds writing, her own thoughts or those of others, in the layers she creates. Its legibility isn’t a primary concern, yet its presence, along with the layered patterns drawn on or collaged, deepens the meaning of the piece. Conté crayon, graphite, ink and gouache contribute to the layering of the work exhibited here, all completed almost exclusively on Arches watercolor paper with average dimensions of 24 to 36 inches.
The titular piece, a departure for Mitchell, is the exception. Employing 24 antique roofing tiles she found in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, she created a 62”x 67” grid of the book-sized tiles which she poetically treats as pages. Onto some of these she has added natural objects, a leaf or an acorn, and on others written quotations from fellow naturalists she calls “Tree Heroes.”
And apparently our trees are in need of heroes; Mitchell’s stand metaphorically for the perils facing all trees. “Ghost Trees,” at 30 x 23 from 2017, in somber shades of taupe to charcoal, was inspired by what she described as a “crumbled charcoal [burnt] landscape” encountered near Yellowstone. With “The Lone Tree,” also 2017, Mitchell’s composition implies a solitary tree without the supportive mycelial web that connects it to a community of other trees (a small sketch nearby references this below-ground communication system). Left alone, it “calls out” with no one to answer.
“Through Snowy Woods, I and II” evoke the image delivered by the titles. A palette of icy blue, ivory and gray in maze-like layers of graphite, ink, Conté and acrylic creates an intricate geometry that opens up with viewing distance to conjure the eponymous sense of stillness and calm of woods on a winter day, reminding us of just how much we stand to lose.
In wall text, Mitchell names her “Tree Heroes,” along with some of the quotations that inspired her during her research. Her heroes are scientists and naturalists, Thoreau and John Muir, for example, and they are poets, among them Robinson Jeffers and W.S. Graham. The rest of us might well add the name Katherine Mitchell.
She describes her own approach to the imperative she feels as poetic, rather than scientific, but nevertheless, the science and the message that we are living in an endangered world comes through. It is not surprising that this artist lectured at Emory University for almost 30 years; it shows. There are lessons here for us all, one of which is that in the hands of the right person, the scientific can be poetic.
One might say it always is.