The show of massive-scale thread drawings is up at the Chazen Museum of Art through September 11.
Creating an ethereal field of native flowers like goldenrod and milkweed hovering in the air, Toronto-based textile artist Amanda McCavour showcases the beauty and resilience of Wisconsin flora in her exhibition Suspended Landscapes. The show, commissioned to mark the Chazen Museum of Art’s 50th anniversary, is up there through September 11. Stunning in its scale and nothing short of magical in its effect, McCavour’s installation celebrates the changes and constancy of nature. It honors the rigidity and pliability of thread and flora, both as art mediums and as metaphors for our existence. This enchanting collection of works instills a sense of awe and admiration for the endurance we build up in this thing called life.
The exhibit started taking shape in 2018 when Amy Gilman, director of the Chazen, reached out to McCavour to create a site-specific art installation for Paige Court, the open space at the center of the Elvehjem Building (the museum’s older half). McCavour flew from Canada to Wisconsin in October 2018 to do a site visit and brainstorm with Gilman. The original installation date was set for August 2020, but was pushed back due to the Covid-19 pandemic. McCavour will be back in Madison to attend the Suspended Landscapes exhibit reception (August 11, 6 p.m.), and to lead a stitching workshop (August 12, 10 a.m.) and activity-filled family day (August 13, 11 a.m.).
Two years later, the opening of the exhibition happened at the dawn of spring, when things were opening up and in-person museum visits were picking up. Although the pandemic is not over even now, McCavour is delighted by how the timing worked itself out. She was able to extend the production phase of the project and create more embroidered flowers for the main wall of the Oscar F. and Louise Greiner Mayer Gallery (a smaller space off to the side of the towering main event in the atrium), which is filled from floor to ceiling with embroidered bird’s-foot violets, butterfly milkweeds, white meadowsweets, and wild lupines pinned to the walls.
Although they look fragile from afar, these embroideries would be difficult to pull apart. “Through the connections, there is a strength to the pieces,” McCavour says.
Before creating the work, McCavour took multiple research trips to the Wisconsin State Herbarium, where she studied a collection of pressed, paper-thin native plant specimens, some of them dating back to the 19th century. These served as the basis for botanical watercolors, line drawings, and embroideries, which in turn served as source material for the finished works in Suspended Landscapes. In addition to the herbarium, she frequented the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, the UW Libraries’ Special Collections, and the Chazen Collection’s botanical works.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is titled “Ode To A Prairie.” Enlarged scans of flowers native to Wisconsin are printed and ironed onto sheer cloth, creating a bewitching atmosphere, rife with the magnitude of the textile. Light descends from the glass ceilings to illuminate the sheer veil-like fabric hanging from the fourth floor of the space. The fabric’s soft, flowy kineticism complements the Elvehjem Building’s solid, angular Brutalist architecture. The flowers’ earth-toned colors bring out the warmth in the space’s travertine marble.
Visitors can see “Ode To A Prairie” from all three levels of the atrium, and from countless vantage points. “[The audience] experiences it while moving in it and around it,” McCavour says, comparing the exhibition to a natural landscape that one has to engage with by being present inside the space, where one can watch the changes in the movement of light, and witness the slow twisting and turning of the fabric panels that create a dream-like environment. Because of its colossal presence, it’s hard to separate the experience of Suspended Landscapes from the unrelated artworks in the surrounding galleries, just as natural biomes and features alongside each other in interesting ways. The work forms the center that holds this side of Chazen together.
The exhibit transports us to a heavenly prairie. McCavour wants people to leave the exhibit motivated to explore actual prairies. Decades of farming have obliterated natural landscapes, but in recent years, prairie restoration projects have made significant gains in Wisconsin. With this in mind, I see the connection between the adaptability and vulnerability of flora and thread—both of which combine delicateness with dynamism. “The strength of ecosystems shows resilience through survival,” McCavour says. Plants can thrive and adapt amidst changing environments. And as I meditate on the work in this exhibit, I am reminded of the resilience that is refined by being alive.
Although the reality of the past two years weighs heavily on us all, the immense hope in McCavour’s work turns our gaze toward the innate lightness of our being and the beauty of the world around us. When I stand under the translucent tapestries of these monumental flowers, I feel so minuscule. Flowers possess much fragility and minuteness. They can be so easily ignored and forgotten. When I walk down Whitney Way, they grow on cracks in the sidewalk—stubborn in their fight for space in this city. And yet, they hold much life. It makes me wonder about the sheer miracle of their existence. When I see McCavour’s work, this is the wonder I behold.