The Works of Catherine Berendsohn

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Creative Roots

 AN ART EXHIBIT EXPLORING INTERCONNECTION AND ARTISTIC IDENTITY

 

In March I was very privileged to get to be the first artist in residence at the Lichgate Museum in Tallahassee, Florida. This was my first solo show and it meant a great deal to return to the Lichgate, where I have a deep personal connection to the site. I see it as a point of genesis for my creativity.

This place represents many firsts in my creative life. It was here that I did my first public installation, and that was the first time the board of directors allowed an artist to interact directly with the surface of the ancient oak tree that is the focal point of this historic homestead museum. I was the first student member to join the Laura Jepsen Institute when I walked up to the Lichgate for the very first time. I felt beckoned to by the beautiful pathway through the trees and walked through the screen of pines to emerge beneath the bowers of a massive and timeless oak tree. I seemed to have fallen through a crack in time next to the bus stop off High Road. A small Tudor style house twinkled on the other side of the glade that housed the great tree and seemed to draw me to it. It was as though I had found an enchanted home that could appear and disappear with the mist. When I walked up the stone steps and in through the open door, a circle of warm-hearted  board members said they took it as a sign, as they had just decided to open membership to students. 

Over the following years my connection to this place would grow deeper. I would turn to it as a backdrop for the joyful moments of my life, and as a place of solace during the difficult times that were to come. It was under the soothing branches of the mighty tree that I would find respite from the stresses of my creative life in art school, and from the overwhelming in my personal life, as I faced the weight of loss.

During my time earning my Studio Art BA from Florida State University I found out my grandmother had a heart complication. As I faced the reality of losing her I would find the power of the Lichgate to support me, as it is said to be a "resting place between the worlds". The Lichgate is the gateway to the churchyard. It is at the gate that coffin bearers must lay down their burden for a moment's rest before they can open the door to the cemetery, crossing from the living world into the spirit one. That is why this place serves as a site of memorial. When I faced my grief I grounded it here. I saw mother nature in the tree, which is said to have the spirit of a woman in local legend. I saw Laura Jepsen, whose ashes are scattered beneath it, and in the great Mother of it I saw my grandmother.

This was the voice of my first installation.This was its motivation. I made a wet clay portrait of the spirit of the tree using the portraits of my grandmother and Laura Jepsen as my models. I first did a sculpture in white clay that was simple and more amorphous, it was a spiritual older face, and I liked how the white glowed at dusk. It looked like my grandmother in her old age. I planted a green carpet of soft grass that made an arc around the tree and processed toward the face, stopping in a green pool at the tree's base. The clay was to age and crack and fall off and the grass to fade with the season. It was an act based in time. A temporal piece, to show the ephemeral, the loss, the ebb and flow of life.  It lent itself powerfully to the in-person experience. And then one night it was vandalized.

 

This was the shock of loss. I had to grieve for the thoughtless cruelty, to experience being bereft of the face I did not want to lose. It had demonstrated the temporal. But it had violated the reverence. I tore down the white clay and began again. This time a young face in colored clay. Regeneration. I ran clay down to the ground and placed fresh green moss around it, connecting it to the earth and to the green grass.

 Because of the beauty of the oak it is a place for children and a place for memory.  It is also a bridge from the past to the present, and I feel it is an example for our future of what we want to carry with us. The central point is the oak tree, a huge living presence which has been alive for over three centuries. It is in these living things that we can stand next to something that lived during the time of our ancestors. It is a beautiful metaphor and a living example of life's cycles and regeneration. 

I find sitting beneath this tree envelopes me with a presence of being that encourages meditation and reflection. It is by the example of its peaceful space that I found the connection with my own inner space. It was here that I learned how to listen to my artist self, to open up to what I had left behind in my childhood, that time of the essential self from which the spark of creativity emerges. Under the whisper of oak leaves I allowed myself to hold reverence for my sorrows and to experience the simple joys of living. It is amazing how nurtured we can be by sunlight, wind, and a nap on leaf covered ground.

Staying in this place like Laura Jepsen did was deeply inspiring and deeply healing. Laura Jepsen was an English professor at Florida State University who bought the tree and built her cottage in the 1940s. She used reclaimed wood that dated back to the 1700s to make her dream home timelessly match the feeling of the ancient tree. She was a woman who brought her dream to life. She did not have a great fortune but she did have a great vision. This speaks to all of us, and I felt it particularly spoke to me. I loved sitting at her writing desk. I would like to do a residency there just to write. My minor in Creative Writing and deep love of story makes me feel a kinship to Laura Jepsen's way of thinking. I would like to build my own moving little dream studio, and I want it to feel warm like the Lichgate.

  It was a treasure getting to write at Laura Jepsen's writing desk. She was quite the scholar and writer, and her work as an English Professor at Florida State University had a profound effect on her students who banded together to save the Lichgate from development after her passing.

 

It was a treasure getting to write at Laura Jepsen's writing desk. She was quite the scholar and writer, and her work as an English Professor at Florida State University had a profound effect on her students who banded together to save the Lichgate from development after her passing.

The process of creating each component of the art show has been a profoundly rewarding one. The developing of the film negatives that I took of the original installation on the tree was such a kind of miracle, that I feel as though everything was conspiring to save them. As though I could believe the Universe keeps a special eye on artists and their creations. These film roles sat forgotten for years undeveloped in my closet, not in a cool fridge as they should have been. And some of the original board members cared for them so much they egged me on to have them brought up to Tallahassee to be developed. They had the film processed and the negatives were kept by a friend after my relocation from Tallahassee to Miami, the city to which I had returned so that I could help take care of my grandmother. These negatives were kept until this spring of 2015 when I could make the prints for my exhibit. Seeing them lined up on the mantle place was a journey back in time. 

 

The photos and the original sculpture are the foundation that allowed for all I needed to grow into myself, and to arrive at the space to make my current painting. It is a self-portrait that is a declaration of my identity as an artist. It has been a meditation in returning to myself. I show my seated figure from the back looking out the window with leaded glass panes at the great tree across the lawn. The dark shading and shadows allow for a depth and evoke themes of the feminine force, like yang in the Tao. Receptivity, gravity, stillness. I found this to be the evocation of the work, through the image and the process of creating it, in the contemplation of each brush stroke. The most important elements to me are the components the viewer does not see, the invisible connections. The psychology of connection and past history that my seated self has to the tree, the life stories her gaze holds, a gaze that is suggested but not seen. I find this important because I feel that by keeping mystery and not seeing the face the viewer must wonder about the person before them, and this is a more accurate portrait than a posed smile. A snap-shot picture does not show the essence of a person, but often we feel as though we can know someone by seeing them this way. I found this removed view yields a different light. Who is this person? Expectations cannot reach to the truth of essence. The reality of the Self is found in a being-ness that is present and beyond definition. 

  This painting is part of an artist residency experience at the Lichgate on High Road. It is to be finished at my return to Tallahassee for the conclusion of the "Rain the Blessings Down" crystal installation which hangs from the rafters of the historic cottage. 

 

This painting is part of an artist residency experience at the Lichgate on High Road. It is to be finished at my return to Tallahassee for the conclusion of the "Rain the Blessings Down" crystal installation which hangs from the rafters of the historic cottage. 

Other invisible connections have to do with being grounded, rooted in Self and in the connection to place. The seated pose is significant because it conveys a settled and relaxed being. This physical connection of the body to the support of the seat echoes the deeper ties and bonds to the place and to the personal history that lends itself to the mental state which makes this repose possible. When I look at this painting I tend to imagine invisible energetic roots of my seated figure reaching down into the ground much as the unseen roots of the tree in the background reach deep into the earth. The earth that both of these elements in the painting sit established on links them across the space between them. I feel there is growth in this painting through the internal space this place has created in me. There is loss and regeneration, and a deepening of personal being- Isa, the Norse rune for stillness, icicle. In winter stillness do the roots of a tree grow deeper, through the nurturing and healing of rest and reflection does the energy come for new growth in spring.

I found this weight of presence to be the motivating element of this painting, and I wanted that weight to be a part of its material expression. I felt that a canvas dents too easily and is too light as merely a gesso painted fabric to be the right backing for this work. I decided to use Hardieboard which is an industrial walling material for the surface of the painting. I like that it is hard and smooth and like a mural base. The surface itself has a weight which gives it presence.

Rain the Blessings Down

The final component of my exhibit was the new installation "Rain the Blessings Down". This community driven interactive exhibit is once again based on much of the effect of connection to things that we do not see. This project displayed a collection of crystals donated by the local community to be hung from the rafters of the historic home. The idea for this was inspired by a call to action from a Wisdom Keeper known as "Little Grandmother" to return crystals to the earth as an act of mindfulness and world blessing. She asked that we return minerals to the earth charged with our blessings because we have taken so many mineral resources from the planet.

I asked local groups and community members to donate clear quartz which is native to the hills of Tallahassee. When I lived in Tallahassee I worked as an historical interpreter at Mission San Luis, the only year round living history museum in Florida. My time there made me aware of certain history of the Appalachee tribe of Florida. The Appalachee revered clear quartz and believed it had spiritual properties. The most significant artifact excavated on the grounds is said to be the quartz crystal cross, which shows the blending of Spanish and tribal cultures. I felt it was important to return the native stone to the land for this project.

With the help of volunteers the donated stones were wrapped in wire and hung from the ceiling by the rafters in the cottage. Their suspension was meant to evoke rain droplets as there will be two components to the offering of the blessing. One will be burying all the different colored stones in the land on site at the Lichgate. This way people's offerings can be visited and immortalized. This act of leaving trinkets and donations of stones is already a tradition at the Lichgate. The multi-colored stones are often given as a fairy gift or as an act of memory at the community altars that spring up next to the children's Shakespeare garden.   

The second offering will be of the clear quartz to a natural spring of Florida. The water of the springs move through the entire state. Florida has one of the world's largest aquifers, with a network of caverns that connect water underground. This water goes down to Lake Okeechobee and into the Everglades in a vast purification process and it finally is released to the sea. Water connects us all. By placing our blessings into the crystals and into the water, it is like an action of sending our blessings out into the world, to touch the oceans and have our thoughts be carried up into the atmosphere in the water cycle with evaporation, so that they can finally rain down on all the life below. It is a moving blessing for the planet.

By having the quartz hang above us suspended like rain droplets they are placed in the level of our thoughts, where they can pick up our thought patterns and make us become conscious of the power of what we think. Like a dream catcher these thought collectors are uplifting to the eye and the mind. It is a beautiful manifestation that represents our impact on the world- through the object of stone which was extracted by human hands, and now given back by human hands, through the power of energetic impression of our thought, through the connection to community, and the representation of far reaching implications to our environment by water and by land.

 Lichgate.com

MissionSanLuis.org