Earth Day

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix for Earth Day, May, 1989)


PRILLA BRACKETT:  Drawings and Paintings from the Amazon.  At the Bunting Institute Gallery, Cambridge.

SITE LINES.  A temporary landscape art project by Marty Cain.  At the Radcliffe Quadrangle, Cambridge.  The installation will be erased by lawn mowers on May 13.

One of the great images of this century is the first picture of the earth that NASA weather satellite TIROS (Television Infrared Observation Satellite) brought back in 1960.  That picture changed public perception of the earth.  The home planet no longer seemed vast and endless – it looked fragile and finite, a beautiful little emerald ball swimming alone in the dark and empty night.

In the last few years, a new romantic vision of landscape has emerged, tinged with a melancholy sense that nature is disappearing.

I talked to three Boston artists who live in the city but dream of forests and underground waterways.  Their work looks very different, but they each express a sense of connection to the earth and concern for its survival.  And that’s what Earth Day is all about.

Robert Ferrandini‘s paintings show nature as sublime – vast and overwhelming, dark and mysterious.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” says Ferrandini, pointing at one of his landscapes.  “It’s all coming from here.”  He points to his head.  “From memory and from paintings.  George Inness.  Watteau.  Corot. From fairy tales, from childhood – from imagining.  The way I see it, it’s the landscape of the mind.”

Relatively Speaking, It’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe” shows a grove of gorgeous leafy trees in a dark green forest.  A light wedge of pale blue sky gently parts the trees.  In the foreground is a small round table, and on the table are some golden apples and three books about artists who have influenced the way Ferrandini looks at nature – Giorgione, Cezanne, Watteau.  “Landscape talks about the time.  It’s sort of a barometer of what is going on.  The loss of the land.  What I’m doing is a tradition going back hundreds of years.  James Fenimore Cooper Robin HoodHiawatha.”

Buildings often appear in Ferrandini’s landscapes, especially the housing project where he grew up in East Boston, a little box of solid geometry with a jail-like grid of windows. “I love Boston.  I am rooted in this damn place and I make no bones about it.  It’s in everything I do.”

In between a corrosive state and a disappearing soul” shows the project floating between the Suffolk County Superior Courthouse and the Holy Redeemer Church, which he attended as a child.  The church is light, lyrical, and almost transparent;  light glows  through its windows.  The courthouse is dark and massive,  almost disappearing in a dark black cloud of acid rain.  The two big buildings rise up above a pale misty canyon, a chasm in the earth.

Monument Valley,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.  “Lots of landscapes came to me from the movies.  Fort ApacheRed RiverCheyenne AutumnThe Searchers.   The idea of the search – which is what I do as a painter.  I go into it.  I search.”

Prilla Brackett visited the Amazon jungle on a family trip to Colombia to visit the family of an exchange student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin.  “My initial reaction was that it was too green,” she says.  But she spent most of her year as a Bunting Fellow in the studio, working from photographs to recreate the jungle in black ink and grey pastels, white paint and charcoal.  Her drawings trace the play of light falling through the lavish vegetation of the rain forest.

“These are romantic landscapes.  It’s not my daily visual vocabulary.  I give myself to this jungle to work with, and live with, and be alone with, while livinga fragmented kind of life in an urban environment, juggling lots of different things.  It’s a way for me to be centered.  There’s a stillness here, even though there’s a lot of visual confusion.  There’s a meditative quality.  And those big trees with those big sensuous twisty roots – there’s an erotic quality to them – I don’t know if you see it.”  I do.    Brackett’s drawings show a moment of stillness in the dance of a world that is constantly growing.  The smooth white vines twist and curl around the trees like lovers embracing.  The thin trunks reach up to the light;  their enormous roots hug them to the ground.  Sunlight filters down through the big leaves like light shining through the windows of a Gothic cathedral.  “I’m not a spiritual person.” she says. “But I think I’m becoming one.  And this isn’t political art – but I hope they will remind people that we have to nurture and cherish places like jungles for the survival of our planet.”

The Radcliffe Quadrangle is a blank space the size of a city block, surrounded by gloomy pseudo-Colonial brick buildings.  It’s neither a desert nor a garden – just a patch of earth covered by a low blanket of brown grass.  But Marty Cain, an environmental artist who is an artist-in residence at Radcliffe this year, says that the Quad is a vortex of earth energy.  She painted blue and yellow lines on the ground, reaching to a white painted maze at the center of the Quad.  “It’s a labyrinth and it’s meant to be run or walked,” she says.  We start to walk the maze.

Cain, a small blonde woman with sparkly blue eyes, tells me that she is a dowser.  “My grandfather taught me how to find water with a stick, and I’ve been doing it every since.”  She dowsed the Quad and discovered a water dome beneath its surface.  “The blue lines represent the water streams.  The yellow lines are earth energy lines.  The rings of the labyrinth are the radiations of energy from the center of the dome.”

We reach the center of the maze. “It’s so irrational – that’s what I love about it.  Can’t you feel it?.”  I do feel something – a sense of uplift.  From the side, the labyrinth looked completely flat, but now I feel that I am standing on top of a hill.  Walking back, it seems to slope down. “The earth is a living being – it’s Gaia.  It’s alive.  Walking the labyrinth is one way to communicate with her.  Running is even better.” We run the maze.  This time, the sensation of ascending and descending is even stronger. I feel exhilarated. “The Earth is alive,” says Cain.  “If we don’t get back in touch with what the ancients knew, we’re not going to make it, man.”

by Rebeccca Nemser for

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