Weeds are beautiful. That’s the unspoken understanding behind both Marcia Wolfson Ray’s sculptures and Adkins Arboretum, a preserve dedicated to promoting the appreciation and conservation of Delmarva’s native plants.
On view at the Arboretum Visitor’s Center through September 26, “Botanical Dreams” features the Baltimore artist’s exuberant organic sculptures inspired by the patterns and rhythms she observes in nature. The public is invited to a reception Sat., Aug. 22 from 5 to 7 p.m. to meet the artist.
Like garden plants climbing trellises, Ray’s bundles of dried plants are supported by three-dimensional grids made from the stalks of sturdy plants, such as Joe-pye weed and corn. Bristling sheaves chock-full of dried pods, spiny stalks, pieces of bark and tiny flowers unfold in energetic starbursts and zigzags, fans and spirals, expertly crafted into surprisingly simple, concise shapes.
Ray gathers plants from vacant lots and churchyards in Baltimore and from country roads, fields and marshes near her land in Dorchester County. She doesn’t necessarily even know the names of the plants she uses, only that their stalks and seedpods fascinate her.
“I collect stuff and let it sit for a while and see what it does,” Ray explained. “Some things petrify, some of them deteriorate, and some of them get a little stronger.”
If it seems impractical to make sculpture from such fragile plants, it’s true that occasionally small twigs do break off, but although they look ephemeral, these sculptures are sturdier than you would think. Ray preserves her stalks and seedpods with a protective coating of clear glue or acrylic medium and painstakingly ties them in with string knotted at each junction of the gridded framework. This is meticulous work, each sculpture taking several weeks to complete.
“It’s rather labor-intensive, this stuff,” she admitted. “I sit outside all day working.”
Ray is a master at creating rhythmic patterns of color and texture. She chooses plants with colors that are rich and subtle, ranging from golden straw to the deep brown of sensitive fern seedpods that she found at the Arboretum. Her myriad textures include delicate clouds of tiny dried flowers, crisscrossed patterns of tall grasses, and hibiscus stems seemingly floating in parallel lines.
Even fragrance finds its way into this exhibit, with a sweet scent emanating from “Vanishing Point,” her newest piece, a three-sided column made with a corn-stalk framework holding a tall bundle of weeds studded with tiny seeds.
Ray began as a painter, but when she was awarded a fellowship to earn her Master of Fine Arts degree at Maryland Institute of Art in 1995, she found herself drawn to sculpture.
“I was doing watercolors then and adding to the surface, things like sand and gauze. Then I made a spiral of twigs that I got from a tree company,” she said. “I think I was always 3-D. It was the natural thing.”
The recipient of several awards, including a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council in 2001, Ray exhibits frequently in the mid-Atlantic area. But the Arboretum, with its meadows and forest full of the plants she loves to gather, is an especially appropriate venue for her work.
“I’m so pleased to be showing here,” she said. “It’s a perfect fit.”
This show is part of Adkins Arboretum’s ongoing exhibition series of work on natural themes by regional artists, sponsored in part by Caroline County Council of Arts. It is on view through September 26 at the Arboretum Visitor’s Center, located at 12610 Eveland Road near Tuckahoe State Park in Ridgely. Contact the Arboretum at 410-634-2847, ext. 0 or email@example.com for gallery hours.