Hand of Nature

The work of handmade paper artists Marie Sturken, Joan Needham, Eve Ingalls and Joy Kreves can be viewed in the Marie L. Matthews Galleries of D&R Greenway’s Johnson Education Center from March 23 to May 8. Pictured, at left, is Ms. Needham’s “Pod 1 and 2.”

I have blogged about Ms. Sturken’s work — see post on Nov. 11, 2008 — and will be meeting with Ms. Ingalls next week to interview her about her work for this exhibit, The Hand of Nature — stay tuned!

Curator Jack Koeppel has written: “In their studios, one of which is in the Sourland Mountains, which region D&R Greenway has long worked to preserve, the four are driven to create, often from ‘flotsam and jetsam.’ Ms. Needham has specifically reproduced her discovery of such flotsam and jetsam in South Africa. Here’s what I wrote about her before her exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson’s Bernstein Gallery in summer 2007:

It could be said that Joan Needham’s holy trinity is art, gardening and cooking. An elegantly spare sense of design carries over to the spaces she claims: In the garden, there isn’t a tomato vine out of alignment, a Kaffir lime leaf that doesn’t shine, a fennel frond that isn’t lacily full; in her kitchen, where ingredients blend together into a harmonious whole inspired by the 150 cook books that line her shelves (her peach pie sparks a tingle in the jaw), every spice jar is equally sized, smudge free, lined up like soldiers.

Even her basement studio is meticulously organized, with bottles and containers of pigment and adhesives neatly arrayed up on dustless white shelves. How many artists cover the studio floor with white wool Berber – and keep it white?

When there’s so much order, the chaos is bound to emerge, and in Ms. Needham’s case, the wild and wooly side manifests in her artwork. A wall of handmade paper, titled “Renewal,” evokes Jackson Pollock, with expressive strokes in bold contrasting colors.

Last winter, while teaching printmaking to a group of women ages 18 to 55 in South Africa, Ms. Needham, 72, came across a bed of seaweed that inspired a new wave of sculpture. A four-part piece, titled “Thing in Itself,” was the centerpiece of her exhibit Constructions at The Gallery at Chapin. Looking like monstrous things that washed up from the sea, they are composed of manmade objects – ropes, silicone rubber, surgical tubing, metal, handmade paper, waxed leather, thread – yet exude the organic disarray of nature. What are those seaweed things, anyway, that look more like surgical tubing than surgical tubing? In a tangle of seaweed, it can be hard to distinguish what is organic from what may be, say, medical waste – and that seems to be the point of “Thing in Itself.”

For the month of February, Ms. Needham accompanied Princeton University’s Bernstein Gallery Curator and Campus Arts consultant Kate Somers to the Philani Nutrition and Development Project on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa. The two wanted to volunteer in whatever capacity was needed – painting walls or sweeping floors, Ms. Needham recounts. But when the director learned that Ms. Needham was a professor of fine arts at Mercer County Community College from 1972 to 2004, she asked her to lead a printmaking class. “It was the easiest thing to do,” says Ms. Needham, who ran the printmaking program at MCCC. “The first thing I teach is linoleum block printing – kids can do that as early as second grade. It’s so direct, with rollers and brayers, and the results are immediate. You can do it at your desk.”

So she packed a suitcase full to the brim with cutting tools, ink, blocks, pre-cut paper and books to show examples, and checked it at the airport. The women first flew to Frankfurt (a seven-hour flight from Newark), then Cape Town (another 11 hours). From Cape Town, they drove one hour to the village in Khayelitsha. It was hard to find, and Ms. Needham credits Ms. Somers for her sense of direction. “If you get lost you can really get in trouble, but Kate would always say we could figure it out by where the mountain was.” Once there, Ms. Needham unpacked the suitcase of supplies for 11 students.

“Fortunately, I talk with my hands, so they could understand me, but they spoke English as well,” says Ms. Needham of the Xhosa-speaking students. The women, housewives who had been trained in weaving, silk-screening and making carpet from recycled T-shirts, also received family planning and HIV education. Some may have been HIV carriers, but did not speak of it because they would be ostracized.

“They seemed healthy, and I never asked,” Ms. Needham says. “They always dressed up for us, wearing skirts, and they smiled and giggled and did whatever I said. They all showed up every day, even though their family members and people around them were dying of AIDS. On our last day, they gave us gifts of handmade aprons and bags, and sang us songs and moved gently as if choreographed.” (An exhibit on the Philani Nutrition and Development Project will be on view at the Bernstein Gallery Sept. 15 through Oct. 26.)

Ms. Needham says she must have said “whoa” a lot, because the women lovingly imitated her one day with their own language’s version of the exclamation – something that sounded more like “weshhh.”

After a full day’s work, Ms. Needham and Ms. Somers would return to their B&B in a fishing village and go for long walks on the beach, and an occasional swim. “I saw these enormous seaweed constructions and thought of it as art immediately,” Ms. Needham says. “I started photographing it. It was fascinating – beautiful and ugly all at the same time, right up my alley – and all about pollution and accumulations and stuff connected to other things. I would constantly draw it in my journal at night and started making it as soon as I got home – it was something I had to do. It’s the most alive I’ve ever been.” She credits Matt Reiley, formerly with the Johnson Atelier in Hamilton and now a sculpture conservator in Central Park, with help welding the armature, and Princeton High School student Julia Maltby with sewing assistance.

The three masses of “Thing in Itself” stand out on a large white wall in her Robert Hillier-designed home in the Sourland Mountains of Hopewell, where she has lived 33 years. The West Windsor-based architect wanted to design a home in which Ms. Needham and her husband, Joe, would not feel like empty nesters, says the mother of six adults. Ever the nurturer, Ms. Needham still mothers her garden, where she sprinkles fox urine to keep the vermin at bay, and at MCCC, she nurtured many art students.

The maternal theme carries over to her artwork, where nest, pod and cocoon-like shapes formed of handmade paper and metal predominate. Two of her pods, made from modified concrete, became a home for wild turkeys. A grouping of Rapunzel-like towers, with window openings and pointy conical tops, originally created as part of the set for a dance piece, greets visitors in the entryway.

“Boojums,” like a pile of elongated rusty sculls (Ms. Needham is a rower) made of rods, string and handmade paper (“whatever is around”), were inspired by 42-foot tall cacti Ms. Needham saw in Baja, Calif., while on a trip to visit cave paintings.

Ms. Needham was involved with the Princeton Art Association in the early ’70s, where she met fellow printmakers Judy Brodsky, Margaret Johnson, Susan Hockaday, Helen Schwartz, Trudy Glucksberg and Marie Sturken (that organization later morphed into Artworks).

While teaching printmaking at MCCC, she studied with master papermaker Laurence Barker in Barcelona, Spain, and started the papermaking class at Mercer. She is credited with introducing the art form to central New Jersey in 1981. In 1989, she wanted to learn welding, and so returned to her alma mater, Moore College of Art and Design.

“The introduction of found metal into my work has made me more responsive to the inherent properties of the material,” she writes. “The found metal enables me to work rapidly and to incorporate chance occurrences into the work. I look for scrap pieces that, while transformed into containers, also read as strong abstract forms… I want the containers to be a place of refuge, a place which could control and protect personal privacy, and yet, even though they are contained or enclosed, would also be open.”

“My work is about the spectator activating the space around it, rather than a written message about it,” says Ms. Needham. “I work like a choreographer – the dancers don’t know what to do, but they start to move.”

Her process begins with making many drawings. In order to begin the dance, “I go into the studio with what I think I’m going to do. The paper is magical, there isn’t anything you can’t do with it… How does a chef create a recipe? From the ingredients on hand – but I also recycle materials.”

“She’s recycling her past,” says Ms. Somers. “Just as the tangled seaweed on the beach was recycled and washed up on shore.”

“I even recycle my own work,” says Ms. Needham, pointing to paper from her Renewal series that has worked its way into “Thing in Itself.”

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