In an episode of The Colbert Report in late July, American artist Jeff Koons told his host why he likes art. “I like the way it makes me feel,” he said. “Art is about you, the viewer.” The art object serves to trigger the viewer’s feelings.
Artist Madelaine Shellaby subscribes to this philosophy — that art is in the viewer, not the object. Yardsong: A Botanical Adventure, an exhibit of her “arranged-form photographic prints,” is on view at the Gallery at Chapin through September 28.
Unlike Bayonne-based Jonathan Singer, whose photographic botanical illustrations were recently exhibited at the New Jersey State Museum, Shellaby’s botanicals enter the realm of fantasy. While the two artists’ large digital prints of exotic and endangered plants against a black background may look similar, “mine are invented,” says Shellaby.
She may take the berries from one tree and combine it with the stem from another plant – say, a winged euonymus – and hang roots, still clinging to soil, from another plant.
“I am intrigued by pulling up plants and roots embedded in stone,” she says. “It’s a sweet relationship that I am disrupting, but I create my own plant connections.”
She grows, or finds, many of these plants in her Belle Mead garden – “I’ll grow anything that will grow in the clay soil” – and scans the plants, using a black cloth to attain her “blackground.” She may change the growth pattern of a hosta, or put a milkweed pod on another plant. Shellaby has been working this way for many years, and has perfected the ability of making the parts look plausibly connected.
In “Asana” – a combination of elements from nature that balance in a way that suggests a yoga pose – the leaves of a birch delicately unfold from a lichen-covered twig of some other tree.
In “Investments,” we see redbuds in a Greek vase on an ornate chest with gold trim. Behind the vase, in this scene of opulence and luxury, is a black and white photograph of men at war. Shellaby finds her source material through research, and then re-creates each – for example, removing cracks from the vase – and puts it together to tell her own story. While “Investments” is about war to her, most viewers just witness its beauty. “How a viewer will experience your work is relative – you don’t own the meaning,” she says. “Objects are rife with meaning, and the longer they last the more meaning they acquire.”
For her work titled “Cabbages” – iridescent red leaves of an ornamental plant – the responses she received has been “dancing,” “calligraphy,” “inflamed.” “These cabbage leaves speak for themselves. I was so enthralled with the biotech I could do in Photoshop but these plants are lyrical and expressive and say it on their own.”
Also on view are ceramic works, large leaf-shaped platters with iridescent glazes. Having retired from a quarter century of teaching art and photography at Stuart Country Day School earlier this year, she returned to ceramic work. With a master’s degree in painting from the University of California Berkeley, Shellaby’s media include drawing, painting, photography, clay, artist books and found object installation.
Shellaby is also a curator, most recently for Princeton Brain and Spine Care offices. With retirement, she has had even less time for art making, having signed on to be a docent at the Rubin Museum in New York and teaching workshops for the Princeton Photography Club and the Arts Council of Princeton.
Over her career, grants and fellowships have afforded her the chance to work as artist-in-residence in California, France and beyond. This year, she will devote two months to a self-imposed retreat on Cape Cod, where she will make a book catalogue for her Archive of Stone Stories. Shellaby collects rocks, as well as stories about them. She hopes to include an essay by an archaeologist. Every stone has a story to tell, she believes, and almost every person has a stone story.