Ephemeral beautyby Rebecca Wallace
Artist captures fleeting moments in the life of flora — wilted or fresh
The farmers market makes a great art-supply store if you like to work in beets. Nancy Coleman's Palo Alto garden has also yielded very artistic kale. Her kitchen serves up inspiration, too.
"Sometimes I'll be making dinner and I'll just stop and set up the camera," Coleman says. It's hard to resist picturesque produce.
In Coleman's works, part fine-art photography and part digital art, she focuses on items from nature, often arranged with an eye for patterns. There's a "Berry Mandala," and "Footnote," in which kale leaves are laid out in a star.
In her home studio, feathers, leaves and tree bark await their close-ups. Pensively, Coleman turns over a hummingbird's nest in her hands. "I might pull it apart and make homemade paper," she says.
Usually, Coleman captures the souls of these natural things with a camera, iPhone or scanner. She then alters the images digitally, perhaps adding a painterly texture or words. In "Compassion," she created a hand from blossoms — in 82 Photoshop layers — and then surrounded it with a handwritten meditation written over and over.
"One transformation I would like to see in our world is for everyone to be kinder, more loving, more compassionate," Coleman wrote in an artist's statement. "What better way to represent that than an open hand made of flowers?"
"Compassion" is one of her pieces now on exhibit at Palo Alto's Gallery House, in a duet with ceramicist Kiyoco Michot.
Some of Coleman's pieces in the exhibition have traditional frames, while others reflect a new direction. Recently, she's been mounting prints on wood and layering them with beeswax, or getting images printed on smooth aluminum panels. Coleman is big on artistic experimentation.
(Further evidence: Her garage door is stenciled with the numbers that make up pi. She did the spray-paint project with her son, a physics student.)
The term "picturesque" has a thousand meanings to a thousand photographers. In Coleman's studio, the most beautiful is not necessarily the newest spring blossom. She often uses withered leaves, or lets a flower wilt before she photographs it. "These petals look like organza," she says admiringly of one flower that is nearly sheer with age.
To Coleman, these choices reflect the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, in which beauty is often transient, natural and imperfect. As she creates, she thinks about the passage of time, how a thing that is worn can be beautiful.
"I've got gray hair. I'm looking in the mirror. We only have so long," she says. "I try to help people see and reflect on their own lives in a new way."
In "Vogue," Coleman focuses on a single dried tulip, pairing it with similarly aged foliage.
"What struck me was the very conscious pose of the single flower above its elegantly draped, flowing robes," she wrote in an artist's statement. "The mode reminds me of the highly stylized, innovative fashion photos by Richard Avedon in the '60s for Vogue and Bazaar."
There's also an elegance about the Kiyoco Michot works in the current exhibition. Michot's porcelain bowl "Purple Heart" has an inviting smoothness, while a trio of vases stand straight-backed, but with just enough texture and curve to look organic.
Creating, Michot said in an e-mail, is not just about working with the porcelain and painting the form; it also involves "inspiration, mental play, nurturing time." After that, she added, "I do not have another way to go but materialize the idea."
As for Coleman's inspiration, it comes in part from her design sensibilities. Her background includes owning a design and marketing firm, which she closed seven years ago to focus on consulting and then on art.
In addition, she got the idea to use beeswax in her art from artist Ally Richter, who specializes in encaustic (hot wax) painting. Richter and Coleman serve together on Palo Alto's Public Art Commission.
Coleman joined the board about a year and a half ago, and says she has enjoyed the behind-the-scenes work that goes into managing the city's public-art collection and projects, "not just the sexy stuff of selecting art."
So far, the work has also included repairing and maintaining art, and building a new website to help make the commission more visible.
The latter project includes photographing all the public-art pieces, some of which are in storage, Coleman says. She notes that many Palo Altans don't have a clear picture of their city's resources. "You own this art, and you should see what you own."
What: "Transformation," an exhibition of artwork by Nancy Coleman and Kiyoco Michot
Where: Gallery House, 320 California Ave., Palo Alto
When: Through Oct. 16, open Tuesdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. A reception is set from 6 to 8 p.m. tonight.
Info: Go to galleryhouse2.com or call 650-326-1668. For more about Coleman's art, go to gardenpoet.blogspot.com. Her new self-published book, "Garden Poetry," can be found at blurb.com/books/1588186.