Rachel Carson would appreciate the exhibition she inspired at the Chatham University Art Gallery in Shadyside. Artworks by Kate Cheney Chappell balance quietude and strength, their subjects drawn from the Maine coast where the Chatham alumna lives, but informed by her practiced artistic vision. Ms. Carson was also a Chatham alumna who later summered on Southport Island, Maine.
"InterRelated: One Artist's Response to Rachel Carson" coincides with the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ms. Carson's groundbreaking book, "Silent Spring," which challenged the safety of releasing pesticides and other chemicals into the environment and led to the eventual banning of DDT.
That particular substance is referenced specifically in, and is simultaneously metaphor for the dark side of, the exhibition. It's the human-induced spoiler that threatens the birds and sea life that populate Ms. Chappell's monoprints, mixed media and installation works. It's elongated name -- dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane -- forms a cryptic pattern across the arms of a starfish.
"For this show," Ms. Chappell writes in her artist statement, "the word for DDT, spelled out in my hand, lurks in the bird prints and on the starfish, present still."
In an accordion-style artist book, titled "DDT Book," images of the pesticide being sprayed on trees, from the air, onto a laughing child and as a fog enveloping a woman's head are juxtaposed with the Carson quote "But man is part of nature and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself."
A loosely formed, gray blue raffia nest holds 18 crackled raku eggs, their blackened interiors devoid of life. (Walk across the lawn from the gallery to see the huge nest that Ms. Chappell and Chatham students constructed from dead tree branches.)
Other works diminish that gloom, in the same way that a walk through a woods or along a shore can dispel troublesome thoughts. The series "Mountain/Time" invites contemplation of the mountain as spiritual space, as power, challenge and goal. The aesthetic is Asian, with references symbolic (feathers) and archetypical (spiral).
Intimately sized watercolors hover between abstraction and representation of the tidal pools of Monhegan Island, 12 miles off Maine's coast and accessible only by boat. It harbors an artist colony that once hosted Ashcan School greats like George Bellows and Robert Henri. On annual visits, Ms. Chappell finds mentors and friends in the Women Artists of Monhegan Island, of which she is a member.
The paintings exemplify the intuitive relationship the artist has with the tidal zones, her familiarity with their structure and randomness, colors and the inhabitants. A magical installation, "Go Inside the Stone II" -- comprising 40-plus reflective Mylar strips, arranged on the floor in circles and ellipses, with actual water-worn gray stones and paper starfish and seaweeds -- conjures the feeling of standing next to a watery tidal basin (I'd like to see it displayed in a darkened space of its own).
The island is on the migration route of many bird species, who stop to feed and rest, Ms. Chappell said by telephone from her Kennebunk home Monday as the rains of Hurricane Sandy thrashed outside. She's seen, on the island, "beautiful flickers, cedar waxwings and an entire flock of gray blue herons, which looked almost prehistoric. They know to drop down there, that they will find food there."
These are the inspiration for her Migration series, which "reflect that cellular memory of a place." Her birds -- as well as jellyfish and starfish -- retain their species gestalt even as they blur into pattern through a complex multi-step process that is frequently equal parts experimental and controlled.
In 1968, the year "Silent Spring" was published, Ms. Chappell's husband left a secure position with an insurance company in Center City Philadelphia and the young family of three moved to Maine. "We felt we needed to get to a simpler form of life. We were young and naive enough to think we could start our own business."
That business was the legendary Tom's of Maine, which supplied natural products before America knew it needed them. It was sold to Colgate, which Ms. Chappell says has a good corporate culture and has maintained the store's original values. Her husband more recently founded Ramblers Way Farm, which carries American made, natural and sustainable wool clothing.
The five Chappell children, now grown, reflect their parents' creative and considered lifestyle. Of the three who remain in Maine, one works at Ramblers Way, one has opened a restaurant named Gather, and the other has a farm where children with disabilities are taught to ride horses and paralympics athletes train. A son in San Francisco provides local goods to institutions and consumers, and another is a singer-songwriter with his own band. They have nine grandchildren.
The Chappells continue to enjoy their Maine town, "where neighbors look out for neighbors."
"InterRelated," Ms. Chappell muses. "To be is to be in relation. It's not possible to think of ourselves as independent. I just read that we have so many bacteria in our bodies that they outnumber our regular cells. I think it's wonderful, actually."
"Rachel Carson said that the person who stays engaged with nature is never going to become weary of life. The [natural object] itself gives me something. It feeds me in a way I can't get anywhere else. It's lifegiving to think 'Yes, I'm a part of this.' "
A unique, tailor-made-to-venue performance by Brooklyn artist Cory Arcangel, described as "a mixture of technology-based artworks and stand-up comedy," will be given at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Carnegie Museum of Art in conjunction with the opening of his solo exhibition. Free with cash bar, galleries open until 9 p.m. Information: 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org.
Voting for your presidential choice has been extended to Jan. 21, but it's not quite what you think. Visitors have been casting ballots in the exhibition "American Idols" at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, 5472 Penn Ave., Garfield, which comprises glass busts by John Moran of all U.S. presidents to date (but no contenders). Voting for the top three has been close, and Monday George Washington pulled ahead, with President Obama coming in second followed by Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. Admission is free and hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Information: 412-365-2145 or www.pittsburghglasscenter.org.artarchitecture
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.