Exhibition at the Westmoreland focuses on Earth's natural wonders

"Earth Nest" is the title of a sculpture by Duncan MacDiarmid and of an exhibition that appropriately graces the Westmoreland Museum of American Art as Earth Day nears. It's also, in a way, a synthesis of a philosophy that drives the artist, who will speak about his work at 6 p.m. Thursday and conduct a hands-on workshop April 23.

Mr. MacDiarmid grew up in suburban Philadelphia, mowing lawns and working in gardens as a teenager. That, and time at his family cabin in the woods, gave him an appreciation for nature, and when Earth Day was launched in 1970 he readily joined recycling and cleanup projects. For 15 years, he's been the community garden coordinator in Lawrenceville, where he's lived for almost 25 years. He most enjoys growing perennials, which return each year, multiply and may be divided and shared with friends.

A flaming sun at the base of towering "Earth Nest," a reversal of the way the heavens are usually portrayed, emphasizes its foundational role to all life on Earth. At its top, a copper tree rises above celebratory figures who dance, almost bird-like, upon a site comprising construction materials, an allusion to mankind's built structures.

"We create a nest in a certain fashion. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but we make our nest and we live in it," he explained.

Between is the vast universe, studded with terra-cotta stars shaped like eyes. If stars, which live billions of years, were people, they "would be very wise and mindful of what was happening in the universe," Mr. MacDiarmid said. He's anthropomorphized them as "eyes of the ancients, watching us from eternal positions in the midnight sky."

He was on track to become an architect when he entered the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, but during a year abroad in Rome he discovered sculpture and printmaking. After working briefly at an interior design firm, he returned to Italy for a fifth year of study and continued to explore fine arts. At the University of Pennsylvania, where his father was faculty, he entered the graduate school of architecture. But ultimately, during a sculpture class, he "decided that was where my passion was" and pursued a master's degree. Mr. MacDiarmid also relished his classes with the late noted art historian, Leo Steinberg

It is this mix that feeds his expression and decades of work and thought came together while preparing for the Westmoreland show.

"With this exhibition a lot of things seemed to jell. Things that had been stewing in the pot for 30 years seemed to coalesce," he said.

The sculpture ranges from classic allegorical figures such as those of his "Landscape Figure Series," among his earliest exhibited works, to mixed-media narratives derived from the artist's observations and concerns. The latter include "Bread Basket," with a female figure who personifies the capacity of the land to rejuvenate and provide, and "Virgin Forest," with a male figure representing big business balanced upon a split length of timber about to fall.

They're "always heavily garbed," which allows the artist the opportunity for the "texture, shadows, play of light you would get from Bernini." The figures relate to the Earth, the artist pointed out, "hewn out of earth and rock and plant." Their comparatively small size in the mixed-media works emphasizes the "scale of an individual within the grandiosity of earth."

The medium is usually terra cotta but includes concrete, bronze and the acrylic co-polymer Forton.

All of them show a mastery of technique elevated by the artist's pervasive authenticity, which rises out of admiration, stewardship and wonder for his subject. There is also a love of the sensuality of material.

While talking to a visitor, Mr. MacDiarmid lifted a figure off its armature to show how comfortably it fits the hand, comparing its scale to that of the famed prehistoric Venus of Willendorf. He slowly turned the piece, his fingers and thumbs tracing small mounds and crevices in the now fired clay, alterations that define the figure's character coaxed earlier by those same appendages from a mound of malleable wet material.

Mr. MacDiarmid used the opportunity of a solo exhibition to experiment and produced his first installation work, "Balanced Garden." Two plots within the gallery are planted with an array of "invented floral types," made of terra cotta mounted on wooden stems and painted in bright acrylic colors by Victor Capone. Mr. MacDiarmid thought "another person's input would make the piece more rich." While the piece is a cautionary against what can happen when Earth is thrown out of balance, it is also an inviting fantasy that recalls the mystery and pleasure of the natural world. That would fit the artist's intent.

"I hope [the exhibition] is more a celebration than a heavy-handed social commentary." Still, he wants visitors to think about the fragility of the planet that we -- animal, vegetable and mineral -- share.

"We're birds in the nest or ants on the ant hill. We're part of nature as nature is part of us. We're not separate from the world," Mr. MacDiarmid said, looking across the gallery.

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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