“The first petri dish in life is your family,” says Alison Hall Cooley, a painter who interprets the natural world in a visual language of her own invention. One such conversation is now on display at the Adkins Arboretum near Ridgely in an exhibit she calls “Tidal.”
“What is our relationship with nature?” she asks. “Are we good witnesses to it?” As a witness or interpreter of nature’s nonverbal language, Cooley paints or speaks in an abstract lexicon that features pooling bursts of color amid smudges of non-reflective earth tones and outbreaks of parasitic crawlers. It’s both a beautiful and somewhat creepy assembly of imagery made up of blue-black bruises of pain and scabs of red-brown badges of healing.
I don’t pretend that Cooley would describe her work this way, but as she admits, art is open to whatever the viewer sees in it. So, I’m going with bruises and scabs on a really shiny surface that may or may not be crawling with insects. Cooley once favored watercolors on paper. Now her preferred medium is slick acrylic over gesso-prepped wood panel. Thirteen of her paintings, all labeled “Terra,” are on display at the arboretum gallery and gift shop—or 16 if you count her three diptychs as single pieces. (Cooley says she’d consider divorcing her pairs to sell them as singles.
That would be $1,600 to $2,800 per divorcee.)
But back to the petri dish of family. The term seems an apt metaphor for her work that could be and has been described as “biomorphic” and “molecular.” Cooley vividly recalls long car rides from their home in Washington, D.C., to south Florida with stops in between breaking up a 17-hour drive. “Every time we went back to Florida, our parents, my sister’s and mine, would talk about how nothing had changed. And I’d look at them like they’re crazy. There was change all around. I notice these sorts of things.”
Maybe that’s what makes an artist. That and her home environment which has changed dramatically over the years.
Cooley recalls that on their trips back from Florida, her parents would roll the car windows down when they got back to the D.C. area. The humid, muggy air gave them all a feeling of being back home again.
Some of these experiences we all share seem impossible to delineate in a painting. But Cooley tries. Living in a rural cottage just outside of Easton has brought aromas to her heightened attention—scents associated with tidal ebbs and flows of a nearby tributary, alternate blooms and decays of agricultural industry—from cornfields to peach orchards.
Cooley and her husband, Ben Simons, director of Easton’s Academy Art Museum, lived for a dozen years on Nantucket, an island far enough off Cape Cod to be invisible when you board the boat to that destination. Her work then, she says, “was informed by solitude, beauty and severity of the natural world.” The birth of their son, Finley, now 9 and as inquisitive as his mother, no doubt made a difference. Then a year of living in London infused Cooley’s “Hot Pink Period” with cosmopolitan electricity. “I think of pink as a very powerful and provocative color—the color of lungs, tongues, palms, gums, tissue—alive and vital.”
Living in or around Easton evokes a different palette—blues and greens of water and vegetation, black and brown of tree bark, rich soil and deep forests. Do I smell pungent odors of, for instance, a low tide in Cooley’s paintings now on display within easy range of cornfields, woodland and a bright green algae-bloom pond? No, I but I did catch a whiff of the creamy brie served at her opening reception. Yet in her work I detect a bubbly percolation that may burst at any moment to emit a putrid stink or delightful aroma.
Steve Parks is a retired journalist, arts critic and editor now living in Easton.
“TIDAL” Through Sept. 27, Adkins Arboretum, 12610 Eveland Rd., Ridgely; 410-634-2847, adkinsarboretum.org