There’s something magical about a map, which lifts us high above a place, revealing a view we could never see from the ground — even though we may know the area well — and linking different localities. Landscape artist Christie Scheele harnesses map magic to deepen our perception of her work and our region in “Atlas/Hudson Valley,” a show that opened at Thompson Giroux Gallery in Chatham last weekend.
The centerpiece is a map of the Hudson Valley, showing us where Scheele’s works have come from, with miniature versions of the 24 paintings in the show, keyed with numbers to points on the map. Along one side of the frame, prints of wildlife are accompanied by little rice paper envelopes with fold-out text describing the artist’s encounters with creatures and bringing the focus from macro to micro. An extension of the map features prints and text about climate change and flooding, concerns that underlie the landscapes Scheele paints.
The use of text and maps represents a shift for the artist, who is known for her expansive, atmospheric paintings of mountains, fields, bodies of water. “I’m always outside looking at small things. I’m always researching, asking questions,” she said, “but I’ve never had a way to incorporate those experiences into my work. Now I’ve created a matrix for the paintings.”
Three events combined to generate the new work: the election of President Donald Trump, a two-week residency in Nantucket, and the artist’s 60th birthday. “My grief over the election was on so many levels, like other people’s,” she explained, “but I kept returning to climate change. The laws about gay marriage might be changed, but they can be changed back some day. But with global warming, I feared we’d be doing even more irreparable harm than we’ve already done. We’re losing national parks, and there are many direct impacts on open spaces, air, water” — exactly the subjects of her paintings.
As Scheele was about to embark on her sixth decade, she considered, “What do I want to do that I haven’t done yet? The answer was to express more connectivity between my work and the environment.” The residency in Nantucket, where she has taught art classes every summer for years, provided the perfect opportunity to focus all her attention on her new goal. She created a map of the island, with areas hand-stamped to show which parts of the landscape are projected to be lost to sea level rise. To prepare for the residency, Scheele had taken a printmaking course with artist Kate McLoughlin of Olive, so she’d be able to take advantage of the print studio next to her assigned living space. There she made small prints of wild animals she saw on the island, which she added to the map, accompanied by handwritten text. However, she was not satisfied with the result. “It looked too much like a science project,” she said. But she continued to experiment with the concepts, adapting them to the Hudson Valley project that came next. “I had moments of huge discomfort in this new territory,” said Scheele. “There was so much trial and error.”
In order to place the little versions of her paintings onto the Hudson River map, she made block-print portraits of the larger works. Additional techniques came from Scheele’s son, Tony Morelli, who had studied linocut printing. She created carved blocks to make prints of the blue heron, red eft, black bear, and wasp gall that illustrate the text along the side. By folding up the descriptions, she made the writing less intrusive than on the Nantucket project, also adding an interactive element.
On the map itself, she used collage techniques her daughter, Tessa Morelli, had learned from artist Loel Barr. Elements of the map are made to stand out by the application of bits of paper, the membranes of winged maple seeds, and the delicate shells of wasp galls — the swellings formed by certain species of wasp that pupate on the stems of oak leaves.
Above and below the main map, she is placing collage-enhanced maps of Lake Tear of the Clouds, considered the source of the Hudson River, and the Hudson Canyon, which extends deep into the ocean floor beyond New York Harbor.
The spacious paintings on the walls include subjects such as Bannerman’s Island, the view from a boat on the Hudson, the Beacon-Newburgh Bridge as seen from a train, the Ashokan Reservoir, the view from the Olana estate. Others are less specific — the headlights of a car on a rural road at dusk, farm fields bordering water. Also in the show are collages, prints, and pastels. She cautioned that the paintings do not comprise a catalog of the best views of the river and the valley. “They are just what I wanted to paint.”
Five percent of all sales from the show will be donated to the Columbia Land Conservancy and the Woodstock Land Conservancy.
Christie Scheele’s “Atlas/Hudson Valley” will be on display at Thompson Giroux Gallery, 57 Main Street, Chatham NY, from until May 6. For more information, visit www.thompsongirouxgallery.com or call 518-392-3336.