Within the Forest: Nurse Logs
An Exhibition by Nancy Helmsworth
Reviewing the work I completed this spring and summer, I was struck by the unity of the paintings. I am going down a path, a path of comfort, interest and investigation. But as the subject of nature is so complex, there is more to see and more inferences to test out...the series is ongoing.
Much of the work was crafted during the COVID-19 lock-down and within the uncertainty of the subsequent summer. Now that makes sense - movement, predictability, the enduring strength of nature.
During this time, my refuge, my method for calming myself was hiking in Forest Park. I hiked multiple days per week and used the time to discharge my anxiety and to practice slow breathing, while taking in the sounds, smells and visuals of the ecosystem. This sanctuary helped me then and now and is a space I value and love like a safe place.
The forest is a constant reminder of the passage of time, with evidence of seen and unseen life all around. Many trees are hundreds of years old and who knows how old the nurse logs are? One even sees evidence of long-gone nurse logs in the oddly-formed bases of certain trees or in mummocks of earth shaped like fallen timber. These particular features shape life even after they have been reabsorbed by the earth.
My focus on the nurse logs honors many of these thoughts with the intersection of humans. All through time people have entered and interacted with the forest as they journey, work, live and play. That may explain why - when I begin the fiber or object layer - so many responses come to mind. Maybe I’m reminded of a child in the forest, or a harvester or a builder. Threads and objects are snagged in passing, dripping like lichen or sometimes strings are staked out to define and measure, as humans try to impose their designs on the wild plot. Was that doll lost or snagged on a bush? Are those builders surveying a piece of property? Is that a mark from a logger harvesting timber? Sometimes the additions are just intuitive responses on my part, or a wondering.
I begin by walking and observing; seeing what catches my eye. I am looking for a natural arrangement that presents a new vignette. I take a photograph and save it to review days or weeks later. I need that time-space before revisiting an image. I craft the painting trying hard to stick to a realistic approach. Getting lost in the complexity of the image is another soothing activity and opportunity to ponder my choices.
When complete, I hang the painting and look at it for awhile: days, weeks, asking myself what it needs. As I have often done at this stage in earlier work, I begin by looking for a color line that would formally compliment or contrast the image. What extra layer of human order is conveyed in this composition? What was I thinking in my choice of this image? Each composition is chosen for its option to infer additional ideas.
Then I test out some ideas, staying open and improvisational until the thought comes to me.
I am an Oregonian by choice, having grown up in Ohio. I have lived in Portland for 30+ years and have yet to tire of the natural, rugged beauty of the Pacific Northwest. I have had the good fortune of being a public school art teacher for years and have learned so much in the process of trying to make art accessible to my students. Symbiotically, my students have hugely broadened my exposure to human thought and expression with their clear, fresh ideas and for that I have so much gratitude.
Art is my reliable and constant companion.
Rocks in Thirds - acrylic on panel, 24” x 24”
Oh my, you are so beautiful, acrylic on cradled board, 24” x 24”
Seeing, ordering defining - Nurse Log with Cats Cradle, acrylic on cradled board, embroidery floss, brass nails, 12” x12”
Seeing, ordering defining-Nurse Log with Orange Square, acrylic on cradled board, embroidery floss, brass nails, 12” x12”
Seeing, ordering defining-Nurse Log with level markings, acrylic on cradled board, embroidery floss, brass nails, 12” x12”
Seeing, ordering defining-Nurse Log with stretching web, acrylic on cradled board, embroidery floss, 12” x12”
Lost, but returning to my touchpoint, acrylic on cradled board, embroidery floss, antique doll, glass-head pins, 12” x12”
Fragrant wood on a sunny day, acrylic on cradled board, embroidery floss, glass-head pins, twigs, 12” x12”
Smoothed by time and weather, acrylic on cradled board, embroidery floss, brass nails, 12” x12”
Childlike rays in the corner, acrylic on cradled board, embroidery floss, brass nails, 12” x12”
Straight cut, plumb-line, acrylic on cradled board, embroidery floss, river stone, 12” x12”
Dry swing, acrylic on cradled board, embroidery floss, twig, 12” x12”
Stopping to notice the gnarled and delicate vignette, acrylic on cradled board, embroidery floss, glass-head pin, twig, 12” x12”
Angel Hair fern in shadow, acrylic on cradled board, embroidery floss, brass nails, 12” x 12”
Wounds heal and scars sculpt, acrylic on cradled board, embroidery floss, steel nail, gingham, 16” x16”