Photo courtesy of Bray Grove Farm

The artist-run space Cultivator relocated with its founders Joanne Aono and Brian Leber to Bray Grove Farm southwest of Chicago in Grundy County. Here Leber and Aono put their backs into their commitment to ecologically sustainable agriculture. They grow organic heritage vegetables and grains in companionship with Loretta and Emmylou, their team of mules who pull the equipment used for planting, cultivating, and harvesting.

Ish Muhammad: Acknowledgement

Acknowledgement, detail. Photos by Stephanie Lovelace-Nieves

Somehow Cultivator’s email about its Memorial Day event found its way to my inbox. I recognized Ish Muhammad’s name and was game for a trip to the country. Muhammad’s thinking about Acknowledgement, which would include Cultivator guests waving wands of ink-filled bubbles over a canvas also was a draw: “We never know how long, how full, how much volume we will take when present…”POP”… life in an instant has that final moment. The canvas under the bubble will capture the ink … representing how with the breadth (air) of life gone… all we manage to capture is a residual of the life that was given.”

The windbreak of stately Norway spruce wasn’t enough to slow down the westerly sweeping across flat fields on Memorial Day. Muhammad improvised by substituting soap bubbles to thwart rogue ink ones from making a mess. When he uses the second canvas at a later event, he plans to try ink bubbles. He says the project has two canvases because “every war has two sides.” Viewers are invited to draw or write on the canvas with crayons in acknowledgement of family and friends “who have served for our freedom.” Muhammad plans to take the canvases to VFWs, retirement homes, and wherever people are interested.

Muhammad came to painting through his experience as a graffiti writer. Bringing his war experience into his art is recent. Through art he’s exploring his veteran’s life as a mode of healing after decades in the shadow of trauma. Evocative of child’s play, crayons and bubbles are intentional media. They allow audiences to enter into potentially heavy reflections on war and the military and to remember—without flag-waving, parades, or gunfire salutes—the suffering and death inseparable from war.

While researching Acknowledgement, Muhammad learned that in the holiday we celebrate as Memorial Day grew out of a Civil War tradition known as Decoration Day,  a day when family and friends decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers. As a tribute to this history, after his canvases make the rounds at other events and are marked with remembrances, the artist will fill in the canvases with painted flowers. Muhammad’s commemoration of Memorial Day attests Acknowledgement is a work in progress.

Sherri Denault: Seeking Quiescence

Installation, partial view. Photo by Sherri Denault

Unlike Acknowledgement’s plein air bath of triumphal green, Seeking Quiescence was steeping in second-story heat and muted color. The pine framing, pressboard, and paper-wrapped panels of insulation of Cultivator’s second floor exhibition space swathed and cradled Sheri Denault’s exquisite works. She fashions everyday materials such as cheesecloth, thread, driftwood, twigs, and paper into vertiginous forms. Her techniques require the patience of Penelope—unraveling fabric thread by thread, tying tiny knots, transfiguring handmade paper.

Connected Knots: Protection, photo by Sherri Denault

The steeliness of determination that’s required to make these objects is ballast for their delicacy and apparent ephemerality. Glints of copper thread within and around feather-like layers of frayed and devolving materials are like breadcrumbs marking a path that’s discovered in the process of making. Works suspended by filament are set free to ride the airwaves.

Connected Knots: Knots and Holes, photo by Lise McKean

Denault’s sculptures aren’t only slow and deliberate in the making. Their enigmatic forms and perceptual teasing invite viewers to slow down, to become aware that the evanescent process of looking brings surprising moments into view.

Connected Knots: Internal Awareness, photo by Lise McKean

Lise McKean

Lise McKean is a writer, editor, and anthropologist based in Chicago.

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