All Flowers Keep the Light
1. Initially conceived as an exploration of artists harnessing the beauty and symbolic potential of flowers to mark personal loss, the exhibit was expanded to include those commemorating communal and societal ruptures
2. Featuring works by Amy Jenkins, Colleen Kiely, Clare Elliott, Anna Schuleit Haber, John Willis (with Robin Behn and Matan Rubinstein), Cathy Osman, and Miles Chapin
Deep in their roots all flowers keep the light.
— Theodore Roethke
Flowers have been seen for millennia and across cultures as spiritual and emotional touchstones. In spring they signal renewal; in winter their roots shelter regenerative power. Flowers are a gift of kindness to the mourner and a mark of tribute, recognition, and remembrance of the deceased.
Already in production when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, ‘All Flowers Keep the Light’ was postponed for almost a year. Initially conceived as an exploration of artists harnessing the beauty and symbolic potential of flowers to mark personal loss, the exhibit was expanded to include those commemorating communal and societal ruptures as well. Art made at a time of crisis, loss, and mourning can reassure, ease despair, and open the possibility of hope. It is in that spirit that each work of art in this exhibit keeps the light.
Amy Jenkins portrays the life cycle of a tulip bouquet via two-channel video created from 200,000-plus photographs taken over 36 days. One channel is a forward loop, while the other plays in reverse. On one monitor the flowers lift toward the sky with vitality; on the other they diminish as they collapse on themselves. At a midway point, for only a second, the cycles of birth and death meet and the two screens are momentarily identical. As in Samsara, the Buddhist concept, the budding, opening, then petal-dropping and resurrection of the tulips loops perpetually.
Colleen Kiely gathered the floral tributes after her mother’s funeral and brought them back to her studio. As the bouquets withered, she refashioned them into new arrangements. She captured these in a suite of large drawings, deploying a full range of mark making from delicately nuanced to boldly emphatic. Creating the series became a pathway to healing for Kiely, each new arrangement and drawing testifying to a daughter’s love.
Clare Elliott memorializes the life and work of her godmother, Lori S. Goodman, a noted Washington, DC–area dancer, teacher, and choreographer. To create her collaborative, communal portrait, Elliott invited “Miss Goodman’s Girls” to participate as both subjects and creators. The central figure in the collaged portrait installation is Goodman herself—surrounded by roses, mid-movement, her body extended, arm reaching skyward. She is joined by the women she taught, each one strong, self-possessed, full of grace; each embodying Goodman’s legacy—her light.
Anna Schuleit Haber gathered 28,000 potted plants and 5,000 square feet of live sod in the abandoned Massachusetts Mental Health Center just prior to its demolition in 2005. Thousands of patients had been treated at MMHC over the decades, some as voluntary admissions, many involuntary. The scale of Schuleit Haber’s installation spanned the entire building of more than 120,000 square feet, inviting viewers to explore the building on all its floors. Corridors, offices, and even the swimming pool were flooded with scent and color. A haunting film and large-format photographs by the artist document the lush, living plants alongside decaying rooms, dusty furniture, and detritus. MMHC was a place where patients lived apart from family and the broader community. Schuleit Haber’s installation was created to mark the curious absence of live flowers in psychiatric treatment settings and to give flowers back in time, to those who had been there. All flowers were later donated to hospitals, shelters, halfway houses, and other treatment settings.
John Willis focused his lens on the profusion of floral tributes left in the El Paso Walmart parking lot where 49 people were gunned down on August 3, 2019, 23 of whom died. Deftly balancing the clarity of great documentary photography with distinctive artistic expression, Willis’s images possess their own internal, pictorial logic and materiality. Poet Robin Behn and composer Matan Rubinstein joined Willis in creating this multimedia Requiem for the Innocent. Behn’s text entwines a shattering narrative of the event, the language of gun violence, and poignant expressions of grief; while Rubinstein’s haunting, elegiac Micro-Requiems complement both image and text. The totality of the installation offers a portrait of the wounded heart of a community, expressing sympathy, acknowledging grief, and mourning and memorializing lives cut short.
As the pandemic’s enforced isolation wore on during the spring of 2020, Cathy Osman challenged herself to create beauty despite the worldwide misery. Eventually she completed dozens of flower images that combine printmaking with overpainting. The early pieces focus on blossoms articulated with delicate gestures, each surface flooded with light. The later pieces become more brooding and complex, with increasingly layered surfaces, intensified mark making, and a deeper palette. These works form an enduring record of how Osman kept her faith in art and life during this trying time.
Miles Chapin responded to the pandemic by sculpting a stylized blossom thrusting its smooth surface up through a tower of rough stone. The abstract, looping flower “blooms” from a split in the massive rock and appears to float weightlessly above it. The multiple contrasts between these two forms fashioned from the same block of granite evoke a frisson of expectation and energy. Chapin has given us a monument to hope and beauty just when we need it.
— Mara Williams, Chief Curator
‘All Flowers Keep the Light’ is part of 2020 Vision: Reflecting on a World-Changing Year, a statewide exhibition initiative of the Vermont Curators Group, in-person and online.