This month, blunt black roots line the staircase to the Durango Arts Center library. If you dont know they are there, you could miss them
Just inside the door, an airy screen of 56 spidery roots hangs. It carries the same title as the exhibit inside. Roots, the screen, functions as a delicate beaded curtain through which you see Mary Ellen Longs extraordinary solo show. Roots, the exhibit, will remain open through April 30.
The show consists of 28 works, each inspired by common roots or made of them. The works range from elaborate drawings assembled in grid fashion to tiny Alice in Wonderland books dipped in mud and sprouting little stick spines. Some of Longs roots have merely been found and presented for their own organic beauty. Others have been dipped in flat black Japanese ink or wrapped in soft handmade paper.
There are nests of roots and artists books in which delicate roots spill out like wind blown letters. Two large artists books lay open with blind meandering lines that cross the pages as if they were Earths handwritten texts.
Suspended from the ceiling, three huge cloud books float without effort. From their outward bindings, spindly white lines dangle, metaphors for words, roots or rain. One large series of drawings links roots to river patterns, one digging into and the other sprawling over the Earth.
There is humor, too. A whimsical wall installation is made of paper, dirt and roots. Mounted in a square grid pattern, Rooted bears an ordinary title but has an odd central image. What connects all the parts? Humble tea bags.
This wonderful, surprising show is clearly both serious and light hearted. Its rich in metaphor and astonishing as a display of a creative mind at work and play. Earth, sky and the squirrely ordinariness of roots may have inspired Long, but it is her ability to develop and process an idea that is so heartening. Read her statement, and youll learn that Roots has been a nine-year quest.
Long doesnt tell us, she shows us the paths she has followed after an initial spark. It all began, she writes, with the 2002 fire. The flames came close to her house, and, though shaken, she was, and always has been, an observant artist. Walking her property, she noticed burned trees, ash and exposed blackened roots.
Primary and Tuberous are two of the smallest sculptures. Both appear to be stones with a gash in one side. Theyve been cracked open and reveal two things: printed text and a little root. In fact, they are wood spheres that Long has shaped, slashed and lined with words. Out of a cleft in an imaginary stone, Long has quietly placed a spidery black root. There are more metaphors operating here than one can list, so let the object stand on its own as something this side of magic.
Longs interest in the Earth as her artistic partner is well-known. Her interest in the intersection of Earth, art and culture continues to surprise those of us who follow her explorations. And now she shows us what nine years of musing has produced. Theres a wholeness here thats rare even in solo shows.
Roots is probably the best show this year to see how a spark ignites and informs an artistic impulse.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.