“Synthesizing Nature” at the Center for Contemporary Art
Don’t worry, Katrina Bello says. If you look at her latest piece of art and aren’t quite sure what you see, that’s fine with her. Some people, the New Jersey artist says, think it depicts a rock formation. Others might see a stretch of soil. It’s so vivid, you might even think it’s a photograph of a landscape somewhere.
But no. It’s a large, 5-by-8-foot charcoal and pastel drawing of a magnified section of bark found on a willow tree in a park in Montclair.
“I’m always interested in what the viewer sees,” says Bello, 44, a native of the Philippines who now lives and works in Montclair. “I’m really interested in if it begins to look like something else but is still related to nature and the environment. They kind of have to grasp what it is — if it’s something organic or something not organic.”
You can see for yourself over the next few months. Bello’s drawing — titled “Salix /Willow” — is one of the pieces on display at “Synthesizing Nature,” an exhibit that opens Friday, Sept. 15, at The Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster.
The invitational show — which runs through Nov. 4 — features work from 10 nationally and internationally acclaimed artists, all of which explore the relationship between nature and culture.
Bello is one of two New Jersey-based artists in the exhibit, along with Jonathan Ricci of Trenton, a painter and collagist inspired by the time he’s spent working in Iceland.
The show was jointly curated by Wes Sherman, The Center’s chair of exhibitions, and Cory E. Card, formerly of the View Arts Center in Old Forge, N.Y. It debuted in December at View and is now moving to Bedminster.
Sherman says he and Card were discussing how “nature has been such a center part of the creative process” and wanted to examine how everyday culture and the wildness of nature “come together in the creative process.”
“Beauty is a broad thing,” Sherman says. “It can be sublime. And nature can be awe-inspiring as a vista but also a devastating as the hurricanes we keep seeing this summer. But it has an awesomeness to it.”
The show features a broad array of art — drawings, paintings, sculpture and collage.
“Some pieces can get abstract and deconstructed where you kind of scratch your head a little bit as you try to unpack it,” Sherman says.
Like Bello’s work.
“The drawings by Kat Bello are remarkable,” Sherman says. “They are detailed, up close drawings of bark. In that drawing of it, it becomes really abstract. It’s really interesting — having that kind of micro/macro effect.”
Nature has always been a key facet of Bello’s work — and art has always been a key facet of Bello’s life.
She grew up in the coastal Filipino city of Davao and began drawing at a very early age. Her family says she did her first oil painting when she was 7.
“Drawing was my first language,” Bello explains.
Sadly, she says, none of her childhood work survived. Bello grew up in a family of politicians living in a time of great political upheaval in the country. They opposed the regime of Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos, and that caused them to move around a lot, she said.
Bello says she never considered entering politics. Art had already captivated her attention.
She traveled to the United Stated at age 20 to visit a relative. Soon, Bello overstayed her visa and spent years living as an undocumented immigrant — though she eventually did obtain citizenship.
Back home, Bello was an industrial design major at the College of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines. In the States, she got a bachelor’s degree in studio art from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University and a master’s in the subject from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.
Now, she’s a full-time artist with a studio in Newark and is also the founder and curator of North Willow, an artist space in her attic in Montclair. Her work has been exhibited from Newark to Santa Fe to the Philippines.
One of Bello’s artistic goals is to explore nature and how humans react to it. She says she’s inspired by the natural environments she has experienced in her home and adopted countries.
Bello has drawn and painted trees and landscapes for years. But over the last two years, she has honed in on what she calls her “Barkspace” series, depicting up-close views of tree bark. That has yielded eight oil paintings and about 20 drawings.
The willow in the Bedminster show is her most recent. She photographed the tree in Montclair’s Edgemont Park, magnified it multiple times, and drew a section of the bark. Bello estimates the tree is about 300 years old — which is actually younger than many of the other trees she has painted or drawn in the past. Some have been as old as 1,400.
“These are things I’ve actually visited so many times,” Bello says. “I like to visit the same place over and over. To see if the same rock is still there. Or certain trees I encounter.”
“For me,” she adds, “drawing it is part of my fixation of: Even when I’m gone, I know this will still be there.”
RICCI’S ICELANDIC ART
Jonathan Ricci sometimes combines two different mediums in his art: painting and collage. You can see the result in two of his pieces that are on display in the Bedminster show — both of which include striking images of birds he culled from old books.
Some of Ricci’s other work is inspired by one of his passions: his self-professed “obsession” with Iceland.
Ricci says he’s been fascinated with the country for years. It started when he some of his fellow students in grad school a Bowling Green State University in Ohio were planning a trip there.
“It sort of planted the seeds in my mind,” remembers Ricci, a 48-year-old Hamilton native who got his masters in painting. “It’s been this odd obsession.”
Ricci went there as a tourist in 1999 and has returned twice — in 2013 and 2014 — to do an artist residency. Both times, he visited in summer — when darkness disappears.
And that, he explains, had a major effect on his art.
“It was like 24-hour sunlight,” recalls Ricci, who currently lives and works in a new loft in Trenton and also teaches part time at Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg. “I went there not thinking about the Icelandic landscape. I wanted to be isolated and just dive into my work. But I ended up being inspired by the kind of barren landscape. And with 24-hour daylight during the summer months, the atmospheric light and color was very inspiring.”
Next up for Ricci? He returns to Iceland next July for another residency.
“There’s just some attraction to it,” Ricci says of the country. “Something that just takes me back there.”