Thomas Jefferson’s influence on Virginia is the inspiration behind an exhibit currently on display at the Taubman Museum of Art in downtown Roanoke.
It was an idea decades in the making.
“Thirty years ago when I moved to Virginia, I was very aware of Thomas Jefferson’s book ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’. And I scribbled down an idea to do-someday-a series with that title. It took me this long to finally do it.”
Bristol artist Suzanne Stryk received a fellowship from the Virginia Commission for the Arts in 2011. She used the money to travel Virginia, hiking, kayaking and keeping detailed notes just as Jefferson did-and visiting the locations he knew well: Such as Natural Bridge, and Poplar Forest.
“The environment would just start to enter into me and I would start taking notes, I would meet people-a naturalist or gardeners at Monticello-and things would start to fall into place.”
Along the way, she collected items ranging from feathers and insects, to a turtle skull and ferns and took them back to her studio. And she returned to some places she had visited before.
“For instance, when I took the tour, the tourist tour of Monticello the home-I had taken it before, years ago-but the tour guide said something about Jefferson loving mockingbirds. So it just clicked with me. I thought, ‘That’s it’. I’m going to do something with mockingbirds.”
But some areas of the Commonwealth she was seeing for the very first time, just as Jefferson did. For instance, Natural Bridge, formerly owned by this nation’s third president, has been painted by hundreds of artists, and she wanted to capture its unique beauty in a different way.
“So I saw a rough-winged swallow flying in and out of the bridge. It was nesting there. And I thought, ‘Jefferson would have seen that same swallow; I mean genetically related to the swallow I was seeing’. So I went back to the studio with my sketches and with little grains of rock to make this paint in the background, and I printed out the genomic sequence of this swallow. And I made the bridge out of its genome. I think Jefferson would have been fascinated by genetics.”
Her undertaking culminates in an exhibit with the same name as Jefferson’s book.
This piece, titled “Bridge”, and the other larger pieces use a USGS topographical map as their backdrop.
“Topographical maps have a beauty, a kind of spare elegant beauty. And rather than making me feel like I’ve been up to a place, it makes me feel like going, when I look at a map. So these maps appeal to me on very different levels.”
Some of the other works are mounted on old mirrors. The piece, “Dialogue on the Tides” was a book by Galileo which Jefferson read. Its series of layers on a mirror gives it a 3-dimensional look.
“The first layer is an actual map. It’s very hard to see. The second layer is my hand-written account of being on Virginia Beach and the Eastern Coast. The third layer are fish that I drew and painted that actually I saw when people were fishing and had pulled them up. The next layer is the mirror. And the last layer are all sorts of plankton painted on the surface.”
“In all the pieces I’m really talking about all the layers that we see and that are sometimes hidden in the landscape; the cultural and natural layers.”
In another piece, she’s cut slits in the map and pealed it back to reveal salamanders hidden in the earth.
In “Road Trip”, Stryk cut out the highways she traveled from a map and wove them together into a nest. And behind that is a list of dead animals she found along the roads.
“It’s in the background, it’s hidden. We take road trips, we just explore, but there’s casualties to all our driving. And it’s something that didn’t exist when Jefferson was alive.”
Other items Stryk collected during her travels but didn’t use is part of a table display along with some of her sketchbooks. The Taubman exhibit runs through Saturday, August 24th.
Watch Suzanne Stryk's video about the exhibit.