By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
Painting wasn’t enough for Rebecca Louise Law when she was an art student.
As much as she loved the richness of painting, she longed for something more immersive. She tried installations, including some horrendous efforts involving food.
Law found what she was looking for in her father’s garden – dahlias.
Fifteen years after that first flower-based installation, “Dahlias,” the English artist has created an installation that she said most fully realizes her vision.
Law’s “Community” opened Saturday in the Toledo Museum of Art’s Canaday Gallery.
The site specific work was created over the past several weeks by Law, her four-member team, and more than 400 local volunteers. It uses 520,000 dried flowers. Of those 10,000 were harvested locally, including some from the museum’s grounds. The rest are the flowers used in her previous 51 installations.
She saves everything. After an installation’s run, everything is boxed up for future use, even the dust that the flowers eventually become. These are encased in glass. She will return to Toledo in September for a residency at the Glass Pavilion working with that dust.
On Saturday, Law discussed the evolution of her work with the museum’s Director of Curatorial Affairs Halona Norton-Westbrook who curated “Community.”
Growing up in the countryside near Cambridge, England, she spent her time in the fields and fens. If it wasn’t raining her mother sent her and her siblings out to play. If they were inside often it was among the dried flowers in the attic.
Law went on to study painting. “I felt incredibly frustrated. I wanted to work outside the canvas. I couldn’t figure out how to paint in the air.”
Then she had her epiphany. Law started to “paint” with flowers. That led her to discover and study a whole new world of botany. “Personally I’m blown away by nature,” Law said. “That’s my ultimate inspiration. The more I know, the less I know.”
The flowers are draped across the Canaday’s ceiling and hang down to the floor. From the entry the effect is a shimmering tableau. Then the viewer walks into the scene to be among the blossoms.
During a press preview on Friday Law explained that she stands back while others arrange the flowers at her direction. The arrangement is guided by mathematics and aesthetics.
Saturday Law said of the effect she seeks: “I suppose it’s spiritual, the presence of the beauty of what we have here on earth.”
Last December Law visited the museum to finalize the details for the exhibit. She was shown several possible locations for the installation. When she saw the Canaday she decided: “I’ll take that space, thank you very much.”
She said the lighting arranged by Claude Fixler, exhibition designer, was the best for any of her installations, brighter and more open.
Also, during her initial visit to Toledo she met with museum staff and the members of the Apollo Society and Ambassadors group. Many of them were among the volunteers who spent 1,600 hours helping to realize Law’s vision.
That intimate connection with the city is an important part of the work, she said. Part of the team with her for the installation was her husband, Andrew, and their son Alexander, who celebrated his first birthday here, as well as the artist’s parents.
Law said she was inspired by the museum’s connection to Toledo. She was impressed by founder Florence Scott Libbey’s resolve to build the Peristyle in the heart of the Depression as a way of creating jobs.
Law said her passion for preservation developed as a matter of necessity. Flowers are expensive.
Norton-Westbrook said she was struck by the work’s sense of connection to nature and community and how “all will follow in the next project and the next.”
That sense of building is key to what the museum itself does, she said – “years and years of work that’s coming together.”
Law said that when she started creating installations, the idea of exploring decay was being explored by a number of artists. She toyed with that concept, but instead found herself wanting to keep her material.
“I’ve dedicated my life to understanding the flower, preserving the flower … to be as strong as paint. Now when I create an installation I know the flowers are fragile.”
She inserts copper wire in each, air dried blossom. Each fallen flower finds a new place in the arrangement.
“This is the first time that I made an installation that I really feel is where I wanted to be all those years ago,” she said.
On Friday the museum staff toured the gallery. “I physically felt it clicked when everyone was moving in the space with enough room to find a space for yourself. The installation came alive with people in it,” Law said.
“Idea of stepping into a painting and its physical experience with enough room to experience nature and the beauty we’ve been given on this earth, this was the first time it happened.”
Norton-Westbrook said she overheard a visitor express that sentiment: “I feel like I was in the perfect place, the place where I could be held forever.”
Rebecca Louise Law’s “Community” continues at the Toledo Museum of Art through Jan. 13. Admission is free for members and $10 for nonmembers with discounted tickets available for seniors, college students, and military personnel ($7), and youth ages 5-17 ($5). Free admission offered during Thursday evening hours, 5-9 p.m.