The root of art
Mary Ellen Long exhibits new works at the DAC

Mary Ellen Long’s book sculpture, “Genesis,” sits on display at the Durango Arts Center Art Library. “Roots” is on display through the month of April./Photo by Steve Eginoire

by Stew Mosberg

Although she isn’t your typical pack rat, Mary Ellen Long throws almost nothing away. Nothing that is, which might be useful in creating art. Considering her unique art form along with the workshops she teaches and her numerous exhibitions, the Durango artist is something of a local legend.

Finding organic ephemera that most people would overlook and then stashing it away for later use could easily become untidy, yet Long’s studio looks more like a laboratory than a junkshop. Everything has a place and she knows exactly where it all is; drawers, file cabinets, closets and shelves hold these odd objects for future inspiration.

Using a variety of mixed-media, the ethereal artist creates environmental installations, constructs one-of-a-kind books and produces extraordinary collage assemblages, most from exotic paper she makes herself.

Mary Ellen Long was born in Los Angeles and lived in north San Diego County, where she earned her MFA in printmaking and painting. The multi-media artist moved to Durango in the 1980s, and although she misses being near the ocean, her second favorite locale is the mountains, particularly the Sierra or the San Juans.

Having exhibited since the late 1970s, she is widely collected, both publicly and privately. Her work is in corporate collections and several national and international museums. Long has also produced and published several limited-edition books, one of which is still available at the DAC gift shop. In addition, she has been featured in “Seeing the Forest for the Trees: The Art of Mary Ellen Long,” a documentary film created by former Durangoan Jules Masterjohn.

“My goal,” she states, “is to create forms that speak of the slow process of nature; of growth, of decay and rebirth on the land, and the effect of humankind’s use and abuse.”

“Roots,” her current show at the Durango Arts Center library, features plant roots that Long has been saving since the 2002 Missionary Ridge fire. The blaze came very close to her home. “A fire break was made on my land,” she recalls. “During this process, roots of oak, aspen, and pine were revealed, and I collected them.”

The assortment eventually grew to include a variety of roots in many sizes and from many other places. Two hallmarks of Long’s art are surgically precise precision and her uncanny eye for nature’s hidden beauty. In addition, her analytical observation and deep sense of design can enhance a natural object in a way most people would never think of. By using a variety of materials, she wraps, ties, binds and joins things together to produce startling combinations. Explaining the initial concept for the current DAC show, Long says, “I began wrapping (the roots) in handmade paper and dipping them in Sumi ink and their complex forms and functions began to fascinate me.”

Expounding on the process, she adds, “Part of my explorations took me to ‘The Land,’ an environmental outdoor art site in New Mexico where I combined handmade paper-wrapped roots from the Colorado forest with the exposed juniper roots in The Land’s arroyo.” The results, she explains, “made for an interesting conversation.”

It is just such a dialogue between nature and man-made objects that define her work and make is so illuminating to the viewer.

Always exploring and seeking to evolve her art, the Roots show offers a glimpse into the artist’s future direction. A new series, which she calls “Roots to Rivers,” is still in progress, but three early pieces are on view at the DAC. The artist explains that over time, the root forms began to look like river tributaries. The three interpretive examples in the exhibition incorporate birds-eye views of rivers drawn on her hand-made, highly textured paper. And, as with much of her work, the images can be many things to the viewer. While her art is not meant to be metaphorical, it almost always inspires thought and opens the viewer’s mind to endless possibilities as to what else the portrayal might be

The innate beauty of the art in this show mirrors the artist’s own delicate handiwork. One overhead grouping of translucent assemblages hangs from the library’s skylight like dangling marionettes trailing fibrous tentacles. Looking up at them, it is as easy to imagine stacks of white kites or clouds floating along in multiple layers. Other suspended roots can be seen gracing the entrance way; covered with matte-black Sumi ink, typically used for Asian calligraphy, they are joined together to form a delicate veil at the top of the stairs. As roots they are reminiscent of capillaries, veins or nerve synapses. Elsewhere in the gallery are single roots, robust and branch-like and covered with a layer of white pulp, which could be mistaken for sun-bleached bones of some prehistoric life form.

In yet another iteration, Long has sculpted a vessel molded from a tribal basket and has planted it with black roots that stand upright in orange sand. It is a self-contained world that echoes the charred remains of the trees engulfed nine years ago.

Regarded for her “artist books,” Mary Ellen Long has included a variety in the show and in keeping with the theme has integrated roots into them in one form or another. One book includes photographs she has taken at the environmental installation in New Mexico, and others have one word per page. As delicate as the books may seem, they are designed to be viewed and visitors are encouraged to do so with the use of the cotton gloves provided. •

“Roots” runs through April at the Art Library at the Durango Arts Center, 802 Second Ave. For information, call 259-2606.



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