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Light and shadow
Katherine Meyer’s natural solitude

My first encounter with one of Katherine Meyer’s oversized (46"x36") charcoal drawings was a woodland scene that seemed at once mythic and primal, a great setting for fairy tales or a place to wander in one’s dreams. The dense, lush detail of her drawing, along with her uncanny sense for conveying light and shadow, make her work not just engaging but almost mesmerizing. Her current exhibit at the American Mathematical Society (through May 16) offers more than two dozen examples of Meyer’s drawings from the past five years, plus a piece owned by the AMS, "Cloud Forest 6" (1998).

Meyer, a Connecticut native, lived in Maine for 10 years before getting her BFA from the School at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1983. Deep in the Maine woods, with no electricity or running water, she realized the hold that the natural resources of forest and garden had on her and on her work. But it is the seascapes — from a stretch of rocky Maine coastline; from Sachuest, Rhode Island; and from the Cape — that first grabbed me at this show, like an inescapable magnetic force.

In a recent phone conversation with Meyer, she described that reaction this way: "I’m trying to create places that invite people in — I want people to feel these are places that they would want to be in. In a way, the work is confrontational because there is nothing about human beings in them. So you’re by yourself when you look at it, like being in nature alone, and that’s pretty significant."

"Chasm at Hero Beach" was created last year after a visit to a friend’s house on Swan’s Island, off the Maine coast near Bar Harbor. In Meyer’s characteristic style, the texture on top of the rocks — where epochs of breaking waves have made their own gentle wave marks — seems at once photographically realistic and painterly impressionistic. She deftly conveys depth through a broad range of tonal value in the grays and blacks of charcoal while maintaining the overall soft blur that this medium can impart.

The composition in this piece follows a theme on which Meyer plays endless variations in her work: light and shadow. Here, the light on the water catches our eye on the pool in the center and guides us through a narrow pass between boulders out to the ocean beyond, and then back to the darkness of the actual chasm in the foreground. It’s so elemental, you can’t help but feel the emotional and philosophical underpinnings of this scene.

"The places that I draw are places that I want to be in solitude, places that I respond to visually as well as viscerally," Meyer noted. "There has to be something about the place that draws me in more than just its appearance, something about how it feels to be there."

Thus, in "Up In the Trees" (2000), every bit as captivating as the previous piece, a drama of light is splayed across the sprawling branches of live oaks in a California grove, and you can almost feel the cool respite of the air beneath their crowns. A smaller piece, "Shade for Looking," from Colt State Park, creates a similar feeling of the solace and comfort of a shady glen. This work also emphasizes Meyer’s skill with textures — the bark on a tree looks as if you could reach out and touch it.

This show contains other representations of California, particularly the high desert chaparral (most notably, "First Light" and "After the Fire," both large-format), because Meyer has done three residencies at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, just north of San Diego. But it was on the grounds of Blithewold Mansion in Bristol — she came to Rhode Island in the late ’80s and to Bristol in 1993 — that she first rediscovered her affinity for working in black and white, after many years dedicated to oil painting.

"It felt like coming home and I started drawing more and more," she recalled. "For about four years, I’ve used charcoal exclusively. I’d look at something and I’d think about how I’d paint it and there was always something more to do with black and white."

Meyer likes drawing the smaller pieces (11"x14") on site, and a piece like "Crevice at Sandy Cove" has more distinct charcoal strokes than some of the larger ones. For the large pieces, she takes snapshots of a place, to capture a feeling more than specific outlines, and then tackles the actual drawing in her studio.

"I like working bigger so much better," she admitted. "I use my whole arm, not just my wrist. I go up and draw and then step back and look and it becomes a kind of dance with the drawing — all that movement back and forth. The places in my mind — they’re big, so to make them physically big [almost 3x4’] seems important."

And their size is certainly part of their power. The natural light that comes in from many skylights at the American Mathematical Society is well-suited to Meyer’s work. This is her largest show to date, though the frequency of her exhibitions has been exponential, beginning at the Providence Art Club in the mid-’90s. She received a giant boost from her first show at the Virginia Lynch Gallery in April, 2000. Four more shows have followed at Virginia Lynch in the last three years, along with a showcase in Provincetown last summer and two returns to the Providence Art Club, last spring and last month. Meyer quit her day job (computer programming at DOT) two-and-a-half years ago and has never looked back.

Two particularly meditative pieces in this show — "Snowy Field" and "Winter Sunset" — are set in winter. In the former, there is just a bit of gray sky, darker gray hill, and a vast expanse of snow, punctured in the foreground by a few stems of late summer weeds. In the latter, light slants through trees onto a snowy path and perhaps a pond beyond the trees. It’s that "beyond" that Meyer creates so successfully, that quality that so urgently pulls you into the drawing.

One last piece to mention, which Meyer titles, tongue-in-cheek, "Crowd Pleaser," because of friends’ positive responses to it, has several different kinds of trees in it. The ones in the foreground, the shorter ones, show off Meyer’s technique with detail in their bushy-leafed tops. But it is the two pools of light nearby that evoke the "beyond" sense again. Somewhere high above, leaking through the taller growth in the forest, light beams have penetrated the darkness of clustered trees. Once again, there’s a "message" here that pierces your own consciousness, but it’s neither heavy-handed nor transparent. In almost all of Meyer’s drawings, you can take the images at face value, seeing just the rocks or the trees. Or you can let the essence of these places seep into you, and you’ll hear the ocean and smell the forest floor.

From there it’s just a short step to Meyer’s wish for viewers: "I would like for people to see that they can move into the space of the drawing and move into an interior space." Take up the challenge, with a stroll through Katherine Meyer’s current show at the American Mathematical Society on Charles Street (across from the Marriott).

Issue Date: May 2 - 8, 2003
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