Folks in our area have two unusual ways to welcome Spring this year by checking out the current exhibits at the University of Dayton’s Roesch Library and the Springfield Museum of Art. Both exhibitions initially create quite a surprise when you step inside the galleries.
In Springfield, you’ll have to get close to the sculptures — of colorful blooms and moths and landscapes — to realize they’re actually made up of recycled objects. Michelle Stitzlein creates the magic with bottle caps, piano keys, electrical wires, license plates, even old slide carousels.
At UD you’ll see an rare sight for a library— a floor planted with hundreds of live annuals and perennials.
UD’s exhibit, on view through May 10, pays tribute to a sacred tradition of planting gardens to honor the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. The practice dates back to the Middle Ages, when the gardens were often shaped in the form of a cross and included a statue or shrine. “You’d bring flowers to your mother,” explains Sarah Cahalan, director of the University’s Marian Library. “They thought of the garden as a teaching tool and used the flowers to tell about Mary and Bible stories.”
The ancient concept got a big boost in America in the 1950s when Philadelphia engineer John S. Stokes Jr. spearheaded a movement to encourage more people to plant all types of Mary Gardens.
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“He was a Quaker who converted to Catholicism and experienced his conversion in his family’s garden,” Cahalan says. “He had a lifelong commitment to social justice causes and he was a gardener who was excited about the idea of democratizing Mary Gardens and adapting them to all kinds of spaces. He wanted there to be options for people who didn’t have a lot of space or time, so he had suggestions for kitchen gardens, dish gardens. He produced literature and garden plans and he would even send free seeds to people.”
A Mary Garden is typically filled with flowers and plants with names that describe an aspect of Mary’s life, her appearance or her virtues. Examples include the Bellflower, known as Our Lady’s Nightcap; the Bleeding Heart, dubbed Mary’s Heart, and Foxglove, known as Our Lady’s Gloves. The Daylily was named for Mary’s husband, Joseph, often depicted with a lily in his hand.
When UD came up with the idea for a library Mary Garden, they contacted 1990 alum Marty Grunder, who offered his help. Designing the unusual garden for Grunder Landscaping Co. was Brent Ogburn, director of business development.
When Ogborn first heard about the assignment, he checked out the library groounds, trying to determine how the garden would fit.
“I was surprised to find out from Marty that the garden was going to go inside the library,” he says, adding that the project turned out to be both fun and educational for all those who collaborated on it. “I did a lot of research and studied John Stokes. I found that there were Biblical meanings for both perennials and annuals, so we’re going to change the annuals throughout the exhibit to reflect different reasons. I learned a lot about Mary and the meaning she has in the Catholic religion. It was very humbling for me.”
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The exhibit includes a video with clips of John Stokes in conversation on various topics. You can pick up flyers that list the flowers on display and bookmarks with seeds embedded in them. The UD bookstore is selling a Mary’s Garden Eco-cube kit that includes a statue of Mary and everything you need to grow one of five different Mary’s Garden plants.
The Stokes archives
Because Stokes did much of his research at UD’s Marian Library, which houses the largest collection in the world of printed materials and artifacts about Mary, he bequeathed his materials to the University. That bequest inspired the current exhibit; the second floor of the show includes six cases of items from Stokes’ personal collection —including a map of the garden that first inspired him and brought him to tears.
The two statues on the first floor come from the collection commissioned by Stokes. Members of the Stokes family were on hand for the opening.
Paintings of Mary
You’ll find the third part of the UD exhibit on the library’s seventh floor. It includes 25 paintings of Mary by Cincinnati artist Holly Schapker. “You’ll see her as an older woman, as a teenager,” Cahalan says. “You’ll see her as everywoman — with different ethnicities. And you’ll see paintings of Mary that incorporate the symbolic flowers.”
Cahalan says UD’s garden can also be traced back to the Garden of Eden, in her faith tradition. “Heaven is represented as a garden in many religious traditions,” she says. “Our garden is a resource for people across faiths to think about the spirituality of our interactions with nature and God’s place in nature.”
Springfield exhibit is seen around the globe
Artist Michelle Stitzlein is obviously thinking about human interactions with nature as well.
Stitzlein has been making art since she was a young child. “I live and breathe art and I don’t feel like a person unless I’m creating,” says the graduate of the Columbus College of Art & Design who lives in a rural area in Baltimore, Ohio, outside Columbus. “I love nature and love being outdoors. I like to work with my hands and challenge myself.”
You’ll see how she’s met a variety of challenges in her current Springfield show, “Industrial Nature.” She reasons that since the world has only so many resources, an important part of the challenge is creating artwork without going out to buy new supplies —paints, paper. “Instead I create with what I have on hand, whether it be in the trash, the garage or an attic,” she says. “I see possibilities.” Her drill, she says, is her paintbrush.
The result is an artist who turns computer mice, headphones and bicycle tires into moths; transforms headlamps, holiday globes and bottlecaps into lichen and fashions elegant flowers from electrical wires, computer cable and enamel pots. Who knew what you could do with the black hangers we take off each pair of new socks or the clothing tags that identify sizes on department store racks?
The museum’s executive director, Ann Fortescue, says the response to Stitzlein’s show has been off the charts.”We are getting messages from Japan, Ukraine, Finland, New Zealand, France, Spain, Mexico, and various places in Africa and South America,” she says. “Our Facebook page of the images of Michele’s exhibition have 287,000 views and 2,350 shares around the globe.
“Kids are fascinated,” Fortescue says. “It’s like ‘Where’s Waldo?’ It elicits wonder and delight from both adults and children.”
Fortescue believes the exhibit images are resonating with people because they are highly creative, beautiful and whimsical. “It’s also completely accessible,” she says. “It has a kind of magnetism, a curiosity factor. You look at it from afar and as you draw closer you realize she has created this incredible landscape, textile, lichen, moth — all from these everyday objects. She has such a different way of looking at things — what we see as clutter and junk she can see coming together in this creative way. Pill bottles and thread spools never looked so good!”
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In anticipation of the Springfield exhibit, Stitzlein invited residents in the area to donate their old garden hoses. The result is the amazing 30-foot work you’ll see when you first enter the gallery. It’s created from 300 discarded hoses. The majority came from patrons of the museum, residents of Yellow Springs and Springfield. “They put a crate in front of the museum for six months and I would come every two weeks and fill up the back of my pick-up,” says the artist.
All of her work, she says, is inspired by nature. Almost nothing is altered. “I love the stains, the rust, the patina, ” Stitzlein says. “It’s all part of the work.”
Although everything she does in inspired by nature, Stitzlein says visitors will be hard-pressed to identify a particular species or type of plant, tree, animal or insect. “They are completely from my imagination.”
What does she hope visitors will take away? “Whatever they need to experience,” she says. “My work is made with a lot of things from the waste stream. All of this would have gone into a landfill. Maybe we need to pull back on all of the stuff we’re putting into those landfills.”
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