Willamette University, Students at the Mill Stream

"Zena Web," by Willamette Professors Andries Fourie and David Craig, is one of the pieces on display in the Art at Zena exhibition.

Zena Forest and Farm provide inspiration for artists

Willamette’s Center for Sustainable Communities and the Salem Art Association recently opened an exhibition featuring works from both local and regional artists inspired by the university’s Zena Forest — exploring the artists’ connections with the land and encouraging thought and action surrounding preservation and sustainability.

The show, on display until April 30 at the Salem Art Association Bush Barn Art Center, stems from a one-day retreat at Zena last summer that allowed the artists to gather inspiration and materials before going on to produce a variety of artwork.

Zena Forest and Farm are Willamette’s agricultural, ecological and biological research station in west Salem. The 305-acre forest is one of the few remaining oak woodlands in the Willamette Valley to not be converted to vineyards, housing or farmland. The student-run farm lends its organic food to the university dining services and serves as an opportune composting site for the Composting Club.

The idea for the show came from Catherine Alexander, gallery director of Salem Art Association; Leslie Whitaker, outreach coordinator for Willamette scheduling; and Andrea Foust, coordinator for Willamette’s Center for Ancient Studies and Archaeology and the Center for Sustainable Communities.

“The summer retreat was designed to foster individual and collaborative creative works in which the artists could explore their relationship with the local landscape,” Foust says. “It also inspired efforts to think about sustainability, the value of our local environment, and its preservation and future.”

Inspired by the landscape

Foust, Whitaker and Alexander invited artists who historically had a focus related to the environment. They talked to painters, poets, basket-makers, sculptors, writers, musicians, a filmmaker, a quilter, a stained-glass artist and a woodworker.

Included in the roster is Betty Hageman, a Seattleite who splits her nature-minded art between a graphic design business and exploring sustainability and artistic media in her personal life.

“The work at Zena provides great metaphors for our lives,” Hageman says. “I was most impressed by the controlled burning to reintroduce endangered species to the area. It speaks loudly to the human necessity to purge ourselves of negative thought in order to revert back to our own natural states.”

Her contribution, entitled “Soil Horizons/Personal Horizons,” is a floor-to-ceiling compilation of soil-treated canvas, organic materials and personal icons, such as family photos. Hageman drew inspiration from the rock strata that comprise the earth’s crust, which she transmitted into a poignant metaphor for life.

“As an artist, gratification certainly comes from the process and the product,” she says. “But it is extremely gratifying to have somebody else take something away from it. The Zena Art Show is one more way to reach different types of people, and help them connect to the earth and the stages it is going through.”

Leaving a legacy

Foust, who grew up in the area and watched the destruction of the nearby Eola hillsides where Zena is located, contributed a piece dedicated to the Fender’s Blue Butterfly — a species that has been largely driven out of the Willamette Valley by habitat destruction. She says the momentum and energy that came from the exhibit has been incredible, and that they are already planning for next summer.

“Each artist brought something rich, varied and amazing to the gallery,” she says. “No two experiences with the environment will have the exact same result, and that is part of why places like Zena are so important. They are places for us to find inspiration and to think of the past and of the future.”

Willamette Associate Art Professor Andries Fourie will discuss his piece in the exhibition, “Zena Web,” a collaboration with Biology Associate Professor David Craig, in a free lecture at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 19. The event is at the Bush Barn Art Center. Professor Joe Bowersox, director of the Center for Sustainable Communities, will offer opening remarks.