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Artists ‘Tag’ Trees with Their Totem Pole Designs

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What: “Living Totems,” a juried group exhibition of totem pole designs painted onto pine trees and six-foot wooden planks.

Where: 2TEN HAUSTUDIO, 15930 N.C. 210, Ivanhoe

When: Opening reception is 1-4 p.m. Oct. 14. The plank totems will be on display through Oct. 31; the pine tree totems will remain on display as long as nature allows.

The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge was closed on Sept. 29, turning the Isabel Holmes Bridge into a bumper-to-bumper simulation of what it would be like to evacuate Wilmington during a zombie apocalypse. The far-worse-than-usual traffic made the normally 50-minute trip to Ivanhoe, with the scenic countryside along the Black River and the surprisingly frequent wooden cut-outs of horse silhouettes grazing in fields, that much more of a stark contrast.

But nothing was more surreal than arriving at our destination: Diane Hause’s 2TEN HAUSTUDIO along N.C. 210 in Sampson County, near the Pender County line, where 20 individuals were scattered about the property, painting on pine trees.

Hause invited local and regional artists to her forested studio for “Living Totems,” a juried group exhibition for which there is an opening reception on Sunday. Twenty-five artists participated, each completing totem pole designs on six-foot wooden planks to be hung inside the gallery space. The artists transferred the designs right onto the bark of the pine trees outside the studio, using water-based paint that wouldn’t harm the trees.

“It’s almost odd,” Hause said, looking out at her yard spotted with artists tending to their arboreal canvases. “It’s like elves or something. It’s almost, in its own way, peculiar.”

Peculiarity is part of the reason Hause built her art studio beside a cotton field in Ivanhoe. She felt a remote, unexpected locale would only help pull people in.

So far, it’s worked. 2TEN HAUSTUDIO has hosted well-attended receptions for both solo shows and themed group exhibitions. Continuing her series of themed exhibits, Hause recently decided to try an idea that occurred to her “about a month ago,” Hause said. “I was out here, I had been mowing and stuff, and I thought, ‘Maybe that would be a thing to do: totem poles.’

Hause invited columnist and author Celia Rivenbark to jury the exhibition. Third place went to Christopher Boehm of Chapel Hill for his “Enabler” totem, with its colorful design and political narrative.

Wilmington artist Elizabeth Darrow received second place for a design using a simple palette, stacked animals and masked faces in the style of a traditional totem pole.

“This has been fun,” Darrow said. “For something that I wasn’t all that keen about doing, once I embarked on it, I was happy that I did it. And the great thing is I’m now using all this exterior house paint I bought for this project in my studio with larger brushes and a big floor mat, so it’s really freed me up and started this whole new way of painting.”

Many of the artists I spoke to described “Living Totems” as a fun, mind-opening experience, including first-place prizewinner and Wilmington artist Ben Billingsley.

“That’s one of the best things about Diane’s group shows: She loves to come up with an idea that’s kind of out of the box, a little bit out of the ordinary,” Billingsley said.

Other participating artists include Kinga Baransky, Elizabeth Britton, Cecilia Liam and Lucille Bruno, Susan Bullers, Michelle Connolly, Sharon Ely, Lynn Gay, Kristin Gibson, John Gibson, Amy Hall, Dave and Robert Hause, Fritzi Huber, Leslie Pearson, Arrow Ross, Barbara Squires, Nicolle Nicolle and Richard Whitaker.

Billingsley teaches printmaking at Cape Fear Community College. He carved his design into his wooden plank. The blue and black composition features a blackbird, a cityscape and a figure entwined with a tree. Billingsley then used the plank as a woodblock to print his design onto paper, and pasted the paper to the tree using wheat paste.

“Artists are using (wheat paste) as a way to get art out into public, into the street, out of the gallery,” Billingsley said. “It’s sort of graffiti tagging, but it will dissolve with rain and wind. So, not to promote it, but it’s a way to put your art in public that’s cheap and reproducible and not harmful.”

Billingsly further integrated his print with the tree by painting over it.

“It’s a little daunting because wheat paste works really well on things that are flat,” Billingsly said. “So the hardest part was just getting it to conform to some of the strange grooves in the bark. But once the paint got involved, it sort of helps adhere everything, it hides the edge, and it helps you make it fit the tree a little better.

“It is strange to take something you’ve spent so much time with flat and see it fully three-dimensional. That’s very strange for me because, of course, all of my prints are printed flat. I’ve never really done a three-dimensional one before, so this is definitely starting to get my brain to go in new directions, so I’m kinda happy about it.”

— Justin Lacy for StarNewsOnline.com
October 9, 2012

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