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Big Skies/Hidden Stories: Ellen Wagener Pastels
January 16 - June 26, 2016
If a landscape could tell stories about the human history of its place, what would these stories look like? Ellen Wagener, a pastel artist who works in the luminous landscape tradition, uses weather, dust storms, clouds, trees, and geographic processes to focus attention on hidden histories embedded in locations in Arizona, California, and New Mexico that relate to the human land use. Big Skies / Hidden Stories, Ellen Wagener Pastels, opened Saturday, January 16, 2016, at the Tucson Museum Museum of Art (TMA) in historic downtown Tucson. (right: Ellen Wagener, Santa Cruz, 2012, pastel on paper. Image courtesy the artist.)
"Ellen Wagener creates pastels that are sweeping and nuanced interpretations of the landscape in ways that reveal the majesty of the convergence of land and sky," said Dr. Julie Sasse, TMA Chief Curator and Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. "Wagener is able to simultaneously render broad tracts of land while articulating even the smallest of details in both large- and small-scale works. But just as important, she shares with the viewer the inspiration behind the scenes -- the histories and stories that make the land come alive."
Though known for its cacti and dramatic mesas, the Southwest landscape is also a place of multiple uses. Wagener finds it paradoxical that a state that so proud of its ability to generate high amounts of solar energy is still attached to nuclear energy and hydroelectric power from Hoover Dam.
One piece in the exhibition resulted from visiting the Cochise Stronghold, located in the Coronado National Forest, where Chiricahua Apache Chiefs Cochise and Geronimo led battles against the U.S. Army before Arizona became a state. The "Apache 8" -- a group of women firefighters from the White Mountain Apache Tribe who fought the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002, the largest forest fire in Arizona history -- inspired another work in the exhibition.
Also included in this exhibition are two works from the series "D. H. Lawrence Tree," one of which is in the Museum's permanent collection. These works are fresh interpretations of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting of the tree in Taos, New Mexico, beneath which the author D. H. Lawrence wrote during a highly productive time in his career.
A native of DeWitt, Iowa, Wagener received her B.F.A. from the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., and now resides in Arizona. Her work has been shown nationwide and is in the collections of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Iowa State University, the University of Iowa Museum of Art, the Tucson Museum of Art, and the Figge Art Museum.
Big Skies / Hidden Stories, Ellen Wagener Pastels will remain on view at TMA until June 26, 2016.
Wall panel text
This exhibition of meticulously rendered luminous pastels by Ellen Wagener celebrates the epic skies and dramatic terrain of the Southwest while alluding to the "hidden stories" that inspired the artist. For example, the Imperial Valley in California is considered the "secret garden of the Southwest," where farmers grow crops of lettuce and small vegetables to feed the entire country. The desert landscape is also home to the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, the largest power plant in the country that provides energy to four million people in Arizona, Texas, and California. As part of this discussion, Wagener's Koyanniscazi; Life Out of Balance, Mushroom Cloud is included here, a work that references the fragile balance of our shared landscape. Wagener finds it paradoxical that a state so proud of its ability to generate high amounts of solar power is still attached to its nuclear generators, as well as to hydroelectric power at Hoover Dam. To Wagener, the shift from Arizona's economic focus on cotton, copper, citrus, and cattle to high technology and tourism can be addressed by the sublime rendering of these majestic landscapes.
Wagener first discovers the histories of various locales in the Southwest through popular media such as Public Broadcasting (PBS), Netflix, the Internet, and Arizona Highways magazine. Intrigued by these revelations, she then visits the sites to connect the history to the beauty of land firsthand, often including her family on an educational road trip. For instance, she learned about the story of Cochise, Geronimo, and the Apache resistance of the late 1800s by watching the PBS, "We Shall Remain: Geronimo" series. This television program resulted in her visiting and drawing the rugged terrain of Cochise Stronghold located in the Coronado National Forest, where Chiricahua Apache Chiefs Cochise and Geronimo led battles against the U. S. Army before Arizona became a state. Another such discovery came when she learned about the "Apache 8," a group of women firefighters from the White Mountain Apache Tribe who fought the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002, then considered the largest forest fire in Arizona history. According to Wagener, "These works are not about dirty sexy politics or environmental discord -- not the bad stuff. They are about finding stories you didn't know existed -- they are a part of our landscape."
Also included in this exhibition are two pastels from the "D. H. Lawrence Tree" series, fresh interpretations of a famous Georgia O'Keeffe painting of tree in Taos, New Mexico, beneath which the author D. H. Lawrence wrote during a highly productive time in his career. In Wagener's version, hypnotic and frenzied marks cover the surface, which meld into nearly photographic drawings. To celebrate the 2012 Arizona Centennial Wagener created "Arizona 15," a series of 15 plein air pastels, one for each county in Arizona, accompanied by text which explains each landscape's historic narrative. Overwhelming monsoons, pecan groves in Pinal County, historic wildfires in Navajo and Gila counties, and the "Oatman Family Massacre" in Maricopa County are among Color is a key element to Wagener's work. Black and white vintage photography by Edward Curtis inspired the monumental diptych, "Cloud Bank," a sweeping cloudscape of the Southwest, while a blast of color enlivens "Twisted Sisters," 24 pastels depicting the high drama of summer monsoon storms.
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