Angelita Surmon: Leaf and Twig
Western Oregon is dominated by trees. Deciduous, evergreen, towering, spreading, ancient groves shouldered by juvenile thickets, trees are ubiquitous. Their presence is made possible, in large part, by the huge amounts of water in this landscape. I lived for more than 30 years in New Mexico, where desert scrub and cacti prevail, and what qualifies as a “tree” would be laughed at here in this lush forest. I am overwhelmed by so much green, grey, and blue. It's a joy to follow a trail into the dense embrace of so many living things.
Above: Winter Woods, 2014 by Angelita Surmon. 11.75: x 15.5" x .4. Kiln-formed glass.
Trees and water are the focus of Angelita Surmon’s art; they form the framework within which she explores sensation and memory through color and her medium—either acrylic paint or glass. Her work has a relationship to calligraphy and abstraction, though it is representational. A native of Oregon, she writes on her website about her experience of landscape:
“When I am walking in the woods, I am nowhere but there. I am in the moment, and the noise and speed of everyday life is somewhere else. I find a respite from the normal chaos and can be just there, exploring the variations of color and line, texture and movement. I can hear birds, frogs and rain, and take in the verdant scent of the forest. When I make art, I am also in the moment, and my focus is to bring my sense memories of the woods into the imagery so that I can find that respite again.”
I had the pleasure of seeing some of her work at Waterstone Gallery, where she’s just wrapping up a show. The series, titled Reed Canyon Suite, was inspired by a popular trail near Portland’s Reed College. Focusing on layering and complexity, Surmon packs each painting (I refer to these as "paintings" whether they have been made with acrylic paint or glass) with a layered arrangement of plant forms and atmosphere: you can almost feel the humid air, smell the damp leaves. There is a beautiful balance in her landscapes; she manages to capture the deep, dense structure of a brushy wood, but in her editing hands it achieves a state of sublime balance. The viewer is drawn in, to wander among the lines and colors, to be surrounded. She describes this tension in her imagery: “The work takes one of two directions. Either it evokes tranquility and patterns found in the vegetation, or it shows the commotion and turbulence I see in jumbled branches and grasses. I'm attracted to both ends of the spectrum, and being reluctant to choose one or the other, follow both paths.”
Above right: Sample panels show how Surmon builds up her imagery in multiple layers and firings.
I was fascinated by the demonstration Surmon gave in the gallery of how she constructs one of her landscapes in glass. Her base is made up of multiple layers of Bullseye sheet glass. She manipulates pieces of stringer (long, thin, straight strands of glass that come in various colors) by working them with a torch. She heats the stringer, then stretches it out and bends it about to form the delicate twigs that are her trademark. It’s a time-consuming, laborious process that requires more than a little finesse. She made it look easy. Layers of sheet glass with many applications of ground glass frit and custom-pulled stringer are built up over several firings to make the finished landscape. She refers to the pioneering glass artist Narcissus Quagliata as one of her influences, as he developed the process of “Painting with Light” in 1993, and used it in his own work.
Above: Angelita Surmon demonstrates how to pull stringer. Two of her acrylic-on-canvas landscapes can be seen behind her at Waterstone Gallery.
Of course, I ran home and immediately tried to stretch some stringer myself using a torch. I managed to make a mess, burn myself, and ruin several feet of stringer as I struggled to find the rhythm of gently coaxing the stringer to stretch at the edge of the torch flame without the glass splitting into two pieces. It was much harder than I imagined. How Surmon manages to create all those slender, elegant, very long branch forms is beyond me. Similar effects could be created by using a vitrigaph process (pulling strands of molten glass by hand out of a specially-designed, elevated kiln), but not many people have access to such a kiln. I’ll write more on vitrigraph kilns some other time.
You can enjoy Surmon’s beautiful glass or acrylic-on-canvas landscapes at Waterstone Gallery downtown, or on her website at www.angelitasurmon.com. She will be doing another demo of her craft at Waterstone Gallery on Sunday, January 10 at approx. 2:30 pm. It's well worth the trip!