By Zirrus VanDevere
Susan Welsh-Smith has had two open-heart surgeries in the last 12 years. She lives in Ninilchik and has been a fiber artist for many years, and has her work currently on display at the Funky Monkey in Kenai.
She states that after the most recent surgery, she feels she has a new lease on life. This exhibit, called “Past Wanderings,” is a reflection of her life and work during that time period, as she sits at the beginning of a new, unknown chapter of her life.
The artist’s love for material is evident in this body of work, and the freeness with which she chooses her designs and fabric make for a dynamic arrangement. Her stitching is exploratory and creative, and she seems to be able to combine discipline with spontaneity in most of her works.
She seems to have a particular passion for flowing, organic shapes, and also for shiny thread. Although some of the pieces resemble one another, I have the sense that each has a life and story of its own, and that the artist was completely present and involved during its conception, inception and finish work.
Probably my favorite in the lot, “Dulse Spring,” has the most irregular edge and an abundance of energy and zest. Perhaps fashioned after a 20th-century expressionistic piece, the colors and shapes feel purely modern. Also enticing, if somewhat subtler, is “Desert Petroglyphs,” a piece I could certainly enjoy in my own home, and could easily see as a full-sized bedspread. (In which case, I’d be even more likely to want to hang it on my wall).
I like that Welsh-Smith has not been too literal with this one, and that her titles seem to reflect personal memories of some kind, alluded to but never spelled out. “Vessels of Hope” has this quality, as well, and comes off as sacred and significant.
“Three Cups of Tea” may tell a personal story, as well, and it is the only to be handled in what I would consider a traditional quilted fashion. And even then, there are some wonderful little surprises.
Both elemental and frivolous, “Saints and Angels” is a group portrait of a number of dogs, and the simplified sun shape above their heads is a clever tribute.
“The Hunted” has an African slant to it, and is gorgeous and compelling. It is the largest of the wall hangings, and feels altogether different than most of the exhibit. Another odd one out is the artist’s self-portrait. It is nice to see, but I find myself wishing she had handled it in the gregarious way so many of the others are presented, to fully reflect her obviously creative and colorful nature.
Along with Susan Welsh-Smith’s showing, a group of student-created masks adorn a wall. Done at Kenai Alternative High School, the participating students were asked to research different types of masks from around the world and then create their own based on those insights. The ideas were sketched out on paper, transferred to individual pieces of basswood, and then hand carved and finished. The course was originally inspired by Native Alaskan masks, which have typically been used in ceremonies and cultural celebrations, representing both the spiritual and the physical arenas. The responses are as varied and entertaining as I’m sure the artists are, and the masks display well in the warm ambiance of the coffee shop.
Zirrus VanDevere is a local mixed-media artist and owns Art Works gallery in Soldotna. She has bachelor’s degrees in fine arts and education.