By Jenny Neyman
Branches snuggled in hoar frost’s furry coat, a delicate lacey filigree of ice on a windshield, the continuum of concentric circles wrinkling water’s silken surface — every trip outside is an opportunity to witness Alaska’s natural splendor.
“You don’t even have to be hiking and you are in the wilderness, you’re driving down the road and there’s beautiful mountain scenery. Last year I came out one day and I had a great frost pattern on my windshield. I tried to get a photograph of it but I was in a hurry and I thought, ‘Oh, well, it’ll happen tomorrow.’ But it didn’t happen the same way the rest of the year, so I think when you see things like that you have to take a record of it in some way,” said Wendy Croskrey, a sculptor in Fairbanks and associate art department professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
When awed by such examples of natural beauty, often the inclination is to capture it. Photographs help, but don’t quite represent the experience in all its three-dimensional textural lavishness. That’s the gift and curse of Alaska’s scenery — there’s always something to see, but the view’s always changing.
Unless you’re Croskrey, that is. Though she hasn’t managed to capture the beauty of the natural world in a bottle, she has managed to come close in representing it in her work, by emulating processes occurring in nature. Examples of the results can be seen in her exhibition “Waterline,” on display at the Gary L. Freeburg Gallery and Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus through Nov. 8.
The pieces demonstrate Croskrey’s fascination with the natural world, both in process and finished product. Or, more specifically, in the look of the finished pieces through the processes she uses.
“I think that you can’t really, truly make something that’s exactly an imitation of nature, there’s just no way to really do that. So I let the processes sort of create these effects, which is something that I can’t do by taking a carving tool to it or sculpting it in clay. I’m using certain materials that aren’t from nature but they do imitate processes in nature,” Croskrey said.
The intersection of hard and soft plays out in a multitude of ways in nature — drifts of snow smoothing over rough terrain, or waves of moss rounding jagged, rocky edges underneath — and also in Croskrey’s work. Many of the shapes in “Waterline” are formed by molding glassy-smooth resin against the firm constraints of metal, as though the shapes were water droplets, rendered frozen and immobile by time and cold.
“I think a lot of times when there’s a transference from a flexible material into something that’s rigid, it’s a time consideration, like a suspension of time. The process kind of reminds me of that. I guess I relate that to things that are going on outside and being outside in the wilderness. You’re sort of suspending time, you’re enjoying what’s around you, you’re interacting, kind of getting away from things,” she said.
Heightening the icelike impression of some of the pieces, such as “Droplet,” “Ice Flow” and “Icy Inversion,” is the multifaceted, kaleidoscopic colors and crackled patters created in the resin. Not exactly that Croskrey directly creates in the resin, as a painter would with a brush and paints. But that she directs it to be created. It’s a subtle difference in terminology, but one with substantial visual impact.
“The cracking that I get out of some of the materials is from using different setting times, or sometimes I’ll cause it to happen by putting things outside or in extreme temperatures, or just kind of imitating what happens in nature around this environment,” she said. “The crackling effect that get I from using dissimilar materials — that’s pretty similar to what happens when frost develops on a windshield because that’s a difference of temperature, and that’s kind of the same thing. These materials will do that, too.”
Croskrey, originally from Minnesota but moved to Fairbanks in 1990, has a long background in cast and fabricated metals and has worked quite a bit in mixed media, as well. The resin is an evolution, of sorts, in that she likes the interplay of dissimilar materials in pairing metal with glass, but wanted a medium less finicky with which to work. So she started investigating resin and embarked on her own discovery process.
“People always are asking me, ‘How did I do this or how did I do that?’ It’s just through experimentation of the materials that I learned how they react, what the curing set it, when things should be applied,” she said. “And I’ve had a lot of things go wrong so I know what not to do. I’ve had things crack or break so it took me awhile to figure out how to apply the materials to each other and still have the metal shining through as a reflective surface, because I felt like that reflects more light than if you’re putting it on a canvass. If you work with something long enough you sort of discover what it will do and you can work that into your advantage.”
Take the crackling effects, for instance, or the rich, deep, swirling optical effects in the resin, such as in her piece, “Cocoon.”
“I can’t think of any way that I could create it otherwise. I could draw it, but I don’t think it would be the same thing, or I could sculpt it, and I don’t think it would be the same thing. It’s not as random,” she said.
This random, but not, effect also describes Croskrey’s pieces framed in copper piping, such as “Vessel” and “Water Line.” Sections of the pipes are encrusted with ragged, scruffy plating, as if they were ravaged by a combination of moisture, wind and temperature. In a way, they were. The textures and patterns have an artistically random, unexpected look, but the way they came about is as scientific as the formation of ice crystals. Because the plating essentially is the formation of ice crystals.
“I love the hoar frost that builds up on the trees and overhangs. The copper plating is actually like hoar frost, it develops in a similar way,” Croskrey said.
She places the pipes in an acid bath and runs a current through it. As the copper dissolves the current attracts it to adhere to the pipe.
“Depending on what way you orient the work and how the current is applied varies how the plating builds up on the copper. That’s a pretty close correlation to crystallization that forms at different temperatures,” she said.
Following in Croskrey’s rich water-inspiration vein are a series of concentric rings of ceramic hung on Croskrey’s approximation of rope — which is actually cast aluminum, even down to the monkey-fist knots that appear to be tied into the “rope.” Croskrey’s rings are hollow in the middle, as though they’re the result of a stone dropped in water, frozen after the initial droplet has settled.
“Those pieces were thrown on the edge of the wheel so they’re actually the outer lips of a ring or a vessel, so it’s about a containment of water that can only be held in the edges of the vessel instead of in the body of it,” she said. “And I thought it was appropriate that they sort of look like life rings.”
Another unmistakable visual reference is Croskrey’s homage to fishing lures, “Spoon,” “Spinner” and “Allure.” They’re combinations of resin forming the colorful lures, and cast metal forming the “hooks” and swivels.
Croskrey said that she loves to fish, and was intrigued by referencing tackle, but putting her own spin on spinners.
“They kind of defy being a lure in a lot of ways, because the hooks are tied off in a way that you can’t access them. The size is not something that you can really use, so it’s inaccessible for that reason,” she said, “And it’s also that the colors are so interesting it draws the viewer in, but at the same time it’s contradicting that because there’s really no hook or no intention of (being useful for) anything.”
That’s perfectly fitting for “Waterline,” as the whole exhibition is alluring yet defies easy summation as nothing more than “pretty” works, or metal works, or water-inspired works. Croskrey said she intends it to be an example of processes, more than pieces meant to make one particular point.
“That was kind of my goal, to show people what they could do — show a full gamut of processes,” she said.
Sculpture sometimes is thought of only as carving, building in ceramics, or assemblage of materials, not as often as transformation of materials. Croskrey wanted to expand that understanding and demonstrate some of the vast possibilities of the art form, especially for those new to it.
“Metal is sort of the foundation of most work in sculpture, but yet it’s a material that is kind of off-putting to a painter, because they think of metal as being cold and not very inviting. So by creating these surfaces and things people can see that metal can also have other qualities to it that describe an image or an idea. Then hopefully they’ll take something away from it and get excited about those materials, and maybe they can take it further once they learn about those things,” she said.
“Each piece is kind of its own individual thing, but there’s definitely references to water, there’s references to the natural world, so it’s all inspiration from things around me. I hope (viewers) get something out of it. Maybe they’ll see something that inspires them. I think that was more important in this show than having one cohesive theme that is something they get right away and walk away from.”
After all, the best views in nature are those most difficult to look away from.