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Keeping Our Creations Close

Sara Adlerstein's "Not For Sale: My Private Collection"

by Jenn McKee

From the August, 2020 issue

Few things are more seductive than hearing a stranger's secrets, and looking at something beautiful that you can never possess.

Both temptations play a role in Sara Adlerstein's new online art exhibit, "Not for Sale: My Private Collection." A response to WSG Gallery's recent (May 26th) brick-and-mortar closure, it showcases an often-stunning array of the abstract painter's most personally meaningful pieces, with comments that explain their context and inspiration.

The result is a bracingly intimate experience. Arranged chronologically and spanning nearly forty years, "Not For Sale" begins with Adlerstein's early life as a scientist in Chile. Studying aquatic ecology in college (she's now a research scientist at U-M's School for Environment and Sustainability), Adlerstein spent hours staring at microalgae through a microscope lens. These "silent worlds" gave shape to her artistic vision.

The exhibit's exuberant opening piece, "Micrasterias spp," is perhaps less accomplished and polished than later works, but that's key to its emotional pull. The acrylic-on-wood painting is the equivalent of a college snapshot, Adlerstein explains: "I have moved more times than I want to remember," she writes, yet this piece always accompanies her, reminding her of the moment when her artistic voice first spoke.

The more textured, earthy "Placida," meanwhile, is as much about its materials as its imagery. When Adlerstein left Chile with her sons (then ages eight and eleven) for grad school in Seattle, her mother gave the boys a gouache paint set. She used it to paint something akin to a self-portrait-in-stone, with her children at her sides. "I keep this piece in the bedroom, and it greets me every day with love for the old days," she writes, "when the future was wide open and I thought the kids and me would be together forever."

As a grad student, Adlerstein painted each day after class. Suddenly far from home, she used art to connect to her Latin American roots. Though there is an undeniable sense of joy in the colorful, vibrant pieces--fiercely alive with primary

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colors--there is also palpable longing.

Other groupings in the exhibit include a gorgeously evocative series inspired by Lascaux's prehistoric cave paintings. which she displays together in her living room for an immersive experience. Another collection, created after Adlerstein and her husband moved to a small, forest-adjacent village in Germany where she struggled with loneliness and isolation, includes two of my favorite pieces--"Herbst Bald," an arresting explosion of fall color, and "Solea," a self-portrait/landscape hybrid. A sampling of more recent pieces collects work developed since the artist and her husband moved to Michigan in 2001.

In this last assemblage, different parts of Adlerstein's lived experience come together. Her research on the effects of dams on Michigan rivers results in the elemental richness of "Riverflows"; an old, outgrown pair of her husband's jeans is transformed into "My Favorite Second Skins"; and news of an intense Chilean earthquake spawns the blood-colored, sedimentary-like layers of "Mother Power."

The personal and the natural are one in Adlerstein's work, and getting a sustained glimpse into her process, history, and evolution feels like a powerful discovery in its own right.

"Not for Sale: My Private Collection" runs from August 18 to September 28 on     (end of article)

[Originally published in August, 2020.]


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