Here's to advocacy
by Sally Wright Day
From the September, 2015 issue
"As a scientist, I'm not supposed to advocate," says Sara Adlerstein, whose love-letter paintings of water are on exhibit in the WSG Gallery at 306 S. Main.
"As a journalist, I'm not supposed to either," I say.
We raise our shoulders at each other and open our hands in question.
"But if we [scientists] don't do it ...?" She doesn't finish her sentence.
"And who knows more about the subjects ... ?" I let mine hang as well.
We are standing in the center of her exhibit, "Here is to Water, with Love Supreme." Surrounding us are the artistic outpourings of this well-credentialed professional, an associate research scientist at the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment, a PhD with two master's degrees, and a successful painter who's exhibited internationally and also teaches art at the U-M. Her academic CV is twelve pages long. Her art CV is eight.
My eyes sweep across the gallery. These paintings are no scientific treatises. Nor are they Earth Day ads. They are abstract, wordless love letters to water--poetry in blues, sculptures of rivers and lakes in modeling paste, and a symphony of pianissimo advocacy. Shhhh.
Adlerstein is a boundary crosser, an interdisciplinarian who breaks the constraints of science, art, and teaching, and mixes them into a natural advocacy simply by what she knows and shows. She calls her art the result of her "relentless love for life" and Mother Earth.
The forms and curves of her paintings are gentle, even meditative, the shapes natural, the colors earthy--and the titles pleading. For instance, there's RiverTraps (Let my river flow free), a huge work of rounded boxy shapes in oranges and beiges, separated by intricate modeled rows and punctuated with a few blues inside and more pushed outside. In contrast, WaterFlows depicts a rush of 3-D water surging up to looping earth forms.
The most blatant plea may be How many species do WE need anyhow? In this small piece, done as a 100-year memorial of the passenger pigeons' extinction,
a bird shape folds sharply as if shot, as hundreds of millions of pigeons were. Below it are blood-red spots and, of course, water. Adlerstein answers the title: "We need all of them."
Adlerstein says she's been called an "embarrassment" to her professions, the thinking being "you can't be a good scientist if you're an artist" and vice versa. But most understand her advocacy for water--and earth--when it's threatened everywhere. "It's our life," she says.
If you miss her exhibit, which closes Sept. 5, you can still see many of these paintings in the video Mapping the River, available on YouTube. Talk about multidisciplinary! This 2008 collaborative project from the U-M about the Huron River brings together dance, poetry, science, music--and Adlerstein's paintings as well as a personal appearance.
But a video's nothing like standing in front of the works themselves and--pardon the advocacy--letting them wash all over you.
[Originally published in September, 2015.]
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