PORTLAND — While preparing to install her jewel-like exhibition at the Art Gallery at the University of New England, Alison Hildreth spent a lot of time thinking about the French philosopher Albert Camus.

She kept coming back to this quote:

“A person’s work is nothing but this long slow trek to rediscover, through the detour of art, those two or three giant but simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”

Hildreth realized that her life’s journey as a painter, printmaker, drawer – a markmaker at her very core – stems and always returns, faithfully, to the imagination of her childhood. That’s why the Camus quote seems so apt. We spend our lives searching for and thinking about a handful of ideas that present themselves early in life and stay with us through time.

A small bit of Hildreth’s journey is wrapped up in “The Feathered Hand.” The exhibition includes prints and drawings, but its centerpiece is a glittering, chandelier-like hanging collection of winged puppets, made with paper, glass and wire and suspended like marionettes, along with strings of clear-glass test tubes, beakers, pendulum-shaped forms and light-refracting lenses.

In all, there are hundreds of pieces of glassware suspended from above on long strings of wire. It’s angelic and dreamlike, with a shallow pool of water underneath for making wishes and catching dreams.

Hildreth isn’t sure how to explain this piece, except to say that it comes from things she’s been dwelling on a long time.

“I don’t really know what this is about,” she said. “The truth is, I don’t know. It’s just based on the things that I have read and loved, and they gurgle to the surface.”

She has a few weeks to figure it out. She is scheduled to talk about her work from 5 to 6:30 p.m. March 9. Based on the early buzz surrounding this show, the gallery will be full. Hildreth drew a packed house to her opening in mid-January, and the exhibition has been buzzing on Facebook since.

Hildreth’s art is loaded with narratives. Her work, no matter her medium, serves as a journal of her life, a record of what compels and absorbs her. There’s a story here, a connection that reaches deep.

It started with the idea of glass puppets.

Since she was a little girl, Hildreth says she has been captivated by puppets. They populated her imagination, and Hildreth’s make-believe friends sometimes took on puppet-like qualities.

Portland glass artist Ernie Paterno helped Hildreth make the puppets and other hollow glass forms. She gave paper wings to her puppets, endowing them with spiritual qualities.

There’s an element of undertow at play, creating push-pull tensions. These angels may well be ascending, but there’s descent associated with this piece that’s undeniable.

Hildreth suspends all of these small glass bodies with thin wire. The longest strand measures 19 feet. She and studio assistant Alina Gallo, along with UNE gallery assistant Kevin Callahan, spent many days engineering the hanging of the piece.

“Take a good look,” Hildreth said with a laugh. “Once it comes down, it may never go back up.”

The piece has a kinetic quality to it, notes gallery director Anne Zill. The puppets are always moving, ever so slightly. Their wings catch the breeze of an open door, or the whoosh of a visitor walking past.

As natural light envelops the gallery, the lenses and other glassware glitter and change colors. The absence of light on these overcast winter days dulls the experience.

The installation has transformed the space, Zill says, just as it transports the viewer someplace else altogether.

“The viewer is transported into a fairy kingdom as much, perhaps, as the artist hoped we would be or was herself,” Zill said.

That pleases Hildreth, who worries that people coming of age in today’s world may be too connected to terra firma to allow their imaginations to guide them.

“We have such a sense of reality now. The world demands so much. It asks so much of us to not go into the world of our imagination,” she said. 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/pphbkeyes