LEWISTON – When curator Robyn Holman began thinking about a name for the art exhibition on view at the Atrium Gallery at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston-Auburn, she knew she had to include the world “miracle” somewhere in the title.
With an approach that is both scientific and artistic, the exhibition explores the intersection between flowering plants and their pollinators.
In Holman’s mind, that process is nothing short of miraculous. Insects that some of us treat as nuisances carry pollen grains from one part of a plant to another, allowing plants to reproduce and thrive.
The reproductive system has evolved over time, shaping our natural world in such a way that we take it all for granted.
“But when you stop and think about it, it really is pretty amazing,” Holman said.
Thus the name: “Pollinators: Evolving Miracles.” Her exhibition captures some of that wonder.
It features paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, poetry and video by more than two dozens artists, most of them from Maine. Many are beekeepers or small-scale farmers. Some work with local land trusts. All are sympathetic to the environment and inspired by the natural world.
The works range from the field notes of scientists that include drawings of insects to abstract mixed-media and three-dimensional wall hangings.
A beekeeper who lives in Jefferson, Holman has earned a reputation in the Maine art world for crafting exhibitions that bridge art and science. Three years ago, she curated a show about vernal pools. The year before, she put an exhibition together about invertebrates called “Spineless Wonders.”
Now she gives us “Pollination: Evolving Miracles.” The timing is perfect, and not just because we’re sneezing with the onset of spring. Lately, the plight of the honey bee has been in the news. They are dying off en masse because of a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder.
Many artists have taken note of the plight of the honey bee, and made work in response to the crisis.
Wiscasset printmaker R. Keith Rendall made a 3-foot-wide linocut of honey bees after hearing about their demise. The subject wasn’t a stretch — the artist is known for making huge prints of animals, which he draws from personal experience and observation.
“I had just started learning about these hives that are just being decimated and dying off, and I wanted to draw attention to that,” said Rendall.
Kathleen Florance of South Thomaston made a large drawing of a monarch butterfly, which she titled “Moirai.”
She sympathizes with what she calls “these little overlooked fragments of nature that we toss away or step on and pay little attention to, the detritus that just gets swept away, the butterfly that was run over by a car. It makes me so sad.
“If it were alive and flying, everyone would be gasping at their beauty. I like to make them huge, in your face. I am fascinated by nature and the power of nature.”
Florance is also a big fan of Holman because of the curator’s ability to put science and art together in a way that makes sense. People who see this show and take the time to read the wall text will come away with an understanding of how nature works and why, Florance said.
“Moirai” is her tribute to creatures great and small whose destiny is to fly away and move on in service to others.
Sara Crisp of Cumberland took an unusual approach to her pieces in this show. She has often worked with encaustics or wax. For the two pieces she submitted for “Pollination,” Crisp used pollen from lilies and tulips for her pigment, creating two abstract pieces that suggest sunlight and natural order but are not representational.
She described these pieces as experimental. “I was trying to see if I could find a way to say what I wanted to say just with pollen,” Crisp said. “I use a lot of different pigments and a lot of different paints, and this was something new.”
A little pollen goes a long way, she added. For each piece, she collected pollen from a small bunch of flowers.
Crisp has also admired Holman’s sense of artistic adventure. The two have collaborated before, and Holman has given Crisp honeycombs to use in her work.
Holman had no trouble recruiting artists. She put out a national call for art, and also tapped her network of friends from around Maine to submit work.
She was surprised by the variety that came her way. Going into it, she was concerned that artists would submit mostly work about honey bees, because they have been in the news. She wanted honey bees in the show, but hoped to represent a variety of pollinators.
She got what she wanted.
Artist bookmaker Rebecca Goodale of Portland submitted work about wind pollination, and Peggy Johnson, also from Portland, submitted several insect pendants including beetles.
“Beetles aren’t big pollinators, but they are part of the pollination world,” Holman said.
One of the most delightful pieces came from Bernd Heinrich of Weld, who offered a few pages of field notes from his observational study of insects.
One page from his journal shows a bumblebee in flight surrounded by a sequence of drawings of a carrion beetle, which changes color in flight to mimic the bumblebee and thus avoid being consumed by birds. Birds have learned not to eat bumblebees to avoid being stung; carrion beetles have evolved to look like bees to avoid being eaten.
That’s the miracle of nature — and the draw of this show.
“I think it’s fascinating how our plants and animals have evolved. The relationship between insects and animals have evolved along with flowering plants to get the job done,” Holman said. “I turned to artists who could look with a sense of wonder to express that fascination.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: