Chorus of Flora: The Magical Realism of Mary Sundstrom

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Deep Green Summer, Mary Sundstrom

by Sheryl Budnik

Mary Sundstrom’s painting exhibition Magical Realism, opened on Friday, February 12 at the Jansma Gallery in Freemont. It was snowing hard, so driving conditions were perilous. One week later the temperature reached 54°, and snowdrops were poking through mulch in the backyard. Nature is full of surprises.

Sundstrom’s current subjects are the flora surrounding the outlets of rivers and lakes. Nature is perhaps too common and frequently hackneyed as subject matter, but these are not botanical studies or landscapes–they’re poetic portraits of the biome of marshes. She chooses to describe features that often go unnoticed: mushrooms, fungi, snow-enveloped brush, bayous ringed by melancholy willow trees, or the sound of birds and frogs.

Chicken of the Woods
Chicken of the Woods, Mary Sundstrom

A radiating series of circles in Spring Peepers illustrates the echo of the chorus frogs’ calls made visible in the sky, suggesting Arthur Dove’s Fog Horns (1929). Turkey Fungus and Chicken of the Woods display rhythmic patterns and vivid colors akin to modernists like Dove, or Robert Delaunay. Her ability to describe nature with such mystical dynamism is reminiscent of the artists Emily Carr and Charles Burchfield, but unlike Carr or Burchfield, the presence of man is not evident. There are no barns peering into the settings, no country restaurant’s neon signs visible in the distance of freeways. The world she describes is secret, but not silent.

spring peepers
Spring Peepers, Mary Sundstrom

Sundstrom cites regional artists Lewis Cross and Annabel Livermore as sources of inspiration for this body of work. Annabel Livermore is the nom de plume of James Magee who as a child, took art lessons from Fremont artist Ray Jansma (the gallery’s namesake). Cross was a fruit farmer and self-trained artist, whose paintings of passenger pigeons informed Deep Green Summer, in which swarms of birds interlace their paths across the sky, witnessed by cattails, arrow arum, water lilies and blue bells bursting like popcorn on their stems. Curiously, with the exception of soaring birds, no animals are visible in any of these works.

Bayous aren’t picturesque like lakes, or dynamically animated like rivers; they’re unassuming liminal places. Tucked low, they dutifully shelter fauna, harbor nurseries and support unique vegetation. There’s solace in the thought that these hidden inlets have repeated their cycles for millennia, interrupted only by the occasional human visitor.

Pottawatomie Bayou
Pottawatomie Bayou, Mary Sundstrom

Water is the Mother source from which this chorus emerges. We are privy to the spectacle of the bayous’ inhabitants waking, growing, whirling, and calling to each other. In Pottawatomie Bayou, a vermillion sky sets the stage for water lilies performing for an audience of moss, grasses, and flower buds.
You can hear Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”, at first softly, then louder and louder…

Magical Realism: Paintings by Mary Sundstrom
Feb 9 – through Feb. 29
Ray & Phyllis Jansma Gallery, Newaygo County Council for the Arts
13 Main Street, Fremont, MI.

Gallery Hours:
M, Tu, W, F: 9AM-5:30
Th: 9AM-8:00PM
Sa: 10:00-2:00PM

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