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Cedar Rapids Museum of Art fall pairing brings outdoors indoors

Exhibits bring viewers into the woods

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Wood nymphs frolicking in a glade, a jumble of tree branches spiking upward in a coyote fence, a jolly green Norse giant snoring in the forest, a vibrant yellow tiger approaching a hapless hunter in the jungle, moonlight silhouetting a gnarly tree.

Nature is being nurtured this fall, as the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art marches into the woods with two new exhibitions focusing on forests and the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed in harmony with their surroundings.

Associate Curator Kate Kunau heard the whisper of the trees as she perused the 8,000 pieces in the museum’s permanent collection.

“It just presented itself to me,” she said, and thus was born a large, first-floor installation showing the forest as artistic inspiration.

‘INTO THE WOODS’

“I like to just spend time in the collection, going through it, and seeing what we have and what I can do with it. I started noticing we had a bunch of beautiful landscapes that featured the forest,” she said. “Then I started thinking about our children’s book illustrations that we have on loan from the (Cedar Rapids Public Library), and how the forest is such a big part of fairy tales, which bleeds so much into children’s literature. Of course, I started going through that collection, and oh my gosh, we had so many options to work with.

“And then I started thinking a little outside the box, of the forest as not just as the subject of art, but as the medium of it,” she said. “We have a really beautiful wood art collection that’s not quite enough to be an exhibition unto its own, but it’s going to be a really beautiful complement.”

So “Into the Woods” looks at the forest as “subject matter of art, inspiration for stories about art, the forest as beautiful and the forest as ominous and the forest as raw material for art,” she said. “It turned out to be a really comprehensive examination of what the forest is to the artistic world, which was really fun.”

It’s a combination of 2D and 3D art, with about 50 pieces displayed in three galleries, ranging from oil paintings and wood sculptures to contemporary depictions and many large-scale works.

The mix includes “very formal landscape paintings with these really sweet children’s illustrations of a Scout troupe going into the woods, then giants and witches,” Kunau said. “It’s been a really fun blend of those things, and was a lot of fun to pull together.”

Among the artists are such familiar names as the late Richard D. Pinney, Grant Wood and Marvin Cone, but in their less familiar forms.

The undated Pinney piece, “Printer’s Puzzle,” is a cylindrical sculpture incorporating small slats of wood and printer’s blocks — surprising to viewers familiar with his large-scale wood collage shadowboxes in homage to a person or theme, found in public buildings and private homes in the Corridor and beyond. The Wood and Cone paintings reflect their Impressionistic studies in Paris, applied to scenery in France and back home in Cedar Rapids.

“The Dick Pinney is playful and fun,” Kunau said. “There’s a lot of different atmospheres to the woods.”

One of the most intriguing pieces draws your eye for its sheer size, then keeps your attention when details emerge, like Civil War bullet holes. It’s a sculpture by William Lasansky, eldest son of the late world-renowned printmaker Mauricio Lasansky from the University of Iowa, who has a dedicated permanent gallery on the second floor.

William Lasansky created the undated “Bird Woman” from a large, old tree felled on the Bucknell University campus in Pennsylvania, where he taught for nearly 40 years. The sculpture almost looks wearable, like a shield.

“So now we have every Lasansky who creates visual art in the collection,” Kunau said. “This is a fairly recent acquisition, so when I saw it, I was like, ‘Oh, I can use that!’”

As you move through the galleries, it becomes clear that the pieces are paired or grouped sometimes according to themes, sometimes for the juxtaposition of unrelated looks, but always with a purpose.

It’s really a collection for all ages, Kunau said. Young viewers will especially enjoy the children’s book illustrations, with some drawings from scary books and others depicting talking animals. Sweet little bunnies hop along one wall, while on the opposite wall a rather ominous black-and-white castle is mounted above a spirit blowing a shivering wind against quaking trees. Monkeys swinging through a colorful jungle add a touch of humor to the gallery.

“The pairings just suggested themselves to me,” Kunau said. “The art dictated to me what was going to go where.”

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT

Another natural pairing is the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, in the back gallery on the second floor.

The exhibits mesh in a “really cool way,” Kunau said, noting that Frank Lloyd Wright is “probably the best-known architect of the 20th century in America. His buildings are always really concerned with their environment, and how they react to the world around them.” This grouping reflects his Prairie Style, famously used in residential architecture.

“Obviously, he’s echoing the long, low silhouette of the prairie in all of these homes, and I liked the way that his architecture reacts to the environment, to coexist with it.”

The pieces, all measuring 26 inches by 20 inches, were culled from 100 lithographs dating from 1893 to 1910, early in his career. They are arranged chronologically, showing his evolution after he broke from teacher Louis Sullivan’s studio in Chicago.

“It finds this trajectory of moving away from Sullivan’s style, into his own. It starts with a very Louis Sullivan-inspired home and ends with the Roby house, which was the zenith of Prairie Style architecture at that point of his career,” said Kunau, whose parents often toured Wright’s Oak Park, Ill., enclave. She also worked for an arts program in Chicago that took participants to the Roby house each year, so it’s subject matter she knows well.

Wright’s meticulous attention to detail jumps out of every print, depicting residential spaces in the Midwest, right down to the window boxes, stained glass patterns, furnishings and the many layers of the design process. His style also embraced today’s popular “open concept” for interiors, featuring soaring ceilings with huge windows flooding interiors with natural light, to bring the outdoors indoors.

“They’re really beautiful. Because Wright was such a control freak, there are interiors and bird’s-eye views and elevations and floor plans, so it’s a really interesting exhibition,” Kunau said.

A couple were sketched out in pencil or ink by students in his workshop, and show more attention to greenery and trees, she added. “It’s so Art Deco to have just the outlines of the trees.”

Some of the pieces show his designs of “the perfect Prairie home,” printed in Ladies’ Home Journal magazine in the early 1920s, but never actually built. Another magazine work shows his plans for neighborhoods with huge, communal lawns.

Yet another was to be a family compound on Lake Michigan for Harold McCormick, chairman of International Harvester. But it also was never got built, because his wife, Edith, the youngest daughter of oil magnate J.D. Rockefeller, thought it was too avant-garde.

“It would have been spectacular,” Kunau said, with its tiered fountain and central garden. “Edith was a killjoy.”

Kunau hopes viewers will see how Wright was true to his own vision.

“My favorite thing about him, is he had such a distinctive vision. You can pick out a Wright house very easily — you can even pick out a house that’s inspired by Wright, very easily,” she said. “Also, it’s a good way to show what a stickler he was. He’s designing every single aspect of these houses, down to the napkin rings.

“But in terms of this (exhibition) pairing, what’s really interesting is how much vegetation there was. It’s not just a straight plan for a house. He includes trees, and a lot of them are along Lake Michigan, so there are woodland settings. If they’re right on the shore of the lake, often he included the reflection of the house in the water of Lake Michigan,” she said.

“It (shows) great attention to detail, and he’s so attuned to how these houses sit in their environmental surroundings. I thought that was really cool.”

IF YOU GO

What: Exhibitions: “Into the Woods: The Forest as Artistic Inspiration” and “In the Prairie Style: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buildings, Plans, and Designs”

Where: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE

When: Frank Lloyd Wright through Dec. 31; “Into the Woods” through Jan. 15

Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

Admission: $7 adults; $6 ages 62 and over and college students; $3 ages 6 to 18; free under age 6 and museum members

Information: Crma.org

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