Community and the Sacred

An art exhibit at PCC's West Campus is not flashy, but it's full of quiet strength

When fiber artist Claire Campbell Park was on sabbatical Down Under, she traveled to what she calls the "red center of the Australian Outback."

She found it in Uluru, or Ayers Rock, a huge swath of sandstone in the Australian interior that rises up 1,100 feet from the desert floor and measures nearly 6 miles around. Tinted brilliant rust, it's a major attraction in a national park run jointly by the national government and the local Anangu people.

But to the Anangu--one of many cultural and language groups lumped together under the generic "Aborigines"--it's a sacred place. The marks and paintings on the rock are believed to have been created by the ancients, and they're messages that teach the people lessons in how to live, Park wrote in an artist's statement. "The land, the stones and the ancestral being are all one." Likewise, past, present and future are merged in the Anangu view of time.

Inspired by their spiritual beliefs, as well as by the landscape's fiery beauty, Park created the fiber work "The Red Center."

Horizontal bands stretch across the long, narrow wall hanging. Woven out of shimmering linen threads, it conjures the wide sweep of the Australian landscape. The gorgeous reds of the rock dissolve into the greens of the sky. Yet the piece moves beyond literal representation into abstraction, and its merging shapes and colors become a meditative object not unlike that giant red rock in the Outback. Not as big, of course, but lovely.

Now on view at Pima Community College's Louis Carlos Bernal Gallery in the show Land, Art and the Sacred: Three Perspectives, the piece is one of 13 artworks that contemplate the holiness of the land. Park, the longtime head of color and fiber studies at Pima West, curated the three-person show. She displays five of her own works--two inspired by Australia, two by the Sonoran Desert and one by the Pacific Ocean that divides them--along with three acrylic paintings by Aboriginal artist Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi and five woolen weavings by Navajo artist D.Y. Begay.

All three of the artists share Park's passion for "art that's strongly committed to the community and the sacred," she says. Their show is not flashy. But its quiet strength demands time and attention.

Nungurrayi is especially interesting for those of us new to Aboriginal painting. A member of the Anmatyerr cultural group and a second-generation painter, Nungurrayi was taught by her father, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, who was something of a superstar in the Aboriginal art craze of recent decades. Park discovered Nungurrayi's work while she was Down Under, though she never met the artist herself. She found it in a gallery in Alice Springs, a central Australian town that's become a hot spot for dealers of Aboriginal art.

Nungurrayi occasionally turns up in Alice Springs to paint right in the gallery, and she uses acrylics and black linen provided by the dealer. She makes works to sell to Western collectors, but her art has roots in traditional life, in which art-making has a specific spiritual function. Like the ancestors at Uluru, people make marks on the landscape, in the earth, on the rocks, to chronicle stories about the old ones and about "dreamtime," a kind of parallel, infinite time. Nungurrayi still paints about the particular stories she's responsible for, Park says.

Her three works here are all from her series "Grandmother Country." Painted in the rich earth tones of the Australian landscape--brown, ochre, red, white--they can be read at least two ways. They suggest the minutiae of plants and dirt and bugs on the ground, the microcosm under our feet. And they also re-create the opposing macrocosm, a bird's-eye view of rolling plains and washes and hills from above.

Like her father, Nungurrayi makes an all-over pattern of dots and circles on the black cloth. The designs are reminiscent of Western pattern painting, but some of the images are specific symbols, Park says. The concentric circles stand for significant places--meeting spots or sacred sites. Striped lozenges are "witchetty grubs"--moth larvae that are a staple of the Outback diet. And semicircles represent the people who forage in this territory.

At least one of the paintings (which all have the same name) seems to merge earth and sky. A black chasm cracks through the middle of the red-brown earth. Inside the crevice, it's black night, with tiny white dots exploding and shimmering like stars. Day and night converge, in painterly dreamtime.

The third artist, D.Y. Begay, brings the conversation back to Arizona. Her weavings are abstracted landscapes in wool that celebrate the colors and formations of the terrain in the Navajo Nation.

A fourth-generation weaver, Begay writes in an artist's statement that she "learned at an early age to shear sheep, card and spin wool, and pick the plants for dyeing the fleece." Her work connects her to those who came before, and to Navajo spirituality. But she also went to art school, at Arizona State University, and her woolen weavings wend between the traditional and the contemporary. Her techniques and materials are age-old, but her designs move away--gently--from the constraints of the past.

"Mountains Behind the Hogan," for instance, is in beige, gray, browns and a burnt sienna edging toward orange, the expected colors of Navajo weaving. The piece's horizontal bands begin at top and bottom, and conform to the geometric patterns that traditionally denote mountains. But as they get closer to the center, the rows soften. Finally, they relax into the undulating lines of an actual mountain range. Symbol has turned into landscape.

Park's Arizona works are her response to a wildfire in the desert east of Tumacacori. After the flames were quenched, she walked in the scorched remains with her family. Her daughter picked up a charred piece of prickly pear: One side was black and blistered. The other was alive, moist and lime green.

"After the Fire: Prickly Pear" celebrates this capacity of nature for rebirth. The silky strands of linen are woven into hopeful bands of brown earth and spring green and cerulean sky. It's a resurrection. Park is a Christian, and she writes that the stoic survival of the cactus reminds of the story of "angels freely entering God's fire." Through their faith, the fire "does not burn. It purifies."

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