1) Jennifer Angus, Insect wallpaper from Silver Wings and Golden Scales, in Fragile Earth: The Naturalist Impulse in Contemporary Art, 2019. Florence Griswold Museum, Photograph by Paul Mutino

Fragile Earth at the Florence Griswold Museum Immerses Visitors in Art and Conservation

in Art & Design

Rather than viewing the art, I felt immersed in it. Alarmingly large insects, somehow beautiful in their geometric arrangement, covered the walls. Every piece of furniture displayed not a flower or ornament under a glass bell jar, but an intricate scene with every part played by an insect. Cicadas, beetles, moths, dragon flies, butterflies, nearly every insect I’d ever swatted away, somehow made to look enticing as they led you through the entirety of the first floor of the Griswold house at the Florence Griswold Museum.

“Jennifer wrote this fictional narrative about the artists in the house. She wants you to believe that you’re part of the insect themed party that the artists have thrown,” Parsons said. “Her story allows you to learn this message about environmental conservation through her fantasy in this fun way.”

“It is the first special exhibition that has extended into the house, a huge undertaking for us,” said Jenny Parsons, an assistant curator at the museum and the organizer for the Fragile Earth exhibition which opened this month and will run until September 8. Jennifer Angus, the artist who created the exhibit was, “so inspired by the Victorian period, the layering of patterns and decorative arts that she wanted to install in the Griswold house.”

Jennifer Angus, Parlor from Silver Wings and Golden Scales. (Photograph by Paul Mutino)

The bugs are more than decorations, they tell a story that seems plausible for the artist colony housed at the Griswold house.

“Jennifer wrote this fictional narrative about the artists in the house. She wants you to believe that you’re part of the insect themed party that the artists have thrown,” Parsons said. “Her story allows you to learn this message about environmental conservation through her fantasy in this fun way.”

In addition to Angus, Fragile Earth incorporates the work of three other artists: Mark Dion, Courtney Mattison and James Prosek, a Connecticut native.

The exhibition is a sequel to the Flora and Fauna show held in 2017. It juxtaposed Metcalf’s Cabinet – a collection of all Willard Metcalf’s natural materials including everything from bugs to birds eggs – with historic naturalist artists work. This new exhibition was also inspired by Metcalf’s cabinet and two of the four artists featured in the show incorporated a cabinet into their work.

“All the artists are very different, but also the same in the fact that they care deeply about the environment and climate change,” Parsons said.

Taken together, the four shows send a powerful message to all visitors about the Earth, it’s beauty and it’s need for us to take better care of it. With scenes of eels transforming into human-made objects, coral bleaching and jars full of human objects all found along the seashore, the message of the human impact on the natural world rings through.

“We filled the gallery with this debris. Cleaned and sanitized and then categorized. One is full of those alcohol nip bottles, one of foam, one of bottle caps, tennis balls, toys, and the last of unrecognizable objects,” Parsons said. “It speaks to the idea that these things are out there dissolving into the water, ruining it.”

“Their art has a unique way of appealing to visitors. You can tell people these statistics, but it’s not always a very convincing way to share the message. It’s depressing, hard to hear, might cause them to shut off and choose not to believe,” Parsons said. “The artists want to connect with people through the beauty and emotion of their work.”

For Parsons, one of the most emotional pieces was Dion’s take on Metcalf’s cabinet.

Mark Dion, New England Cabinet of Marine Debris (Lyme Art Colony), 2019. (Courtesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles, Photograph by Paul Mutino for the Florence Griswold Museum)

“I had the privilege to go out on the collecting team and collected a lot of the artifacts myself. We filled the gallery with this debris. Cleaned and sanitized and then categorized. One is full of those alcohol nip bottles, one of foam, one of bottle caps, tennis balls, toys, and the last of unrecognizable objects,” Parsons said. “It speaks to the idea that these things are out there dissolving into the water, ruining it. These things were put there by us and we need to change or else we are really just poisoning ourselves.”

But for those who relate more to the science then the art – or often need a little nudge to visit an art museum – Judy Preston’s presentation connects science and the natural landscape in southeastern Connecticut to the art exhibition.

Preston is the Long Island Sound Outreach Coordinator for the Connecticut Sea Grant hosted at the University of Connecticut. She has worked through the Master Gardener program to promote the planting and protection of native plants, especially along the shoreline and waterways.

“A lot of our programs are meant to build a bridge between the art and our visitors,” said David Rau, the director of education and outreach at the Florence Griswold museum. “A lot of the art speaks for itself but the programs take it to the next level.”

Preston’s first of four Fragile Earth presentations launched off themes introduced by Prosek’s work. Prosek, who is well-known for his work with the eel, explored ideas of interconnectedness in nature and migration. Preston took the other visitors and me on the journey of four different animals that all rely on migration – and each other – to make perilous journeys that humans are making more challenging for them.

“I picked the topic after talking with the Flo Gris staff and coming up with the idea to bring some of the larger issues that the artists are covering. In Prosek’s case, he looks at several animal migrations and how they are perceived of and affected by humans, to the local landscape of the CT River Estuary,” Preston said.

The art and the science show that “nature is declining, but it’s not too late to make a difference,” Preston said. “People always want to know what they can do to help and if it’s worth it. You can do something, you just need to start in your own backyard.”

Courtney Mattison, Malum Geminos, 2019, and Afterglow (Our Changing Seas VI), 2018. (Courtesy of the artist. Photography by Paul Mutino)

Simple changes that can help… leaving out water for birds in the summertime, planting asters and golden rods to allow bees a place to pollinate, leaving some patchiness in yards for native ground nesting bees and planting trumpet honeysuckles to provide nectar for hummingbirds.

Preston has three additional presentations on August 11, September 8 and November 10, each focusing on a topic inspired by one of three remaining artists.