Sewing stories, painting pictures

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“I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass. It’s a line that resonates when viewing artist Jeanne Bieri’s mixed-media pieces, paintings and altered found objects.

Her solo show at Paint Creek Center for the Arts — one of three for her in metro Detroit within the next month — illuminates the artist’s aptitude for deftly putting together disparate objects to form a cohesive whole, locating patterns that emerge amid the discord.

Bieri grew up on a farm in Hastings, often sewing her own clothes as a girl. Domesticity and childhood themes figure prominently in her work, as does an awareness of relationships. Not only does she experiment with the boundaries between shapes and materials, she explores the physical and psychic connections between people, animals and landscapes. Her process is not without an engaging dose of playfulness, experimentation and even mischief.

Looking at her work, you get the sense that Bieri often has fun while she works. “Mutant Mini,” inspired by pieces of found fabric, offers the silhouette of what could be a three-eared Minnie Mouse. “Celestial Cowgirl” features alluring images of desert flowers, delicate embroidery and cactus-like shapes. And in “Blue Line,” a whimsical grouping of animals and asparagus converges on the canvas with bold strokes of gold metallic paint for an effect that’s delightful and visually engaging.

In some ways, her work feels like a study of juxtapositions — rural life vs. urban life; childhood naïveté vs. an adult’s soberer understanding of everyday life; and the conceptual nature of art vs. utilitarian demands of the physical world.

“In my work or in anybody else’s artwork, I always look for authenticity,” Bieri says. “There’s so much on television and the Internet now that feels one step removed from what’s real.” Bieri’s version of authenticity often resides within country landscapes reminiscent of her home as a child, including imagery of people and animals she recalls.

There’s a sense of mystery and discovery in these settings. In “Woman with Duckling,” a woman in city clothes holds a duck toward the viewer, beaming. The emotion seems countered by a somewhat bleak and muted backdrop. “Katy Darling” depicts a young woman, her eyes closed, holding a chicken. A farmhouse looms in the background, but the viewer’s gaze is continuously drawn back to the enigmatic expression on her face.

Many of the art works in this show are composites, images from old photographs placed in a rural backdrop. “I have stacks of stuff. My process is a lot of trial and error. I go to a lot of antique shops, flea markets and garage sales.” But Bieri, who teaches art at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus, is often drawn back to realism — she’s a painter at heart. “I love how paint does this great magic trick, making things appear real.” These pieces in particular illuminate her talent for whimsically spinning the mundane. The series of Twinkie studies employ heightened realism, portraying the snack cakes in traditional still life arrangements reminiscent of the old Dutch masters.

Experimenting with naturally occurring patterns proves integral to Bieri’s creative process as well — it’s another form of “found” art. She recently began working on a set of two-by-fours, covering them with various materials and leaving the effect somewhat to chance. “I like looking at things as [they] happen haphazardly. We have within us a drive to put things together in ways that make sense.”

For Bieri, there’s an innate human desire to create order out of chaos and clarity from confusion. This brings to mind another Whitman quote: “The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity.” What could be more authentic?


Through Sept. 23 at Paint Creek Center for the Arts, 407 Pine St., Rochester; 248-651-4110.

Christina Kallery writes about arts and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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