The gossamer floss and flat brown seeds in the open pod of Dianne Shullenberger’s “Milkweed” unmistakably evoke late autumn. The silvery pod has dried, the seeds attached to their feathery filaments liberated for their new directions. Look closely at “Milkweed” and see that this small fabric collage is composed of scores of tiny pieces of silk and net and printed cloth, along with lines and webs and layers of stitches, together transporting the viewer to this small detail that speaks to the change of season and a moment in nature.
“Milkweed” is among the 40 or so pieces in Shullenberger’s solo exhibition, “Outdoor Influences,” in the Gallery at Highland Center for the Arts. The exhibition includes fabric collages and colored pencil drawings, scenes and close-up encounters with discovered and perhaps unexpected beauty in nature — toppled hemlocks with branches frozen in the snow, an Oriole’s tiny nest dangling from a branch.
“Outdoor Influences” also features natural-object sculptures and Shullenberger’s “Circular Earth” collages. In this recent body of work, Shullenberger uses found natural material — reeds, seedpods, acorns, bark — as her medium in circular, or circle-themed, abstract compositions.
“I am most inspired by being outdoors and experiencing the atmosphere of a place. I want to capture a moment in nature that may pass and keep it alive in my memory and experience it again as I look at my work, ” says Shullenberger, of Jericho, in her artist’s statement.
Originally a watercolorist, Shullenberger turned to fiber art over three decades ago, starting with quilting, then transitioning to her distinctive technique using layers of small, often very tiny, pieces of fabric, and then using thread applied by machine stitching for further layers.
“My process is intricate with no drawn patterns that I follow. All shapes are formed using hundreds of very small pieces of fabric that are layered and then stitched in place on the sewing machine. The thread is important: it provides texture, shades, alters colors and draws details,” explains Shullenberger.
With Shullenberger’s sensitive use of her medium, the fabric at times has the feeling of brush strokes. She captures subtle changes in color on a snowy field around a frozen log, a meandering stream reflecting the morning sky, lines of yellow florets of goldenrod.
She draws viewers into the atmosphere of fleeting moments, and to the beauty of details that can easily be missed — a white feather lies on a beach, a russet leaf rests on ice as its ochre kin are reflected around it.
In the past, Shullenberger, turned to colored pencils to draw from nature for images she would later explore in fiber. Her drawing then took on its own direction.
Among her drawing is a lovely series of birds’ nests, some in color, some white on black. In them, she takes the viewers up close to meticulously built little structures. Twigs and grasses are woven into a bowl-like warbler’s nest. The soft woven pouch of an Oriole’s nest hangs anchored to a slender branch.
Besides living in Vermont, Shullenberger has long spent time in Michigan, where she also spends much time outdoors. Through her time there and here, she built a huge collection of natural found objects — feathers, seeds, grasses, seedpods and more. About five years ago, she began a new body of work, using these as her medium.
“I take these objects people recognize and split then cut them and take them in different directions to give people a whole new experience of them,” Shullenberger says.
Her “Circular Earth” collages evoke the planet, mandalas, and other symbolic meaning of the shape. Some have geometric symmetry, others recall natural processes or forms, sedimentary layers, waves, planetary conjunctions.
As with her fabric, Shullenberger’s materials show unexpected forms and qualities. Sliced seedpods show their internal structure; bunches of grasses have a feathered softness; the underside of birch bark contrasts with its exposed pale side.
“I hope that while viewing my work you feel as if you have been transplanted — and that you can absorb the essence of the environment with all your senses,” says Shullenberger. “Nature is my refuge — I hope my art can be that for you and that it will encourage you to embrace ‘Outdoor Influences.’”