The exhibit starts before I reach the art gallery; I am intrigued by PVC tape shaped into bird footprints and “chick chick chick” written delicately with sidewalk chalk. When I arrive I am immediately welcomed by the co-founders of Mt Airy Art Garage (MAAG), Linda Slodki and Arleen Olshan, and then ushered in by exhibitor Meei-Ling Ng. I am given a guided tour through the exhibit, and then left to wander around the space on my own, lost in my own thoughts.
Ng explains to me that she draws her inspiration from two sources: her childhood in rural Singapore and a park in Southwest Philadelphia that she calls “the jewel of the city.” Being in the latter space felt like home to her because she was again surrounded by nature, the same earthy spaces that she loves and remembers from her childhood. She brings her reminiscences into the gallery and molds scenes of nature to conform to the existing space in a way that is at the same time artificial and organic. Paintings hang from the ceiling in a way that is ethereal, and yet the bold lines within many of the canvasses demand the viewer’s attention. Other lines are fine, and the shading more subtle: the latter paintings convey a sense of gestalt.
The gestalt echoes the sense the artist is trying to convey with the exhibit itself, that the arrangement in the gallery is more than the sum of its natural and artificial parts. There is something eerie and sensitive, delicate and whimsical about the space as a whole. I am straddling several realties at once: past and present, natural and manmade; I am in the gallery and am also somewhere else at the same time. I am stuck in between realities and don’t know why. My mind hurtles backward to scenes of my own childhood in the woods, and jars me forward to the present, where I am standing in the middle of the room.
The feeling is intentional. When I tell Ng what I am experiencing, she reassures me that my experience means that I am grasping what she intends. At that time I am standing in the center of the room, directly in front of an arrangement composed of a small wooden bench, and a tree and bird sculpture that Ng calls “the center of energy.” The space is intended as a gathering place and as a place to reflect. The thick and yet delicate tree branches echo the sense of line from the paintings, works that are delicate and bold at the same time.
Further into the room is an arrangement of chickens and brightly colored plastic Easter eggs. The chickens are made of cardboard boxes, and the artist makes no attempt to hide the boxes’ original artwork. This is also intentional, Ng explains. By retaining the original artwork, she again shows that we do not need to resist the tie between what is manmade and what is not, that an organic and sustainable lifestyle is indeed possible in a post-consumer society. This assertion is echoed by a series of hanging gourds from the artist’s own garden, upon which a bird sculpture is perched.
My path continues to a space that could be a marsh with its tall reeds or can echo the seaside with its delicately placed seashells. Nearby I see a log that could be a piece of driftwood or could equally be at home in the middle of a forest, upon which several whimsical bug creatures composed of used buttons sit. This space again reminds me that nature and humanity can interact peacefully, and such interactions can be a lot of fun as well.
As I leave the space, the feeling of being in between different spaces stays with me. I am thinking about nature and how I can be a part of it; of human society and how I can better integrate with it. I am reflective, and yet I am walking down Mt. Airy Ave. trying to find my car. I am a part of the world around me as well as being apart from it.
The exhibit invites the viewer to not only look at artwork, but also to be a part of it. We are invited into a different world, a world of button creatures and pizza box chickens, in which the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The exhibit is ethereal, yet grounded; it is carefree and introspective. It echoes memories of a childhood long ago lost, and it creates memories of an adulthood that is fresh and optimistic. It is for children, and it also feeds the child within us. It is a space to laugh and gather with friends, and also to reflect and think alone. The exhibit is definitely deserving of a first, and then a second look. It may not be a permanent installation at MAAG, but it stays with me. “Recapturing Memories” will continue to capture my imagination for years to come.