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Marshlands: Another Interpretation

Photographer/technician Ellen Land-Weber imagines the Arcata Marsh of the future



I hadn't planned it this way, but I find myself writing once again about an artist whose work interprets our local marshes. This artist, Ellen Land-Weber, has focused on a specific place — the Arcata Marsh. It's fascinating to see how different two artists' approaches are when the inspiration is the same.

The work that I wrote about in a recent article, that of Lori Goodman, is a good example of intuitive artwork ("Art Beat," April 24). She spent a lot of time walking in the marshes, went to her studio with some ideas in mind but no set plan, and then let things happen. The medium, as it were, directed the artist.

Ellen Land-Weber works in a completely different way. Her principle medium is photography. While photography can be, and often is, used quite successfully as an intuitive medium, it very often attracts people who like to tinker with machinery, fiddle with dials and get intimate with equipment like light meters. That's what I see in Ellen. She's part scientist and part artist. In fact, when I was at HSU and she was still teaching there, I often saw her in the halls wearing a white lab coat — or did I just invent that memory because that's how I imagine her?

At any rate, I'm trying to impress upon you the determinedness of this artist. She has an idea and she stops at nothing to pursue it. Years ago, long before you or I had ever heard of a color copy machine or imagined one could ever be, Ellen learned of the first color copier made by Xerox. It was somewhere in Los Angeles, where she was living at the time, so she went to check it out, but found that it was very expensive to use. She didn't have much money, so she asked the company if she could work for them and be paid with time on the machine. After moving up to Humboldt, she got a grant to purchase her own machine, which she used for 10 years in her work.

She used this machine long after it became obsolete and supplies became scarce. In the end it died, but now she has something new to experiment with. The scanning electron microscope (SEM) was first used in the 1970s. "It enables scientists to examine the surfaces of specimens at magnifications beyond the range of visible light," Ellen notes. Her current show, at the Umpqua Community Gallery in Arcata, is the result of her experimentation with the SEM.

I don't mean to leave you with the impression that Ellen does not use intuition in her work — or that Lori Goodman does not use any reasoning in hers, for that matter. Perhaps it's a continuum I would argue that all of us use skills from both sides of this spectrum, but we tend more to one side or the other, and Ellen certainly leans toward the scientific.

Ellen's project began a little over 10 years ago when she started documenting the Arcata Marsh with images. What fascinated her about this unique site were the levels of history and function that are clearly evident. Originally a natural wetlands, with the arrival of the white man it became an industrial site, a dump site, a wharf, and now it is, primarily, a waste water treatment facility. With close examination, one can see signs of the various stages of its existence.

So the Arcata Marsh is not a "natural" environment, and, in fact, Ellen sees it as a testament to the fact that we, "no longer have a natural world." In this case it is a "happy integration of the man-made and natural worlds," she says, but there is no doubt of our footprint on the area. That relationship between humans and nature, or more specifically the fuzzy line that separates them, became the seed of the idea behind her current work.

Earlier in the project, she collaged images of exotic species into recognizable marsh landscapes. It was, as she puts it, "a part serious and part silly" look at the marsh at it might be affected by global warming and the possible resulting species migration. The images of the exotic species came from antique prints that Ellen scans and adds color to, using Photoshop.

Then came the SEM, and the images evolved once again. Ellen collects specimens of marsh plants and prepares them for the microscope. The greatly enlarged surfaces of these tiny samples become the landscape for the foreign species. And, thus, The Marsh Seen Closely.

The resulting images are dark and mysterious, at once, both futuristic and archaic. The "landscapes" from the SEM are in high contrast, dominated by eternally deep blacks, but punctuated with glowing bright whites. The creatures taken from the antique prints are elegant and delicately colored, and they peek out from strange thorny, scaly, spongy or hairy shapes. As with all of Ellen's work, they are finely crafted, beautiful, and more than a little bit odd.

This show will be on exhibit at the Umpqua Community Gallery through June 27, and there will an Arts! Arcata reception for the artist on June 13. The Gallery is located in the Umpqua Bank, 1063 G St., Arcata. You can go on in any time during normal business hours, even if you don't have any banking to do. Just wave to the tellers as you go by and go on up the stairs in the back.


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