Arts & Culture

Battling blackberries at the root of regional artist Susan Applegate’s exhibit

The blackberry goddess grins from the canvas, all wicked curves and fanged teeth. Arched into the familiar mudflap girl pose, she’s equal parts bestial and beautiful. Like the invasive plant she personifies, she’s both tempting and trouble.

The piece, part of artist Susan Applegate’s 25-piece mixed media exhibit “A Canopy of Briars: Visual Considerations on Reclaiming the Land,” draws significant attention at the artist’s reception Thursday afternoon at the University’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

“I can understand it, because people think, ‘Oh, a berry! You know, that’s a great idea,’ and they plant a little in one spot, and they think it’s going to stay there, but then it just gets out of control,” exhibitions assistant Liz White said. “I can understand the temptation of having the berries and then having them take over the yard.”

The epic struggle with the resilient, dominating blackberry lies at the heart of Applegate’s exhibit. During her years-long effort to rid her family’s Western Oregon ranch of the plant, the artist chronicled her story in art, with a series of wide-ranging pieces full of frustration and desperation, but also of hope and nature’s power. Applegate said battling the plant had a natural aesthetic quality.

“This process was like the sculptor releasing the form in the marble. We have to have the dream of what it is that lies at the heart of it. What is the essence of our work, of our being, of our soul’s journey? That’s kind of what this whole show is about,” Applegate said, addressing the patrons at her exhibit.

Applegate covered the process using a variety of media, including scientific illustrations of the plant and the native wildflowers it was choking out of the land; homages to famous artists of the past such as Roy Lichtenstein and Paul Gauguin; more traditional watercolor and oil on canvas pieces and an inspired geographical look at the blackberries, chronicling its introduction into the region’s ecosystem.

“In this exhibit, I just allowed myself to use any medium I wanted to that fit the idea,” Applegate said. “I just let myself do anything and I didn’t worry about consistency or a consistent look or a style or a trend.”

Exhibitions coordinator Dorothy Bayern also noted the diversity of the pieces.

“I’m truly excited to see people go through. Everyone I’ve talked to at this exhibit has a different work they gravitate to because they all have such different energies and emotions attached to them,” Bayern said. “Despite being so wide-ranging, this series is all anchored in that unifying battles against the blackberries, which is something that I think anyone that has spent time in Western Oregon can relate to.”

“Susan has really been creative about expressing the different aspects of this whole job,” colleague Susan Rudisill said, examining “War Paint,” an oil on canvas depicting Applegate, machete in hand, swaying and slicing at a monstrous blackberry bush. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing this show, and these eternal struggles.”

“I like how she’s mythologized it,” patron Peter Jensen noted. “I know the land, and I know this whole fight, so I like how she’s using cartoon and classical, art and she’s recorded a narrative of the whole fight.”

According to Bayern, the exhibit, on display until Oct. 23, was chosen for the museum because of its regional importance. “It’s a really great fit for us because it combines the natural history of Oregon and this very Western Oregon battle of reclaiming the land and encouraging native plants with all these political and emotional human stories,” Bayern said. “It ties together nature with very human stories.”

Applegate, who admits she’s finished with blackberries for awhile, now plans to focus her work on the Umpqua River area. Her next exhibit will be displayed at the Douglas County Museum of Natural & Cultural History and is expected in late November.

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