On the gallery floor at the Wiregrass Museum of Art, a long tube moved and shifted with the sound of air moving through it. Nearby, a large glowing box created the impression of human lungs as they work for air.
They are pieces of an exhibit, “Threads and Layers,” by Alabama artist Sara Garden Armstrong that will open at the Wiregrass Museum of Art on Friday, Oct. 16 and will be at the museum until Dec. 31.
Throughout her career, her work has always somehow reflected landscapes – whether inspired by the water’s edge of a beach or the firing of neurons in an abstract landscape of the human brain, Armstrong said.
The Dothan exhibit reflects her life’s work over six decades. The artist has interpreted life cycles and metamorphosis through drawings, paintings, artist books, and sculptures that feature light, recorded sound, and mechanical movement. Her work has reflected change and time and those moments that will never be again.
“I find I always contradict myself,” Armstrong said. “That’s part of what I love, and part of what I love is change.”
Guest-curated by Paul Barrett, the show features work and installations from the 1970s to the present, including Armstrong’s years working as an artist in New York.
Armstrong moved to New York in 1981, but kept a building in her native Birmingham that she used as studio space. During her time in New York, a lot of her early work was in storage. She didn’t see those pieces until she returned to Alabama in 2015.
“The show really is about combining very old work with new work and sort of seeing relationships,” Armstrong said. “For me, it’s been really fun… You never lose who you are.”
Armstrong’s works have been exhibited nationally and internationally. Her artist books and artworks are in collections at the Museum of Modern Art and Time Inc. in New York. They are in museums in London and Paris as well as Birmingham, Alabama. Her sculptures have been commissioned for atriums in buildings like the Civitan International Research Center at the University of Alabama in Birmingham – which was a piece commissioned in 2014 by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Alabama-Mississippi Chapter. For that piece, Armstrong studied the illness to learn everything she could about what it does to the brain and nerve endings.
“You’re not trying to solve it; you’re just trying to understand it and come up with a piece of art,” she said.
Armstrong made the choice to return to Alabama after working on the atrium commission. She was spending a lot of time in Birmingham and in her old three-story building that she had been allowing other artists to use over the years. She had more space to work and move. It was nice, she said. She loves New York, but the artist said she knew eventually she would return to her home state. And today’s Birmingham offers more of an artist support community than when she left in 1981.
“It felt good to be here,” Armstrong said.
And when she finally did return to Alabama, she was reintroduced to her older works – some she had not seen in decades.
“We always focus on what is right there that we’re doing... you don’t give yourself anytime to look back,” Armstrong said. “So this has been a really positive thing to get to see works together.”
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