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Natural Ephemera: The Botanical Collages of Artist Amanda McCauley


Amanda McCauley
: Warning Signs! 

February 29 - March 1, 2020

J. Rose Wholesale Flower Showroom

By SAMANTHA PARKER, February 2020

Hydrangea petals, pine needles, and poppy stems are neatly layered in boxes. Fallen tree branches and the leaves of a bush dragged out of a roadside ditch are ground into powder. These are examples of the dozens of natural materials lining the shelves of Amanda McCauley’s art studio(s). A bicoastal artist based in New York City and the San Juan Islands, McCauley forages for her materials, whether in the woods of the Pacific Northwest or the wholesale Flower District in Manhattan. Her process of creation is as intriguing as the botanicals she sources from the local environment. Step close to one of her pieces; she encourages you to touch it. You can feel the natural elements and the energy they bring to the work. 

Growing up as a self-described “mountain girl” in Blacksburg, Virginia, McCauley spent every day outside.  She comes from a long line of makers, and her mother is her biggest inspiration. She designed and made her own clothes, filled the house with paintings, music, and elaborate flower arrangements. She surrounded her daughter with creativity. A late bloomer (pun intended), McCauley followed her passion to become an artist at the age of thirty and attended graphic design school at The Portfolio Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Her marriage to retired filmmaker Thom Higgins later took her to Lopez Island, the far northwest corner of Washington state. There Higgins built The Barn, a combination home, studio, and gallery that immerses the couple in outdoor living. Once again, McCauley found herself surrounded by nature. “We live in the open, in the middle of nowhere,” she tells me. It’s an open-air structure, high on a hill and surrounded by cedar trees. It’s impossible not to be inspired by all the plant material surrounding us.”

Octopus with Mask” 24” x 24” New York, NY 2020

On the island, McCauley began experimenting with natural materials as artistic media. She began small, crafting notecards with tiny pressed flowers on paper. She hung her notecards from twine and, at the weekly farmer’s market, sold as many as she could make. Customers told her that they were hanging her cards as artwork, which expanded her creative vision. Using her background in graphic design and her love of flowers, McCauley began creating iconic imagery by layering botanicals with paper, fabric, and other media. She foraged for botanical materials, bringing her finds to the studio to deconstruct. Some of her early pieces were commissioned by animal activists, including a pig made of rose petals, and a cow made of wasp nest (an intricate, papery material created when the wasp breaks down wood with its saliva). She put the animals in gold leaf crowns to celebrate them as royalty. 

“I'll take all the rose petals, take off all the leaves, cut the stem, cut out the center so there's as little moisture as possible,” she explains. “And then all of those materials go into giant handmade flower presses. The natural elements are pressed between layers of cardboard and blotter paper, which both flattens and dries them. They become like paper which I can use in new and interesting ways.” 

Over the course of ten years, McCauley has refined her methods to create artworks that highlight the beauty of botanicals. Inherent to their nature, botanicals are prone to fading and decay, and she experimented with many ways of preserving their color and texture. At the suggestion of the late Bev Reynolds, of Reynolds Gallery in Richmond, Virginia McCauley began using encaustic wax to protect the various flora. The wax, too, is made of natural substances: beeswax and tree resin. Painted as a layer over her work, encaustic not only preserves it but also gives an additional dimension, suggesting ephemera stuck in time. 

McCauley and her husband spend summer through fall on Lopez Island, and winter through spring in Manhattan. Their New York studio is only blocks from the Flower District, where she can easily access a wide range of materials. She tells me she loves New York, the art it produces, and the communal vibe in which an artist can have influence.

“Everything that I've learned, everything I've seen in my life, and everywhere I've been has influenced where I am now,” says McCauley. McCauley’s upcoming show Warning Signs! carries an anti-plastic, ocean conservation message. “At this point, I want to convey the fragility of the natural world, which we simply cannot take for granted. This is something that makes sense for people to see. My aim is to make beautiful creations that also have a message to communicate. I don’t want my work to just take up space. I want to inspire people to think about the wild world that creates the materials I use.” 

Warning Signs! is a pop-up show opening on February 29, at J. Rose Wholesale Flower Showroom. It is presented in conjunction with the Plastic Pollution Coalition, on the eve of the ban on single-use plastic bags in New York City, which goes into effect on March 1.

One of McCauley’s recent pieces, Emergency Times 3, layers rose petals, carnations, and eucalyptus leaves to create six foot panels of three fish, each wearing a life jacket. The fish appear on a background of barcodes. The triptych serves as the hallmark image for Warning Signs!

“It's the convenience of plastic we must give up,” McCauley explains. “It’s a difficult transition, but if we don't make it, we are in trouble. Everything is about convenience now—you know, snap your fingers and it comes to your door. When I really started thinking about this, I realized that I was the problem. It inspired me to make these artworks, so I could bring that to light for other people.” 

McCauley holds the belief that the medium is the message, an idea from 1960s philosopher Marshall McLuhan. That is why she bases her medium in natural elements from the environment. She is aware that her primary medium—pressed flowers—can be labeled “grandmother art.” But she elevates the form. The tactile element of craft attributed to women has been making a surge on the art scene. McCauley points out the current exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art: Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1959-2019, featuring beadwork artist Liza Lou, among various others. 

McCauley’s locally sourced, natural work translates the message of sustainability because it practices what it preaches. There is a story of impermanence in each petal preserved by encaustics, a delicate balance within delicate work. Though her upcoming art show elevates her specific message of ending plastic use, her overall body of work elevates the natural world itself. Now, in partnership with the Plastic Pollution Coalition, she is hoping to illuminate a hard truth: plastics are forever. At every stage, whether it be manufacturing, use, or disposal, plastic creates toxins that enter our environment, our food supply, our very bodies. The solution is as simple as changing our habits. 

McCauley came to New York City for the power of its art scene. Now, with guerrilla-esque tactics, she places her images of fish in gas masks and life jackets throughout the city on stickers and pamphlets. “Please don't paint me as a picture-perfect environmentalist,” she says. “I'm not. On the island, everything is about reuse, recycling, and composting. When you're in New York, it's all about convenience. Maybe try once a week, challenge yourself, and see what you can do to try and not need that thing in single-use plastic. Bring your own container. Ultimately that's where we are going to end up.”

McCauley will take Warning Signs! back to Washington in the summer. She holds an annual show at The Barn as part of the Lopez Island Artists Studio Tour. “Everybody comes through the woods on a beautiful hiking trail up to The Barn, where we exhibit my work. Each of my shows is based on a theme related to preservation. We must preserve what we have, because it is disappearing fast.” 

Ultimately, McCauley’s work is about strength in the face of fragility, creating means by which we can revere the natural world and preserve some of its essence in artworks that withstand the test of time. WM

For more on Amanda McCauley, please visit her website: https://www.amandamccauley.com/

To learn more about Warning Signs! and RSVP, please visit here: http://www.prforartists.com/amanda-mccauley-warning-signs-rsvp/.

Samantha Parker

Samantha Parker is a freelance writer living in Pasadena, CA.

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