This is the first in a series of stories about outstanding Oregon-based artists to follow on Instagram. The series focuses on accounts that are regularly updated with engaging content and high-quality images that allow followers to enjoy artwork regardless of location. Curated by the artists themselves, Instagram accounts offer a relaxed opportunity to view completed and in-progress artwork and to get a glimpse into the artists’ ideas, process, and studio practices.
Georgia O’Keeffe knew a thing or two about nature. Among American artists, no one is as closely associated with capturing the vitality and brilliance of the natural world as O’Keeffe. In 1937, she said of her work, “I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at—not copy it.” I was thinking of O’Keeffe while thumbing through Mark Getlein’s Living With Art, in which the author outlines six functions artists perform. The last of these is “artists refresh our vision and help us see the world in new ways.” It is by no means a new idea, but the language is still striking; that art could “refresh” us seems to capture so many possibilities at once. It could imbue us with energy, capture the feeling of a specific place or moment, maybe even help us see as if through someone else’s eyes. As O’Keeffe understood, artistic explorations of the natural world can help us rediscover what is already there, and to feel what we cannot always articulate.
Katy Abraham, Stirling Gorsuch, and Aimée Brewer explore the beauty and wonder of the natural world, reimagining it in watercolor, ink, and porcelain. They do not just capture the image of nature, but the feeling of a particular landscape, the character of a flower, animal, or tree, and the sense of how we are part of the Earth’s rhythms. Their Instagram accounts capture both the teeming energy and quiet strength of nature and allow us to experience a sense of the outdoors wherever we may be.
Portland-based artist Katy Abraham (@cascadiaartproject) has only been posting her watercolors of Oregon landscapes to Instagram since February 2017, but she has been prolific since then. She’s created over 450 posts, most of which are of unique paintings. She says of her practice, “I work fast and fluid, not stopping until a piece is completely finished, and always in an effort to connect with some memory of being in nature.”
In Where You Left Me, Abraham uses the clean, white negative space of the paper to dramatic effect. Swatches of yellow, blue, and pink emerge from the right side of the frame, suggesting a landscape rather than directly depicting it. The geese fly upward, distinct individuals who have not yet come together to fly in formation. Their soaring bodies form two lines that sweep the eye upward, above the palest washes of color and off the page into an imagined space beyond the frame.
The scene depicts sky, but is it sunset or sunrise? Is the sky above water, or above a spit of land? The deep blues at the bottom of the page anchor the scene, creating a cohesive, if ambiguous, space. There’s something lively about that stretch of dark blue pigment; it is inconsistent in shape, but its edges are soft where the wet medium blurs into the fibers of the paper. For Abraham, the looseness of watercolor is ideal for what she wants to capture in her work: “I like how the natural colors of watercolor give the immediate impression of being a bit faded, and how the soft, blurred finished image is more suggestive of a place than definitive. For me, this helps me get more of the emotion and essence of my memories into the work.”
Unlike the strategic use of negative space in Where You Left Me, all of the space in Forest is packed with color. The dark shapes of the evergreens on both sides of the image locate the viewer within the forest and give solidity and boundaries to the more abstract space in the center. The layers of bright blues and greens that comprise the center of the image create a sense of the pulsing energy of the landscape. There’s no true negative space; even the sky is rendered in thin, overlapping washes of blue and green. Every inch of the image is activated by vibrant color, abstract shape, and the texture of layers of pigment bleeding into one another and into the paper. Abraham’s Instagram post of this work, like most of her others, includes numerous hashtags but does not provide a title, dimensions, or other text. The work is presented in a way that gives viewers as few of the artist’s preconceived notions as possible, allowing them to make their own interpretations. Abraham says what is “most rewarding” is when people see something about themselves in her art: “When someone sees the painting and they are hit with a memory or a specific feeling or memory of being outdoors, they are recognizing the intention behind my work, and I find that to be very powerful.”
For Astoria-based artist Stirling Gorsuch (@gorsuchnw), nature inspires through its constant transformation. Although Gorsuch also paints, his Instagram account highlights two distinct but related aspects of his printmaking practice: the bold starkness of his black-and-white linocuts and the multi-layered, dream-like imagery of his color monoprints. What unites his work across media and quite different aesthetics is their connection to locations that have resonated with him on a personal level. For example, Windswept features a lone tree near “a secret beach” the artist used to frequent.
Centered on the paper, we see only the top of the denuded tree. It is asymmetrical, a long branch on the right jutting into negative space while on the left, a branch has splintered but it has not broken, yet. The broken branch hangs limply, testament to the power of the wind. Inspired by the tradition of Japanese woodblock prints, Gorsuch values “the honesty of mark-making that relief-printmaking provides.” That honesty comes through in Windswept, where the simplified marks create the sense that the image has been stripped down to its barest essentials. We have no need for the beach, the waves, the other trees. The focus is on this tree, alone, and the quiet drama of its attempt to survive against the odds.
The broken branch in Windswept subtly alludes to time, another primary theme Gorsuch investigates in his work. In monoprints like The Outer Sunrise, Gorsuch layers imagery and uses multiple techniques to create works that suggest the vagaries of time. In the top portion of The Outer Sunrise, we see a partial view of the trunk and branches of a bare tree superimposed on a faded landscape. Alternating bands of gray and bright red give parts of the tree an otherworldly glow. Beneath the tree, the larger register is entirely abstract. We see a bubbling effect in green and white, almost like what happens when celluloid film burns. Brushy streaks of black and green create a smudging effect that both builds texture and suggests movement. The work is rooted in nature, but the glowing red color, the move from representational to non-representational, and the deliberate inconsistencies in texture put it on the verge of the surreal. Gorsuch says of his work, “Erosion and decay are wondrous examples of how the world is changing before our eyes, slowly and yet consistently. I think my focus on landscape in these monoprints is an effort to remind the viewer that we are also a part of that cycle in nature.”
Hood River-based ceramic artist Aimée Brewer’s (@aimeeceramics) Instagram is filled with nature-inspired forms. One element that makes Brewer’s Instagram account particularly fun to follow is her inclusion of short clips that show her making process. From watching her hand-shape and paint a hummingbird to hearing the strange burbling of water moving through the crannies of a sculpture before firing, the videos offer a fascinating glimpse into her studio. Brewer also posts short reflections in the captions with most of her artwork, providing additional insight into each piece and strengthening our sense of the artist’s personal connection to nature.
As functional vessels, mugs are perhaps taken for granted in our everyday lives, but Brewer carefully infuses hers with the spirit of the outdoors. A recent mug in shades of blue and tan depicts a large water droplet with a feather at its center. Part of the accompanying caption reads, “this piece has the pull of water in it,” and indeed the craggy edge along the top of the swirling blue shape creates the impression of swelling waves. Whether the design is a way of “bringing the ocean into your morning coffee ritual,” or reminds one of a favorite vacation spot, Brewer designs vessels that will give users the sense they have brought the outdoors into their homes.
After a decade of making functional works, Brewer started making sculptural work that allowed her to explore more fully the patterns and compositions she saw in nature. In addition to free-standing animal sculptures and wall-mounted sculptures of outdoor scenes, Brewer makes stunning wall-mounted floral sculptures that she says are some of her favorite to craft. “There’s something very meditative about the repetition of making each form and then starting with something really small and seeing how that composition is transformed.” In Large Dahlia, she captures the soft, undulating geometry of the scalloped rows of petals. Packed ever-tighter as they approach the center, the rosy blush of the petals’ edges seem to fold inward, at once delicate and vibrant.
Abraham, Gorsuch, and Brewer all speak about nature as a place of solace—and it comes through in their work. For Abraham, nature offered an escape from instability in her childhood home. “Times I was adventuring outdoors to be the times I felt the safest and most free,” she says. For Gorsuch, who grew up on and still lives on the coast, “living near the ocean has a way of restoring my peace-of-mind.” Brewer grew up hiking and camping with her family in Colorado before moving to Oregon, a place with such varied landscape that she is still in awe that “there’s just so much to appreciate.” Their work, accessible through their carefully curated Instagram accounts, offers connection to nature, no matter where we find ourselves. Nature is bigger than all of us, but it can help us find a sense of ourselves. It can help teach us when to stay firmly rooted, when to go with the flow, and when to rest and allow ourselves to be renewed.