Observation of Wonder

When Brenna Maag browsed in thrift shops, she noticed crocheted doilies, created by women to decorate and protect furniture, selling at rock bottom prices. “In one display case, the doilies had been lovingly stacked,” she remembers. “But they didn’t seem to be popular items anymore.“
Still Maag thought women must enjoy making these elaborated designed textiles, using one continuous white thread and a hook. “All that creativity was abandoned,” Maag says. She started buying doilies at 50 cents to $1.50 each. “I wanted to honor women who made them and their beauty and complexity–their patterns and their mathematical details.“
“I knew an installation was the right form,” she says. “I tried one idea but it didn’t work so I put the doilies away and did another project about nature.“ That project had Maag thinking about diversity and patterns in the natural world. ”It reminded me of the doilies,” she says, so she took another look at her collection.
Four years later, Maag had created a two-part installation and in 2009, she showed her work in Richmond. Now exhibiting “Observation of Wonder” again, Maag is pleased with the larger gallery space at The Reach, which also happens to be closer to her home in the Fraser Valley.
“Conservatory“ invites the viewer inside a 9 foot high dome made with a collapsible steel structure. Maag glued doilies on to fabric panels and attached the panels to the structure with magnets. Viewers can marvel at the intricate designs of more than 700 doilies, illuminated by exterior lights, and contemplate the relationship between the phenomenal diversity of nature and human creativity.
Domes can be sacred places, Maag says, and are like a scientific observatory. “I am conserving the doilies, so the name “Conservatory” came to mind,” she also explains.
Maag’s second installation, “Taxonomy” consists of 146 doilies, captured in a unique type of print known as cyanotypes. Each print is named and assembled on the gallery wall like a graph. Maag’s method is loosely based on the principles of taxonomy, a hierarchical way of ordering plants and animals used by scientists.
Maag’s invented categories and two-part names for each doily, labeled in Latin, are based on the doilies` patterns of stars, flowers and spirals. “By giving a scientific name (to the doilies), it gives an opportunity to look at women’s work in different ways,“ Maag says. “Science carries weight. It’s legitimate.“
Her use of cyanotypes, developed in the early days of photography, also fits with her themes. The process was originally used in the 1840s by British botanist Anna Atkins to illustrate botanical specimens.
Maag argues the textile design work by women has traditionally involved mathematical complexities. She also believes some patterns may get worked out unintentionally. “It’s as though they are subconsciously creating patterns,” she says of women who make doilies, “that turn out to be an atomic symbol.”
“I hope people see the wonder and slow down,” Maag says of her exhibit’s intent. “There’s lots of wonder to observe out there.”

Brenna Maag’s exhibit “Observation of Wonder” is showing April 18 to June 30, 2013 at The Reach Gallery, Abbotsford, BC

Reprinted from Galleries West magazine, summer 2013


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