Smithsonian Exhibition Explores the Relationship Between Art and Nature

  • October 08, 2020 15:00

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Debora Moore, Magnolia (detail), from the series Arboria, 2018. Blown and sculpted glass and natural boulder. Approx. 104 x 112 x 30 in. Tacoma Art Museum. Photo: Roazarii Lynch

Nature and art have the power to reframe perspectives and offer moments of release during times of uncertainty. The exhibition “Forces of Nature: Renwick Invitational 2020,” opening Oct. 16 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, turns to nature for inspiration to help explain what it means to be human in a world that is increasingly chaotic and detached from the physical landscape. Featuring artists Lauren Fensterstock, Timothy Horn, Debora Moore and Rowland Ricketts, the exhibition presents works inextricably entangled in how art and nature relate to one another. On a macro and micro scale, they reflect a heightened ecological awareness that stems from a desire to commune with and advocate for the natural world. Working in a wide range of craft media, from fiber and mosaic to metal and glass, the artists examine the long history of art’s power to engage with the natural world through unconventional and highly personal perspectives.

Timothy Horn, Mother- Load, 2008. Crystallized rock sugar, steel, plywood, and shellac. 72 x 108 x 66 in. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Timothy Horn.

“We are delighted to welcome again visitors in our galleries with new health and safety precautions as we continue to offer robust and lively online programming,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “This exhibition and these inspiring artists invite us to slow down and reflect on the natural world around us through the lens of American contemporary craft at a time when we seek solace and well-being.”

“Forces of Nature” is the ninth installment of the Renwick Invitational. Established in 2000, this biennial showcase highlights mid-career and emerging makers who are deserving of wider national recognition. The juried exhibition is curated by Emily Zilber, independent curator and director of curatorial affairs and strategic partnerships at the Wharton Esherick Museum in Malvern, Pennsylvania. It will be on view at the Renwick Gallery Oct. 16 through June 27, 2021. 

The museum is limiting the number of visitors permitted in the galleries and has established new safety measures in the museum to accommodate safe crowd management and implement safe social distancing. Visitors to the Renwick Gallery are not required to obtain timed-entry passes at this time but may experience wait times outside if the galleries reach capacity. Visitors should review new safety measures online before arriving at the Renwick.  

Lauren Fensterstock, The totality of time lusters the dusk, 2020 glass, Swarovski crystal, quartz, obsidian, onyx, hematite, paper, Plexiglas, wood, cement, lath, and mixed media, dimensions variable, Courtesy Claire Oliver Gallery. Photo by Ron Blunt.

“The artists featured in this exhibition look to nature in a variety of ways, seeing it as a guide, partner, adversary, ward or inspiration for their diverse creative practices,” Zilber said. “Craft’s complex relationship with the natural world can help us understand our place in the order of things, which feels especially potent during these challenging times.”

The four featured artists were selected by Zilber; Nora Atkinson, the Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge for the Renwick Gallery; and Stefano Catalani, executive director of the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle.

Lauren Fensterstock working on a cloud for The totality of time lusters the dusk. Photo by Luc DemersDebora

Fensterstock (b. 1975, resides Portland, Maine) creates detailed, large-scale installation artworks using labor-intensive modes of making drawn from the decorative arts, including paper quilling and mosaic. For this exhibition, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has commissioned a site-specific work. It is the first in a new series for the artist inspired by sources like “The Book of Miracles,” a richly illustrated 16th-century German manuscript. This artwork transforms a gallery at the Renwick into an otherworldly landscape that captures the power and awe inherent in our celestial world.

Moore shaping blown glass, Chrysler Museum of Art Perry Glass Studio, Norfolk, VA, 2012 Visiting Artist Series. Photo by Echard Wheeler.

Horn (b. 1964, resides Provincetown, Massachusetts) creates exaggerated large-scale adornments that combine the natural and the constructed worlds. He draws inspiration from objects steeped in a rich tradition of decorative arts, science and history with 17th-century jewelry patterns and 19th-century studies of lichen, coral and seaweed. He works in traditional mediums, such as bronze and glass, while also employing unconventional ones, like crystallized rock sugar. The works selected for “Forces of Nature” embody splendor, fragility and stillness and address the conflicted relationship between humanity and the natural environment, compelling the viewer to reflect upon expectations versus outcomes. 

Rowland Rickets dyeing cloth with his grown, harvested, and processed indigo. Photo courtesy the artist.

Moore (b. 1960, resides Seattle) is best known for capturing the expressive potential of flowers with her detailed glass sculptures of orchids, orchid trees and bamboo shoots. The works featured in this exhibition are Moore’s tour de force. The series “Arboria” (2018), four life-size glass renderings of flowering trees set in rugged terrain, conveys the strong yet fragile nature of not just the glass itself, but the trees they emulate and underscores the power of natural forces and the splendor that derives from persistence. With her work, Moore is interested less in realism and more in capturing an intensely personal experience of beauty and wonder. 

Timothy Horn installing Girandole (Rain of Hot Stones). Photo courtesy of Angela Carone/KPBS.

Ricketts (b. 1971, resides Bloomington, Indiana) creates immersive installations using hand-woven and hand-dyed cloth. His holistic artistic practice begins on his farm, where he employs traditional Japanese farming methods to cultivate the indigo plant that he uses to color his artwork, fully linking process with product. “Forces of Nature” marks the American debut of the large-scale installation “Ai no Keshiki—Indigo Views,” a work developed in 2018 in rural Japan, where Ricketts apprenticed with indigo farmers and dyers to learn his craft. Reconfigured for the Renwick’s galleries, this new installation employed participatory engagement from 450 participants from 10 countries who volunteered to live with a length of dyed cloth for a period of time, emphasizing the relationship between nature, culture, the passage of time and everyday life.  

Online Exhibition Resources 

Throughout the run of the exhibition, the museum will release a suite of online resources that allow visitors to enjoy the exhibition and learn more about its featured artists in-gallery and at home. Video interviews with Zilber and the artists introduce the exhibition and outlines each artist’s unique process. An online gallery with high-resolution images and detailed descriptions offers the opportunity for closer examination of the artworks themselves. A series of blog posts goes behind the scenes and reveals the highly personal perspectives of each artist. These resources and more are available at


An accompanying exhibition catalog, co-published with GILES, features essays by Zilber, Atkinson and Catalani that explore each featured artist’s work, process and how art intersects and reflects people’s relationship with the natural world. Copies are available for purchase online ($34.95).

Public programs: Virtual preview (Oct. 13) and more at

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