Ana England's sculpture "Seed" (2001) is now hanging from the Cincinnati Art Museum's (CAM) ambulatory walls as part of a long-term decorative arts exhibition. The pristine, white, carved porcelain piece is an easy contrast to the artist's other wall sculpture downstairs in the CAM, "Night Spiral II." The earlier work comprises 43 undulating spheres of black raku-fired clay, which was commissioned by then CAM Director Timothy Rub to visually boost the museum café.
Both works deal with a recurring theme in England's career and thinking — the natural world. Though she denies any "real" scientific wisdom, she avidly reads biology, physics and botany books for inspiration and for pleasure.
"I checked out a book on soil and the ecosystem expecting it to be, you know, boring," she says.
But, as she read, she became enthralled in the ways of the fungus — namely, the ways in which the fungus interacts with the soil, the sugars, the sun and the roots of plants.
"A fungus can sense when a nematode is nearby," England tells me with excitement.
I admit I do not know what a nematode is. She explains that it's a worm, a parasite.
"One fungus will send out a signal to the others, that they're running out of food, and they'll come together, forming a foot," she says.
"A foot! And the thing will walk around and gather food before the individual fungi separate again."
Pretty impressive for an obtuse little fungus.
"There's just all this drama that we are too tall, too big, to see," she says.
That drama is what England focuses on in her work. The relationships between organisms, the relationships between animals, even between people and organisms.
Like with the fungus and the soil, everything is related. The fungus can't produce sugar, so it relies on tree roots. Tree roots can't gather the elements of the sun, so they rely on fungi.
"It's a symbiotic relationship," England says.
The concept of the converging fungi recurs in England's sculptures. Take the amazing "Agglomerate." Here we see each fungus coming together, helping one another. The grace of it, the majesty, is overwhelming.
"I like seeing bits of things, bonded together, without seeing the bond, which is often invisible," she says.
The artist uses transparent glues and adhesives to bring things together, and sometimes she uses nothing at all, just empty space — as in "Night Spiral II" — to show a relationship between things.
England spends a lot of time on her 38-acre property in Felicity, Ohio, which is about an hour outside Cincinnati. In that span of earth, she has a garden, a forest and everything in between. This is where she collects much of her material.
True, "Seed," the newer work now on view at the CAM, is made of carved and crumbled porcelain, not soil. Yet the understanding of the work is strictly England's. The piece is about 5 feet across, with 19 smaller hexagrams coming together to form one large hexagram. Everything is white. Each small hexagram is made of Styrofoam and covered in an intentionally coarse, craggy porcelain. In the center of each piece is a delicate, precisely formed local seed (maple, elm, dandelion, passion seeds), made from the same porcelain. The visual effect is stunning. Each small hexagram is earth and germ. A beginning. A promise.
Together, the seeds have come, like their distant fungus relative, to form one network — our local nature.
And yet I can't help but be thrown by the conspicuous whiteness of it all. So bright and clean, it seems almost morbid.
As England shows me another work, I have a feeling I am not too far off. "Peril" (2006) was part of the impressive sculpture invitational at Studio B last month. The work is more than 6 feet high, a misshapen, lumpy brown tree limb, "the gnarliness of organic matter," and set so precariously atop it, the Planet Earth, complete with real ocean current details and beautifully carved fingerprints.
"I try to be an optimistic person," England says.
But sometimes the perfidious treatment of the earth is a terrifying thing to contemplate.
"For this work ("Peril"), I just put all my fears into one piece," she says.
England also showed three of her sculptures at the recent 3D exhibition at the Carl Solway Gallery. Two of those — "Shared Identity: Wave and Galaxy with Thumbprints" and "Shared Identity: Hurricane and Growth Rings with Thumbprints" — relate directly to the Earth in "Peril."
"When you've been an artist a long time, you start returning to old themes," she says in reference to the thumbprint.
In 2000, Northern Kentucky University (where England is an art professor), commissioned her to "create images for 14 interior glass panels."
There, in the University Science Building, you get the first glimpse of England's fascination with the fingerprint. On the glass she has drawn (not to any kind of scale or true scientific accuracy) the strata of the Earth. It begins at the bottom with the magnetic field, which struck England as very familiar.
"It looked just like a fingerprint," she says.
And so, building through the layers — to soil, to flora and fauna, to atmosphere — she found that the highest point would be that fingerprint.
"The same patterns are everywhere — micro and macro and everything in between," she says. "Looking in a microscope, you see the same pattern over and over and over again. It's really exciting."
For more information on Ana England, go to www.anaengland.com