Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Museum of Art through January 14
WORDS Karen Parr-Moody
“The globes bend the senses, allowing any viewer to ‘be the giant peering into the amusing little worlds of mortal predicaments.”
Blizzards roar brutally into Pennsylvania each winter, covering the landscape in their snowy embrace. Winds reach gale force, and snowfall is measured in feet, not inches. The landscape is left muted with snow after these blizzards subside, a visual that inspired Pennsylvania artists Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz after they moved to the state in 2001.
“Unlike hurricanes, the devastation of a blizzard is muted by its power to cover,” Martin says. “Even as trees fall and structures collapse, they can become integrated into a new landscape which the storm has transformed, morphed, and simplified.”
Sixteen years ago, as they trudged through snowdrifts surrounding their new home, Martin and Muñoz weren’t sent spinning like wayward snowflakes. Rather, the storms sent them in a clear direction: They began creating snow globes as their canvases, thus parlaying objects commonly viewed as trinkets into fine art.
Within these sculptures, snow creates blank artistic platforms onto which the artists produce landscapes and convey their existential musings with Lilliputian figures.
Visitors can discover these mysterious worlds in miniature at the Snowbound exhibit that will run through January 14 at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Museum of Art. The show is paired with the museum’s “Holiday Lights” extravaganza.
The exhibit will include eighteen snow globes and several large-scale photos depicting surreal scenes. It was curated by Brian Downey, the museum manager of 21c Nashville, a property of the 21c Museum Hotels group that installs contemporary art museums in its hotels.
Martin and Muñoz met in 1993 at an art exhibit in New York City and married about a year later. They shared a studio space in the city, but were working separately on art—that is, until Muñoz found that she wanted to incorporate aspects of Martin’s art into her own work, and he wanted to do the same with her work.
“What began as sort of a shared-space problem evolved into a serendipitous collaboration,” Martin says. They “delved into the hinterlands” when they moved to Pennsylvania, entering a renaissance phase, as well as experiencing culture shock.
“We experienced some very hard winters during which we sometimes felt like our house was a boat frozen in an ice floe. It was not as bad or as funny as Charlie Chaplin starving in his cabin in The Gold Rush or as dire as a real ship being caught in an ice floe, as with the Shackleton expedition. But the move affected us. It was wonderful being stuck in the snow, but it was also lonely and strange.”
The snow globes borne of this experience are nine inches high and six inches in depth and width. The artists use malleable clay to form the bases and then dry them in an oven. That model becomes a rubber mold that is used to cast the final mold in white polyurethane.
Being miniature worlds, the globes contain landscape elements, such as trees, houses, and benches made of various materials. The Lilliputian figures that populate these landscapes are mostly store-bought, but are often adapted to scenes by being cut up and reassembled. These scenes are painted with model enamel paint, then assembled and covered in several coats of UV-resistant resin.
The final artwork is unlike anything else. The globes bend the senses, allowing any viewer to “be the giant peering into the amusing little worlds of mortal predicaments,” Martin says.
What Martin calls “serendipitous distortions” exist due to the convex nature of the glass globe, along with the water. Objects that are farther away appear much larger. Taller elements, like trees or houses, appear to bend. If the viewer changes his or her perspective, the distortions will change as well.
“But the snow globes are more than tiny dioramas,” Martin says. “They also have a latent potential. By giving the globe a shake, you can energize its kinetic component. Then you see what you have really encapsulated is a facsimile of weather.”
At their poetic heart, these snowy tableaux illustrate the various phenomenon of human existence, the key one being ambiguity.
“Ambiguity is the one we are most comfortable with,” Martin says. “Another recurring emotion might be described as laugh-out-loud resignation, a.k.a. gallows humor.” He continues, “The scenes are modest things, sort of like ephemeral thought bubbles or like sketchbook drawings for ideas that never get fully realized.”
Snow is so much more than an atmospheric phenomenon for Muñoz and Martin, and blizzards never fail to inspire them. This, in part, explains why their snow globes have had an artistic lifespan of sixteen years.
“It was wonderful being stuck in the snow, but it was also lonely and strange.”
“Blizzards have the powerful attributes of an atmospheric demigod, one that inspires fear and wonder and imposes its will upon all,” Martin says. “Blizzards are sublime. They are tempests in our teapots.”
Snowbound is on view through January 14 at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Museum of Art. For more information, visit www.cheekwood.org. To see more of Walter Martin’s and Paloma Muñoz’s art, visit www.martin-munoz.net.