Welcome to the flowers: Rebecca Louis Law’s “Community” at Toledo Museum of Art invites us in

I managed to catch the immersive installation filling the exhibition space with 520,000 flowers and plant elements strung up with the thinnest copper wire this January on a day trip to this city just south of Detroit.

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I kicked off my “art weekender” goal for 2019 with a day trip to the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) to catch Rebecca Louise Law’s “Community” before it closed. It was, beyond a doubt, worth the drive. My museum-loving friend Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard picked me up before the sun rose so we could drive across Michigan to get to the TMA right as it opened, hoping to beat the crowds in Law’s exhibition so we could experience it with a bit more quiet. Well, despite the reverence and awe that her work creates, even at the opening there were plenty of people oohing and ahh-ing right along with us, from an elderly Asian couple taking adorable photos of each other to little girls holding hands and looking up—all of us experiencing a different art experience than any of us had taken in before. 

“Community” filled the special exhibitions space with flowers, floor to very high ceilings, all strung from above with thin copper wire. There were dried flowers from Law’s own UK home accompanying thousands of flowers, leaves, and other plant material sourced right in Toledo. There were 140 different species of flowers and plants, totaling 520,000 pieces strung up on 520,000 feet of copper wire by Law, her two assistants, two TMA interns, and volunteers putting in 1,650 hours in the 17 days it took to install the exhibition. Though everything was very much a dried plant by the time we experienced it, we were surprised at how colorful many of the plants still were. There were pinks and blues, but plenty of browns and neutrals, including grasses and many “weeds” elevated to show off their beauty and near-seussical qualities. 

Perhaps just as magical as the exhibit itself is how we were welcomed into it.

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 “Welcome to the flowers,” said TMA guard Willis to each new person coming through the doors. It was a great community-welcome start to the awe-struck feeling inside, as we wandered through sometimes-narrow pathways of thousands upon thousands of flowers. 

The strings of flowers form little rooms and hallways between them, creating areas where groups naturally gather, in these intimate, close spaces that also feel very open and expansive thanks to the views between the strands all the way to the flower-shadow-cast walls. 

The installation is wildly instagrammable (just take a peek at #toledomuseumofart to get an idea) but I struggled to take a photo that felt like it captured the experience and the beauty. I was captivated, impressed, and spent a full hour just wandering, watching others interact with the work, and thinking about how we choose to create our own spaces. Do we fill them with beauty? Do we recognize the simple things around us and see their potential?

Somehow, Law has created an experience that feels at the same time vast and intimate. It’s sacred and common; we’re surrounded by nature and high art. Law took pieces of plants and elevated them into a sacred experience that’s absolutely approachable, emphasized by our new friend Willis’ welcome to art aficianados and little girls alike:

 “Welcome to the flowers.”

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Though Rebecca Louis Law’s work is no longer available at the TMA, I highly recommend a visit to the museum for its own collection — and the architecture of the building itself — and am told they regularly have stellar temporary exhibitions to visit. I’ve written about my visit to the rest of the TMA permanent collection and other experiences in Toledo on my day trip here. You can also follow Law to see where you can find her next on Instagram or via her website here

 

All photos, missed attempts at capturing Law’s stunning work, credit me.  

Art Weekender: A day in Toledo, Ohio

Frank Stella’s “Lac Lavonne IV” at Toledo Museum of Art. Photo Holly Bechiri.

Frank Stella’s “Lac Lavonne IV” at Toledo Museum of Art. Photo Holly Bechiri.

This year, I’ve got a goal to visit various mid-sized and large cities that are a short drive away, specifically to experience their art culture. Cleveland, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis are all on my list. They’re all within a 2–5 hour drive from Grand Rapids, Michigan, making them an easy day trip or weekender to take in some art and learn a bit more about the art communities in the Midwest. I’ve been deeply embedded in and reporting on my own mid-sized Midwestern art community here in Grand Rapids, and have been getting curious what other cities around us are doing — and how their art communities compare to ours. So I decided to have some art adventures, “art weekenders” if you will, this year.

I started off my first art weekender of 2019 with an all-too-short day trip to Toledo, Ohio, to visit Rebecca Louis Law’s immersive exhibition, “Community,” on its last weekend at the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA), with my friend and fellow writer-slash-art-lover Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard. Along with plenty of time spent with Law’s flowers, which I wrote about at length here, we visited the extensive permanent collection of the Toledo Museum of Art, walked across the street to take in the glass pavilion, and ventured out in search of an art scene.

The collection is full of stunning pieces, some of which I’ll share here with you although, the obvious must be noted: looking at an iPhone photo of a work of art on a blog is not the same as being able to get up close and examine the brush strokes, color, and power of artwork in person. For a city the size of Toledo, their collection and the museum that houses it are incredible! Thanks to the generosity of the glass industry moguls in their city, the Libbey family, who are the behind the city’s nickname of “Glass City,” the museum has a solid collection, free to the public. We did purchase tickets to see the special exhibition, but the full permanent collection is free and open to the public. Notably, this changes not just the number of visitors but the demographics as well. What a beautiful sight to see such a diverse crowd enjoying art on their Saturday!

Halfway through exploring the museum, or should I say halfway through what we could see in our first visit, we needed a break. That’s how big it is! We thought to visit the gift shop, and see if we couldn’t do some recon on what else the city of Toledo had to offer to arts lovers.

We started our search by asking a TMA gift shop employee what galleries they would recommend.

”We’re in Toledo just for the day, and would like to see what else is around in the arts. What’s the gallery you’d recommend we not miss while we’re here, after we finish our tour of the museum?”

Innocent enough question, right? Your local art museum is going to want to support your local artists, right?

Erm, no. The gift shop cashier informed us that she was not allowed to give recommendations for galleries as they would be the shop’s competition, and anyway she didn’t know anything about the art scene in Toledo.

BOMB. And might I say, big community fail.

We thanked her for being so helpful and walked over to the information desk in hopes of better luck.

Our information desk person at the TMA, on the other hand, had some great recommendations, and given more time and the lack of a brewing storm (more on that later), we would check out. Next time, we’ll be sure to visit Paula Brown Gallery as that seemed to be the one that came up from multiple people in our request for suggestions.

Before heading out though, we continued our time with the permanent collection. One piece in particular sticks with me, nearly two weeks later, a video work that I first wrote off and walked away, but came back and am so glad I did. James Nares’ “Street” was created with a slowed down video of New Yorkers going about their daily lives, walking down the streets, as Nares’ camera was rolling as he sped past in the back of an SUV. It had an entrancing, almost spiritual, effect once I slowed down enough to take it in.

Off to the glass pavilion we went next, exploring Toledo’s history of glassmaking, and the history of glass in general, in a fascinating and award-winning building made of…you guessed it: glass. There we asked the guard at the front door what he would suggest we check out in Toledo.

The guard, much like Willis welcoming us into the flowers, was the best guide to his city we had encountered yet. He gave us insider tips of where to find the best cocktail, best music, best scene—all just down the street from the museum to downtown.

After leaving the Glass Pavilion, we had time for a couple stops before that brewing storm got any worse for us. We visited Handmade Toledo, a shop/event and workshop space that showcased local makers. The Ouizi mural on the side of the building alone made it worth the visit.

Mural by Ouizi on the side of Handmade Toledo’s building. Photo credit Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard.

Mural by Ouizi on the side of Handmade Toledo’s building. Photo credit Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard.

Next, a great find indeed: the Art Supply Depo, that quintessential picture you have in your mind of exactly what an independent art supply store should be. It’s possible I spent quite a pretty penny there, but went away with great finds, from killer pencils to my very first Sennelier oil pastels, some new R&F pigment sticks, and more goodies.

If you’ve ever had a conversation with me about art supplies, I have probably lamented our lack of anything decent in my home city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. I’ll tell you how the only remaining independent “art supply shop” sucks every last creative inspiration out of me, with its sparse feel and hospital lighting and staff who don’t seem to know anything about art supplies. (“What’s the medium I can use to thicken up my oil paints? I forget what it’s called.” Shop attendant, with a huff: “More paint?”}

I was too busy oohing and ahhing and filling my cart to stop to document this perfection of an art supply store, but thankfully Elizabeth noticed my rapture with this particular find and took a picture of it.

I was too busy oohing and ahhing and filling my cart to stop to document this perfection of an art supply store, but thankfully Elizabeth noticed my rapture with this particular find and took a picture of it.

This was not that place. This was chock-full but not to the point of claustrophobia, its staff was knowledgeable, and in fact had great ideas for galleries in the city, and friendly. The Art Supply Depo was a great ending to a quick jaunt down to Toledo.

Shopping basket full and bank account empty, we were able to end our entirely-too-short visit to Toledo on a high note, with new supplies to put all that inspiration to work in my own making. But outside there was a mounting snowstorm so we headed back. That snowstorm had us going 20 miles an hour on the highway heading out of the city, earlier than we had wanted but still satisfied. Between Law’s “Community,” gems to contemplate further from the Museum’s permanent collection, and a history lesson on glass, the museum alone makes this city a worthy option for your own art weekender.

But might I suggest you keep a closer eye on the weather than we did.

Inspecting the Stella. Photo credit Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard.

Inspecting the Stella. Photo credit Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard.

A few more details for you— including some details from Hung Liu’s “I Hear Their Gentle Voice Calling,” below, a piece made with multi-media and multi-layer resin that had me inspecting it and revisiting it quite a bit.

Why handwritten?

I prefer the blank page and a good pen, any day.

I like to write my first drafts in a big journal; I prefer printing out drafts and pulling out my red pen to edit by hand; and always and ever will be in love with making marks on the page. There's something about the physical connection that helps my brain slow down enough to process the story—to pull out and notice the good stuff.

I'm one of those people that gets compliments on my handwriting, so that encourages this predilection for working by hand with pen and paper, I suppose. I would like to thank my junior high self, exploring who she was in large part by the way she signed her name and filled out her homework. There was even a period where I played with bubble letters and hearts on my i's, but I promise it was a short-lived fad that I generally try to forget.

I like working by hand. I don't mind getting my hands dirty. In fact, ink and paint on my fingers? That's a good day.

Let's get to work together.