Alexandria, VA – Kathyrn Coneway was thrilled to have another exhibit scheduled for Huntley Meadows Park this spring, her fourth there in four years. This exhibit was a personal favorite, called Mother Trees, inspired by Suzanne Simard, an ecologist who studied the connection between trees and how they take care of each other.
Coneway had also read Jamie Reaser’s book, Huntley Meadows: A Naturalist’s Journal in Verse, written after the author spent a year walking through the park once a week. And she discovered Wangari Maathai, an artist and activist from Kenya who started the Greenbelt Movement. In her demonstrations, Maathai would hand out seedlings, in the hope of staving off the deforestation that was causing runoff and drought. She encouraged people to plant trees to combat the destitution.
Inspired by these women and more, Coneway created a series of paper cuts, an intricate technique. The framed paper cuts are delicate two-dimensional works with verse and image hand-cut from paper, which is then mounted on a colored background. The verses include quotes by women artists and writers, adorned with scenes of families and nature lovers in the forest or walking along a path. Of seasons depicted in the leaves. Of hands holding a sapling ready for planting. Of branches rising up to the heavens and roots digging down through the earth.
The collection is ethereal, creative and unique, yet somehow familiar and comforting. Coneway incorporated quotes she loved, and she has more paper cuts she wants to make.
“It’s delicate and time consuming,” Coneway said of the process. “You need to cut the little areas first to maintain the integrity of the paper, which is the opposite of how I usually draw.” Another a-ha! moment was when she figured out she should draw on the back and cut from there, in reverse.
The framed paper cuts were on display for a month at Martha Washington Library, and then scheduled for Huntley Meadows Park for April through June. But the pandemic hit in March and the world closed. Coneway was able to collect her artwork before the library shut down for quarantine, but she then had no other place to display them. “It just made me sad.” A friend suggested prayer flags. Coneway was inspired.
“I’m attached to the originals, but I liked the idea of creating silk screen prints for display and maybe sale.” She gave herself the deadline of Earth Day, April 22, and set to work, stretching the nylon screen taut over frames she’d made, covering the fabric with an emulsion bath, exposing that to light, then washing it out, and creating the stencils. She cut a canvas drop cloth into flag squares and was happy to realize she had some silk screen paint in her home studio. Voilá! She adapted her art to a different medium, and created a new exhibit, which now hangs between the trees in the front yard of her Stratford Landing home, right in their element, so to speak. “It made sense to me to display them this way,” she said. “They’ve held up well through rain and wind, too.”
The prayer flags are captivating as they sway in the breeze, breathing life into the artistic scenes and verse.
- Carrie Newcomer: “See how the trees reach up and outward as if their entire existence were an elegant gesture of prayer.”
- Maxine Hong Kingston: “In a time of destruction, create something. A poem. A parade. A friendship. A community. A place that is the commons. A school. A vow. A moral principle. One peaceful moment.”
- Wangari Maathai: “Trees are living symbols of peace and hope. A tree has roots in the soil yet reaches to the sky. It tells us that in order to aspire we need to be grounded…”
Neighbors are smitten. “Really gives one pause.” “Your tribute to Mother Trees is exquisite. Thank you.” “We thought it resembled Nepalese prayer flags! So beautiful.”
If you’d like to see Mother Trees while keeping a safe and social distance, drive down Blakiston Lane in Stratford Landing, where the exhibit will be up until further notice. See the original paper cuts on Coneway’s website, www.kathrynconeway.com, and follow her on Instagram, @kathrynconeway.