Artist Embraces Nature (May 2008)

NEWS & OBSERVER
Arts
Sunday, May 25th, 2008

ARTIST EMBRACES NATURE 
By J. Peder Zane, Staff Writer

RALEIGH – Nathaniel Hester says he wants to create art full of “mystery and wonder.” On that score the Raleigh native’s new exhibit is a great success.
The 30 kaleidoscopic silkscreen prints that make up “Animal Farm” bear straightforward titles, including “Beaver,” “Buck,” “Snake” and “Zebra.” The mystery is locating those familiar figures amidst the colorful abstract shapes. You crane your head from side to side, step close then way back, wondering, huhn?

Eventually you realize you’re playing a fool’s game. Sure, “Flamingo” has plenty of pink, and “Goose” does look like a bird. But Hester’s prints are not a jigsaw-puzzle test, challenging viewers to find the familiar in a whir of playful abstraction. They invite us to look beyond feathers, beaks and snouts and consider how we think and feel about these members of his menagerie.

“I made a list of about 35 favorites, animals that I have a particular relationship with,” he said in a recent interview.

“Crab” was inspired by a visit to Manteo 25 years ago when he dipped chicken necks into a marsh to lure crabs. “Cow” includes a big black rectangle because when Hester looks at a field of cows they appear rectangular.

His connection to nature runs deep. In 2005 he began living on the remote, 500-acre farm in Person County his family has owned for nine generations. Before the buyout, they grew tobacco; now they lease much of the land for cattle and wheat.

Hester, 31, and his wife, Saralynn, 25, keep bees and grow fruits and vegetables on the land he visited often while growing up in the Cameron Park section of Raleigh. After graduating from Broughton High School, Hester went to Rice University in hopes of becoming an agronomist.

His life took a different path thanks to an unlikely source. The Rotary Club sent him on a trip to Raleigh’s sister city in France, Compiègne, where he fell in love with the Louvre Museum during visits to Paris.

He switched his major to art history and French studies. After graduation, he earned a fellowship from Rice that landed him back in Paris.

Through the next six years he studied various art forms — animation, bookmaking, oil painting, printmaking, woodblocking — in France; New York; San Francisco; Kyoto, Japan; and Boston University.

While embracing the notion of avant-garde, he concluded that it had been sidetracked. “The safest thing you can do today is to try to shock somebody,” Hester said. “I didn’t want to live in that ironic disposition, what the critic Hilton Kramer calls the ‘free-floating hostility to life itself.’ I wanted to make felt, earnest work about what I saw and experienced but that wasn’t autobiographical.”

His art has been showcased at 11 shows across the country and is part of the permanent collection at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum.

In 2006 he completed a series of 100 paintings titled “Ship of Fools,” which was inspired by Shelby Foote’s novels about the Civil War. They encompassed identifiable events, such as the Siege of Vicksburg and the sinking of the Merrimac and “more abstract motifs like what maritime battle might have felt like.”

Last year he executed another 100-painting project, “Garden Delights,” inspired by the history of NASA. “Space travel is part of our blood-thirst to know and control everything, to map the known world,” he said.

After those challenging projects, Hester said he wanted to do something “joyous and fun.” The result was the lobster, loons and bunny rabbits of “Animal Farm.”

“Some of them are mysterious, some of them are silly,” he said. “But all them are honest.”

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