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In Search of Meaning: A Recap

By Cindy Stockton Moore

Photos by Jaime Alvarez

In a 1994 lecture at Vermont College, poet Mary Ruefle explored the concept of sentimentality, at one point tracing the word ‘sentimental’ back to its roots. “It is based on the Latin verb to feel. In other words, personal experience, one’s own feeling, including physical feeling – sensation – and also mental feeling – emotion. A thought or reflection colored or proceeding from emotion – an emotional thought.”

I did not hear this lecture in person (I read it in a book published later,) but the outlines of the concept stayed with me. I recalled the quote (imperfectly) while considering Patricia Moss Vreeland’s solo exhibition, In Search of Meaning: Memory Becomes Us at Esther Klein Gallery. The layered exhibition – consisting of digital prints, drawings, books, poetry and video – reflects the artist's ongoing interest in the connection between memory and creativity.

A synthesis of painting, printmaking and photography, Patricia Moss Vreeland’s digital prints embrace a collage modality. The layered imagery – often incorporating natural scenes and patterned mark-making – offers a sensory palimpsest, recalling the aestheticized dissonance of late Rauschenberg prints. There are no dates on the wall placards — allowing the work, like the memories it references, to adapt and change over time. In one vitrine, there is a tightly-patterned scroll drawing reminiscent of a print from Moss Vreeland’s exhibition Memory-Connections Matter – held at Esther Klein Gallery in 1999. Twenty years later, the work's motifs are contextually reframed in the same physical site. In both shows, the artist worked with neuropsychologists to integrate the science of memory into her visual investigations.

For her most recent exhibition, she worked with Dr. Dasa Zeithamova, a cognitive neuroscientist at University of Oregon who studies how memories are formed. The plentiful wall text interspersed throughout the exhibition allows us to sit-in on the dialog between artist and scientist. Dr. Zeithmova, in her recent talk at University Science Center, discussed the idea that memory itself is a form of creativity. “We do not verbatim remember what we see or hear. We remember the meaning, shaped by our existing knowledge and our goals.”

The same week I saw Dr. Zeithamova’s lecture, I was out hiking, and a cardinal landed in a nearby tree. The month before that hike (and that lecture) my grandmother passed away. She loved cardinals – feeding them throughout the winter, filling her home with trinkets emblazoned with their image. The family placed birdseed on her grave instead of flowers. Seeing that cardinal alight, I recalled Dr Zeithmova’s explanation of neural pathway formation, knowing now that my brain connects – quite without my intention – cardinal and grandmother. That immediate connection happens in the hippocampus, signaling love elsewhere in my limbic system. It’s a sentimental act - tearing up at the sight of a cardinal. Maybe that’s what brought to mind the Mary Ruefel lecture - the curious mix of a word: “The sen of sensuous and the mental of mind.” In any case, In Search of Meaning is an aptly titled exhibition; it is a search that is both sentimental and scientific.