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When Our Walls Come Alive

In March of 2020, artist Dena Haden was preparing to pack up her work in Berkley, Massachusetts and travel to Philadelphia for the opening of her solo exhibition at the Esther Klein Gallery (EKG), scheduled to open in April. As with most things scheduled for March, things didn’t quite turn out as planned. Haden’s show was put on hold indefinitely due to the outbreak of COVID-19. For the first time since the gallery opened in 1976, the walls were void of art influenced by science – all as scientists and researchers across the country double down on a new virus that would change the course of modern history.

EKG remained closed for seven months until finally reopening last month for the premiere of With Whom We Walk This Earth, Haden’s new body of work created during her residency at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee.

Viewing artwork in-person in the middle of a pandemic is, for the most part, a solitary experience. Visitors to the gallery are not greeted by large crowds, but instead a quiet and peaceful space offering a more contemplative experience. This is generally my favorite way to look at art — free from outside distractions — and Haden’s work lends itself particularly well to this format.

With Whom We Walk This Earth is a stunningly beautiful collection of fiber-based work created from upcycled objects found in nature. This earth-focused, sustainable art practice emphasizes our human connection to the natural world and re-envisions what this relationship has the potential to become. While Haden had no way to knowing it when the works were created from May 2019 through early 2020, the subject seems particularly apropos given so many people’s renewed interest in experiencing the natural world – one of few activities unaltered by the pandemic.

Using materials such as orchids, devil’s claw, trumpet seeds, Japanese knotweed, alpaca fiber and even kombucha culture, Haden literally and figuratively weaves a narrative of innovation and environmental awareness. She fabricates with meticulous handmade detail, giving an extreme amount of time and care to each piece. She views this process of creation as a meditation and an appreciation of the “rawness and beauty of existence.”

Dispersed among the sculptures in the show, viewers will find small drawings made from pigments on paper, depicting human hands that are reminiscent of prehistoric cave paintings. This association takes me back to a simpler time, when humans existed in harmony with nature and embodied the true meaning of sustainability. Haden’s utilization of hand weaving techniques act as an homage to cottage industries of past eras, when fibers were hand spun and processed to make essential goods like nets and textiles.

Not only does Haden’s work give a nod to techniques of the past, With Whom We Walk This Earth also looks ahead to the future of sustainable materials. Kombucha is widely known as a healthy beverage, but the bacteria and yeast culture can also produce films of cellulose that when dried, create a leather-like material that has been proposed as a sustainable alternative to textiles. Processed kombucha film can be cut and sewn like any fabric and is 100% biodegradable. Haden utilizes this process of growing, drying, cutting and sewing kombucha to create sculptural elements that resemble tiny vessels that decorate her larger works. The most striking aspect of this material is its slightly translucent appearance, which catches the light in such a way that makes it appear to be glowing. Dyed with natural pigments in shades of amber, gold and burgundy, the luminescent vessels represent the cycle of life in all of its glory.

Just as periods of uncertainty inspired our ancestors to look towards simpler ways of life, COVID-19 has left many of us enhancing our daily experience with rustic, homespun habits such as baking, gardening, and nature walks. The natural world has the unique ability to put life’s stresses into perspective and offer a renewed sense of purpose and meaning. The life cycle of growth and decay tells us that at some point, this deadly virus too shall pass. Once the threat of the pandemic has subsided, these drastic changes to our lifestyle may live on, as well as a renewed sense of what brings “real” happiness. This back-to-nature impulse is imperative now, as well as in the future to address the issue of climate change — a catastrophe that looms on the horizon.

Dena Haden’s exhibit, like all EKG exhibits, is grounded in science and is one of the many ways that the Science Center reaches many diverse audiences. Our goal is to make scientific information and dialogue readily accessible and inclusive for everyone. Whether through art, research or dialog, we believe it’s imperative to stay informed and up to date on accurate, scientific information.

Watch full exhibition tour