It would be easy, artist Marcy Hermansader says, for people to mistake a retrospective of her work for a group show — so diverse is her style. On a recent visit to her Putney studio, an observer finds four different series: drawings that billow out around vintage postcards of woodland scenes; photographs of Hermansader’s aging father sliced into strips and woven together with the security-patterned insides of envelopes; drawings of Iraqi women in mourning laid into shingle-like paper constructions; and abstract collages of blackness.
The common thread is this: In Hermansader’s work, the intimate becomes universal. In a group show called “Natural Wonders,” currently at Rochester’s BigTown Gallery, her abstract mixed-media works from the 1980s depict a vast, mystical landscape within the human body. In her more recent black-on-black collages, that sense of vastness reaches cosmic proportions — looking at once celestial and cellular.
Hermansader, 60, graduated with a degree in sculpture and film from the Philadelphia College of Art in 1973. At the suggestion of a professor who had inspired her — and who said it would toughen her up — she spent two years working as a horse groomer at racetracks in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Then she moved to Vermont to pursue life as an artist.
Since then, Hermansader has created drawings, sculptural pieces and mixed-media works, but it’s difficult to pin a label on exactly what she makes. And she’s OK with that. “I create a scene for the solitude of the viewer,” she wrote in a catalog of her work in 1985. “I try to create images to stir things up, for them to know what they can know from within themselves.”
Hermansader’s subjects dictate her style, and they’re usually deeply personal. Take, for example, the series of woven photos of her dad. In the early 2000s, Hermansader and her life partner, Jonathan Flaccus, suddenly became responsible for four elderly relatives. Three had advanced dementia, one of whom was her father. “I was unable to concentrate,” she says. “I really couldn’t work.”
During that time, Hermansader had her father’s mail forwarded to her Putney home (he was living in Connecticut). Every day she dreaded opening the letters, most of which related to his health and care. “I knew that any envelope could potentially sabotage my day,” she recalls.
Then one day, while opening a letter, she noticed the security pattern on the inside of the envelope. She looked inside another envelope and found a slightly different pattern. Then she noticed another, and another. “There was a glimmer of hope,” she says.
Hermansader began slicing the patterned interiors into thin strips and weaving them into photographs Flaccus took of her father. As she wove, her dad’s face became stretched out, creating a distorted sense of time and identity. Hermansader found the process satisfying, both artistically and emotionally.
“Now I had this tangible product that showed the work that I was doing,” she says. “It really saved my life.”
Not that she saw her dad’s decline as a “horrible, depressing thing,” she says. He wasn’t in pain, and he often seemed to be happy. “It didn’t matter that he didn’t know who I was,” she says with a sage smile. “He liked me.”
John Hermansader was also an artist, an abstract expressionist who spent a good deal of his career designing albums for Blue Note Records. During the final years of his life, while his daughter wove patterns with images of his face, he continued to draw — on the theme of love.
He died in 2005. “It’s a strange thing when a living person is your subject, and they die,” says Hermansader. Mourning her dad and desperate for another project — “I hate not doing any work,” she says — she began a simple daily exercise: drawing from photos in the newspaper. It was the year of Hurricane Katrina, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were raging. “Being in a state of grief,” she says. “I was drawn to those images.”
In one piece, called “Deep Breath,” two small drawings of Iraqi women — Hermansader recalls they were photographed identifying family members at a morgue — are laid into a surface of torn bits of white and ivory paper, which look like weathered shingles or angel feathers. The women’s faces are twisted in agony, but the paper around them is “protective, mending,” says Hermansader.
Still, the subject matter wore on her emotionally. “I felt like I was seeing black,” she says. So she transitioned into her next phase of work, diving head first into the cosmos with her abstract darkness collages. Only trouble was, Hermansader works at night. She found it difficult to sleep with these black landscapes on her mind.
So Hermansader created a new, more meditative exploration of darkness. Her most recent works are giant wheels of tightly rolled black paper, the largest three feet across and a couple of inches thick. Some are dotted with flecks of white. Others are interspersed with dark blue or purple paper. Gazing into the rounds, which look like oversize, sometimes warped, vinyl records, you can almost feel them spinning, as slowly and steadily as the Earth.
At BigTown, Hermansader’s work is equally mesmerizing. It’s from a period during which she was recovering from a near-paralyzing auto-immune illness. As she explains it, “My immune system was attacking my nerves.”
The numbness began in her hands and feet and gradually moved toward her core. It was four months before doctors finally made a diagnosis. At first, she says, “They thought it was psychosomatic.” But Hermansader persisted and did what any visual artist would do: She drew pictures of what she was feeling and presented them to her doctors.
It’s hard not to imagine Hermansader hauling the vibrantly colored, mixed-media works displayed at BigTown into the doctor’s office — though that isn’t possible, since she made these pieces, with pencil, acrylic, foils, fabrics, thread and sequins, after her diagnosis. They aren’t about illness so much as healing, she says.
The pictures are populated with bright-pink ribbons of vein-like road; green and blue beads arranged atop one another like vertebrae; and black orbs filled with spidery, nerve-like shapes. In some, black paper is torn off to reveal a raw redness. In others, pinholes expose tiny flecks of gold beneath the black paper, flashing under the gallery lights like firing neurons.
Hermansader’s works could easily be scenes from another planet. Except that they’re just so human. Look at them long enough, and you might feel a tingling in your fingers and toes.
“Natural Wonders,” a group show featuring work by Marcy Hermansader, John Udvardy and Anda Dubinskis, at BigTown Gallery in Rochester. Through March 19. bigtowngallery.com