Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Artist brings nature's whimsy to WAG

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Many artists have approached the Winnipeg Art Gallery with proposals to temporarily liven up its stark exterior facade.

Most of them don't get far with executive director Stephen Borys, who regards the building as an architectural treasure and believes the vision of architect Gustavo da Roza should always be respected.

But when local painter and printmaker Ewa Tarsia invited Borys to visit her backyard garden last summer, he was amazed by the wondrous living artworks she had nurtured and sculpted there.

"Her garden is right out of a fairy tale," Borys says. "It was transformative. I thought, 'Can we transport this to the WAG?'

"She's delightful. She won me over."

Now some of the magic of Tarsia's garden has taken root in her just-opened installation Green... Grass... Dot..., on view for the rest of the summer. It's the first WAG exhibition for the Polish-born Tarsia, who has become a respected figure on the art scene since emigrating to Winnipeg in 1991.

The nature-loving blond artist has playfully installed 13 living grass hemispheres on the stone ramp at the front of the building. She's got volunteers lined up to trim the shaggy sod.

She has also draped the massive stone facade with about 700 handmade green spheres of different sizes, some made of living moss and some of recyclable plastic. They're strung on fishing line and when the wind blows, they skitter across the static wall.

"This is a collaboration with nature," says Tarsia, 52. "They're dancing."

The ardent environmentalist, composter and chemical-free gardener says smiling Winnipeggers constantly interacted with her while she was installing the surprising splotches of plant life.

They said things like, "Oh, how wonderful! How beautiful!" Some even yelled their enthusiasm from passing cars.

Green... Grass... Dot... consists of six indoor and outdoor works. Each is inspired by an aspect of the WAG's architecture. Some incorporate recycled materials, such as cut-up plastic bottles. They're all intended to interact with the building and celebrate aspects of nature that make urban life "livable and breathable."

"I love this space -- don't get me wrong," says Tarsia while standing on the WAG's penthouse level. "But I think the architect doesn't love nature so much."

Besides the foliage hemispheres and dots (some of the latter also hang on the east wall of the rooftop plaza), Tarsia has created a light-catching mobile called Synthetic Forest that hangs in Eckhardt Hall; a glass-bead piece called Clearwater and Algae suspended under a skylight on the gallery level (a response to algae growth in Lake Winnipeg); an assembly of 17 vibrant abstract paintings on the penthouse level called From My Night Garden; and a collection of round glass terrariums that appear to float serenely in the rooftop pool.

The 65 terrariums, which Tarsia calls "little paradise gardens," echo the glass globe light fixtures above the WAG's main entrance. They contain about 40 plant species.

Overall, Tarsia describes Green... Grass... Dot... as "my homage to the tenacity of nature, which may be downtrodden, yet still has the power to dazzle and enchant us."

The local firm 5468796 Architecture Inc. collaborated on the project. It has worked with Tarsia before, notably on Sunspot, a warming hut for the river skating trail that was also a kind of dot -- an orange sphere.

Sasa Radulovic, a partner at 5468796, describes Tarsia's garden on Eaglemere Drive in North Kildonan as "a hybrid between the shire from Lord of the Rings and Where the Wild Things Are."

Green... Grass... Dot..., he says, contrasts the weighty permanence of the WAG with the impermanence and fragility of living things. The show invites the public to engage in a new way with a structure that some regard as a "cold iceberg."

"Architects all love it, but the public is hesitant to love it," he says.

Tarsia admits to being obsessed with dots. Even the ellipses in the show's title are dots, she says.

She had a show called Untitled Dot at Martha Street Studio in 2007, one called Absolute Dot at the North Dakota Museum of Art in 2008, and one called iDot at the Buhler Gallery the same year.

Her paintings are made up of millions of individually daubed-on dots, as well as larger circles. "The idea of dots haunts me," she says.

She's not sure exactly why, but knows it's a kind of elemental shape from nature, found in everything from raindrops to the moon.

She is so prolific that more than 40 of her dot paintings are available for sale or rental at the WAG's Gallery Shop until Aug. 21.

Tarsia says her life in Europe was in "huge, claustrophobic, overpopulated cities" such as Gdansk and Vienna. When she and her cabinet-maker husband, Ludwik, decided to start a new life, it was a photo of a wide-open Manitoba landscape -- nothing else -- that told her to choose Winnipeg over Toronto or Vancouver.

"I saw a picture of the Spirit Sands desert (in Spruce Woods Provincial Park) in a magazine," she says. "I always believe in my instincts."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2012 G3

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