Keeli Crew | Area 61 Gallery Co-Owner
Visitors to Chattanooga quickly discover why it’s called the Scenic City. From the rolling mountains to the river that winds between them, our city teems with stunning views. With so much natural beauty at every turn, we had to wonder: Does nature inspire the creations of our city’s talented artists? To find an answer, we headed down to Area 61 on Broad Street, where gallery co-owner Keeli Crewe said: “That, is a resounding yes,” and led us on a tour.
The Intersection of Art + Nature
From Denice Bizot’s verdigris copper birds to Nadine Koski’s enchanting encaustic bees, nature seemed to leap from the walls of the gallery. Allen Hampton’s life-sized alligator, made from reclaimed metal, peers from beneath a hand-made table. The piece is part whimsy and part menace, with its charming expression and saw-edged teeth. Even the abstract explorations in color by Paul Fontana are drawn from nature, with titles such as “Treeline, Red Rocks, Vine-ripened, and Yellow Dawn. “Nature is a muse for many of our artists, and some infuse materials from nature into their art as well,” Keeli explained. “Artists see things through a unique lens. Their work stirs up things inside of us that is connected to the natural world.
Nadine compares her private studio to a treehouse. It’s located on top of her garage, in a sea of trees on Stringer’s Ridge. Much of her work is inspired by the flowers, birds, and bees that inhabit her world as well as her beautiful Koi pond. Her encaustic paintings involve layers of beeswax fused with alcohol ink pigments, and some include resin or torched shellac. At the heart of their beauty, Nadine hopes her paintings help people see hope.“Climate change concerns me deeply and I feel we are at a crossroads in our human experience where we need to recognize the impact of our relationship with nature and realize we are part of it in order to save ourselves,” Nadine explained. “We need hope.” “My small contribution aims to express the light and joy of what I see,” she noted. “It becomes a way of nurturing hope by celebrating it through the beauty.”
Jeff begins each of his surreal collages by painting an animal on wood, inspired by the wildlife near his home in rural Ellijay, GA. They include a graceful fox, a curious sparrow, and an anthropomorphized bear standing upright on two legs. Then he adds a collage of small elements inside the animal figures using thought-provoking images often from pop culture and art history.“My collages are a way of honoring animals, which are so threatened nowadays,” Jeff said. “They also are a vehicle for larger issues of culture and civilization.”“In the collage elements, I want people to feel the rush of information we all experience daily from digital stimuli, TV, social media interactions, and the plethora of information we experience every day as contemporary people,” Jeff explained. In the tension between the information overload and the calming animals, Jeff wants us to see why animals are a more sacred representation of nature than humans today.“Animals do not have our emotional baggage,” Jeff noted.“I want to create things that are fun for people to look at. There’s a lot of fun and spontaneity that go into them when I create them.”
Maggie’s called Chattanooga home for 16 years but grew up in Iowa in a diverse environment of fields and forests. “I spent most of my childhood outside. I loved digging in the dirt, catching fireflies, and looking in dark forest places, always hoping to find something. I think that resonates with people,” she said. She works with watercolor and gouache, and her work includes levels of great detail from the simple yet complex bark on a tree to the exquisite pattern on a butterfly.“I watch my son’s generation, and they don’t catch fireflies anymore. They spend more time on video games,” Maggie shared. “I like for my work to remind people of time outside and help them reconnect with nature.” “I loved to tell stories, but I can’t write,” she added. “So my paintings always have a suggestion of a story — something to make you wonder what is about to happen next.”
Throughout his career working in construction and making cabinetry, Bob never considered himself an artist. Wood to him was simply a means to an end. However, when he retired to Alexian Village on SignalMountain, a woodworking class opened his eyes in a whole new way. He began turning fallen logs into beautiful pieces of art, each paying homage to the life of the tree. In the past nine years, he has created more than 200 pieces.“Over the years I have learned to work with the wood to bring out the beauty, first using a lathe, then carving tools,” He explained. “Each one is different in the way I enhance it, based on what the wood shows me. There is beauty in the different shapes, different textures, and different colors, and it's exciting to see how they evolve.”“They’re my babies,” Bob said of his art. “At first, I wanted to keep them all, but I realized I want to share the beauty I see in the wood with others, so they can enjoy it too.”That’s when he discovered Area 61. Bob, who is 81 years old, said he has no plans to retire from his second career. “I love working with the fallen trees,” he said. “I will be doing this until the day that I die.”
Barbara’s love of nature and its connection to art has led her to visit national parks around the country and create a series of paintings from them. She begins each one with a hike, exploring the area and taking photographs.“In one spot I may take 40 photographs, viewing it from different heights and different perspectives,” Barbara said.“I may photograph the leaves on the ground, a cactus or a Joshua tree.” “I want to see ‘What leads someone to take that trail into the park,’ and ‘Why would they want to hike in Yosemite?’” she explained. “That shows me the natural path that nature creates that will lead people into my painting. The awe of the park translates onto the canvas.”Barbara also has created a series of abstract paintings of sunsets over the water. “Silent Dock II,” part of the Lake Day series, features the end of a day on local Soddy Lake.“The colors of sunsets are so vibrant,” Barbara noted. She has captured those vibrant moments from sunsets in other cities and as well as over the Gulf of Mexico. “Visitors from across the country stop by Area 61, and they are often surprised to see that the art here not only features local scenes,” she added. “They are surprised to see pieces that capture the beauty of nature from their own hometowns as well.”
The original version of this article first appeared in a previous edition of our Magazine.
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