Journeying Towards Wholeness and Healing in Susan Aaron-Taylor’s
Borderlands: Betwixt & Between
by Samantha Hohmann for detroit contemporary
Hanging on the wall of Susan Aaron-Taylor’s current exhibition, Borderlands: Betwixt & Between is a work by prolific poet Lucille Clifton. Titled “blessing the boats,” the poem acts as a well-wishing for the reader as the tide carries them out towards the sea of life. In a moving conclusion, the final lines read, “and may you in your innocence/ sail through this to that.” Clifton does not choose to the words, struggle past, or row, or paddle, but sail through, as the reader navigates the vast between. For Clifton, what lies between is worthy of traversing with grace. The sentiment strikes at the heart of the exhibition, in which Aaron-Taylor’s tenderly crafted fiber sculptures not only inspire a sense of self-wholeness through body, spirit and nature, but honor the transitory spaces that one must cross to arrive there.
Borderlands: Betwixt & Between showcases three series of work by Susan Aaron-Taylor: Soul Shard Series, Threshold Series, and her most recent body of work, Endangered Series. Each collection of work displays the artist’s wide array of influences and meticulously honed skills as a lifelong fiber artist and instructor. Looking to the practices of shamanism, alchemy, and Jungian psychology, Aaron-Taylor’s often otherworldly sculptures combine the study of the spiritual and subconscious with the manipulation of natural materials, namely wool, fossil, bone, minerals, shells, tree bark and other plant matter. At the crossroads of these elements, Aaron-Taylor acts as a hollow bone, channeling the creative energies of the transitional space of the borderland to create stories which are telling of herself and the mysteries of a realm between.
According to the study of shamanism, everyone is born with an intact soul which, as time goes on, is weathered by the traumas of life. These lost pieces are retrievable with the help of an experienced guide and a willingness to go looking. Made from a variety of bark, coral, beads, metal, crystals, and encaustic, Aaron-Taylor’s Soul Shards represent the accumulations of these fragments. In Soul Shard #24, birch bark curls sweetly over the soft white wool nestled inside. Beaded dew drops spring from within, and the ghostly white coral which sits on top has an uncanny resemblance to a fungal bloom, as if the contents have started the patient journey towards regrowth and healing. The shard is clearly precious, well worth diligently searching for, in all its ethereal beauty. While it represents a rekindling of lost pieces of the spirit, the shard also commemorates the time spent searching, standing as a tiny monument to the journey.
Though the influence and importance of nature is evident throughout the entirety of Aaron-Taylor’s oeuvre, it is the sole focus of her most recent Endangered Species series. The series features detailed felted sculptures of a variety of critically endangered species throughout the world. Seeing these sculptures, which diligently capture each animal’s beauty and unique energy, alongside the didactic labels which explain their reasons for near extinction, is a jarring experience. It’s one thing to be vaguely aware of mass habitat loss and big game hunting, but entirely another to see its impact laid out bare. Endangered: Polar bear stands out as a particularly unsettling example, depicting an emaciated polar bear with sparse fur seeming to climb up a twisting blue ladder. Tying in Aaron-Taylor’s connection to shamanism, the work symbolizes the polar bear’s closeness to another realm—death. Knowing the grave impact of species loss within the environment, it is not just the fate of these animals, but humankind which hangs in the balance. However, despite the fragile state of these species being core to the body of work, Aaron-Taylor is also careful to point out their resilience. Tucked off to the side of the gallery and perched on top of a mass of seashells sits a small spotted amphibian. Previously assumed to be extinct in the wild for the past 30 years, scientists have recently rediscovered the Starry Night Harlequin Toad. A tiny sprig of green growth bursts from the tiny toad’s back, symbolizing not only its strength, but the opportunity for hope should we choose to correct our course and situate ourselves within rather than above nature.
While the Soul Shards Series make physical the spiritual realm and the Endangered Series captures the importance of the natural world, Aaron-Taylor’s Thresholds seamlessly blend the two. The elaborate two-dimensional felted tapestries and their physical alters celebrate the cycle of life, especially moments of transition such as birth, death, and coming of age. The objects that sit on the altar, usually collected from nature, reappear as felted studies within the tapestries. The journey of the objects from the physical, through Aaron-Taylor, to a spiritual representation combines realms while also paying homage to the gifts of nature. The way these objects are chosen and arranged factors heavily into the symbolism of the work. For instance, Threshold # 2 serves as a requiem for the passing of Aaron-Taylor’s mother. In it, long, reaching roots and bones guide the viewer’s eye upwards to rest on a single feather which seems on the precipice of floating away and crossing into somewhere beyond. Other Thresholds mark significant spaces of transition rather than experiences. Threshold # 6 spans the length of a birch tree, encircled by seven narrow slices. The cuts act as footholds, referencing the ancient shamanic tradition of climbing the birch tree to enter the Upper world. The tree both acts as and is symbolic of a threshold, carefully revealing only it’s middle trunk instead of its roots or crown. Rather than awkward spaces for hesitant growth, these thresholds reveal the true power that navigating transition can hold.
After a string of tumultuous years and the promise of an uncertain future, Susan-Aaron Taylor’s Borderlands: Betwixt & Between feels especially poignant. As we face the inevitable social, environmental, and health crises that will surely follow from the effects of climate change, the exploitation of both land and humans, as well as the lingering effects of a global pandemic, the question of how to move forward remains. Though Aaron-Taylor does not necessarily offer solutions to these pressing problems, she instead familiarizes us with the radical potential of this space in-between and shows us, that if we travel through it with care, there are fantastic and important discoveries to be made. In a moment where culture feels particularly spiritually bereft, Aaron-Taylor’s thoughtful and touching meditations on the crossroads of body, spirit, and nature act as a spiritual salve, sending us away on a journey towards becoming whole.
Gallery reception for Borderlands: Betwixt & Between is Saturday, September 10, 2022 from 6pm to 10pm
It’s been a while since I posted an update and a year and a half since my unfortunate accident. I am pleased to say that I am doing really well. I walk an hour each day, work out at the gym 3 times a week and continue to do my PT exercises. This has been a delightful summer despite record high temperatures.
I am also doing well artistically. Most of July was spent getting ready for my September 3-25 solo show at Detroit Contemporary Gallery, located in mid-town Detroit. The show is a retrospective with 40 pieces from 3 series. The emphasis of the show focuses on my most recent series, Endangered. You can check out these sculptures under the Collection tab.
My most recent sculpture is the Piping Plover. I’m posting an in-progress studio shot. Professional pics of the Plover are currently in the works and will be posted in a few weeks. The sculpture is 5″x15″x7″ and is primarily made of painted, found wood and sea shells.
The Great Lakes Piping Plover
The Plover is federally registered as an endangered species. It’s known to nest along the Great Lakes and predominantly at the Sleeping Bear Dunes shorelines. They lay their eggs in the open, on pebbly beaches making them vulnerable to predators such as crows, raccoons, falcons, dogs, and humans. In 2021 there were only 35 nesting pairs. Climate change induced sea level rise also threatens the Plover, especially where natural barrier beach dynamics are impeded.
It’s been 10 month since my accident. I am happy to report that I am now walking 40 minutes each day with my pup Olive, doing my PT exercises, and working out at the gym three times a week. My daily studio practice is as rigorous as always. To see the newest sculptures, please check out my Endangered Series located under the Collections tab.
I have so much to be grateful for, but I am living my daily life with an underlying sadness and heart break due to the Pandemic, divisive politics, the disappearance of a huge number of our animals and habitats, global warming, and the deterioration of our culture’s values. Each day I consciously attempt to stay above the turbulent waves.
In the last stanza of this poem, Robert Bly, poet extraordinaire, aptly captured the sentiment .
Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat
Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for
Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat
When so many have gone down in the storm.
My accident (see July Update) and subsequent operations left me in a wheelchair for a few months. I was instructed to not put any weight on my right leg, making it impossible to climb the steep stairs up to my studio.
The thought of not making art for at least 2 months was depressing. My husband, Harry and I devised a plan to create a makeshift studio on the dining room table. While I could not easily create sculpture here, I could journal, draw, and paint.
It was when I faced up to my depression, the severity of my physical condition, and the many months needed for healing and physical therapy that I realized I was in the “underworld”. I felt as though parts of me had died. Two Shamanic practitioners performed Soul Retrievals for me to reclaim fragmented pieces lost from my accident and the two-week hospital stay.
Soon the daydreams and night dreams began manifesting. I meditated and did shamanic journeying. It became apparent that I was experiencing an initiation that began with my accident and resulted in a descent into the underworld, the Dark Night of the Soul, the Alchemical phase of the Mortificatio/Nigredo.
I revisited my books on Alchemy and Jungian psychology and started charting my path out of the underworld via drawings and paintings. The following series of drawings were created as I accessed my mental and physical condition overlayed with the philosophies of Alchemy and Jungian psychology. I found truth in a quote from Carl Jung, “To the extent that I managed to translate the emotions into images-that is to say, to find the images which were concealed in the emotions-I was inwardly calmed and reassured”.
In the beginning I felt as though I was buried in the earth. I later realized that this was the start of my initiatory experience. I imagined myself weighted down by endless darkness, heavy boulders, and all-encompassing angry pain. Gradually the boulders were lifted. I saw myself on a dry riverbed, soon to have flowers blooming from my body and then to be immersed in purifying, baptismal waters. Nearing the end of my days in the dining room studio, I saw myself standing up with feathers floating around me, then flying high up into the sky, and finally manifesting, transforming, and rebirthing in to a primal, skeletal being.
Once I was able to begin physical therapy, healing moved more quickly. I bemoaned not being able to climb to my studio. Tim Wiater, my physical therapist, provided me with a cane to replace my walker and showed me how to climb stairs. I was encouraged to carefully go up to my studio taking each step slowly and consciously.
I spent the first week cleaning and organizing my studio and adjoining office. A few of my dining room paintings spoke to me. My first completed sculpture was Endangered:
Starry Night Toad. I pictured him isolated but growing rejuvenating foliage from his back. And from the darkness comes the light!
I am pleased to report that I’m back full time in my studio. My accident afforded me a transformational experience like the snake’s shedding of its’ skin. I have gained many insights, am psychologically stronger, more resilient, and compassionate. I continue to go to physical therapy and am slowly healing. My surgeon tells me that full healing will take a year from the accident. I look forward to March 11, 2022.
It’s been 4 months since my accident and I am pleased to report that I am making great progress. I am able to walk totally unassisted and can easily do stairs. This great news means I have been able to climb up to my studio and create new sculptures. The first sculpture to be completed is an Endangered Starry Night Toad. I am currently working on an Endangered Red Wolf. Images of both pieces are forth coming.
I am honored to be a part of the Michigan Fine Arts Competition and to receive the Corinne Maillard Robinson award for my Black Footed Ferret.
The Angonoka or Ploughshare Tortoise is a critically endangered species that live in the grasslands and dry scrub forests of Northern Madagascar. In ideal situations, their lifespan is from 50-100 years. Unfortunately, these tortoises are at an extremely high risk of extinction due to poachers, habitat loss, and illegal trade.
A new challenge occurred a few months ago. On March 11th, a freak accident resulted in a displaced femur, fractured acetabulum and pelvis. After three operations and a two-week hospital stay, I was sent home with a wheelchair, walker, and physical therapy exercises. The directive is to keep weight off my right leg for 3 months followed by out-patient physical therapy to learn to walk again. I should see positive results at the 6-month mark and be good as new in a year. Needless to say, this has been a major setback. My studio is located on the 2nd floor of my home. Extensive stair climbing won’t happen for quite a while. My make-shift studio is now on my dining room table. I’ve had to redirect my art making process from sculpture to 2-D work. The good news is that my creative juices are once again flowing. My new studio routine includes Alchemy research, journaling, and drawing. I am receiving many insights along this healing path and remain optimistic for the future.
7″x12″x7″ Wood, handmade felt, geodes, amber, hematite
Endangered Galapagos Penguins are found in certain areas of the Galapagos Islands and live on the equator. They are threatened by pollution, climate change, starvation due to extreme warm weather, and predators such as cats, dogs, owls, hawks, snakes, and sea lions. Strong El Nino events caused mortalities of up to 77%
12″x13″x13″ Glass bottle, wood, gampi fiber, religious medals, beads, handmade felt
The Black Panther is considered threatened or even endangered mainly due to deforestation of habitat and human encroachment mainly for agricultural purposes.
The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is Michigan’s only poisonous snake. The population of this timid snake has declined due to habitat loss, human persecution, indiscriminate killing, and illegal collection.
The African Wild Painted Dog is the third sculpture in my Endangered Species Series. I feel it’s important to bring these animals and their habitats into the consciousness of the public. Hopefully my work will draw the viewer to the piece and then remind them of all the animals that are being unconsciously eradicated. Many species are still alive albeit severely diminished in numbers.
I first began the series by researching the most endangered species. Certain animals spoke out to me. When exploring each animal, I was also drawn to their environment and how they struggle to adapt and survive in their ever-diminishing habitat. You Tube is a wonderful technology for viewing live footage.
Each piece is created with a handmade felt environmental backdrop and ground cloth or like the African Wild Painted Dog, a handmade felt terrain.
I hope you enjoy these in-progress images of my African Wild Painted Dog.
I am excited to be exhibiting a grouping of my sculptures at Form & Concept Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s a wonderful gallery with a friendly, astute, energetic staff and talented group of artists. I look forward to visiting the gallery once again the end of April.
Haleakala National Park
- Haleakala National Park
- Inactive Volcano Crater on Maui
- Kaniakapupu Summer Palace of King Kamehameha
- Heiau in Residential Neighborhood
- Keaiwa Heiau State Recreation
24”x29”x17” Handmade felt, hand stitching, needle felting, wood, stones, shells, crystal, cabochons.
The Eastern Bongo Antelope of Kenya is a critically endangered animal. Bongos are hunted for their horns and luxurious pelts. My Bongo has wings to bring attention to the fact that these beautiful animals are quickly becoming extinct. The felt wall cloth depicts the Kenyan habitat. The cloth is first hand felted and then needle felted to add greater detail. The borders are pieced together and hand stitched on to the larger cloth. The sculpture of the Bongo begins with a wooden armature. The hand felted pelt is then glued and sewn to the armature. Stones and crystals are embedded in the felt surface. I’ve added shells for horns and cabochons for eyes. The wings are made of wood. The last step is to saturate the felt of the animal with glue and the lightly sand the entire surface to a smooth finish.
I am excited to have Dr. Dora Apel’s article on my art work included in the hard copy of Essay’d 3 // 30 Detroit Artists. The Book Signing and Launch Party takes place on January 10 from 6-8pm at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.
This past May I spent two wonderful weeks visiting with my good friend Diane in Santa Fe. I brought along a list of places I wanted to visit and sites I needed to research for my work. As I look back on my list, I am amazed that we covered everything and more! The top priority was visitations to historic missions in Santa Fe, Truchas, Chimayo, and Taos, NM. While a few of the missions were not open to the public, several were open and in very good repair. I was most taken with Santuario de Chimayo. I had visited it many years before and remembered it to be quite an emotional experience. The site has been expanded to include several more outbuildings with more ‘touristy’ kinds of items for purchase. While the sanctuary appears to be a bit more organized, it remains a deeply sacred and holy place. I hope you enjoy the images of these missions and devotional images.