Review of Detroit Contemporary exhibition by Samantha Hohmann.

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