Exhibits explore animals, nature of time

Kate Clark

The inspiration for artist Mariel Versluis’ series “Be Here, By Me,” currently showing at the DeVos, includes growing up on a West Michigan farm.

“The farm next to ours had a circus that would come every summer and set up camp,” Versluis said. “Out in the orchard there would be cages with lions and tigers, and elephants would be out tethered on chains.”

Mariel Versluis’ series “Be Here, By Me,” currently showing at the DeVos, features large-scale works inspired by animals and the circus. (Katie Stumman NW)
Mariel Versluis’ series “Be Here, By Me,” currently showing at the DeVos, features large-scale works inspired by animals and the circus. (Katie Stumman NW)

Versluis, associate professor of printmaking and drawing at Kendall College of Art and Design,  began working  on “Be Here, By Me” while on sabbatical in 2011. It features large-scale works that incorporate painting, drawing and printing.

“Circuses involve humans and animals working together,” she said. “My relationship with the animal world is a really significant factor in my life.”

She features portraits of her three horses and the repeated motif of a tundra swan.

“Tundra swans are really amazing because they migrate over Michigan from the Chesapeake Bay region all the way up to the Arctic,” she said. “They fly high up in the jet stream. They can make the journey from the Chesapeake to the Arctic in as little as three days.”

Ten years ago, she said she encountered a flock of swans (also known as whistling swans) after mistaking their distinct sound for that of an abandoned puppy.

“I was looking in the woods for it and realized there was no puppy,” Versluis said. “I looked up and saw this huge flock of white specks in the sky and realized it was that bird that high up that was making that noise.”

Versluis said the pieces in this series are her biggest.

“I wanted to do portraits of my horses and I wanted them to be almost life-size,” she said. “If they weren’t really the size of the horse, it didn’t seem like they’d be powerful enough.”

Verslius said one of the images, featuring a blue horse, came to her in a dream 15 years ago.

“A lot of the work in general is based on dreams in many ways,” she said. “Dreams, poetry, literature; sometimes from actual experiences.”

Melissa Matuscak, museum curator and director, said Versluis contacted her after completing the work, saying she’d visited before and loved the space.

“I love her connection with the natural world,” Matuscak said.

The reception will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26 and will feature a demonstration of skijoring (cross country skiing while being pulled by dogs) by Versluis at 2:30 p.m. The “Be Here, By Me” series will run until Sunday, Feb. 23.

Until Sunday, Aug. 24, the DeVos’ back gallery will also exhibit “The End Will Look as the Beginning Did,” which features pieces from the permanent collection.

“We have about 1,500 pieces of art that have been donated over the past 20 to 30 years,” Matuscak said.

The exhibit is being co-curated by museum interns Matthew Bizoe, Craig Neeson, Samantha Page and Sophia Thomas, who selected the pieces and the theme.

“They each got to pick ten pieces from the collection to put on display,” Matuscak said. “They had to come up with a sort of theme. It’s the cyclical nature of history and the way visual culture, regardless of when it was made or where it was from, tends to go in these circles. So you can have something that’s quite old that can look contemporary and vice versa.”

DeVos Art Museum exhibits are free to the public.