In art as in politics, it's easier to get a handle on things that can be expressed as a sound bite or as an iconic image. New Orleans artist Raine Bedsole does boats and women, but it's not so simple as that. Her female figures are mostly two-dimensional, flat outlines, while her boats are usually sculptures of various sizes. All are essentially simple in shape and form, but that's where the easy part ends, because Bedsole's creations can be both more and less than they seem. For years she focused on one or the other, and while her current show at Marguerite Oestreicher Fine Arts (which opens this weekend for Art for Arts' Sake), features boats, they are no ordinary boats.
"I had a dream about the skin of flowers," Bedsole says in her studio as she holds up a sculpted vessel the size of a child's toy. "In this dream I had to figure out a mathematical equation for the skin of flowers.
"These were from the garden," she says, turning to some blossoms that were somehow transformed by an acrylic gel into flat translucent sheets covering the hull of her boat sculpture -- a simple craft, wider than a pirogue and pointed at both ends. Despite the spindly superstructure she welded from metal strips, it looked ethereal -- a flower boat.
"I woke up from that dream, and the skin of flowers was all I could think about for a while. It's such a solitary thing, how a canoe glides quietly across the water. I wanted the boats to all be made out of something from nature, something with a life that returns back to the earth like a flower. Life is fragile and it's a journey, and that's what these boats are all about."
Which suggests a soul's journey, or maybe those Egyptian legends of dead pharaohs navigating the skies in celestial boats guided by the dog god, Anubis. Bedsole leaves the interpretation to the viewer. Anyone looking for advice can consult a boat covered with vertical strips of fine paper bearing quotations from the I Ching, the Daoist book of changes. For the Daoists the flow is the thing, a force more powerful than any solid object. (If you doubt it, recall what hurricane Ivan's tidal surge did to those condos at Gulf Shores, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla.) Daoism also places as much emphasis on what is not seen as it does on what is seen, on negative space as much as positive space.
"This one's made of spider webs," Bedsole says, holding up a vessel covered with some pale webby stuff like very ragged white fishnet stockings. A closer look reveals they really are spider webs. How did she do that? "I covered them with a film of dilute gesso," she says, referring to the chalky white stuff painters use to prime their canvases. On the wall, held in place by a pair of sculpted, life-size hands, it is as if it's being presented to the viewer by some otherworldly persona. A spider web boat from the netherworld. Others are made from letters found in old books or family photos from the 1920s. Like flowers and spider webs, they reflect life that appeared and then was gone.
"It all started with my morning walks where I live near Tulane," Bedsole says. "Students put so much information on light poles, notices about apartments, lost pets, things for sale, roommates wanted -- it's like primitive email. Nature and other aspects of life communicate in ways that are related but more subtle, and my work is about those currents and undercurrents." But for Bedsole it ultimately goes back to the flowers and the trees, the rivers and seas and our relationship with them, and if that makes her a nature girl, she comes by it naturally.
As a child in Alabama, where her father raised cattle and her mother was the first female state senator, her time was divided between their home in Mobile and a farm "in the middle of nowhere." As an adult in New York and San Francisco, she could never shake her connection with the Gulf Coast, its spectacular trees and aqueous environment. New Orleans seemed a good compromise between the big city and her old Alabama home. Now trim and unlined at 44, she experiences those natural forces in the verdant greenery of the region and in dreams where gossamer boats made from the skin of flowers ply the fragrant waters of unknown seas.