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U-M Gifts of Art's winter edition offers meditative, inspirational works in a variety of mediums

Mon, 02/10/2020 - 10:00am by christopherporter

Allison Svoboda, Healing Power

From Allison Svoboda's Healing Power of Nature: Mixed Media.

Every new season the University of Michigan Medicine’s Gifts of Art brings patients and visitors new exhibits of inspirational, meditative, and thought-provoking works by local and regional artists. For the winter edition, the eight gallery spaces provide uplifting and diverse works, executed in a wide range of media: straight photography, digitally altered photography, oil paintings, oil and chalk pastels, designer hats, multimedia sculptures, and paper sculpture.

Greg Potter, Flying

Greg Potter’s The Whimsical World of Greg Potter, located in the Taubman Health Center North Lobby, Floor 1, is a collection of lighthearted and uplifting anthropomorphic portraits. In his artist statement, Potter says he approaches art from “a humorous and surrealist perspective” to create paintings that make "people laugh and engages their mind[s] with an unconventional narrative that sparks conversation.” Through the use of animals as his portrait subjects, he plays with themes relevant to his own life as a veteran. Potter's animals, “like veterans, try to fit into a society that they do not always recognize.” The result of this pursuit is a series of playful paintings in which badgers, turtles, rodents, and house pets such as cats and dogs can appear as Scottish gentlemen, ship captains, reclining goddesses, or superheroes. University of Michigan Gifts of Art program notes that “one patient shared that for her, Potter’s work symbolized the process of adapting to a diagnosis by transforming into someone stronger and wiser without losing who you really are.” The fanciful nature of the paintings, paired with the iconography of classical works of art, bring a unique and fresh body of work that will likely resonate with, and hopefully uplift, hospital visitors and patients.

Linda Erf Swift, High School Photo Project

Linda Erf Swift’s High School Photo Project is on display in the Taubman Health Center South Lobby, Floor 1. Swift began her career as a teacher and social worker, teaching in public schools. After earning a degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Swift paired her teaching experience with her photography skills to create a body of work that documents students in three high schools in Chicago: Kenwood Academy, King College Prep, and University High. For this project, which has been in progress for 10 years, Swift photographs seniors posing in front of chalkboards with a quotation of their choosing. The students often bring props to illustrate their quotes. For example, one student’s message reads “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass … It’s about learning to dance in the rain. / Vivian Greene.” This smiling high school senior stands in front of her chosen quote with a colorful, striped umbrella and pink rain boots. Though many of the images are uplifting, some shed light on the hardships that teens, particularly teens of color, face in their daily lives. In one such example, Swift photographed twins Justin and Joshua in 2010. Then, in 2011, she photographed one of the twins again, this time with a message about strength in the face of losing two family members at the age of 17 to gun violence. These images work to reveal a “youth culture that is wise and artistic, assertive and joyful, discerning and full of possibility,” and disrupt snap judgments, forcing viewers to consider both their own biases, and ask what actually motivates young people today. In her artist statement, Swift asks, “How do people over 50 know what teenagers are thinking, what they are concerned with? How can art be used to encourage social engagement beyond our bubbles of comfort and conformity?”

Contessa by Mr. Song Millinery

Contessa by Mr. Song Millinery, photograph by Moza.

Mr. Song Millinery is a high-fashion millinery based in Detroit. The millinery presents highlights from its collection in the exhibit Hats & Fascinators, located in the Taubman Health Center North Lobby, Floor 1. The influential millinery was founded in 1982 in Detroit by Luke Song, who has made hats for cultural figures such as Aretha Franklin. Song draws inspiration from modern artists, which can be seen clearly in his hats. One is modeled after Piet Mondrian, with signature beaded squares of red, blue, and yellow on a white background. Song has made hats for the Kentucky Derby and Ascot, and he has works in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian.

Kaskawulsh Descent by Leslie Sobel

Sheep Mountain & Kluane Lake by Leslie Sobel, photograph by the artist.

Leslie Sobel presents an ode for environmental preservation with her series of mixed-media sculptural boxes. This body of work was created as a result of her residency in Kluane National Park in Yukon Territory, Canada, and can be seen in Shrines & Reliquaries: Memorializing Climate, located in Taubman Health Center South Lobby, Floor 1. Sobel’s collection of mixed-media boxes employ imagery inspired by the Arctic, a result of the time Sobel spent camping in an ice field with a group of climate scientists as part of her residency. Her pieces utilize “painting, monotype, photography, resin and encaustic,” with the artist’s “experience of that pristine, remote, beautiful, and at-risk environment” to create a collection of timely works that address our increasingly-vanishing Arctic landscapes. In one piece, titled Climate Change Game, Sobel uses a box divided into 30 square compartments, each with a square “game” piece set inside. Each square contains either a blank blue color or an aerial image of icebergs and islands. The box slides open at the end to reveal a drawer of other blank, blue tiles, that will presumably cover the islands and icebergs, leaving nothing but ocean where there was once land. 

Fractal Grassland by Allison Svoboda
Fractal Grassland by Allison Svoboda, 80" x 120", Krasle Art Museum.

Detroit-born Allison Svoboda displays large-scale, mixed-media works in Healing Power of Nature: Mixed Media in the University Hospital Main Lobby, Floor 1. Svoboda combines painting and sculpture in her complex, enormous wall-hangings. First, she begins by intuitively painting, creating thousands of brushstrokes. She then collates the paintings and tears out “images that work together.” Once she has selected imagery to work with, she creates a collage from the fragmented paintings and builds her final composition as she works. The final pieces are “meditation[s] on earth’s last places of quiet and untouched beauty … these paintings are based on fractal geometry (infinitely unfolding terrains of self-similar shapes like those in living things).” Her work is influenced by her time in Japan studying Zen and calligraphy under a Hemera fellowship. Her intricate, mandala-inspired designs are created from Sumi-e ink on rice paper, an ephemeral paper that ties to the meditative nature of her final works.

Unhidden Frame by Anne Bae

Unhidden Frame by Anne Bae, photograph by the artist.

Anne Bae is a New York-based artist working with sculptural paper works. In Cages, Nests & Butterflies, on view in the University Hospital Main Corridor, Floor 2, Bae’s works explore “concepts of time, memory, openness and constraint” and are “created with traditional methods, using scissors and sample die-cutting tools; cross-disciplinary techniques, such as weaving and tatting used in fiber arts; and technologies such as laser cutting machines.” Bae’s sculptures are divided into two categories: one without adhesive, and one the other with tatting and knots in place to secure the works. The materials used in the diorama-like sculptures range from fine papers and handmade papers by the artist to coffee filters. In her artist statement, Bae expands upon the themes in her works. One series, for example, explore metaphors “for the myriad forms of emotional, physical and psychological imprisonment,” while “the openness of the cages symbolizes hope and the impermanence of such prisons.” Bae hopes viewers will contemplate her works to “find meaning and ultimately -- hope,” an often-crucial element in places such as hospitals.

Is It Really Over by Laura Cavanagh

Is It Really Over? by Laura Cavanagh, photograph by the artist.

Laura Cavanagh is a Detroit-based artist and University of Michigan alumna, whose show Personal Space: Oil & Chalk Pastel explores private and personal spaces. On view in the University Hospital Main Corridor, Floor 2, Cavanagh’s exhibit visually explores the meaning and importance of “personal space,” as the artist values and relies upon such spaces in her practice. Cavanagh explores this concept in scenes both in and outdoors. She works in oil and chalk pastels, which she feels are best suited to capturing light and color, in addition to its ability to accurately capture her emotional response to each location. As the Gifts of Art announcement states, Cavanaugh’s compositional style “breaks down architectural elements into bold blocks of color, creating an atmosphere of still quietude, so critical to her creative process.” These quiet portrayals of private spaces offer visitors a look into calming and serene spaces, which will contrast to the bustling hallways in which they are displayed.

Diana's Trumpet by Aaron Dworkin

Diana’s Trumpet by Aaron Dworkin.

Aaron Dworkin is a social entrepreneur, performing artist, philanthropist, and professor of Arts Leadership & Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Dworkin is also a visual artist and violinist. In his series Fractured History, he explores both his personal history and America’s societal and cultural histories, tying together his intersecting interests through his camera lens. His works can be seen in Fractured History: Digital Art on Canvas, located in the Rogel Cancer Center, Level 1. (This exhibit was also at the Ann Arbor Art Center in May 2019.) In his artist statement, Dworkin describes the series of digitally altered photographs as “capturing an evolving aesthetic of the abstract that often mirrors the disjunct nature of my familial relationships.” His pictures frequently focus on stringed instruments as a basis for which to explore these themes and to “warp the process into an alternate dimension of history, with the aim of bringing to light important historical figures of color.” In order to accomplish this, Dworkin layers imagery of figures like Coretta Scott King, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, and Frederick Douglass with musical instruments and abstract designs.

Each of these eight artists grapples with themes relevant to contemporary life and pose questions that might be asked while visiting a hospital. The gallery spaces offer audiences a diverse range of objects to consider, and the inclusion of Mr. Song’s Millinery is an exciting addition to Gifts of Art, which works to bring in art and artists that will resonate with the hospital community and beyond.


Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.


The winter iteration of Gifts of Art is on view through March 6.

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