University of Wisconsin-Madison: Wisconsin’s prairies reimagined through the Chazen’s new multi-story exhibit

Imagine how Madison’s isthmus looked pre-development — before the high-rises, roads and university. This strip of land, now covered in concrete, was once abundant with vegetation. To remember and preserve our natural history, artist Amanda McCavour has brought Wisconsin’s flora back through embroidery sculpture in her installation, “Suspended Landscapes,” on exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art through Sept. 11.

Three stories tall, “Suspended Landscapes” flows through Paige Court in the museum’s Elvehjem Building. Inspired by the Wisconsin State Herbarium’s collection of dried plants from the past several centuries, McCavour says the idea is “taking something out of nature, flattening it, preserving it, and having this record of a place through a plant.”

“Suspended Landscapes” is a representation of plants in the herbarium’s collection through embroidery and other materials. McCavour hopes it brings appreciation and awareness to Wisconsin’s prairie restoration movement.

McCavour’s art career began at York University, where she studied drawing and printmaking. Her studies sparked a passion for drawing with thread, and she ran with the idea at her three-year residency program at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. Starting with pieces that were only a few inches tall, over time she expanded the size of her work.

“One of the series I create is room installations that are based on my apartments,” McCavour says. “They’re layered, flat embroideries that look sculptural, but they’re almost arranged like a shoe box diorama. That was a big move for me, to come off the wall and do embroidery that addresses the scale of architecture.”

She has now scaled up to her biggest project yet: three stories of threaded plants.

The exhibition’s original opening date was intended to be in August 2020, but because of the pandemic, McCavour was able to add about 400 smaller, individually stitched pieces to the Chazen’s Mayer Gallery, a space next to Paige Court.

“In the end, I’m really grateful for the extra time, because I was able to add in all the details that I wanted,” she says. Despite the extension, with all the extra pieces McCavour says that the day before the deadline, “at midnight I was still hacking things out.”

The lengthy process of creating “Suspended Landscapes” was meticulous and unique. For the smaller Mayor Gallery pieces, McCavour drew out the plants on water soluble fabric. She then went over the sketches with a digital embroidery machine and dissolved the fabric away, leaving the floral embroidery product.

For the larger pieces in Paige Court, she enlarged high resolution scans of the plants and had them printed on sheer chiffon, which shifted the scale of thread up to that of yarn or rope. Open spaces in the piece were once occupied by white fabric, which McCavour removed by hand with a wood-burning tool. Lastly, the plants were fused to the sheer netting of the hanging display.

McCavour was pleasantly surprised with how the nettings “read as fog when layered on top of one another.” She notes how the result was a big reveal to her, as the creation process was so gradual.

McCavour says she created the “monstrous, monumental plants to express their importance.” She wants viewers to see the piece from all three stories, perhaps even lie down underneath it, and consider keywords like “dream” and “phantom of memory” to understand the full vision.

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