'Navigation,' exhibition 12 years in the making, to appear at NDMOA

Portland, Ore., artist Lena McGrath Welker has spent the past six years toiling away on her exhibition that will fill the galleries of the North Dakota Museum of Art beginning Saturday through Jan. 9.

Portland, Ore., artist Lena McGrath Welker has spent the past six years toiling away on her exhibition that will fill the galleries of the North Dakota Museum of Art beginning Saturday through Jan. 9.

In 2004, the artist showed four bodies of work in the museum from her ongoing Navigation Series, a news release said. At that time, North Dakota Museum of Art Director Laurel Reuter invited her to return with the final installation in this, her major lifework.

Twelve years in the making, the Navigation series concludes with a piece called [chime], with an opening reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday at the museum. Welker will be in Grand Forks and speak about her work at 6 p.m. Saturday.

The overarching theme of the Navigation series, both in the 2004 exhibition and in the current show, addresses ways of thinking about the accumulation and transmission of knowledge and wisdom. What gives written language its power? In what ways does language fail us, and in what ways does it allow communication to take place?

Since 2004, hundreds of pounds of alabaster has moved through her studio, waiting to be carved. There have been recently cast porcelain scrolls, weavings perpetually rolling off two looms, fabric collages, huge pastel and silver leaf paintings, stacks of glass and on and on.


Since returning home in 2004, Welker has learned to carve alabaster, to add the making of soft-ground etchings to her repertoire of printmaking skills and to master historical bookbinding techniques including traditional Coptic, longstitch, tackets, accordion methods. And always, her work is interwoven with drawing.

But the pace of her work has been determined by her health. Since that first North Dakota show, she was diagnosed with a nonmalignant brain tumor. In December 2006, she was treated with a relatively new gamma-knife radiation procedure intended to buy time for the artist.

"Unfortunately, it would be reasonable to say the gamma-knife radiation did not exactly agree with me," Welker said in a news release. She lost one-third of her body weight (which had been a healthy weight), developed dyslexia and suffered one to three crushing headaches a week.

She sometimes falls, and the falls are more serious, the most recent resulting in a concussion and coma. Welker said she wanted to finish this project before she had surgery.

Despite her illness, she has continued to develop her craft skills, relying upon fabricators and assistants for help with the large work, especially steel fabricator Jim Schmidt, also of Portland.

For example, 300 stainless steel stands support the floating, porcelain, wordless books of Navigation [sea change], created to fill the mezzanine gallery. Welker tested and tested until she found the finest, whitest, most translucent porcelain on the market and then applied silver and palladium leaf to the surfaces to suggest the glint of sunlight on the ocean.

In the alcove of the upstairs gallery, visitors will find [chart] with small stacks of incised glass tablets. They are accompanied by vitrines filled with hand-dyed, indigo folios embellished with drawings and stitched imagery of what appear to be arcane maps. Floating above them are huge drawings incorporating Ptolemy's diagrams, star measurements, constellations, abstract counting marks, the geometry of navigation systems, signs and symbols from Greek mathematical texts and scanned images of deep-sky nebulae.

The sixteen-foot high, steel skeleton for a dovecote anchors [flight] in the west gallery of the main floor, the inside of which will be skinned with translucent paper. The dovecote is home to funerary urns, blackened bronze and copper begging bowls resting on a low slate wall and 120 often-blank, bound books stacked on the floor. Accompanying the dovecote are some 3,000


9-inch fabric squares, each having either a single feather attached or stitching that conveys a sense of writing or counting.

They hang from the ceiling beams on fine thread, like Tibetan prayer flags. The feathers represent ideas as the Greeks first conceived them.

Repetition abounds throughout the museum echoing the repetition of the mantra in meditation, of reoccurring themes in a musical composition, of sewing and weaving and chanting, of waves rolling across a vast ocean.

Underpinning all of Welker's work is her response to grief and death. From 1988 to 1996, she endured multiple losses. "While raising two infants, I suffered a second miscarriage, lost my twin to brain cancer, my younger brother to AIDS, my father-in-law to liver cancer, my mother to suicide, my father to lung cancer and my step-mother to a massive stroke."

In the exhibition, Welker deals with uncertainty in an abstract and liminal way. She invites people to move through silence.

"Many of the materials are light enough to move with the ambient air currents, and with people walking by, Welker said. "People respond to this movement with a bodily intelligence, instinctively becoming quiet and walking more slowly. As sunlight pours through the windows and warms the rooms, the scents of silk and indigo are released."

Museum hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and from 1 to 5 p.m. weekends.

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