To create the eight works that make up “Wild Things: Nature and the Social Imagination,” Sandra Williams cut paper, creating detailed imagery and text in the unforgiving medium in which a tiny mistake can destroy an entire piece.
That alone is impressive. However, it’s only the start of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln art professor’s captivating Lux Center for the Arts solo exhibition that is a master class in execution and informative illumination.
Essentially divided into two parts of four drawings each, Williams’ body of work revolves around the concept of “ecotone,” the area where two communities meet and integrate. Generally, that term applies to the areas where, say, the plains and desert meet a rainforest.
But in Williams’ work, the intersection comes with invasive species placed in a new environment and between man and nature — above and below ground.
The two “Invasive Species” pieces come from the four works rooted in Williams’ residency at the Madre de Dios Biological Research Station located in the Amazon — the place where, because she had to pack all her art materials in and out and couldn’t use with anything with toxicity, she turned to working with cut paper.
“Invasive Species 1: Green Iguana” depicts a highly detailed, colored iguana, not native to the Amazon, climbing up a branch to reach some yellow and orange leaves in a tree, and fauna cut out of black paper.
“Invasive Species 2: Mongoose” packs even more punch, its delicately crafted lettering telling the story of the disastrous introduction of mongooses aimed at killing mice. The mongooses, however, are daytime creatures; the mice come out at night. So the introduction was a failure and, now, many of the mongooses have rabies.
The imagery above the wording is a pair of mongooses standing on their back legs. In the middle of the letters, a mouse.
The other two Amazonian pieces are of human interaction — one a fable, the other foreboding.
The fable is “Ukukulia Sevla,” which shows a pigtailed woman dancing with a fox (or some similar creature) their intertwined voices coming together in a brightly colored, floral-patterned cartoonist speech bubble. Surrounding them are the leaves and trees and little animals of the fable about a girl who leaves home to live in the jungle.
The ominous “It’s so beautiful let’s stay forever” is nearly the opposite of the beautiful fable piece. In the multi-layered work, two women are swimming in the river, framed by trees, plants and birds. Below the women, seen through the haze of the layers, are a pair of alligators swimming near their legs. Things are not going to come to a good end.
The second series depicts a disaster of a different order. Titled “Subterranean Fires,” the four pieces tell the story of an underground coal fire that has burned in the Middle Kittanning Coal Seam in southeast Ohio since 1884.
Opening with a piece of black, classical Greek-style vases, covered with text and images, Williams tells the story panel-by-panel of how it was set, and in the final image, a creature emerging from the ground, with the smoke from the chimney of a nearby house reading “Fires still burning.”
The lasting image of the series is a sliced-through-the earth view of a sinkhole that opened up from the fire and pulled down houses and livestock. The black cut paper looks like a graphic novel and conveys the disaster in that fashion.
I’ve been taken by Williams’ cut paper pieces each time I’ve seen them. This time, in multiples and as a intriguingly themed body of work, they are transfixing, which makes “Wild Things: Nature and the Social Imagination” one of 2018's top Lincoln art exhibitions.