Five minutes south of the Cold Brook Reserve in Tewksbury — and moments from the Oldwick exit on Interstate 78 — a tiny sign at the intersection of Rockaway Road beckons visitors deeper into the Hunterdon County woods. After a left turn that you’ll miss if you blink, a long gravel pathway leads motorists through the thin trees to a low house in a clearing. Is this a farmhouse, or a trail house, or a waystation for travelers, or the well-kept home of a recluse? From between the trunks that frame the property, any of those things seem possible.
But the large metal sculpture on the marshy edge of the pond hints, hard, about what glitters and gleams just behind the door.
Whittemore, as it turns out, is many things, including a lovely (if remote) place to encounter contemporary art. As befits an organization that makes community, culture and conservation its mission, the current show at the little exhibition space in the Jersey woods is one that emphasizes harmony between the natural world and the human beings who inhabit it.
Hunterdon County sculptor and painter Terri Fraser is motivated, in part, by her fears for the trees at a time of widespread habitat destruction and climate change. Marks of that worry are visible in the art she makes. Mostly, though, her pieces are pure celebrations of the forest, and her place in it as a wanderer, observer and light-footed, open-hearted, awestruck human guest.
Fraser’s methods are familiar ones to those who follow Garden State art. She fashions her sculptures out of waste, scraps and intriguing objects that she finds on her journeys. “I Am Here” is a small but potent installation that will occupy the gallery at Whittemore until Dec. 9 (and that opens its doors to the public for an artist talk, Nov. 3 at 5:30 p.m.). In it, Fraser demonstrates that her eye for accidental art materials is at least as good as those of the urban dwellers who scour Conrail tracks for odd items to slap into a sculpture.
Fraser’s synthetic forest is a jigsaw of stones and shards, glass and wooden blocks, weather-worn metal, filaments, fibers, metal mesh, membranes as translucent and taut as insect wings, and lots and lots of bent wire. Some of the items with which she fashions her “skeletal trees” and imaginary beings were once manufactured in factories. Some come straight from the open hand of Mother Nature.
Other artists would lean heavily on that irony and foreground the juxtaposition between the built environment and the organic landscape. But that is not what Fraser does. Her fashioned flora does not grow from anxious soil. Instead, her works lead with gentle beauty. They’re the product of an artist with a meticulous vision inspired by the world around her and her own innate sense of visual balance. That means getting the right coil of cable to knot and spiral on the right budding place on a rusted dowel, or positioning the fronts of a flower of paper leaves at the proper angle to suggest the gentle sway of branches in the wind. Ghost trees as large as a human being stand in the center of the room at Whittemore, and the empty spaces between slabs of bark, held together by a handcrafted latticework of chicken wire, whisper of the devastation that could be visited upon the woods if we refuse to mend our toxic ways.
But synthetic flowers like pinwheels still bloom in Fraser’s arbor, and a procession of wire turtles, solid and imperturbable, trudge from stump to stump. Her sculptures radiate deep affection for everything she has discovered in the forest, including the stuff that might cause the conservationists at Whittemore to arch an eyebrow.
She loves to coil shiny copper wire and metal cables around the odd objects, natural and man-made, that she has discovered while ambling about. Every bend in the grid of wire feels like an expression of attention and care. Fraser never smothers the things she’s caging with metal. Instead, she surrounds them, protectively, in the way a gardener might ring a lattice around a sapling. Even her ghost trees contain birds’ nests, cradled between the strips of bark and crisscrossing cables.
In the gallery light, her domes and boxes of metal filament take on strange lives of their own. They become “wire critters”: friendly, cautious amalgamations with fragile frames around an organic heart. Not for nothing is Fraser fond of the turtle: It is an animal that comes with its own protective gear. The artist weaves carapaces around her discoveries, safeguarding them but always letting them breathe. With the glee of a matchmaker, she pairs twigs and ferns with little crosses of rusted iron, creating hybrids that looks as natural to city eyes as anything that might shiver at us from under a bush. Is she girding the forest against human incursion, or is she bestowing the breath of life on brick, mortar and steel?
Maybe it’s a little of both, coupled with a delicate reminder that the divide between glade and town is not as wide as it is advertised to be.
Human designers and architects frequently copy forms designed by evolution. Fraser seems to believe that we’ve got something worthwhile to give back. She is concerned about what we are doing to her beloved forest; her skeletal trees are, without question, cautionary pieces. Nevertheless, she is not ready to hang the “Keep Out” sign on the trailhead. That feeling of thorough condemnation that accompanies so many eco-themed exhibitions in the Garden State is nowhere present in “I Am Here.” Instead, the artist seems to see herself as a kind of enabler, a woods-helper or a nymph, and a spare pair of hands working on behalf of the forest.
It is worth noting that it is not just any haunted wood that Fraser is showing us. The forest she has animated is a refracted version of the world she knows. Just as surely as Jerry Gant’s amalgams broadcast their origins in Newark and Amanda J. Thackray’s work is steeped in the brackish water of the North Jersey swamps, Fraser’s installation is rooted in rural Hunterdon County. Her trees have the spectral feel of the Hunterdon larches, and the verticality and spacing of the Hunterdon woods. Her paintings and sculptures are busy with Hunterdon fall colors: the tawny shades of the hillsides after harvesting, the rust reds of barns and brick, the silver flash of running brooks and the slumbering browns and blacks of stones in the riverbeds.
There have been other art shows in New Jersey in 2023 that are as engrossing as “I Am Here,” but none that interact with their surroundings quite as enthusiastically, or quite as fully, as this one does.
And if you are in the gallery and looking for the artist’s inspiration, all you have to do is open the Whittemore door.
Whittemore in Tewksbury will present Terri Fraser’s “I Am Here” through Dec. 9; visit whittemoreccc.org/artist-terri-fraser.
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