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Creating into the mystery – three new Festival mixed media artists explore complicated territory

By MARRIE STONE

Artists are storytellers. Some stories are seemingly straightforward, like capturing a ray of sunlight stretched across a hillside. Others evoke entire worlds, ancient religions, indigenous cultures and age-old mysteries. For three new Festival of Arts (FOA) mixed media artists – Jayne Dion, Judith Haron and Debbora Zoller – their stories are complex amalgams of all those things. Toss in some time travel for Dion, illuminated manuscripts for Haron and spiritualism for Zoller, and you’re still only scratching the surface of these artists’ work.

Intrigued by the intricacy of their designs and the originality of their mediums, I sat down separately with Dion, Haron and Zoller to learn more about the artistic minds behind their evocative imagery. From Haron’s hyper-pigmented colors to Zoller’s black and white graphite portraits, the moods they capture are very different. But the underlying draw toward something spiritual and the mystical world of dreamscapes stretches across all their work. 

Here’s a peek inside their minds and studios. 

Jayne Dion’s timeless trees

For Jayne Dion, there’s an interesting connection to explore between time and trees. The Native American artist grew up steeped in ancestral traditions, attending Latin mass as a child at the San Juan Capistrano Mission and finding herself drawn toward the intersection of environmentalism and spiritualism. 

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Jayne Dion’s 30-year career as a muralist and set designer laid the foundation for her intricate clock sculptures. Visit her this summer in FOA Booth #20. Or visit her website by clicking here.

“I grew up culturally aware of the significance of trees within my ancestry,” said Dion. “Because my mother was tied to the Mission, I also grew up listening to Latin mass in that old Mission church with the ritualistic regalia of the priests.” Although Dion didn’t speak Latin, the atmosphere inside the Mission was evocative. 

Combine those early influences with time travel, and you’ll begin to see how Dion’s unique sculptures evolve. “The clocks came while I was working on a time travel series in New York,” Dion said. “I asked myself, ‘What if you could bend time? What if you could go back and right a wrong or change a word? Would that make a difference in someone’s life?’ This idea became part of my own personal healing process after the loss of some family members.”

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This Banyan tree showcases the many layers of multi-media in Dion’s pieces

While seeking out mechanical gears for another project, Dion found herself in possession of several mantle clocks. Once she hollowed them out and discovered the empty vessels would make ideal shadow boxes, her sculptures began taking form.

“When I thought about what I could put inside the shadowbox, trees immediately came to mind,” Dion said. “I began building a forest on top of the clock. Then I had this magical doorway into a new realm within the clock where the gears used to be. That’s how I started creating the illustrations that go inside.”

The result is an amalgam of mediums. The trees are sculpted from wire and epoxy clay. The clock opens into an intricate world of layered paper displays. “Initially I planned to create little sculptures inside the clock. But paper illustrations allow me to cut layers into incrementally smaller scenes. It feels like looking into infinity.”

Inspired by vivid dreams, as well as an interest in dendrology (the scientific study of how trees communicate), each clock contains a story. Dion’s diptych entitled “The Garden of Good and Evil” is a strong example. “One side contains a lush green forest. The other holds a black and white forest. On top of the two are trees with hearts on each one. It’s a decision path. Do you choose the seemingly easy road, or the more difficult? Maybe the dark path leads to enlightenment. Maybe the easy path leads to difficulty. The piece represents our life choices.”

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A close-up image taken from inside “The Garden of Good and Evil”

Dion combined her background in muralism and set design (she was the lead prop stylist for South Coast Plaza) with her rich imagination to produce these unique sculptures. There are layers of symbolism contained within each piece. But the clock, Dion said, is the overarching metaphor. Our natural world is on borrowed time.

Judith Haron’s egg tempera manuscripts

As only the second egg tempera artist to be accepted into the FOA, Judith Haron’s work is also infused with spiritual symbolism. A lifelong student of indigenous cultures around the world, Haron’s fascination with spiritualism appears throughout her pieces. From tribal ceremonies and rites of passage to rich textiles and indigenous clothes, Heron’s pieces incorporate layers of rich imagery. Add to that her draw toward wildlife and the natural world, and you’ll begin to see how her work takes shape.

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Judith Haron will show her egg tempera manuscripts this summer. Visit her at FOA booth #74 and to learn more about her work, click here

Every piece begins with mounds of research. Haron takes copious notes on each symbol that appears in her work. “First I begin by researching the narrative,” Haron said. “Certain birds appear with certain flowers, and they’re all symbolic. There’s also a lot of cultural symbols – ceremonial wear or day-to-day textiles. I have a background in design, so I’m interested in the patterns and textiles.” From Aboriginals to Native Americans, as well as celestial imagery, it’s all inspiration for Haron’s work.

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Hummingbirds are also pervasive throughout much of her work. “A lot of cultures believe hummingbirds deliver messages from the other side. They act as a spirit guide to communicate messages from someone who’s passed away. If a hummingbird lands on something, that’s usually a good sign.” 

Indigenous cultures also incorporate eagles and sparrows into their rituals, which Haron depicts in her paintings. “I gather all that information first to understand what the animals represent. Then I decide how I’m going to tell the story. That’s the hard part.” 

It’s not the only difficult part. Working with egg tempera and gold leaf to create these intricate designs isn’t easy. Tempera is a transparent medium, which allows light to penetrate through and reflect off the surface, giving the manuscript its unique glow. Unlike oil, tempera is resistant to light so its color doesn’t age with time. In addition to its aesthetic advantages, Haron appreciates its symbolic connection to the natural world. 

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Judith Haron’s “A Fiery First”

Haron became enthralled with the detailed beauty of 13th and 14th century Renaissance illuminated manuscripts. The parchment page design became a perfect vehicle to communicate these intricate dreamscape images. “Wildlife and their natural habitats have been a part of cultural storytelling,” Haron said. “While the beauty and details may vary from culture to culture, there has been a need to interpret dreams as a practice.” 

The use of gold leaf in her designs brings a three-dimensional quality to her pieces. “The raised leaf is a way to physically reach a little farther out of the surface,” said Haron. “It adds another layer of dimension.” 

Haron’s work also incorporates calligraphy, alongside her own poetry. These many layers of spirituality, dream psychology, environmentalism and cultural exploration make her work a rich resource for contemplation. 

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Judith Haron’s “Swift as the Wind” incorporates her own poetry into the piece

Debbora Zoller’s homage to medicine men

Debbora Zoller showed unusual artistic talent from an early age. By the time she entered middle school, Zoller was already taking college-level art courses. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from California State Long Beach and was immediately recruited to be the artistic director of the newly formed Dinamation Inc. (a robotics effect company that created realistic life-sized dinosaurs for installation in museums, parks and shopping malls). The job took Zoller around the world, giving her an appreciation for other cultures and international art.

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Debbora Zoller will show her charcoal and graphite portraits this summer. Visit her at FOA booth #57 and to learn more about her work, click here.

Her series this summer explores the Native American culture, specifically focusing on medicine men. “This is a subject I’ve been interested in since childhood,” Zoller said. “I was born psychic. I’ve always had visions and seen spirits. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember.” Whether a way to explore her own experiences or simply a draw to indigenous cultures, Zoller’s portraits are detailed and intimate.

Referencing old photographs, Zoller uses charcoal and graphite pencils, as well as acrylics, watercolor, oils, airbrush and sculpture to investigate her subject matter. “I also study the different men I’m drawing,” Zoller said. “Because I’ve worked for so many museums, including the Smithsonian and several major museums in England, my work has become so fine-tuned.” 

One such photograph, taken by Edward Curtis in 1926 (now in the public domain), shows an image of Bear Bull – also known as Sótai-na’, Rain Chief. According to Curtis, Bear Bull was a member of the Blackfoot nation in Alberta. The Native translator was born in 1859. The image illustrates the ancient Blackfoot method of arranging the hair into a topknot. The profile is an amazing study in physiognomy (facial features and expressions, especially when used to study ethnic origins). Zoller’s interpretation arguably captures even more facial detail than the original photograph. 

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Debbora Zoller’s portrait of Bear Bull

Perhaps an even more intricate example is Zoller’s study of Chief John Smith (also known as Ka-be-nah-gwey-wence), who was reputed to have lived 137 years when he died of pneumonia. Photographers often used him as a model for stylized images of Ojibwe life. He carried the photographs with him, selling them as postcards to visitors in the area, to pay his passage on trains. While his exact age is largely in dispute (he most likely lived closer to 100 years), his unique facial features make him the perfect subject for portraiture.

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Debbora Zoller’s portrait of Chief John Smith entitled, “Ka-be-nah-gwey-wence”

Guided by mystery, spirituality and their own unique lenses on storytelling, Dion, Haron and Zoller each evoke something transcendent. The longer you look, the more you see. 

Dion, Haron and Zoller represent three of the 16 first-time exhibitors at the Festival of Arts this summer. Their work can be seen through June 23 at the Fresh Faces exhibit at foaSOUTH, the FOA’s off-site gallery, at 1006 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. 

For more information, visit www.foapom.com.

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