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Art People: Julia Fish's second nature

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In 1982 Julia Fish was painting mostly abstract pictures. Then she did a drawing of a tree. She thought she'd created it entirely in her imagination, but later discovered a tree that looked just like it in a garden that she often walked by. Realizing she'd unknowingly drawn it from memory "was probably the most troubling thing that's ever happened to me as an artist," she says, because it "belied what I thought about myself and my capacities to invent." This discovery led to Fish's transformation from a form-inventing abstractionist to an artist basing her work on the language of nature.

Born in Toledo, Oregon, Fish lived next to a canyon lush with vegetation. It was "right out the back door," she recalls. "My sister and brother, the whole neighborhood, played in this canyon; it was an entire world for us. We named things. Ivy grew on trees and hung down, making a sort of fort--'the ivy fort.' Three trees close to each other with only moss between were 'the three brothers.'" Fish says she was "very tactile. I remember how things felt to touch them, to lay on them, and I realize now how strongly my senses of sight and touch were linked."

Fish moved to Chicago in 1985 and began to create art that subtly balances representation and abstraction. Her images contain suggestive forms but are completely unphotographic. She says photography "can't capture what I feel or know as I'm looking." For Fish, seeing entails more than sight--it includes knowledge, emotion, memory.

The home she moved to in 1991 had a small garden, which she began to replant and rearrange. The walk through the garden on the way to her studio inspired a series of black-and-white drawings. Made with ink and wash, each treats a different aspect of the garden. The thick twisting lines of Garden Drawing #13 are vinelike, forming dense areas that Fish says could be "leaves or seeds or gnarls where the vine might have changed direction." Garden Drawing #31 offers a wintry view with white between the twisting lines, suggesting both collapsed plants--dormant day lilies or irises--and dark areas of ground or rivulets between patches of snow. But Fish thinks the drawing also points to an inner winter--the passage of time, the approach of death--"reflecting a state of mind and being." Garden Drawing #21 superimposes shapes on each other like a thicket of foliage; the intersecting forms not only hint at the interdependence of things but also at a more primal rubbing, colliding, covering--a memory, perhaps, of Fish's childhood canyon.

Study for Wintered #2 is based on the mud of March. Dark shadows cover its field of speckled green, blue, and yellow chalk pastel. The grainy color suggests we're close to the ground, but the shadows could be from clouds, implying a distant, aerial view.

Such multiple perspectives are found throughout Fish's work. She wants "painterly illusionism and 20th-century flat-surface abstraction to operate simultaneously, no one being paramount." She says these combinations are not "a game or a trick" but part of "trying to figure out how I see things."

This lack of stylistic hierarchy comes from looking and listening to nature, with its multiple dimensions, flow of seasons, ongoing life cycles. In 1985 Fish did a site-specific project in which she used lime to trace the shadows on the ground made by a maple tree throughout an entire day. Later she freely filled in some of the shadows. She says her tracings "started to appear as clouds, but also strongly resembled the leaf shape of that tree--the big shape looked like the small shape."

Fourteen of Julia Fish's recent drawings are now on view at the Illinois Art Gallery on the second floor of the James R. Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph, through March 17. Fish will be joined by exhibit curator Kent Smith for a free gallery talk this Wednesday, February 8, from 6 to 7:30 PM. The Illinois Art Gallery is open Monday through Friday 9 AM to 6 PM; admission's free. Call 814-5322 for more information.

Several other works by Fish, including more "Garden Drawings," are currently at the gallery Feigen Incorporated, 742 N. Wells; call 787-0500 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.

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