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Volume 26, Number 5 — May 2019

Review: Suzanne Stryk is 'Keeping An Eye On Things'

Catalog cover from Suzanne Stryk's exhibit,
Catalog cover from Suzanne Stryk's exhibit, "Keeping An Eye On Things," at the Gray Fossil Site Museum.
Additional photos below »

Artwork at Fossil Site: Myth Becomes Grounded and Science Becomes Wonder


GRAY, Tenn. — You don't have to drive to Asheville, NC, to see the hottest artworks by Suzanne Stryk of Bristol, Va. They are quietly awaiting your discovery in our own backyard, at the East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum at the Gray Fossil Site.

"Keeping An Eye On Things" is the title of the show and accompanying catalogue. Inspired by a visit to the fossil site in 2008, Stryk created an expansive exhibition of 45 finished works on paper, canvas, panel and mixed media. The artworks range in size from 5"x5" to 40"x60" and will be on display through April 12, 2009.

Arriving at the second-floor galleries, visitors see the artworks alternate with large glass observation windows behind which scientists are actually working on fossils from the dig site. Golden ochre, warm black and weathered white panels section off compartments in the artworks that mimic scientific specimen boxes and the windows of the working paleontologists. The original Red Panda Fossil excavated on site is displayed next to the modern red panda behind a window.

In Stryk's work, beetles are neatly arranged for comparison of their near-fantastical variations in colors, sizes, enlarged and shrunken aspects, minute details carefully rendered by the artist in pigment. "Animal Architecture (bark beetle)" juxtaposes a smaller panel of the exposed lines of tunnels carved by the beetles carefully crafted by the artist and a small panel of a spiral-bound field notebook, placed upon carefully crafted tree bark, all as one piece. By selecting one species to explore deeply, the artist begins to give us back our childhood wonder of the system that is our planet.

"Daily Observations (Insects)" is a trompe l'oeil work on paper of mismatched legs and wings accidentally separated from their host species. Complete with painted curling edges of clear tape holding them in rows, the tiny feats of mechanical engineering and graphic design masterpieces made by nature are gingerly rendered for our amazement.

Along a wall of 21 works, birds, mammals, amphibians, insects and plant subjects enjoy Stryk's masterful use of negative space, which sometimes incorporates a silhouette of the positive image within the same picture plane. What was there is not, and I am reminded of sculptors Christo and Jean-Claude's recent lecture in Asheville, NC. To remove from our sight what could be taken for granted, yet saving its space, makes us keenly aware of its disappearance and appreciate it upon its return.. I read into this an acknowledgement of species extinction. There is also exquisite detail laid on top of patterns of DNA code, amoeba and genetic chains that form not only Stryk's backgrounds but the key to life itself. Myth becomes grounded and science becomes wonder.

Tiny creatures morph from fully-rendered living flesh to Miocene fossilized skeleton within a matter of inches under Stryk's hand, as if passing through a compressed visual time machine. They are simultaneously ephemeral and eternal. The artist's understated humor is evident in "The Collector's Calendar," a substantial work rendered in great detail on a grid pattern that includes a "wish bone" in the lower right corner.

A new series of 11 intimate works is in a glass table case at the top of the stairs. Real specimen boxes are turned into precious art objects, each a fantastically detailed, self-contained study of a creature painted on top of a miniature spiral notebook, laid on top of species-appropriate backgrounds of dried ferns, leaves, maps, and textures.

"Book of Hours II (Yellow Jackets)" makes this dreaded species positively fascinating, while "World Enough" poses a tiny crayfish in a freshwater mussel shell, too profound to be a spoof of Venus. The cycle of a cicada emerges through the page itself and includes tell-tale wings we have all picked up to examine and admire at some point in our lives. I find in myself the curious child again, wanting to fill my pockets with wonder to take home with me and examine further. And what mother has not found wonders in her child's pockets on laundry day? Most of these works are 5"x 6", making them easy to display and possess.

Completing the full-circle walkway upstairs is a corridor with seven framed works on paper. We are able to see layers of time as if they are the layers of earth strata, veils and curtains hiding and revealing, from one edge of a fully formed wing-tip, tracing back thousands of years in time by the tip of the other tiny wing, as if the little bird were passing through a time portal. "Takes One To Know One" pokes fun while showing beetles in a sectional view that goes from deep earth strata layers to heaven's atmosphere, blurring abstraction and realism. "Bird in Hand" also makes the thoughtful viewer smile. A tapier jawbone is delicately rendered, complete with numbered pieces from the original specimen, alongside a leaf with intricate root system reminiscent of our own blood vessels, and a moth is delicately traced in the work "Notes from the Miocene (Tapier)." A dragonfly observes as fragments of a turtle's shell burst into life in "Notes from the Miocene (Turtle)."

A tall glass case shows a photo of the artist at work. Displayed are pairings of actual specimens from the fossil site with sketches by Stryk that then appear as finished exhibited works. Her artist's statement describes the wonder of initial discovery and the fascinating journey of both the specimen and the art process itself. In fact, every single artwork is a study in wonder.

Don't miss the deeply meditative panel "Excavation" on the staircase wall, ground floor. A silhouette of a doe is layered behind fauna roots, the dragonfly observer is ever-present, as snail, snake, frog and feather interweave the narrow band of earth along the top, and a wizard's orb or two filled with suspended magical DNA chains float by almost unnoticed.

Fans of Stryk will be thrilled with the full-color 28-page exhibition catalogue available in the gift shop for only $5.95. A price list for the artworks is located at the Welcome Desk.

The Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and is located 1.8 miles from Exit 13 off of I-26. There is elevator access to the exhibition gallery..

For more information about Stryk, visit

About the Reviewer:
Val Lyle is a Bristol, Tenn., artist who weaves contemporary art and a New York City influence with traditional expectations and rural Appalachian aesthetics. Her art ranges from sculpture to ceramics to paintings. The Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon has chosen Val Lyle as its 2009 signature artist. Her outdoor sculpture "Entwined Dancers" is expected to be on permanent display in the Town of Abingdon. Another sculpture, entitled "Feminine Entwinement," received the People's Choice award for Bristol's 2008-2009 outdoor sculpture competition headed up by Arts Alliance Mountain Empire (AAME). Lyle is a member of AAME's A! Magazine for the Arts committee.

Reviewer Val Lyle