Art exhibit to use loathed serpent as learning tool

March 11, 1994|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

The snake has an image problem.

That's why the slimy, sneaky, evil creature will be used as a symbol for an elaborate art exhibit that confronts fear, hatred and prejudice.

Beginning Monday, "The Realm of the Serpent" will be on display through April 30 at the Columbia Art Center.

The exhibit will feature a "serpentine labyrinth" -- constructed from hundreds of strips of material submitted by artists from across the nation -- that will be large enough to walk through.

The display will be accompanied by a series of lectures about culture, myth and the misunderstood snake. In the workshops, participants may construct their own artwork to add to the exhibit or create collages or sculpture to take home.

The project was developed two years ago by the county-based Art for Change Partnership. Its three artists, Beth Kosterich, Julie van Hemert and Wendy Bush Hackney, hope to combine their efforts to create art that not only makes a statement but makes a difference.

The partnership embraced the theme of "fear, hatred and prejudice," because it is "something that we all feel strongly about," Ms. Kosterich said. "We believe that, as artists, we need to make a statement. Art is a learning tool that can still be enjoyable and fun."

The group searched for a symbol that could adequately represent the powerful theme. "We thought the serpent would be a strong image to examine that, because people have strong feelings about snakes," said Ms. Kosterich, 43, of Columbia.

"They fear them, but snakes are good for the environment and can be beautiful. There is much history within religion, and there is a rich, cultural image. By confronting the image of the serpent, it allows you to confront other images. It gives you a revision of some of your own belief systems."

The partnership also saw a need for a provocative display to capture the community's attention.

"The area is overloaded with exhibits, one wine-and-cheese reception after another," Ms. Kosterich said. "It was becoming ho-hum. There was nothing new out there."

The first three weeks of the exhibit will involve construction of the labyrinth that will extend from one end of the gallery to other, 60 feet long and 22 feet wide.

Strips of fabric about 8 feet long and 6 to 12 inches wide will be used to create the labyrinth's walls. The artists could paint, write or create a collage on the fabric. The walls will shift and change to accommodate the growing exhibit that will reveal a full spectrum of color.

The serpentine labyrinth will be opened for a walk-through beginning April 3. Viewers will enter through its jaws and exit through its tail. There also will be a Buddhist Prayer Wheel at the tail that will feature a cylinder viewers can spin and say prayers over.

In addition, a series of short workshops and lectures that support the exhibit will be offered at the Art Center.

"It goes back to educating and to what is the role of art in the community," Ms. Kosterich said. "We felt it is more than beautiful paintings hanging in the gallery. And we felt that in these times, we needed to make a stronger statement."

On March 16, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources will sponsor a "Scales and Tales" presentation of live snakes and other reptiles. On March 23, storyteller Kathy McGuire will read stories from Asia and Australia to the American West about snakes. On March 30, a lecture on "The Spiritual Snake" will examine the "use of snakes as tools for spiritual enlightenment, religious practices and moral lessons."

On April 6, the "Women's Perspective" will be presented by a panel of women that includes a journalist, political and environmental activist, ecologist, theologian and mother. They will discuss "how far have we come since Eve."

On April 20, Kinetics Dance Theatre will premier the "Serpent Self," a performance that "helps us face the serpents in our lives."

In the workshops, participants will design their own panel for the labyrinth on March 19 and 26, and a "Serpent Collage" on April 9.

Community reaction has been favorable, said Marcia Scheeter, director of the Art Center. "[The exhibit] is responding to issues important to a great amount of people," she said.

The group hopes its project will stir national interest, as well. For the serpentine labyrinth, it put out a call to artists across the country and even contacted talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

"We wanted to get national interest, not only because it's important but because it lends itself to various communities that could have workshops for their particular needs," Ms. Kosterich said. "It's an exhibit kids could come to and have a good time."

Even the exhibit's reception on April 10 will carry the serpentine theme. There will be a "Name That Snake" game and Garden of Eden Buffet. "We'll have lots of apples," she said.

The all-encompassing theme has also expanded the realm of the group's works.

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