Finding Beauty in the Decay by Kay Stephens
Finding Beauty in the Decay
Artist Merike van Zanten on Eco-printing with natural materials
Death is not the most painful loss in life. The most painful loss is what
dies inside us while we're still alive.
A walk in the woods for most people is a reason to exercise or just get
lost, unplug. When mixed media artist Merike van Zanten is out there, she’s
on a hunt, searching for organic materials that would be left to moulder
Primarily a sculptural book artist, Van Zanten has explored the theme of
depression in her work, constructing an installation of handmade books.
“What I wanted to do is visualize for people what it feels like to be
clinically depressed,” she said.
She just had her first show at the Landing Gallery in Rockland this past
October after using an entirely different process of Eco Printing to create
her art pieces. None of the materials, not even the paints or inks can be
commercial; it has to be only what Nature produces. From the beginning of
spring to the end of fall, she gathers leaves, small branches, fruits,
brambles, pine needles and flowers and with heat and pressure, is able to
transfer the image of the organic material directly to the fabric or paper.
With this process, the pores of the leaf open up and release the pigment.
The result is life after death, a mirror image of the leaf surrounded by the
colors of deep winter.
“On the one hand my work is about decay; on the other hand it is about
preservation,” she said. “You can get a beautiful colored print of a fresh
leaf, but this process preserves the natural beauty of that leaf before it
“I find that women really connect with Merike’s work more so than men, in
that I think women are more attracted to the tactile aspect of the work,”
said Landing gallery co-owner Bruce Busko. “The texture of those materials
have a very subtle warmth, that I think women are more in tune with.”
The substrate material she works with—the material that receives these
pigmented images, are cotton, silk, wool, and paper. “There are so many
factors that influence how a piece will come out, from the kind of water you
use, like well water, seawater, or tap water to the time of year that I
found the leaf, or even where the tree is,” said Van Zanten. “An oak tree in
Florida isn’t the same as an oak tree in Maine.”
From her strawberry blonde hair to her cinnamon lipstick and her coordinated
outfit of ochre and umber, she wears the colors that she likes to create.
“I’ve always been interested in natural materials,” she said. “As a
sculptural book artist, a lot of my books incorporate natural materials such
as a tiny skeletons of animals or feathers into the covers.” Another
prominent color in her work looks like something left out in the rain for a
long time. “I’ve always been drawn to rust,” she said, “It’s a natural
decaying material, but also acts as a mordant, which helps sticking the
pigments to the paper.”
The small square blocks that hung in the Landing gallery were all made with
local materials. “Most of those pieces were done with Maine leaves,” she
said. Leaves that work particularly well for this particular process are
maples, oak, anything with thorns, but in general most leaves will print. “I
used to use dry material in winter, but fresh material works much better.”
For now her season of collecting is over, which begs the question, if a leaf
falls in the forest and no one is there to see it...did it really ever live?
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