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Sensing Growth in the Cracks: Beatrice Modisett at Montserrat College of Art Galleries

Beatrice Modisett, Feeding Sugar to the Stump, 2020. Installation view, Frame 301 at Montserrat College. Photo by Bob Packert.

Downtowns are looking different these days. Shop and restaurant windows have become canvases for art that communicates and connects with those on the outside. In Beverly, the street-facing window gallery of Frame 301 at Montserrat College marks the beginning of the cultural district along Cabot Street, the city’s main thoroughfare. But the college transformed this former window shop into a site-specific installation program long before COVID-19 as a way to occupy the public-facing facade of their art building and present art to the public twenty-four hours a day. With rotating installations every month, this public art initiative takes on new meaning as our collective insecurities about going inside mount. It is against this backdrop that Frame 301 presents Beatrice Modisett’s Feeding Sugar to the Stump, an exploration of climate action and futuristic possibilities.

A New York-based artist and Montserrat alum, Modisett makes monumental charcoal drawings that reflect her interest in ecological processes and the collision of natural forces and human activity. The tectonic drawing is tense, like a portal into an unknown yet vaguely familiar world that captures the human body in not only spaces of upheaval and disintegration, but also evolution and spirit.

Pinned against the back wall of the gallery and occupying most of the window, Feeding Sugar to the Stump is layered with handmade wood ash and charcoal on Fabriano paper—the raw edges of which cast undulating shadows depending on the time of day you pass by. To make her own dry media, Modisett will burn branches from her parents’ yard or save the ash from campfires that fed her and kept her warm. After the burnings, the artist picks out the charcoal and sifts the rest through a metal colander. This leftover organic material is pushed across the drawing’s surface by the artist’s entire body to create the first few layers. “It’s important that the drawing’s materials come from fires that served another purpose,” says the artist. While so many of us are taking on home projects and finding new satisfaction with making, or baking, from scratch, Modisett’s labor to resource her own craft is a feat of pioneering individualism.

Beatrice Modisett, Feeding Sugar to the Stump, 2020. Detail view. Photo by Bob Packert.

The result is a dusty experimentation of monochromatic shades containing disorienting views of stirring vortexes, heaving passages part of neither sea nor land. Shifting shadows of waves, portholes, and horizon lines intertwine and crumble. The abstracted fragments of whirling energy sweeping across the paper make the entire scene feel fragile and particularly poignant, given our months marked by dark swells of anticipation for any shred of groundedness, equilibrium, a “new normal.” Feeding Sugar to the Stump’s frenetic patterns present a baroque melange of endless atmospheric evocations of stormy weather, bracing for whatever may come next.

While the drawing’s visual forms translate an anxiety of navigating through revolting landscapes, the title of Modisett’s drawing evokes creation. Feeding Sugar to the Stump comes from the remarkable exploration of trees as cooperative social beings. Underground networks of roots and mycelium exchange nutrients among tree communities, particularly sending glucose to those species in need. By increasing their collective resilience through communication and adaptation, trees prove their enormous capacity to self-heal in the face of threatening destruction. Perhaps humanity has a lot to learn from nature’s emergent strategies for survival. 

Beatrice Modisett, Feeding Sugar to the Stump, 2020. Detail view. Photo by Bob Packert.

Modisett searches for possibilities of abstraction through landscape as well as figuration; the drawing indexes the artist’s own body among its forms, revealing the strength and range of her limbs. For the artist, an interest in the memory of experiencing a place is coupled with the messiness of a creative process rooted in control and chaos—the essence of nature. 

By bringing a work depicting visions of a desolate future to the street, Feeding Sugar to the Stump reminds us of the vital role art plays in public space. In this time where daily strolls and outdoor spaces offer humanity a rare space for respite, how do we grapple with our destruction of the planet while clinging to its every opportunity for enjoyment?

Beatrice Modisett’s, Feeding Sugar to the Stump is on view at Frame 301 Gallery, 301 Cabot Street, Beverly, MA 01915. The installation has been extended through January 8, 2021.

Lydia Gordon is a curator, educator, and writer specializing in modern and contemporary art. She is currently an associate curator at the Peabody Essex Museum.