When you look at the batiks — these elegant, flowing images of coastlines and canyons dyed into fine silk, their suffuse colors following precisely etched lines, pulling the eye across the surface — you might be forgiven for not noticing the politics.
But make no mistake, these gentle landscapes with their rich pastel tones and flattened features, are the product of an activist’s creative impulse. They are the expression of Mary Edna Fraser’s steadfast, impassioned environmentalism.
Fraser, who was named the state’s 2016 artist recipient of the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Awards for the Arts, is known for her batiks, though lately she’s been painting in oil, too. She works from photographs she takes herself (often from an airplane), others she gets from NASA, and she’s careful to represent her subjects accurately.
So it’s fun to look at one of her works and experience that flash of recognition: the Mississippi Delta, the Grand Canyon, Venice, the coastal Lowcountry.
The batiks have a certain ethereal quality. They look a little like stylized maps, but scrutiny yields rewards. Look long enough and questions arise: Will the landscape always look like that? What is the impact of nature, of mankind?
These questions, and many others, are likely to come up Friday and through the following week at Circular Congregational Church, where nine of Fraser’s batiks will hang in conjunction with Earth Day.
The opening event is 5:30-8 p.m. Friday and includes contributions from the Coastal Conservation League, Coastal Community Foundation, Sierra Club, Charleston Water Keeper and the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, all of which will have staff in attendance.
“So when people think about climate change and sea level rise, there’s something they can do about it,” says the Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, pastor of Circular Church. “They can talk to someone, make a connection right away and maybe move toward some meaningful action.”
She considers her batiks “visual prayers” and she hopes viewers will contemplate not only the artwork but the subject matter.
“We’re so lucky to live in Charleston,” she says, with its richness of ecology and terrain. “But being a place that everyone wants to develop and buy, the important thing is to keep the integrity of the land,” Fraser says. “Developers often are not aware, or don’t care, what gets destroyed: neighborhoods, environments. But, collectively, those of us who live here have a voice.”
The conservationist’s fight is perennial, she admits. And it can be exhausting.
“Every single generation has the same battles to fight over again,” Fraser says. “Every year, you have to go to bat again. ... We win a battle, then lose a battle, then win. It’s like the tide; it goes in and it goes out.”
It’s the second time Fraser has displayed her work in Circular Church’s circular sanctuary. In the spring of 2011, she hung 15 batiks in the space on the occasion of Earth Day and the Easter season.
Now, as then, the objective is to inspire contemplative devotion. For each piece, Fraser will provide a prayer.
Rutledge says the art will surround the worshipper or visitor, enhancing the impact of the sanctuary. One need not practice a traditional monotheistic religion to step into this “meditation hall” and think about the ways human beings are changing the climate, he says.
The sanctuary isn’t usually open to the public outside of worship hours because the small church has no docent or devoted staff to look after the space, Rutledge says. But because of the special exhibit, Circular Church will keep its doors open 10 a.m.-2 p.m., April 25-29.
Rutledge says that, in certain traditions, “to bless” and “to heal” are synonymous, and the church sanctuary is a place not just of prayer but of action.
The show, then, “is not only a blessing of the Earth, it’s a blessing of the work that we have to do to preserve it,” he says.
Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, says art always has played an important role in the environmental movement. Think of landscape painters Martin Johnson Heade and Frederick Edwin Church, or photographers Ansel Adams and Tom Blagden, artists who have opened our eyes to the beauty of North America.
Learning the facts about the environment is perfectly fine, but it’s the emotional response it provokes that’s more important, and artists help make that connection, Beach says.
“They allowed a lot of people to fall in love with the Lowcountry landscape, because they rendered it so beautifully,” he says.
But Fraser is that rare breed of activist-artist who’s on a mission.
“She has taken that work a step farther and made it clear what specifically we need to be doing as individuals,” Beach says.
When she got her start as an artist, Fraser was staring through microscopes and painting what she saw. The macro view came later, when Orrin Pilkey, a geoscientist at Duke University was arguing in 1993 against the installation of groins along the Outer Banks and needed some photographs to support his case.
Fraser’s father was a pilot and flight instructor, so the two of them took off from Fayetteville and soared east to Kitty Hawk. Fraser photographed the coast below and provided the evidence to her new friend.
It was the beginning of a fruitful professional relationship. Pilkey and Fraser have worked on two books together, “Global Climate Change: A Primer” and “A Celebration of the World’s Barrier Islands.”
Since then, Fraser occasionally climbs into a single-prop 1946 Ercoupe and buzzes over the coastline or riverways, snapping pictures she can reference when she’s back in her James Island studio. And lately, she’ll shoot photos from land, too, capturing marsh views or waves breaking on shore. These serve as a visual reference when she’s creating oil paintings.
Her home and studio sit along James Island Creek, but she can’t swim in the creek waters anymore, blaming pollution for ear infections. Fraser is worried about urban runoff into the creeks and harbor. She’s also worried about the impact of coal ash along the Pee Dee River, fighting to keep new plants from being built.
A musician, Fraser has written a folk song called “My Children Don’t Want a Coal Plant on the Great Pee Dee River.”
Her concerns are far-reaching. She opposes fracking; she is alarmed by sea level rise and “nuisance flooding”; she is distressed by beach erosion that’s exacerbated by human engineering and activity; she is worried about efforts to fill old creek beds and build, build, build.
She wants cruise ship traffic limited and regulated. She wishes plans to build on Captain Sam’s Spit and to extend I-526 would be abandoned. She thinks Shem Creek Park is a good model for other places in the metropolitan area, including Gadsden Creek on the Charleston peninsula, now threatened by development.
Her love of nature and her suspicion of anything that alters it are deeply ingrained. She grew up camping.
“We spent a lot of time outdoors,” she says. She was a Girl Scout who quickly filled up a sash with badges and had to get a second sash. Exposure to the great outdoors was, and remains, therapeutic.
“If I don’t have a good dose of nature — just wildness — I go crazy,” Fraser says. “I need it — aloneness on the Earth — I crave it.”
She’s visited about half of the national parks, and one of her goals is to see the rest of them. Indeed, such visits are part of her retirement plans, she says. Fraser wants to begin scaling back on her batik-making, which is labor intensive and very physical, producing more plein air oil paintings instead.
Recently she painted her first palm tree and her first frothy ocean waves.
The batiks take her about a month to make. She projects an image onto the silk, stretched along a sawhorse in her studio, then sketches the lines and patterns, all the while thinking about what colors she will use. Then she’ll dye the material a tan color and shades of blue, beginning with the lightest values. Then she’ll apply the wax, more dye, more wax, more dye and so on. She can bathe the material up to four times.
Once fully dyed, Fraser irons the batik between newsprint pages to set it. Then comes a final wash and she sews it into its permanent position.
Fraser’s career got its big boost in 1994, when the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum mounted an exhibition of her work called “Aerial Inspiration: Batiks by Mary Edna Fraser.” It put her on the map internationally. Since then, her work has been featured in more than 100 solo shows, including one at the City Gallery last year. The Charleston International Airport displayed one of her large batik works until the renovation project got underway. Fraser is represented by the Martin Gallery.
“Mary Edna is kind of a Renaissance woman in all her various pursuits: pilot, songwriter-musician, activist, artist. I’m a huge fan of hers,” Beach says.
Nature is the most important gift Fraser knows. Mounting an exhibit in a holy space such as Circular Church surely is important, but more important is preserving the sacred landscape for future generations.
“All the people should be able to have places that are sanctified,” she says. “I think these are holy.”
Reach Adam Parker at 843-937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.