I need only walk to Dorothy's yard on Wonderwood to see what an enlightened mortal hand can wrest from the dull ground. Dorothy's garden is an abundant civil gathering until it riots each spring.
A similar riot rages today at Spirit Square. Here above the slate grey carpet, on pabulum walls, artist Meredith Hebden delivers photographs wrestled from the quiet, common glories in her backyard. With her exhibit Laughing Earth, she has filtered her garden through the keen, kaleidoscopic prism of her sympathetic eye, and her translation is uncommon, uncivil and riotous enough to shake the fish scales off your eyes.
Meredith Hebden is a gardener. Saying so is like calling Walt Whitman a journalist and leaving it at that. Hebden is a photographer, a horticulturist, an amateur botanist and, like brother Walt, an artist. Her photographs celebrate our often seen and little noticed local natural world.
A thin horizontal orange and green stem runs across the top of the photograph from right to left. Two shoots turn straight down from the stem. The shoots hold two heart-shaped blossoms -- Bleeding Hearts -- one facing us head on, one turned in profile.
The hearts are semi-transparent. They glow from within and appear to illuminate duplicate heart-shaped internal organs through their fine skins. The effect is reminiscent of photographs of a child in vitro, with ribs, heart and lungs visible through their skin. A single bead of water clings to a lobe hanging from the bottom of the flower. The bead looks like a tear stuck to a drop of blood.
The image alludes to one's own body, one's own heart. The flower is the size of your fist, the size of a human heart. The shape of this flower is an indelible image etched in our storybook minds. The allusion is imaginative and refers to a common connectivity -- between out there and in here -- a connection we more often ignore than recognize. This photograph helps reverse that common ignorance by portraying our most prized internal engine as a brilliant fruit of the garden. (It also helps wrestle the cliché from the greeting card companies.)
The artist has made the plant -- the organism -- lovelier than it really is; she has, at the same time, by association, lifted our own hearts to a greater, more gifted plane.
The Praying Mantis stands on blades of grass and stares at the camera, and at us, with benign interest. She is neither fearsome nor fearful. Her body is phosphorescent green, a close match to the leaves of grass which mimic the length and shape of her spiny limbs. The top of her head is bulbous eyes, with pupils the size of mites rising like tiny black bubbles in a watery crystal ball.
This alien creature appeared in the artist's backyard.
Meredith Hebden lives in Charlotte and works at the Botanical Gardens at UNC-Charlotte tending native plants. She represents a piece of what is best about Charlotte, a piece that has nothing to do with our vital and vibrant urban heart or our newfound, uptown glitz and glitter. Like the hidden glories in her garden, she is one quiet cell of wonder pocking the cultural landscape of my hometown. She is one of the seldom seen, indispensable creatures lacing through Charlotte's cultural ecosystem like neurons hugging our steel and glass backbone. She pumps blood into my Wonder Bread town.
Some of Hebden's photographs wander into an abstract world. "Passiflora (Passion Flower)" is an abstract painting from 10 feet away. Lacy red legs dance across the black bottom half of the inkjet print. A transparent pink plane cuts across the top half, a sheer petal made luminous with sun cut colored light. The red legs of the flower slip behind the silky skin to become shadows. Only the long green stem running from the bottom to the top of the image implies a backyard discovery. Seeing this photograph is like finding a Kandinsky painting hidden in your garden.
In "Hemerocaliss II (Daylily)," five vibrant purplish blue stamen stand tall within the flower sprouting from the bottom of the print. Red stems rise to the heads. The stamen heads sheath the stem like the euphemism "the birds and the bees" cover our words when we talk to our kids about sex. Sticky pollen clings to the lidded sheath like brown sugar sprinkled on pine sap. If you miss the unintended, organic sexual allusion here, you will remember only the hair color of the man standing naked on the corner of Trade and Tryon. The photograph can make your rib cage swell.
Ten images appear to be under water.
The undulant flowers washed in suffused light in "Orchid Cactus, Begonia, Fringed Orchid and Calendula" pose as saturated tropical plants wafting in salt water. The flowers appear to be illuminated by a light source injected into their sap stream. "Iris" is a many fingered glittering hand reaching into a black hole. The flower lifts and lilts as it probes the dark like the tentacles of a curious octopus.
The critters represented in these photographs, more than the flora and fauna, bring our focus back to the terrestrial origins of all the garden subjects here.
"Sphinx Cocoon" is a large juicy larvae on a compost pile. The oversized image is red and shiny, a torso of stacked segments, an eye sheathed behind a milky skin and a thick proboscis as wrinkled as an elephant trunk curled in on itself. The creature lies in decay awaiting release. It foments expectant life so juicy it appears wet to the touch.
A green snake spirals around a dark stem through three separate, stacked photographs. Her sheathed and segmented torso climbs and curls upward. Luminous green scales are wrapped together, lined and stacked like bonded wire in a chain link fence. With stalk and snake chopped into three photographs, with no head or tail visible, and with tooth and fang removed, she becomes something other than the snake she is. Like her colorful chlorophyll brethren elsewhere on these walls, she sheds her ruddy earthly skin to become, for the captured instant, a distinct and simple wonder.
The tyranny of pale routine can easily cloud my vision. Routine tyranny deserves uncivil disobedience. Hebden's natural visual riot upends the tyranny of pale routine, and like Dorothy's garden in the spring, her photographs peel the fish scales off my eyes.
Meredith Hebden's exhibit Laughing Earth is now showing through January 5, 2006, in The Light Factory at Spirit Square, 345 North College Street. For more info, call 704-333-9755.