Grasses, Works By Mary Ott, On View At Adkins Arboretum

The grass isn’t always greener at Adkins Arboretum, but in Silver Spring artist Mary Ott’s acrylic paintings and one-of-a-kind prints, it’s definitely more colorful. On view through September 26, Ott’s work focuses on the variations of color and the subtle details found in this commonplace plant. The public is invited to a reception on Saturday, August 23 from 5 to 7 p.m.

Stark and bold against a background of either a field of pale color or elegant, unprimed linen, Ott’s grasses are nothing but dense rows of slender, roughly vertical lines of paint. Yet, simple as they are, they evoke grasslands tinged the pale pink of sunset or glowing with bright hues under a blue sky. The low line of marks in “Grass (Red)” seems dried and brittle, while in “Reflections II,” two bands of sketchy white lines suggest frosty grass reflecting in water.

Building on a technique suggested some years ago by her teacher, Bill Christenberry, at the Corcoran School of Art and Design, Ott has developed an unconventional method of painting grass, blade by blade.

“I soak a piece of embroidery yarn in a puddle of paint,” she explained, “then lay it on the canvas, so it curves like the top of a blade of grass, then I pull straight down to make the stem.”

Grass, shown all by itself, is an unusual subject for art. But beyond the mundane impression of a green or golden brown swath of a lawn, road edge, vacant lot or meadow, grass has its own subtle beauty. A close look reveals the soft blending of the myriad of colors found in individual blades of grass.

There are strokes of yellow-gold, deep red, purple and a bright, unlikely green in Ott’s painting “Autumn Grass.” These are surprising colors, but their grassy texture and a certain radiance, as the bright colors glow against the darker ones, make them seem very much alive.

Ott is a printmaker as well as a painter, and she has created a series of monotypes printed directly from the seed heads of grasses. As the tiny seeds and delicate stems reproduced in three monotypes from her “Bouquet of Grasses” series attest, this process brings out the remarkable details of the plants themselves.

“I roll out oil-based etching ink on a Plexiglas plate, then put the grass on top of it and the paper over that,” she said. “Then I run it through the press. The grass blocks out the ink from printing on the paper, and it can be like embossing depending on how much pressure I use in the press. That produces background color and texture. Then I print with the grass with the ink side down. It’s a series of layers of printing.”

Ott also works with screenprints based on photographs. “Shining Sumac and Grasses” began as a photo taken just outside the Arboretum’s main door. Printed in fresh shades of green and blue, the graceful branches of a sumac arch over intricate clumps of tall grasses growing in the wetland beside the Visitor’s Center.

This is the second time Ott has exhibited at the Arboretum. The first was the 2007 Art Competition, in which she received the first-place Leon Andrus Award for her painting “Grass (Sepia),” also included in this show. She exhibits her work nationwide and is affiliated with Touchstone Gallery in Washington andMontpelier Arts Center in Laurel, but the Arboretum, with its many acres of native grassy meadows, is a particularly appropriate venue for her work.

This show is part of Adkins Arboretum’s ongoing exhibition series of work on natural themes by regional artists. It is on view through September 26 at the Arboretum Visitor’s Center located at 12610 Eveland Road near Tuckahoe State Park in Ridgely. Contact the Arboretum at 410-634-2847, ext. 0 for gallery hours.

Adkins Arboretum is a 400-acre native garden and preserve at the headwaters of the Tuckahoe Creek in Caroline County. Open year round, the Arboretum offers educational programs for all ages about nature and gardening. Through its Campaign to Build a Green Legacy, the Arboretum will build a new LEED-certified Arboretum Center and entranceway to broaden educational offerings and research initiatives promoting best practices in conservation and land stewardship. For additional information about Arboretum programs, or call 410-634-2847, ext. 0.