Quilting the Waterway, Works by Leslie Berns, on View at Adkins Arboretum

It was a pretty paper cup that prompted Leslie Berns to create art about water quality. It was printed with the popular “Magic Garden” design of bright, cheerful flowers, and it seemed to Berns like an emblem of clean, fresh water.

She began a series of works stitching paper cups together into intricately patterned “quilts.” Several are on view in the Adkins Arboretum Visitor’s Center through July 29. There will be a reception to meet the artist on Sat., June 25 from 3 to 5 p.m.

At a glance, “Magic Garden Field” looks just like a quilt. Tacked to the wall with dressmaker’s pins, its traditional quilt pattern is a latticework of folded floral paper cups. For Berns, its interconnected geometry symbolizes the physical connection of water from streams to rivers to bays to oceans, as well as its omnipresent role in sustaining life.

Berns teaches art at the University of Maryland College Park and lives nearby in University Park. Both her BFA from Pratt Institute and her MFA from Yale School of Art and Architecture were in painting, but it was her children’s activities that moved Berns’s work in new directions.

“I suppose the water theme with this project really started when I saw the first paper cup crushed on the ground at my son’s soccer game,” she said. “We shouldn’t be using paper cups. What does that teach the kids about disposable materials? But it caught my eye, and I started collecting them and arranging them, making patterns.”

“I allowed my work to change when I had kids,” Berns explained. “I started moving away from painting toward the cloth itself. Stretched canvas seemed too self-contained and cut off from the world.”

“The whole tradition of working with textiles is thought of as woman’s work. It’s compatible with having kids,” she continued. “So it’s work that’s associated with private, domestic space, with care-giving. I was interested in taking it from private space to public space and into the environment—this kind of caring for the landscape.”

When her daughter brought home a project on alpha-symmetry, in which letters of the alphabet were repeated in geometric patterns, Berns was reminded of the patterns found in traditional quilts and began replicating them with paper cups.

Patterns made with the letter “F” can be found in one of three large collages of clippings and other data on water quality that are part of this show. Berns began collecting this material after her daughter’s school sent letters home warning of lead in the water supply.

One of the articles in her collages includes photos of women in Bangladesh collecting water to filter through layers of beautifully patterned sari cloth, a practice that scientific studies have shown to significantly reduce the incidence of cholera.

Berns sees much potential in combining the efforts of art and science in addressing environmental problems. In talks about her art in schools and Art in the Park programs, she emphasizes the creative connections that art and science can make. Through this kind of fusion of ideas, she aims to create art that has a practical impact, as well as an aesthetic one.

This show is part of Adkins Arboretum’s ongoing exhibition series of work on natural themes by regional artists, sponsored in part by Caroline County Council of Arts. It is on view through July 29 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 or info@adkinsarboretum.org 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, visit www.adkinsarboretum.org or call 410-634-2847, ext. 0.