Artist plants natural world in human forms
PAMM shows Michele Oka Doner works
In the plant-inspired sculptures on display at the Perez Art Museum Miami, Michele Oka Doner pays tribute to her birthplace, Miami, and its subtropical nature.
The largest example of Oka Doner’s nature-minded art can be spotted in Terminal D of Miami International Airport, home to her massive public-art project “A Walk on the Beach.” The installation carries more than 8,000 mother-of-pearl and bronze sea-life forms inlaid on glittering, black terrazzo floors, including coral and conch shells and wispy anemones, that stretch a mile and a half to both ends of the concourse.
But visitors won’t need to visit the airport to see Oka Doner’s beach. The Perez Art Museum’s second-floor gallery, which this week opens the artist’s exhibition “HowI Caught a Swallow in Midair,” presents a sevenminute video walk-through of the sprawling installation, along with her sculptures and wall prints. That video is projected next to Oka Doner’s 2008 relief print “Sargassa,” a life-size drawing with another strong Miami connection. To make the drawing, a tumbleweed of scratchy black lines that form the shape of a human figure, Oka Doner harvested clumps of sargassum seaweed from the shores of Miami Beach, where she is a part-time resident, and pressed the algae against a tan-colored canvas.
“I saw it washed up on the beach, and when I shook it out at the house, a world of sea creatures fell out,” Oka Doner recalls of creating “Sargassa,” one of five prints mounted on the gallery wall. “Seahorses and bits of coral and tiny hermit crabs. I have a theory that those little balls in the seaweed, when the world was young, used to be pockets of air, sort of like lung passages.”
On a recent Monday, Oka Doner was seated on a custom plywood plinth in black yoga pants, paintbrush in hand, flicking ironoxide-colored acrylic paint against the mocha-brown surface. The plinth, smeared in swirls of brown and black, resembled the floor of a rainforest, and will serve as the base for 30 sculptures built from clay, wax, bronze and resin.
Merging human anatomy with science and botany is a big motif among Oka Doner’s sculptures, which look like furniture and decor: a bronze dining chair that resembles a mesh of tree branches (1990’s “Bramble”); a sterling-silver vase that resembles a funnelcone of palm fronds (1999’s “Palm Vase”); a charred wood-and-wax hunk of driftwood that resembles a person balancing on one leg (2015’s “One Eye.”).
“I feel like I’m creating the aura of another world. I’m going to use the word ‘cosmic,’” Oka Doner, 70, says. “When I was young, we didn’t have TV or iPads. We collected seashells. We looked at the stars at night. So I feel like my career is centered on my experience growing up in a rich, natural environment.”
She says she grew fascinated with nature even earlier, as a 6-year-old Girl Scout who earned merit badges for bird-watching in the Everglades.
She learned environmentalism from her father Kenneth Oka, a judge who served as the mayor of Miami Beach for eight years.
But Oka Doner, who oper- ates a home studio in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, says she’s made a point to plant her Miami-inspired sculptures in other parts of the world. Her works are collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre in Paris, and her public art appears in New York’s Herald Square subway and at Reagan International Airport in Washington, D.C.
The show coincides with the Miami City Ballet’s new production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which will visit the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts April 1-3 and Broward Center for the Performing Arts April 9-10. Oka Doner, with help from the ballet’s artistic director, Lourdes Lopez, takes Shakespeare’s tale for a plunge in the ocean, designing costumes and set pieces inspired by underwater sea creatures. (The mischievous sprite Puck, Oka Doner says, is a seahorse in this version.)
Perez Art Museum’s chief curator, Tobias Ostrander, says this collection of sculptures and prints “channels the awe and beauty of the Miami environment.
“It’s kind of like a laboratory where she’s mixing the natural world with science and biology and ancient artifacts,” Ostrander says. “Michele is an alchemist, and when she’s re-creating nature in sculpture, it’s like she’s stopping time, preventing organic material from decaying.”
“Michele Oka Doner: How I Caught a Swallow in Midair” is on view through Sept. 11 at Perez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. The museum is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. FridayTuesday and 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday. Oka Doner will sign copies of her books “How I Caught a Swallow in Midair” and “Into the Mysterium” from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday, March 26. Admission costs $12-$16. Call 305-375-3000 or go to Pamm.org
Michele Oka Doner designed costumes and set decorations for Miami City Ballet’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“Telechine,” a terra-cotta sculpture, is on display at Perez Art Museum Miami.