Artist plants nat­u­ral world in hu­man forms

PAMM shows Michele Oka Doner works

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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

GENE SCHI­AVONE/COUR­TESY

Michele Oka Doner de­signed cos­tumes and set dec­o­ra­tions for Mi­ami City Bal­let’s “A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream.”

DONER STU­DIO/COUR­TESY

“Tele­chine,” a terra-cotta sculp­ture, is on dis­play at Perez Art Mu­seum Mi­ami.

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