Meaning no disrespect to steel and stone, the Washington Sculptors Group in recent years has organized several exhibitions that emphasize sticks, branches, vines and other materials gathered in forests. The WSG’s 15-artist “Artina 2017” at the Sandy Spring Museum takes a further step outside: All the pieces are on the lawn or in the trees around the building.
As its subtitle indicates, “Art in Nature — (Re)Use and Abuse of the Land” is concerned with environmental issues. Yet most of the artworks don’t have explicit polemical intent. They simply ask visitors to look again at things or places they might otherwise scarcely notice.
Thus Diane Szczepaniak’s low-lying sculpture highlights a patch of unmown lawn inside an octagon of 18-inch-high black steel walls. The grass is just as integral as the metal form. Szczepaniak built the frame; nature sprouted the content.
Several other pieces hug the dirt. Cat Lukens’s “Mending the Hoop” is a ground painting in sand, wood, mulch and tobacco leaves. Its materials are natural, but its pie-chart arrangement of white, black and red suggests a human ritual purpose.
Eve Hennessa’s “Color Wheel” is an arrangement in grass of small stones, most of them painted bright colors. It, too, hints at some ceremonial function. Nearby, the same artist’s “Flowing Spring” combines the found and the made. It’s just a forked stick on the ground, but painted blue-green (with black patterns) to resemble a trickle of water.
While Marc Robarge mimics nature, he does so more faithfully. His two multi-piece sculptures install fungi on pieces of existing trees: one a stump, the other a full trunk. The twist is that the bio-forms are ceramic. Some of the most organic-looking objects in the show are actually man-made.
Many entries play on ideas of shelter, edifice and repose. Maryanne Pollock’s “Refuge for the Sandy Spring Museum” is a series of colorful, stylistically diverse paintings whose imagery includes plants and animals. Rather than hung, the canvases are pitched like tents. They’re not far from “Lit de Repos,” Mary Annella “Mimi” Frank’s copper-plated bed frame.
Frank’s other piece, “A Place for Receptive Silence,” is a small house-shaped framework with two little benches inside. Vines that bear flowers and tomatoes grow on and around the metal supports. In a region without winter, the plants might eventually overgrow and obscure the structure, yielding something that’s more germinated than forged.
Two large constructions by Grant McFarland are mostly wood but also include such materials as steel, copper and tar. “Bastion” is indeed fortlike, while the M.C. Escher-like “Asymmetrical Equilibrium” appears almost functional. In both, wood represents technology, however enigmatic, rather than nature.
Metal, ceramics and wood all contend in Martha Jackson Jarvis’s “Reclamation/Transformation,” a complex combo that’s nestled in a grove. On one side is mostly terra-cotta, and on the other rusted metal. They’re linked by striped clay tendrils and twisting dry branches and vines, as if in conversation about made and found, discarded and reclaimed.
With its woodsy setting, Sandy Spring Museum is an apt place for such a show. But that’s not the only significance of the site. The institution was originally established to tell the town’s history, and it stands on a tract that was farmed by Quakers back when a certain crop was king. It’s no accident that Cat Lukens’s materials include tobacco.
Although most of the show’s contributors contemplate land in the general sense, Lukens is one of those who responded directly to this particular plot’s heritage. So did Brittney Robertson and Raina Martens, whose “Public Soil for the Plantationocene” is a series of stelae modeled on property markers from a local farm.
Most Quakers opposed slavery, but the owner of this parcel owned slaves until the early 19th century. So Robertson and Martens have printed the markers with images and documents, including a list of the people held in bondage on this piece of earth. Freedom came not from moral enlightenment but declining yield and falling tobacco prices.
Agriculture has a very different place in American society today, especially in affluent areas such as metropolitan Washington. As this show variously demonstrates, though, the way land is used still has profound implications.
Sandy Spring Museum, 17901 Bentley Rd., Sandy Spring, Md. 301-774-0022. sandyspringmuseum.org .
Dates: Through Sept. 30.