by Sheri Boggs

During the day, especially these hazy, early autumn days filled with slanting amber light, the Palouse seems like a benign and generous place. Harvest is more or less over, the fields are shorn like some enormous, golden-furred beast, and there's a sense of rural, communal contentment. But visit near sundown, when the shadows are lengthening and there's no one around for miles, and it's an entirely different feeling. The hills seem to take on a life of their own, becoming dark and mysterious swells capable of swallowing an entire car. The silence, so refreshing during the day, is filled at twilight with strange rustlings and the low murmur of the wind. Old abandoned farmhouses and collapsing barns shrink back into their shadowy hollows, guarding who knows what secrets.

It's this more dramatic essence of the Palouse that recent North Carolina transplant Katherine Nelson has so accurately captured and evoked in charcoal drawings currently on exhibit at the Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d'Alene.

"I really did want to try to capture the moodiness of this landscape," says Nelson. "My work tends to be kind of moody anyway, and then the Palouse is so amazing in the early morning or late evening when the shadows are so deep. Shadows have so many nuances and imply so many things. It was important to me to find a way to convey that."

Nelson's work is full of shadows and curves and strong, vigorous lines. There is a hint of Thomas Hart Benton in her sinuous, deliberately voluptuous furrows and in her fascinations with land forms and inclement weather. Unlike Benton, there are rarely people in her landscapes, further underscoring a palpable, beautiful loneliness. Trees do make a frequent appearance, however, whether as dark looming pines or almost comical cotton-candy shapes.

"When I was living in New York there was this dirt road that I took as a shortcut between my house and my teaching position. I would go by this one group of trees about six times a day and they started speaking to me," she says. "There was such a multi-dimensionality to them -- some days they were these sort of conical shapes and other days they looked like turkeys on stalks."

Nelson's interest in trees is longstanding and is evidenced in several pieces in the show. While living in New York -- she now lives just north of town in Colbert with her husband and son -- Nelson collaborated with well-known topiary artist Pearl Fryar (among others). Inspired by the interplay between the sculptural and the natural, Nelson experimented with topiary forms in several almost Dr. Seuss-ian imaginary landscapes featured in the show at Art Spirit. It also provided an unusual framework for her first impressions of the Palouse.

"When we moved here last year and I got the chance to travel around a little bit, I was just blown away," she says. "The Palouse is very sculptural, so it was a little like topiary in my mind. I'd never seen a landscape like this before, and I've traveled all over the world and lived overseas for twelve years. It's really a remarkable place."

Although Nelson is a relative unknown in this area, she's had numerous group and solo exhibitions on the East Coast. In spite of having a three-year-old and another baby on the way, she's also able to remain enormously committed to her work.

"I've waited until late in life to start a family, and it's really important to me to balance my life so that I have time for everything," she says. "But the amazing thing is that having a baby actually gave me a lot more structure, even if it took away a lot of free time. People ask me how I do it, how I balance a family and an art career, and you just have to be really dedicated to creating a body of work. You have to make a lot of sacrifices, but ultimately, I'm doing what I've always wanted."

Publication date: 09/18/03

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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