Earthly Pleasures: Painter Ilana Manolson captures nature's ephemeral beauty

Published March 30, 2006 by Chris Bergeron

Taking a "frog's eye view," Ilana Manolson's paintings capture nature's fecund profusion in a small patch of her back yard.

The Concord artist mixes rich radiant colors to observe the ephemeral beauty of a clump of skunk cabbage or sunlight reflected of a weedy pond.

Manolson's recent paintings meld her earlier career as a botanist with an Impressionist's infatuation with the play of light on nature.

She is showing 16 striking large scale oil paintings from 2005 and 2006 at the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham. Her exhibit, "Twice Reflected," runs through April 23.

Manolson described her work in the show as "a dance between realism and abstraction."

She paints "en plein air," focusing on small spots in her yard or local places where she walks. Working quickly, she paints on a hard birch board that let’s her recreate the rich natural colors she sees.

"I think what's new is this work catches the essence and spirit of the plant world. The visual world is so rich. If you look for tiny details, they help you describe the larger whole of the environment around you," she said.

Examining things closely, Manolson finds natural dramas she calls "the ignored, inconsequential events" most casual observers miss.

Cattails break through a sheet of ice. Insect-eaten leaves float across a pond's still surface. Sunlight’s burst through a riotous tangle of foliage.

Manolson said her approach to nature-in-miniature "creates a painting with its own dance and rhythm."

"If you look closely enough, abstract patterns emerge," she said. "My work reflects different emotional states. It's the world around me seen through these emotional states."

Manolson has lived in several widely varied places with their own unique natural character.

She was born and raised in Calgary, Canada, and vacationed with her family around the cluster of lakes in the Laurentians region north of Quebec. "I grew up next to a pond. So I developed a sense of looking at life in miniature," she said.

As a teenager, she taught in the Fiji islands in the South Pacific with a Canadian volunteer organization. After returning, she earned a degree in botany and later worked as a naturalist in Elk Island National Park in Edmonton.

Manolson said, "I spent a lot of time looking closely at things. I loved drawing plants."

For Manolson, the seemingly divergent disciplines of botany and painting share her artistic interest in the harmonious balance of opposing forces.

"They're very connected. There's a sense of looking for order and disorder and how they play together. I'm looking for the dance between the two," she said.

Her paintings' titles, "Embracing Weeds," "Transition Tango" and "Fog has a Story" suggest her belief in the organic unity of all living things.

Seeking a new direction, Manolson graduated from the Rode Island School of Design in 1982 starting a new career as a painter and printmaker. She was a partner and co-founder of Artist's Proof, a collaborative print studio in Boston. She has had numerous shows in area museums and is represented by the Clark Gallery in Lincoln.

Danforth Director Katherine French said Manolson's paintings offer viewers "a complex vision that's true to how their eyes see things."

"There's something very special about her work that causes viewers to ask how they look at things," she said. "She just does it. She's at the top of her game."