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  • Writer's pictureEllen MacNary

Annie Cunningham's plant pigment papers at Phillips Farm

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

by Ellen MacNary

This past winter, I visited Philip’s Farm, one of the sites Annie Cunningham chose to visit. In Cunningham’s ensemble, she made dyes from the surrounding landscape and smeared them onto paper to create the warmth of the sun, the chirp of the birds, the languid breezy hilltop scent of the Palouse summer. In them, I could see the bones, the shapes that inspired her when I visited. The hills were brown and covered in patches of snow then, the vibrant green forgotten - but still there were the cresting hills, the parting valleys like great waves beneath; and though the sky is layered and deepening with damp gray, the imposing skeletons of thorny bushes spin like a crumpled version of the open and bright summer sun, its rays falling in rings about the Earth.

The bones of the land are beautiful, though this was hard to remember in the snow flurries, my feet soaked and squelching over the sliding mud. The mud almost claimed one of my ratty sneakers (as I did not come prepared), and the trail I started on was mired in inches of freezing water. I approached the creek filled with old car parts - the preferred way to dam up creeks 70 years ago.

The trail wound among dense thickets on either side¾they must have been wild and green in the warmer months, but now they were just the tangled skeletons, wound painfully tight. I peered inside and wondered what could be hiding from the wind and snow. I felt a little vulnerable, wedged among these great nests hiding slumbering things, bogged down by the flooded trail, escape routes slicked over by ice. Trudging on, I came upon it - the same type of bush that made up the thicket, only it was younger, and did not yet reach over my head, and was alone in a field of white. Maybe it was sweetbriar rose (Rosa rubiginosa). In any event, it caught my eye as having a similar shape to Cunningham’s piece. The sweetbriar was of much more somber colors, the deep brown darkening the further in it twisted, lit by the unnatural grey light of reflective snow. It twisted like the dizzying layers in Cunningham’s work. She had used rose hips as one of the dyes during summer; they were sunken and blackening beneath the frost now, but still visible.

Cunningham says her work is meant to “stimulate kinesthetic empathy; allowing the viewer to transport themselves into that specific place with the smells of the flora, the sound of the birds, and the feel of the sun and wind.” I think it did this very well, and the more somber physical manifestation of her abstract work lurking in the same fields she was inspired by felt to me like the ghost of summer in the middle of all that snow. It gave me a sense of continuity, how the land watched the oscillation of seasons just as patiently, just as wakefully, as it watched the sun rise and sink and rise again.

Ellen MacNary is a senior majoring in Neuroscience and creative writing at Washington State University. Winner of the 2018 Weems Creative Nonfiction prize awarded by the English Department, her work has appeared in LandEscapes, the undergraduate literary journal, and her plays produced by WSU’s STAGE club.

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