Local artist blurs lines between

By Fred Koschmann

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on local artist Summer Jellison Hart.

“The dumpster was overflowing with flowers,” Summer Jellison Hart says.

She was fascinated with funeral customs. Her grandmother used to make memorials, sell them and decorate people’s graves, and the family called it her “gravework.” Hart spent part of last summer wandering through overgrown and crowded Victorian cemeteries in London and Edinburgh – the gravestones leaning casually, so eroded and covered in moss they can no longer be read. The earth, soft and well populated, slowly buries the stones. “It’s so beautiful the way that nature is taking everything back,” she says. She studied 19th-century botanical designs and Victorian post-mortem photography. Such pictures, she found, were a tradition that ended in most places around the time of the Civil War. She also found that her grandmother, who recently died, had carried on the traditions anyway.

A friend told Hart about a cemetery in Urbana that cleans off the graves twice a year, the contents winding up in one dumpster. Naturally, she wanted to rescue the flowers from their sentencing to a landfill. So one fall day her husband agreed to climb into the dumpster and root for specific colors. The two filled their car with boxes of flowers that, in Hart’s words, “fade but will not wilt, their petals specked with glued-on dewdrops that never evaporate.”

At the time, Hart was finding evidence everywhere that there was life in the lifeless.

She has two occupations. In one, she creates. She turns her imagination inside out and commits it to canvas. She speaks about culture through imagery, “subverting things in different ways,” she says. Which is all to say, she’s an artist who paints quite a lot. In the other, she preserves. Rare books are sent to her from New York City and Philadelphia from a company called Bauman Rare Books. The books can date back to the 15th century and are sometimes worth as much as $50,000. She nurses them with paints and Japanese tissue. Here, she subverts time. The books are made young again.

She wears an oval, oversized topaz ring, and the cuffs of her white- and black-striped shirt cover part of her hands, which wrap around a glass of coffee. She’s tall and lean with straight brown, shoulder-length hair, and her eyes are big and brown.

She’s seven months pregnant but not overly delicate about how she carries herself. She spins around in the winter wind on a corner in downtown Champaign, searching for the Springer Cultural Center, where her latest series of mixed-media art is on display. If only she could see the building, she’d head straight there. The surrounding streets and other buildings seem of little interest to her. She quickly orients herself, leans into the wind and is on her way.

The series is called “Graveworks,” after her grandma’s practice, and it has three separate parts. There are drawings of Victorian keepsake, or post-mortem, photos, given eerie life among floral patterns. One child taken early by death wraps her arms around a bird her own size. Then there are memorial wreaths, which use both the dumpster flowers and ones her grandma never used. Portraits of friends sit in the middle of the wreaths, a spot usually reserved for the dead, making them “pre-mortem memorials,” Hart says. One friend accompanied Hart on a trip to the Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield, Ill., as she gathered ideas for the “Graveworks” series.

“She was obsessed with funeral rites,” Jenny Stewart says, “and dressings and how people used various objects, such as human hair, to create memorials to their deceased friends and relatives.”

Stewart is captured in the third component of the series- life-size oil paintings of friends posed dead.

If Hart sees evidence of life in the lifeless, her paintings make a strong case that she sees death in the living as well. She wanted her subjects posed as if they had fallen dead on the spot, mimicking the spontaneity of homicide investigators’ chalk-lines. And the backgrounds – far from the stark reality of a sidewalk or street corner, common settings of sudden death – are a flat hot pink or yellow and punctuated by the fake Dumpster flowers, which are glued on. In each of the paintings there’s an arm outstretched, and the overall effect – the contorted bodies, the blank and bright background, flowers creeping in from the edges – is one of motion. The bodies are either alive or dead, but they are most certainly in free fall.

“I thought painting figures would be the hardest thing I could possibly do,” Hart says. “And in my mind I started to visualize these epic portraits of people.”

She doesn’t always trust words. She seems unsatisfied with them, as if words don’t live up to the original idea.

When she looks around the coffee shop, she appears to be assigning people a spot in their own epic portrait. Each person is being given a background, a shape and a position in the frame. Everyone takes up his or her own space. She says it’s a type of “fantasy space or psychological space” and then adds “really anything other than a realistic space.”

“It’s like the idea in Renaissance paintings where you have a portrait and then a formal background setting that has a lot of meaning,” Tim Green says.

He curates with Hart at the Champaign artists’ collective, OPENSOURCE Art. “Even if it’s just a person sitting in front of a harp, there are always these things going on in the background that are very important. She does that in her own way.”

If you ask her what something means in her painting, she won’t always give a direct answer. It’s like asking a calculator to divide by zero. The answers involve colors and images that blend with ideas, giving a sense of something, but nothing too definite.

“When I was choosing an image,” she says, “I was drawn to the ones that had strange perspectives on the hands. There was something about these strange, reaching hands. And I don’t entirely know what they mean.”

In painting, she prefers to leave images ambiguous and startling. In conversation, she’s gentler and wants to be as precise as possible.

“Her art is quite forward and brash. But in person, Summer is not like that at all,” says Matti Bunzl, director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities. “The personality of artists is often quite different from their art.”