One with nature

The cardinal elements – earth, water, fire and air – all play roles in the works of far-ranging artist Michele Oka Doner.

Picture if you will, a stretch of beach, your toes wiggling into its sinking, silken warmth as you walk along, skirting the vegetation and crustaceans. Occasionally, you’re stopped by the enticingly pink possibility of a pretty shell or the sheer frisson of ice-cold sea foam teasing the shoreline at high tide.

Now imagine all of this crystallized inside – on Level 2 of Miami International Airport – images of flora and fauna cast in bronze along a mile and a quarter of gray terrazzo flooring from which froths mother of pearl.

You don’t have to imagine it. It’s there for some 40 million travelers to tread upon annually in Michele Oka Doner’s “A Walk on the Beach” (1995-2005). For Oka Doner, who is artist-in-residence at both the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and Manitoga/The Russel Wright Design Center this year, art and nature are one. Just as Modernism meets bucolic Garrison at Manitoga – the onetime home of industrial designer Russel Wright – civilization serves and volleys with the Earth in Oka Doner’s thought processes. In conversation, she flows from a discussion of blighted hemlock trees – an inspiration for “Michele Oka Doner: Close Your Physical Eye,” through Nov. 11 at Manitoga – to one on the Italian Renaissance, stopping along the way to quote the garden-glorying Roman statesman Cicero.

For Manitoga, Oka Doner has created a series of larger-than-life hemlock gods and goddesses – the bark of felled hemlocks culled on an autumnal woodland walk becoming the deities’ textured skin in monoprints of paper handmade from kozo (mulberry) bark. Meanwhile, an ancient tree trunk becomes a bronzed “Burning Star” with 16 points of candlelight in the living room of Dragon Rock, as Wright’s home is known.

“The fireplace is literally the burning heart of the house,” she said in a May press release for the show. “I make a ceremony of lighting a fire in the hearth, serving a meal.”

At her airy, white studio loft in SoHo, she’s not allowed to have a hearth, so the hearth, or heart of her home, has migrated to her library.

“I’ve always had a hearth,” Oka Doner said. So it comes as no surprise to learn in Gregory Volk’s essay on her work, “A Knit of Identity,” that she created a terra-cotta sculpture named “Hestia” (2010), after the Greek goddess of the hearth, in which roots are transformed into the body’s circulatory system.

What fiery work will she conjure for NYBG? While Oka Doner doesn’t want to make any premature announcements, she’s thinking of a sculpture with solar panels.

She is captivated by NYBG’s Thain Family Forest, which its website describes as the “largest uncut expanse of New York’s original wooded landscape,” and by the wildness of the Bronx River there where water meets stone. She said it reminds her of Eric W. Sanderson’s 2009 book “Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City” – half of it skyscrapers and half of it the lush forest that explorer Henry Hudson would’ve seen in 1609.

Oka Doner has always been intrigued by the natural world, especially the sea. Growing up in Miami Beach, she was fascinated by the objects she found along the shoreline. But her curiosity was by no means limited to nature. Hers was a challenging family – her grandfather, Odessa-trained artist Samuel S. Heller, did frescoes in the old Metropolitan Opera house and convents throughout New York state. Her father, Kenneth Oka, was a judge and mayor of Miami Beach; her mother, Gertrude, a Latin teacher. Both parents were musicians – her mother, a pianist; her father, a violinist. Oka Doner’s sister, Barbara, was an outstanding student.

“So the bar was set high,” Oka Doner recalled. “It wasn’t the easiest of families. You had to work. At the dinner table, you were expected to sit up and carry on a conversation.”

It was her mother who arranged for her to study with a woman down the street who had a master’s of fine arts degree from Yale University.

Oka Doner went on to get her undergraduate and MFA degrees from the University of Michigan, from which she also received an honorary doctorate. You can find her works there; in the collections of Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities; The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, to name a few.

You can also find her work where you might not necessarily expect it – at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (“Flight”) and the MTA station at Manhattan’s Herald Square (“Radiant Site”) – and in jewelry, costumes, sets and artist books, which use aspects of the book or its form in artworks. Oka Doner is also the author or subject of numerous books, including “Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden” (2005), which tells in part the story of her family’s prominent role in the development of the place; and “Everything Is Alive” (Regan Arts., 2017).

There’s no question that Oka Doner will bring all this to bear on her creation at the New York Botanical Garden – which will definitely be a hands-on experience.

 “I need to get the lay of the land, to be in the garden in the sun,” she said. “What a wonderful way to work.”

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