Artist Mary Edna Fraser Puts Her Global View on Silk
by Aïda Rogers
Mary Edna Fraser is all over the map, and so is her art. Artist, environmentalist, pilot, wife, mother, cook, musician, activist, seamstress and dancer, Fraser looks like the fresh-faced, en-gaging girl next door. But look at what she creates: winding, flowing, spidery, fluid, slithery, jagged images of what she sees from thousands of feet in the air. It's the earth, she says, and it's changing faster than it should. By taking what her camera records and putting it on silk, she presents a new look at what's all around us. Implicitly, her art is a warning to protect the land from overdevelopment.
"I call them visual prayers," Fraser said of her batiks, many of which are on display throughout Charleston, where she lives. "A lot of popular artists of this day, like city artists, do angst - blood and guts and tears. But mine are sort of a way to work through whatever's negative and look to the future with hope. I generally see things in a positive way."
Influential people think she's onto something. "Aerial Inspirations: Silk Batiks by Mary Edna Fraser" is the first one-woman show at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. On display through June 4, 1995, the exhibit contains more than 70 of her works, all renderings of what she sees from her father's 1946 silver Ercoupe 415-C. With her father or brother at the controls - Fraser is a student pilot - she is able to capture how the earth, sky and sea come together. The result is an art form that is "very obscure and very abstract;" and one that is rich in imagery. Georgia's Sea Islands on batik look like bonsai; the North Edisto River becomes a dragon. Santa Fe looks like the moon. Fraser wants people to see what she sees, too.
"Do you realize we're the first generation to even see what our earth looks like? We're the first generation to have this availability. In less than 100 years we go from airplanes to space travel." Likewise, the camera has developed and improved, and so have the dyes to make batiks. "The technology of flight, photography and the chemistry of dyes is a gift to my generation," she said, "but with that gift comes concern about the environment."
It was in 1982, during a 12-hour flight up the northeastern coast, when she noticed how the earth was changing. There weren't as many photos to take because population and development had altered the coastlines beyond their natural curves. It was an observation that made Fraser cry, and then take action. "I started documenting. I began to see our inlets as individuals and islands like snowflakes. I realized that in five years, from one flight to the next, the actual shape of the islands was different."
Fraser mounted a crusade. She called Orrin Pilkey, a noted coastal geologist at Duke University and author of a series of books about the changing environment, to write the accompanying text for her show at the NASM. They also are working together on "Barrier Islands of the World," a project that will include a book, exhibitions and lectures. Fraser simultaneously is illustrating another book, What the Water Gives Me, with Charleston poet Marjory Wentworth (wife of movie producer Peter Wentworth; see story on page 9). She and New Jersey composer-lawyer Richard Robinson "mutually inspire" each other; his CD of guitar music, Watercolors, is the soundtrack that accompanies Fraser's video and show.
"I'm in this collaboration mood right now, and I'm saying the same thing that scientists, musicians and writers are saying. That's what's so fascinating. I hook arms with a leading geologist to say, 'We must be careful.' It's not just the tree huggers. We are threatening our environment. People have to be recycling; they have to be responsible as individuals. They need to vote for people who care about the land where they live."
Chief among Fraser's goals is that her two daughters, 6 and 8, see the world as she did growing up.
BORN AND REARED in Fayetteville, NC, and an honor roll graduate of East Carolina University, where she majored in clothing and textiles, Fraser started out as a textile designer. At one time, silk scarves and kimonos were her livelihood; now she does them rarely or on special request. She became more interested in wall hangings and silk sculptures, and now, at 46, she can look back and say museum work suited her more than clothing design.
"I don't want somebody to buy something and then hang it on a hanger in the closet or be given to Aunt Maybelle and lost, because it took so long to do," she said. "I want everything to be precious to the person who owns it like it's precious to me when I make it. And what I see in the camera's eye, to me, is like putting the same present back into another very, very special wrapper and handing it out again."
Some of those presents are in Charleston's most public places. "Charleston Waterways" is a 222-foot silk sculpture in the atrium of Charleston International Airport. Another is "Charleston Coastline," a five-panel batik at the Charleston Visitors Center. In the lobby of Roper Hospital is "Seven Sisters," an aerial landscape of the Low Country.
She also has exhibited at the Spoleto Festival, Gibbes Museum of Art, and in New York, Ohio and Georgia.
Fraser's art is like herself: a blend of opposites. She applies the modern technology of satellite images to the ancient art of batik, the oldest of which are traced to Japan's Nara period (A.D. 710-794). The silks are soft and drapey, the images sharp and detailed. They merge classic realism with impressionism and oriental influences.
Likewise, Fraser is a combination of serious and lighthearted, passionate about issues but excitable about fabrics ("I'm nuts about silk"). She studies maps and nautical charts, and puts on music that will inspire her work - rock and roll if the piece is "gutsy," Brahms for something more "gentle," Balinese for an oriental flavor and Gregorian chants if she's feeling "spiritual."
Sometimes she dances while she works. "I take modern dance, so I try to think like a dancer while I work. I think there's something very feminine about touching a soft brush to silk."
Batik is a time-consuming, painstaking method of applying melted wax in patterns on fabrics, then dying the unwaxed areas. Last year, Fraser completed six. Like most of her pieces, they were huge - and similarly, expensive. Her "Slopes of Mauna Loa, the Big Island of Hawaii," is 184x36 inches and priced at $5,625. Her "Maine Coastline," 41x112 inches, is $4,000. "They were massive pieces. There was nobody to buy that. They're for sale but I don't have a client. They're done to express a thought."
Alaska is her next venture; the bush pilot, a female Eskimo, is already booked. Also in the offing are projects about the solar system, continued work with the ACE Basin and negotiations concerning space exploration about an effort not ready to be announced. Fraser believes man will find a way to inhabit other planets; a few years ago she called NASA to ask about being an artist in space. Turned down because she was considered too old, Fraser nevertheless wants to be an "educational tool" for environmental groups and space study.
While the NASM show may have put her "on the map" artistically, Fraser says that doesn't mean she's financially stable. Her work takes time and money. She studies maps and charts, hikes and camps before flying over the next area to paint, and takes about 500 slides from the air. She also paints small watercolors on the ground, all to create an authentic image on batik.
Once she's done with an area, she doesn't do it again. She laughed. "The world's too big."
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