Ann Shostrom

Ann Shostrom’s Garden of Secrets

Rosie Schaap

The turning point in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel The Secret Garden comes when Mary Lennox, its initially sullen and alienated young heroine, unearths a long-buried object and realizes that it is the key to the mysterious walled garden on the grounds of her uncle’s gloomy Yorkshire estate. Naturally, Mary is determined to put the key to its rightful use—what child could resist?—and the moment of truth catches both the girl’s breath and the reader’s:

She put the key in and turned it. It took two hands to do it, but it did turn. 

And then she took a long breath and looked behind her up the long walk to see if anyone was coming. No one was coming. No one ever did come, it seemed, and she took another long breath, because she could not help it, and she held back the swing curtain of ivy and pushed back the door which opened slowly—slowly.

Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her, and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight.

She was standing inside the secret garden.

Ann Shostrom’s work constantly recalls to me this arresting moment of discovery, extending a key with which to enter a new world of complex imagined terrains, an invitation to peer through holes and peek into fissures, a dare to lift its veils and plumb its mysteries—as bravely and breathlessly as Mary Lennox entered the secret garden, unsure of what might be uncovered, but certain that the challenge must be taken up. And no matter how many times I have beheld any individual piece of Shostrom’s (and I have been fortunate to spend a good deal of time with the work) this moment of revelation—this catching of the breath—is repeated each time I behold it anew. 

Assembled from the stuff of domestic life—vintage tablecloths given by friends, tattered curtains, used dishtowels, underwear, assorted bits of fabric collected by the artist over many years—the pieces in Harvest resist simple classification: their construction from multiple materials, and the artist’s deployment of numerous techniques, some traditional, others improvised, confer the possibility of sculpture, but they are assertively painterly. From a distance, before one is close enough to register the layering of fabric upon fabric or the 3D density of embroidery floss, they certainly appear, more than anything else, to be paintings. 

This conflation of form is borne out by “Divers.” Dominated by expanses of white and oranges and pinks, with a slim vertical strip of green and yellow fabric in an upper corner, it appears to be an exemplar of abstract minimalism. Move towards it, touch it (all of Shostrom’s work is richly tactile and responsive to touch), however, and secrets reveal themselves: multiple layers of opaque and diaphanous textiles, and the unmistakably human figures (created by Xerox prints of a white statue) who are perhaps treading water, perhaps emerging triumphantly from the sea, or, and this seems more likely, drowning. Nothing is quite what it seems at first glance; the piece’s aesthetic power can be experienced from afar, but up close one feels it its full emotional impact. 

No wonder: “I like surprises,” Shostrom says. As with gardening, her creative process demands a lot of waiting. And the waiting, in her case, requires the openness to accept unpredictable outcomes. When fabric is dyed, you can’t know exactly what has happened, what color you’ve made, until it has been rinsed and dried. Sometimes pieces are dyed repeatedly; coupled with techniques that include bleaching, melting wax with a blowtorch, and burning with candles, erosion is inevitable. As in “Rose Nebula”—a piece “really abused by bleach,” according to the artist—the results can be extraordinarily strange and beautiful. A tablecloth that was once white, adorned with sweet, dainty pink roses, has been dyed and bleached and eroded nearly beyond recognition, so that the flowers seem not so much flowers but the vestiges or distant memory of flowers. Layered over several other fabrics, it’s like a map of an unknown country full of craters and valleys and shocks of vivid blue lakes. The erosion is so severe that some small portions of fabric seem to be hanging on by little more than a single thread (a condition familiar to anyone who has ever lived through a crisis). In some cases, Shostrom reinforces holes with embroidery. In others, she forgoes fortification and “lets breakage just do its thing.” There is tension here between what can be controlled and control that must be ceded. Decay comes to any garden, to any life; its force might be delayed, but it cannot be stopped. 

This approach is in accord with the elegiac nature of Harvest, throughout which a quietly consistent symbology is woven. Portions of the same fabrics appear in several pieces, creating an effect similar to musical motifs, and setting the works in a kind of conversation with each other. The fleur de lis materializes more than once. Other flowers appear again and again. Fruits and vegetables turn up. And then there are the cats: More than just signifying mystery in a broad universal way, as they do, they pay tribute to the artist’s own cat, who died long ago. Ghosts and shadows abound, perhaps nowhere more than in “Shade,” where vivid orange embroidery worked around two apertures fashions the eyes of a ghostly form. A large, jagged hole reveals dyed fabric printed with a design that resembles a ruined fortress seen from the sky (Shostrom uses the same fabric in “Harvest”). Subjected to the artist’s unpredictable and often frankly volatile methods, ordinary, everyday textiles are transformed into something that invokes the Romantic idea of the Sublime—the place where beauty and terror not only meet, but where the presence of each makes the other possible; it’s no accident she uses the Blakean spelling in the title of the piece called “Tyger.”

When a garden or field is harvested, it is, in a sense, destroyed—we all know death as the Grim Reaper, of course—but with the promise of the provision of nourishment, and the understanding that it will be replanted, and harvested again, and that the cycle will continue.  There will be new growth; there will be further destruction. And so on. A garden, as even the young Mary Lennox understood, is always the story of birth and death and rebirth, of fecundity and decay and fecundity again.

Whether we resist it or embrace it, believe in it or not, the larger story of the garden—that is to say, the Garden, and the fall therein—is inscribed indelibly on the collective consciousness (if not the very DNA) of the people of the so-called Western world.  Well, it’s a good story: In its movement from innocence to experience, it speaks of love, of life, of kinship, of betrayal, of sex, of death. It’s all in there, and the same is true of Ann Shostrom’s art. The spiritual impulses inherent in the work may be sublimated here, subverted there, strained against in certain instances (I am thinking particularly of “Insurgency”) and yielded to in others (such as “Fallen Apple” and “Gate”). Taken together, her constructions all take their place in the long line of the manifold tellings of that good, hard, old story. To tell it in an entirely new and revelatory and singularly moving way is Ann Shostrom’s stunning achievement in Harvest.