In one of the pieces for her “River Journal” series, now on view in the Grand Hand Gallery, painter Katie Musolff observes, “Amazing, how two things that have so much in common can be so different.” The small watercolor accompanying the text depicts a topside view of a pair of giant swallowtails – side by side, wings spread wide. The identifying markers are true to type; both display the swallowtail’s hallmark diagonal band of yellow spots-on-black forewing. Look closely, and you can see the sort of differences the artist notes. The butterfly on the left, in particular, is a little beaten up: part of one antenna has broken off; the left wing is notched here and there – evidence of old injuries and run-ins, I imagine — and its tail on that side is entirely missing; its spots are relatively muddy compared to the clarity of patterning on the insect just beside it.
Throughout the small gallery space are similarly meticulous nature studies of the flora and fauna near Musolff’s home in Stoddard, Wisconsin. “River Journal” consists of a year’s worth of observations: she painted fish that washed up to shore, carefully collected found insects and road kill, downed birds and the remains of various common critters – rabbits, squirrels, field mice, and the like – she discovered along the Mississippi River, in the environs of Wisconsin’s Vernon County. She notes that none of the creatures in her watercolor journals series were harmed for the making of the work: all were collected as she found them, dead already or, if living, released none the worse for her examinations.
Musolff’s not particularly interested in picture-perfect specimens, showy color or natural grandeur – quite the opposite. In one entry, she writes, “I’ve always liked moths, because of the fact that they take time and patience to appreciate. The never get the recognition that they’re due.” The same could be said of all her chosen subjects. She draws your eye to the unexpected dignity of a ground squirrel in death’s repose: arms crossed at the wrist, supine and vulnerable, almost prayerful. She paints a still-dirty, homegrown onion, its sun-singed green tops curling just so, and celebrates the irregular bulges and stubborn tendrils of a late-fall beet (“much better than last year’s beets”). It’s not the colorful bloom so much as the pockmarked, bug-eaten leaves of the purple coneflower she calls to your attention.
There’s a surprising grace in these unsentimental studies; Musolff’s careful way of looking is evident in every image. She’s an astute observer of the marks of time and occurrence left on the form of her subjects, the tell-tale idiosyncrasies that distinguish them as individuals. There’s something almost sacramental in the technical finesse she brings to the project: the painstaking brushwork she uses to evince a rabbit’s plush fur (“end of the notorious garden nibbler”); the lush gradations of texture and subtleties of color revealed in her moth’s wing. The intimacy of her studies betrays something more than the clinical scrutiny of a naturalist – these portraits feel personal. She’s captured something of the here-and-gone singularity of each life (and death) she documents, rendering for us, in paint on paper, what’s vital and fleeting and remarkable in every single one, no matter how humble.
“River Journal,” paintings by Katie Musolff is on view through April 28 at the Grand Hand Gallery, 691 Grand Avenue, St. Paul. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday; noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday; closed Monday. Admission is free and open to the public.