One recent afternoon, artist Julie Wolfe was between projects. Her paints and pencils put away, she had arranged a beguiling vignette in the second-floor studio of her Capitol Hill townhouse. Two new oil paintings hung on a wall behind others grouped flat on the floor. Teetering in between, a column of colorful books punctuated the bold hues of the paintings, while the gentle curves of an antique settée set off abstract geometries in the art.
“I like putting things that are practical into a visual form that is beautiful,” said the artist. She was referring to one of the paintings, loosely based on an unlikely source—DC Transit’s Metro map. But her message about combining beauty and purpose might easily have applied to the inviting arrangement in her studio. Or to her recent water-bottle installations in Washington and Berlin, Germany.
For those displays, Wolfe collected water, vegetation, and sediment over three years, mainly from waterways around DC including the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, as well as in Berlin. Filling glass jars with the samples, she added organic and toxic chemical compounds, plus colored pigments, producing a rainbow of hues. The luminous jars stacked in rows take on the brilliance of art glass.
“Beauty draws people to find that I’m making a strong statement about the environment,” says Wolfe. Viewers who take a closer look-see changing compositions of plant and animal extractions in varied stages of decomposition. “Each sample shows how toxic chemicals and waste that might get dumped into the waterways react over time,” Wolfe observes. “It shows the damage that’s being done or can be done to our environment.” [The DC installation can be seen day or night through a lobby window at the southwest corner of 17th & L Streets, NW, through December 31, 2015.]
Wolfe extends the links through the many facets of her art. In some cases, she mixes water from the samples with water-based painting materials such as transparent watercolor, opaque gouache, and ink. Algae grown in the jars or in her garden is distilled as a natural pigment for painting. Video documents the movement of organisms inside the jars; separate moments are captured in still photography.
Wolfe sometimes combines oil paint with natural pigments ground from the silvery-gray mineral hematite, or from malachite and lapis lazuli. The materials cross over to gemstones used in the metal jewelry she also fabricates in her studio. These refined, sculptural pieces have been sold at Barney’s for 20 years.
“I like to connect everything, to show how one thing influences another,” says the artist, who sees these links as part of systems, whether ecological or language-based. The roots of those connections run deep.
Growing up in Houston, Texas, Wolfe remembers happy journeys with her brother and father, a biologist, as they explored the countryside in search of snakes, lizards, and bugs. She was fascinated with water, loved to fish, and recalls “collecting bottles of water with little tadpoles in them”—an early sign of her affinity for water samples.
After graduating with a degree in fine arts from the University of Texas at Austin, Wolfe worked as a book designer. She credits that experience with her love of words and graphic approach to design. One current series combines both. As a surface for painting, the artist uses mellowed pages removed from old books. Words extracted from the text inspired a lexicon of personal symbols, the basis for each design. “It’s spontaneous, intuitive. It’s whatever shape, whatever color comes to mind,” Wolfe explains about the creative process. Lines, dots, and arrows connect the abstract elements. In one group, 48 pages from a single book have been hung together in the grid formation.
Wolfe prefers to start with a reference point, as she did with the books, rather than face a blank canvas. Her paintings in oil or acrylic, typically five feet square, often show circles or other forms in sharp relief against an obscured background. A sense of depth and dimension, of one shape floating on another, arises from the flat surface. That illusion, Wolfe points out, relates to the real, yet tiny landscapes in her water jars.
Reflecting again on that exhibit, the artist confirms the importance of aesthetics in the firmament of her work. She emphasizes the power of art to promote discussion, political expression, and social change. Noticing pedestrians accidentally happening upon her display among DC office buildings, she observes, “Even if people don’t know what an installation is, they read the posted signs and start conversations. They learn more about art, and they see that it can be so many things.”
Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Greg Staley is a photographer in Washington, DC. For more information on the artist, contact Hemphill (hemphillfinearts.com; 202-234-5601) or visit juliewolfedesign.com.