Art Review: Una Ryan’s ‘Messengers’ ‘mellow and satisfying’

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115151897932449.jpg’, ‘Photo by Susan Webb Tregay’, ‘Rockford artist Una Ryan’s “Messengers” will be on display at Kortman Gallery through July 31.’);

Una Ryan’s popular new exhibition at Kortman Gallery crosses time, cultures and ideas. While rescuing vintage fabrics and rekindling an interest in old, nearly lost, needlework skills, she is a messenger for the modern ideas of conserving and recycling. But by painstakingly selecting imagery and patterns from her vast collection of Japanese kimonos, she is also a messenger for nurturing and cultural respect—ancient canons for getting along on this planet.

Each work is a small, quilted wall-hanging of subtle palettes, patterns and words. “Listen” is made particularly intriguing because of Ryan’s use of black lace. The lace seems to be a screen that separates the viewer from a bird singing on an apple blossom limb. For Ryan, her birds can be calling warnings, joyful greetings or “something more interior.” Tucked away—and nearly invisible—is the piece’s title, “Listenten.” The letters, created in black beading on a dark brown background, implore us to listen carefully or we may miss the song, for we are on the inside looking out.

Another work, “Endangered Species,” reflects both a concern for the environment and a plea for peace. Using violent reds and black, Ryan chose an image of a red, origami crane—a now-familiar symbol of peace—as her defining swatch of fabric. Vintage fabrics with patterns on black build out from this central figure. Beading, embroidery and antique sequins meld the sections together, while its title is embroidered in the bottom of its fabric “frame.”

This resurgence of women’s crafts as parts of fine art pieces is an interesting turn of events in today’s art world. Una Ryan has always worked in this sphere, but she feels attending the 1987 workshop in surface design at the famous Penland School of Crafts near Asheville, N.C., was a turning point for her. For her, this workshop “legitimized” the skills learned from her mother and grandmother. Ryan is also fortunate to have a mentor, Sass Colby, whom she occasionally studies with in Taos, N.M. Discussing art and sharing ideas is vital to nurturing the development of every artist at any age and level of experience.

Several of Una Ryan’s pieces in her exhibition are obis, the traditional sashes that are tied around the waist of Japanese kimonos. Made from vintage silks, they are lined with new fabric to add substance and strength to the works. At Kortman’s, they are elegantly hung from bamboo rods as subtle, narrow wall hangings, but they can also be worn as scarves—or obis. Una Ryan’s art flows from the functional to “fun” in just a few steps around the gallery. Two pieces are of “Buddha Babies,” chosen both because she wanted to rescue these figures from a seriously deteriorating, pre-World War II obi, and because she loved the playfulness of the figures. These Buddha-like “immortals” each hold a symbolic object—from temple bells to a fan symbolizing the air and wind. I found the age of these laughing figures and their resemblance to today’s cartoon imagery interesting. From Strawberry Shortcake to the violent, Manga graphic novels, their big, round eyes and, in some cases, heads are said to have migrated from the Disney studios to Japan. Now I wonder which direction these styles flowed in Disney’s cartoon heyday.

From the humorous, to environmental reminders, to narrow wall hangings for the person who “has no space left for art,” Una Ryan’s body of work is mellow and satisfying. Her exhibit, “Messengers,” will be on display at Kortman’s Gallery, upstairs from J.R. Kortman Center for Design, until July 31. At 107 N. Main St., in downtown Rockford, the gallery is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday-Saturday.

From the June 28-Jul 4, 2006, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!