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Barbara Safran de Niverville
Sottobosco: The Forest Floor / Le sol de la forêt

by Peter J. Larocque, Art Curator, New Brunswick Museum
March 28, 2019

Between September 1959 and November 1963, the New Brunswick Museum held six “Meet the Artist” exhibitions featuring the work of provincial artists who had not yet had a solo exhibition here. Each exhibition gave the public an opportunity to see the artist’s recent work, have a personal encounter and to gain a broader sense of contemporary art in New Brunswick.
In the same spirit as the exhibition series from half a century ago, the renewed Meet the Artist series revives the goal of highlighting the work of artists from around the province and presenting them to new audiences so as to encourage awareness, dialogue and conversation.

Amidst the tangle on the forest floor exists a rich layer of life. In most art, the forest floor is rarely seen for the forest and the trees. Yet this undergrowth houses an endless variety of flora, fauna and geology as well as plentiful inspiration for those who choose to contemplate it. Barbara Safran de Niverville casts her penetrating artist’s eye and hand into this abundant subject matter to coax delicate and considered renderings of the nature she finds there.

Inspired and informed by Sottobosco, a sub-genre of 17
th-century Dutch still-life painting, these drawings are the result of the artist’s 2018 residency at Terra Nova National Park on the east coast of Newfoundland. The sottobosco tradition focused attention on a specific aspect of landscape, the forest floor and its undergrowth, a subject that was widely considered insignificant or undeserving of attention. This was partly the result of contemporaneous advancements in technology, especially equipment like the microscope, that revealed a whole new domain that soon became worthy of study in both art and science. Safran de Niverville is also fascinated by fractals – infinite, repetitive patterns found in nature that often differ in scale – like the unfurling fronds of a fern for example. Both these interests respect the mysterious and enigmatic power of a remarkable and precarious natural world.

The artist has also been exploring the seemingly random character of nature…in some of her other projects this idea has been reinforced by irregularly shaped paper or background supports…some of which were produced by burning sections or edges…a courageously destructive step that appears to contradict the urge to create. In this group of drawings, Safran de Niverville has worked from a black background. This colour implies mystery and fertility as well as the fullness of infinite possibility. The asymmetry of the compositions reinforces the sense of organic growth and regeneration. An irregular patch of
Bunchberry Plants takes on the ethereal beauty of a nocturnal garden revealed as if by moonlight as it meanders across the picture plane. The darkness also enables a subtle chiaroscuro that is used to dramatic effect of in the suggestion of space, form, movement and time in the unfolding and spiraling Cinnamon Fern.

These drawings sometimes take on the air of scientific analysis: empirical examination, description, cataloguing and documentation. A cluster of tender
Lady’s Slippers emerges into the light from sprout to full blossom almost like a time-lapsed collection of botanical specimens.

The resemblance of the
Old Man’s Beard to the agitated strokes of a gesture drawing, the mapping of a geographical landscape feature, or the image produced by a modern medical scan, is delightfully ambiguous in both scale and subject. Rock Lichens abandons conventional references to perspective and achieves monumentality with what could be an intimate microscopic study.

At times Safran de Niverville balances the extremes of the particular and the general. In
Rock Egg, an ovoid stone emblazoned with lichen materializes from obscurity into focus. It is very specific in its portrayal yet it is so familiar that it becomes a universal symbol. In effect, she has distilled the essential elements from what is observed and has eloquently refined them into a simple and powerful statement.

By extracting a single feature from amidst the tangle on the surface of the landscape, Safran de Niverville reveals the understated dignity found in the boreal and Acadian forests of the Atlantic region. Implicit in these works is a worthwhile environment that is vulnerable to human incursion. These drawings record an investment of time, contemplation and appreciation of the unassuming yet necessary beauty of the world around us.

Drawing : Old Man's Beard 2018 Pencil crayon on toned paper 56cm x 76.2 cm
Dessin : Barbe de veillard 2018 Crayon de couleur sur papier teinté 56cm x 76.2 cm

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Pasted Graphic 1 The Rooms Corp. NL Pasted Graphic 2 Parks Canada Terra Nova