Retracing Jefferson’s footsteps at the Anthenaeum

Retracing Jefferson’s footsteps at the Anthenaeum

By Jennifer Powell (Photo/Jennifer Powell)

The beautiful starkness of the Anthenaeum may be the perfect place to view Suzanne Stryk’s two-years-in-the-making artistic and historical exhibit, “Notes on the State of Virginia.”

Stryk’s personal take on Thomas Jefferson’s book of the same name is inspired by Jefferson’s diligent notes on 18th-century Virginia and its natural wonders.

The recipient of a 2011 Virginia Commission for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship in support of the endeavor, Stryk traveled the state and visited many of the places Jefferson described, met with local guides and created works based on her reflections. Each of the 26 assemblages created from 2011 through 2013 is a richly detailed and layered visual treat, both artistically excellent and steeped in the history and ecology of Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson’s 1785 book was a response to the queries of an 18th-century diplomat to the U.S. and a zoologist, who doubted that Virginia was up to the excellence of Europe. Jefferson’s detailed account of the state’s many animals and diverse plants provided evidence to the contrary.

In her own series 230 years later, Stryk seeks to further Jefferson’s adage, “The earth belongs to the living,” by documenting her own personal responses to the natural and human layers seen in the present cultural and natural state of Virginia. Some pieces explore areas Jefferson described in the original work, but others focus on places in the state now ecologically or culturally distinctive. To create this series, Stryk researched and traveled to areas in Virginia’s Coastal Plain, Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Valley and Ridge, and Appalachian Plateau regions.

Inside the Anthenaeum, a large topographical map of the commonwealth is host to 26 pins pointing to Stryk’s areas of exploration. The map serves as the exhibit’s centerpiece and point of departure for her corresponding 26 multi-media works. Each of the works appears to be an enlarged, highly detailed and multifaceted representation of the region it depicts.

With each assemblage, Stryk combines science with art, high tech with natural materials. “Bridge” incorporates ground stone samples collected at Lexington’s Natural Bridge site along with genetic sequences of a swallow — a bird Jefferson likely would have seen swooping near that stone arch and one she spotted on her trip. Be prepared to wonder if “Bridge” is a mirror of the swallow’s evolutionary genome markings against the sedimentary layers of the naturally occurring bridge or a marriage of the two.

Closer to home is “Looking Backwards [Piedmont Region], 2011-2013.” A mixed-media work, “Looking Backwards” utilizes materials such as a topographical map, clay from Poplar Forest (Jefferson’s retreat, and where he wrote most of his book) modeling paste, acrylic on Mylar — eyes painted from Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of Jefferson — plants and a measuring tape.

From Stryk’s other works, ranging in title from “Dialogue on the Tides,” “Pilgrim,” “Life Cycle,” “Coal Tattoo,” “Flyway,” “Jefferson’s Secret,” “Urban Nest,” and “Sacrament,” viewers get a visceral sense of places like the Great Dismal Swamp, a common hiding place for runaway slaves, Appomattox, the Chesapeake and Natural Bridge.

Working off a base image of a topographical map, materials such as regional grass, feathers, Mylar, glass, paint, rapidograph pen, plant stains, printed text and even shoe leather and insects are collaged together in multiple layers. There is enough detail in the materials and construct of Stryk’s work here for any historian, artist or enthusiast to dissect and contemplate.

Stryk’s works can be examined from all angles to glimpse how she layers so many seemingly incongruent media into highly aesthetic records of human and natural history.

While most of the works are hung at an adult’s eye level, children upwards of 3rd grade will enjoy this exhibit as much as adults. The opportunity for a great Virginia scavenger hunt awaits and can be aided by the museum’s knowledgeable and well-versed staff.

The last piece of Stryk’s installation is a Wunderkammer — “cabinet of curiosities” — table installation, which features organic specimens such as a horseshoe crab, along with the artist’s notebooks, ink pens and sketches that acts like a miniature natural history museum.

“Notes on the State of Virginia” is at the Anthenaeum, 201 Prince St. through January 31, 2016, with an artist’s talk on January 31 at 3 p.m. For more information, call 703-548-0035 or visit