On a rainy October day, Joan Needham walks out to her deck, surrounded by lush greenery. On the wooden planks are two long green curved things, snuggled up against each other. The Italian squash plants, suggestive of Needham’s long-tall sculptural works such as “Boojums,” grew beyond her imagination in the well-tended garden. Although the Sourland Mountains is known for inhospitable soil, it has proved fertile ground for the artist.
She has left the nesting oblongs for her grandchildren to discover. A bright yellow butterfly has perched nearby, as if to bid adieu to the season. Needham picks up the expired creature, examines the pattern of design on its frail yellow wings, and sets it back down, as if it is part of the sculpture of life.
“I live in nature,” says Needham, 77, who draws and writes in a journal every day, and takes long walks in the woods.
She is preparing for Joan B. Needham: Alterations, A Retrospective on view at Rider University Gallery October 25 through December 2.
A professor at Mercer County Community College for 33 years, Needham ran the printmaking department before retiring in 2004. She is credited with introducing papermaking to central New Jersey, after studying with master papermaker Laurence Barker in Barcelona.
While volunteering to teach linoleum block printing to women in South Africa, Needham came across a bed of seaweed that inspired a four-part sculpture, “Thing in Itself.” Looking like monstrous tangles that washed up from the sea, they are composed of manmade objects – ropes, silicone rubber, surgical tubing, metal, handmade paper, waxed leather, thread – yet exude the organic disarray of nature. It can be hard to distinguish what is organic from what may be, say, medical waste – and that seems to be the point of “Thing in Itself.”
“I started photographing it. It was fascinating – beautiful and ugly all at the same time, right up my alley – and all about pollution and accumulations and stuff connected to other things,” Needham writes.
Experimentation has always been important to her. “I don’t mind failing and starting over again,” she says. “In fact, failing is part of the process. My sculptures can exist by themselves and if they fall down, I try to come up with an idea similar to that of an engineer, to fix them. It is important that you interact with my work: the sculptures attract attention and provoke curiosity. I want them to be open and sometimes welcoming, but impenetrable.”
In the Rider Gallery, one whole wall is filled with a photo mural of “Puffer.” The sculpture, weighing more than 1,000 pounds, is site specific on her rolling Hopewell landscape, where deer and nine grandchildren climb in and out of it like a jungle gym. It was inspired by the interlocking patterns and seeming weightlessness of Ai Weiwei’s Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, where the 2008 Summer Olympics were held.
“I wanted it to look like a drawing in stainless steel,” she said. “It has no main entrance, and invites discovery and play.”
In front of the photomural is “Creeper,” a 23-foot-long stainless steel form that suggests a caterpillar with windows and knotted sections of screening.
At the center of the gallery is an environ Needham has created from threads and strings and wire, as well as vines from her woods, intertwined to form an enclosure. “My ongoing interest in infusing man-made materials like metal and plastic with organic materials has always been important to me,” she said.
Needham grew up in Merion, Pa., just down the street from Dr. Albert C. Barnes. Her father, a shoe designer, and mother encouraged Joan’s artistic abilities, as did teachers.
At Moore College of Art, she set out to major in fashion design, making swirling skirts with crinolines and wild taffeta tops with “monstrous” sleeves, but when visiting the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, she discovered the sculpture galleries. “Ultimately, I wanted… (to) create small strange abstract sculptures.”
On one wall hang four large works in handmade paper. Mostly black, with hints of reds and yellows, they are scarified, as if by the hands of a human gone mad, confined in a dark cave with no way to get out. Needham had cave paintings in mind while creating these works.
Joan B. Needham: Alterations, A Retrospective, is on view at Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, Rider University, Lawrenceville, October 25-December 2. Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Opening reception Thursday, October 25, 5 to 7 p.m. Needham will present an artist talk Thursday, November 8, 7 p.m., in the Fireside Lounge in the Bart Luedeke Center. the www.rider.edu/artgallery; (609) 895-5588.
The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.