Amy Bilden started drawing roses after visiting her ill grandmother in the small town of Mountain, N.D. The University of Montana art alumna had taken leave from her job as an art curator in Connecticut to check in on her grandmother in the hospital. Stopping by the house to make sure everything was in order, she saw that her grandmother's rose bush was empty except for one flower. Bilden says she placed the rose in a rose bowl, like her grandmother would have done, and went to the hospital.
"She'd had rose bushes her entire life," says Bilden of her grandmother. "She always put them in this one rose bowl on the table and so I cut this rose off...and put it in the rose bowl. When I went to the hospital I told her about it and it was the first time in days that she was cognizant. All of sudden she was awake. She was so excited and so happy."
When Bilden returned to Connecticut she started obsessively drawing roses on old, discolored filing cards for an art project—though she wasn't sure what direction the project would take. On the first card, marked with the number "1," she sketched one rose, and on the second card, marked "2," she drew two roses, and so on. Two weeks later, as Bilden finished drawing number "17," her grandmother died. She flew back to North Dakota for the funeral, and discovered that while she was away her grandmother's rose bush had fully bloomed.
"That same rose bush that was totally empty of roses—that I had cut the one rose from—was completely filled," says Bilden. "So in the same time I was making these roses, that had happened."
The rose project eventually became Bilden's new exhibit, titled Mending Broken Limbs, which opens this week at The Brink Gallery. The show features 48 mixed media drawings that include the graphite roses, as well as an installation made from cast sticks, bones, found paper and masking tape.
For the installation, Bilden collected a couple hundred sticks, which she cast in white compound and sanded down to create the illusion of bone. Those sticks are stacked together with real animal bones, culled from friends in Montana and neatly cleaned. The found paper comes from old geological survey maps, phone books, old encyclopedias and scraps she kept from UM's art department when she was getting her bachelor's degree, and she used that collected paper to make three-dimensional roses that sit on top of the bones and sticks.
The bright white color of the sculpture and the idea of mending limbs—tree and animal—come from Bilden's association with the western landscape and the objects of her childhood. Though Bilden spent most of her life in Miles City, Mont., the rest of her family—part of the largest immigrant group of Icelanders outside of Iceland, she says—has been in North Dakota for over 150 years. Bilden spent her childhood there visiting her grandmother, who was a nurse, and her grandfather, who owned a pharmacy where he spent his days counting white pills.
"The materials are really important to me," Bilden says. "I always pay really close attention to what I'm using. The paper was definitely corresponding to the aesthetic that I associate with my family history. When I did my thesis too, I used a lot of the materials from the drug store, and so I'm constantly looking for things that connect me to that familial experience."
Bilden's worked with paper in past art projects, including using scraps of her grandmother's old wallpaper. During a 2006 artist residency in India she actually created pattern work on paper with henna. The process of making something new, she says, fit with the experience of living in a new culture and being inspired by the material at hand. Mending Broken Bones, on the other hand, is much more about found objects that speak to Bilden's memories. There's a kind of obsessiveness in the exhibit that's evoked from Bilden's careful ordering of files, drawing of roses and the way in which she cast and sanded each stick.
"I'm always trying to create order in what I'm doing and I find I do that constantly," she says. "I really like to compartmentalize these experiences and so I found that having the numbers and sort of the file system of the drawings helped push me through to the other side of what I was trying to accomplish."
The process reminded her, she says, of the care and repetition that it takes to count pills, or mend broken people, or patch together cloth.
"I called it Mending Broken Limbs because of the tree limbs and bones and my need to fix them and myself," she says. "And it comes from that upbringing in the family tradition of farmers and caretakers where everything's based on the land and the seasons. All my art projects I take on with that mentality, that constant doing."
Amy Bilden's Mending Broken Limbs opens at The Brink Gallery Friday, Dec. 3, with a reception from 5 to 8 PM. Free.