Once upon a time, there was an artist named Laura Peturson. She lived in a forest in northern Ontario with her husband, daughter, and son. The children spent their days among the tangle of trees, playing in that magical space where stories grow. Meanwhile, their mother watched from afar, keeping them safe from harm. And because she was an artist, she sketched as they climbed among fallen branches, capturing their playful movement.
“I remember getting lost in the world of fairy tales as a child,” says Laura Peturson from her home in North Bay, Ontario. Primarily a printmaker, Peturson takes inspiration from children absorbed in imaginative play. “In many fairy tales, the woods recur as an archetype of a place of beauty, but also a place on the edge of safety,” she says. “I’m interested in how children find that edge in their play when they are not in the presence of adults.” Reminiscent of 19th-century children’s book illustrations, Peturson’s art is at once enthralling and haunting. It captures both the innocence and emotional complexity of childhood.
Opening Thursday, July 8, a selection of Peturson’s prints will be exhibited alongside works by Mitra Walter and Melanie Vote at AMZehnder Gallery in Wellfleet. “I put this show together during the pandemic and was looking for art that would reach viewers’ emotions and take them back to a more sentimental time,” says gallerist Anne-Marie Zehnder. “I connect Laura’s work to a feeling of the Outer Cape long ago, of children exploring the woods and kettle ponds, of families camping out. My hope is that viewers will feel moved and comforted.”
Peturson’s drawings of her children form the basis for her prints. But capturing them in motion is challenging. She has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and mathematics from York University in Toronto and studied at the New York City Academy of Art. She says that a class in animal anatomy prepared her.
“The instructor would take us outside to draw police horses,” says Peturson. “He showed us that, while animals don’t stand still, they return, over and over again, to the same kind of position in an almost circular pattern of movement. Kids are similar. If you keep watching, you’ll get that initial gesture again. Sometimes it can be hard for me now to draw adults.”
Peturson’s series In the Home explores domestic scenes that bring to mind those of Mary Cassatt and William Merritt Chase. A linocut and screenprint titled Paper Lantern is an homage to John Singer Sargent. “We were at an outdoor wedding in northern Ontario that was lit by paper lanterns,” Peturson says. “My daughter and some of the other little girls there were playing with the lanterns, and I was immediately reminded of Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. The scene before me was like a living tableau.”
In an immersive mural project reminiscent of John Tenniel’s original Alice in Wonderland illustrations, Peturson depicts children exploring a field of oversized plants. “I think a lot about children’s relationship to their environment, and how the surroundings they grow up in shape their sense of identity,” she says. Titled Wasteland/Wanderland, Peturson’s mural highlights invasive, non-native species such as hogweed, which was imported from Asia to North America. Hogweed can cause a serious skin inflammation when touched, making it dangerous not only to native ecology but also to humans.
In 2013, the landscape surrounding Peturson’s home was devastated by a tornado. “Very, very old trees came down, causing a real sense of sadness and loss,” says Peturson, “and at the same time all these amazing new spaces were created for us to climb and play in.” Above the Falls is an example of a work Peturson created to explore the sense of melancholy and optimism that an altered landscape can offer.
More recently, the pandemic inspired Peturson to think about the passage of time in her work. “I’ve been experiencing an almost painful sense of nostalgia,” she says. “Time during the pandemic has felt like it’s speeding up and slowing down at once, much like the experience of raising children. My daughter, who is 11, is this incredible, imaginative spirit. To think that she’s on that edge of adolescence has led me to mourn our life as it is now.”
Though her children are inevitably growing older, Peturson doesn’t expect her subject matter to change significantly. “I might go back and explore my own childhood,” she says. “Some of my memories of games my brother invented for us are quite cinematic and might translate well into narrative images.” Choosing the right moment to turn into a print relies on paring down, finding a narrative element of ambiguity or mystery, she says: “A single facial expression or gesture may hold a poetic resonance.”
The event: A show of works by Laura Peturson, alongside those by Mitra Walter and Melanie Vote
The time: Thursday, July 8 through July 20; reception Saturday, July 10 from 6 to 8 p.m.
The place: AMZehnder Gallery, 25 Bank St., No. 3, Wellfleet
The cost: Free