When it comes to visual art (paintings in particular), you can’t throw a rock without hitting a pastoral fantasy. Which may be why local artists Jeremy and Allyson Taylor’s reverence for nature comes as such a surprise.
“I definitely go to the grotesque,” Allyson says, “because I find it really beautiful and interesting. And sometimes disgusting and funny.”
As an example, she points to a drawing from “Growers,” her latest collaborative exhibition with her husband. “There’s a woman who’s drawn from behind, and she has this really big butt. All of these mushrooms and turkey tail fungus are growing out from her bottom. I think they’re really beautiful, but it’s also an image of stagnation. Like if you were to stand still for too long, you would start to grow things.”
Jeremy, too, draws pieces that highlight how humans and nature interact, using humor and absurdity to treat heavy subjects with relative lightness.
“[The exhibition has] three or four pieces of mine where animals have consumed toys, human parts or people,” he says. “I have one drawing where a deer is jumping over a pile of junk: a Jack-o’-lantern, a zombie head, a bomb, a ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ lunch box, a Nike shoe. It’s the idea that we generate all of this stuff and nature will persevere. It’s continually fighting back. In my mind, it’s a peaceful way of fighting back, but nature isn’t always so gentle.”
The Taylors know a thing or two about the ways of nature. Over the years, they’ve grown copious amounts of pigments, fibers and other materials for their art-making. At one point, they managed a 3,000-square-foot garden right in the middle of Belmont.
“The inks in our drawings are made with walnut ink that we make ourselves. You harvest the walnuts and boil them,” Jeremy says. “Occasionally we’ll make paper from the flax that we grow. Last year we grew cotton, too.”
“We grow pigments in our garden, indigo and rose madder and safflower, and then we use them to dye fabric,” Allyson says. “It’s so woven into everything. We grow our pigments right next to our food and herbs, and it’s just a part of life. Our daughter definitely identifies more plants than most adults because she’s been in the garden since she was in a little sling on our backs.”
“The other part of the work that’s not dyed is recycled. There’s a quilt in the show that has a chenille blanket we altered to make it look like the ocean. There are a few found objects,” Jeremy says. “Our process is very rigorous and oriented towards doing everything as sustainably as possible.”
But just to be clear, the Taylors aren’t preaching at you.
“There’s genuine love for animals and nature and the experiences we’ve had making our work,” Allyson says. “But we were born in the ’70s. We were born into better living through chemicals. We drive a car. We had a kid and doubled all the weird plastic things that came into our lives. We’re trying to do our best, but we don’t live in a tree in the woods. We’re commenting from within.”
When they met 16 years ago, at a graduate program at UNC Chapel Hill, Jeremy was already making environmental art and exploring sustainable ways to make art materials. His thesis focused on the impact that humans and industrialization have had on animals and the planet. (Even now, his artwork largely features prey animals like birds and rabbits and deer.)
Allyson, whose studio was across the hall from Jeremy’s classroom, made clothing at the time. She became intrigued by Jeremy’s research into making his own ink and paint.
“When I was an undergrad, one of my professors got sick from traditional art-making materials. He literally couldn’t be around certain things, so I learned a lot about non-toxic materials,” Allyson says. “After meeting Jeremy, I decided that I don’t want to use poisonous pigments or things that I can’t wash down the sink. I don’t want to worry about harming the water, or animals, or in the future harming a kid.”
As artists, the pair’s collaboration began by sharing skills—pattern-making for Jeremy, sewing for Allyson—and they were married within a year of meeting one another. Then they began making a collaborative body of work independent from their personal art portfolios.
The Taylors’ current Gallery IX exhibition includes 101 pieces of art. It’s the first time the couple has shown all of their pictorial quilts in one place.
“When we first put them all up, I felt really emotional about them,” Allyson says. “I saw all of the handwork that we put into them—many, many hours of hand sewing and embroidery—and I saw all of those plants we grew. I saw years of gardens, years of dyeing fabric and making thread, and putting it all to use in these images of people communing with animals or nature. It’s really exciting.”