Chroma’s ‘Nesting Materials’ has an elegant science at its center

Suzanne Stryk’s “Nesting Materials” is on view at Chroma Projects through May 27. Courtesy of the artist Suzanne Stryk’s “Nesting Materials” is on view at Chroma Projects through May 27. Courtesy of the artist

Local artist Suzanne Stryk has always been fascinated by nests.

“When I was 8, I loved to page through a Little Golden book, The Wonder Book of Birds. And then in fourth grade, my grandmother gave me Wonders in Your Own Backyard for Christmas,” writes Stryk in her artist’s statement.

“I never outgrew the ideas in those books—birds and wonder, going on nearly six decades now. I’m still awed by watching a bird construct a nest. A single feather—nothing could be more astonishing. And how do tiny coils in a bird’s DNA code its ability to navigate by the stars?”

‘Nesting Materials’
On display through May 27
Chroma Projects

A Chicago native who minored in biology and once worked as a scientific illustrator, Stryk is known for conceptual paintings that highlight the natural world. Her latest exhibit at Chroma Projects, “Nesting Materials,” focuses entirely on birds and—you guessed it—their nests.

“It’s not just birds’ nests as they are,” Stryk says. “It’s also our response to nests and birds and the natural world in general. The idea of nest building relates to our wish for security, for constructing things, for organizing and many layers of our personal experience.”

“I’m fascinated by the cross-pollination of two unrelated things. You put sheet music and birds together and it makes a new thing, a kind of dialogue between nature and culture.”  Suzanne Stryk

She invites viewers to dig into their own ideas by painting, sculpting and constructing nests from unusual materials. (“Doing so makes me all the more impressed that birds can build them without hands!” she says.)

In “Nesting Materials” one nest is made entirely of sheet music. Another is composed of strands from the avian genome.

“I’m fascinated by the cross-pollination of two unrelated things,” Stryk says. “You put sheet music and birds together and it makes a new thing, a kind of dialogue between nature and culture. And that could lead your thoughts anywhere.”

While encouraging viewers to make their own meaning, she often returns to favorite symbols, like genomes.

“I started with the DNA double helix in the ’90s, when I became fascinated with genetics as the nonfiction myth of our time,” she says. “I’m told by science that there’s an invisible genetic code behind the way birds look and behave, and the way I look and behave. You can kind of get genetics as coding the way something looks, but behavior like nest building and migration, it’s astonishing.”

Speaking of impulses, Stryk says she’s noticed a pattern among people who view her work: Nearly everyone is attracted to vortexes.

“A vortex is a kind of a spiral, and a nest is a kind of vortex. Many people can’t explain why they’re so attracted to them, but I have a hunch,” she says.

“As a shape, the vortex has a lot of movement, a lot of variety, and the sense that it’s going around like a cyclone. And yet it’s centered in a stable form. I think that that’s what we strive for in life: lively movement, and yet we want to be centered and stable.”

That’s also where the exploration of nests has led Stryk as an artist. Her thematically consistent body of work opens the door to reveal the mysteries inherent in what we think we know.

“I want to reveal the mysteries that are,” she says. “Because no matter how far we go scientifically, there are always unanswerable things out there. Science explains so much, but it doesn’t explain the why.”

Nor can science explain concepts like beauty and our need to connect with something deep and much bigger than us.

“Art is all the more important when it illuminates science and the natural world for us,” Stryk says. “Because so many of us are left cold by data. I mean, it’s very interesting, it’s very important. I can look at a genetic sequence and say, ‘Oh my God, this shows that life is all made up of the same things, like the Taoists said 2,000 years ago,’ but you know. Most people need a story to garner metaphorical meaning from things.”

That’s how a painting of a nest becomes a tool not just for exploration but activism and preservation of the things that matter most.

“Art gives us a story,” Stryk says. “When art connects to scientific data, when art connects to nature, we respond to it personally. And if we respond to it personally, it becomes much more important to us.”