In 1996 Santa Fe artist Tasha Ostrander completed Seventy-Three in a Moment, a large-scale wall-mounted piece composed of more than 26,000 paper butterflies. The title refers to what at the time was an average human life span and the significantly shorter life duration of a butterfly. Ostrander composed the piece by Xeroxing images of various butterfly species found in a field manual. She then hand-cut and attached them to a wooden surface built in segments. The butterflies are arranged in a series of concentric rings, and the overall piece — measuring 10 feet in diameter — is circular, giving it the appearance of a mandala.
Seventy-Three in a Moment was in a private collection before being acquired for the permanent collection at the New Mexico Museum of Art, where it will be on exhibit later this year. The piece is now being treated at the conservation lab of the New Mexico History Museum.
“It’s all being taken apart and cleaned and restored,” Ostrander told Pasatiempo. “It’s quite amazing to me that it lasted this long. It took me a year to make. I worked eight hours a day, no Sundays off. Quite often I’ve used just simple materials. It’s more about the time put into something than the preciousness of the materials. The butterfly mandala is a good example of that. It will decompose, eventually. The conservators said it would last maybe 25 to 30 years, which is a long time, because it’s already lasted over 15.”
Seventy-Three in a Moment references the ephemeral and transient nature of life, and the simple materials Ostrander used in its making have an appropriately fragile quality. “I have always been interested in life and death. The more we’re aware of death, the more we’re alive.”
Along with themes of life and death, the artificial means by which we experience nature — as specimens under glass, for instance — have preoccupied Ostrander throughout her career. She has worked in large and small formats, sometimes creating installations made up of wall-mounted and free-standing components. An example is her 1997 installation Quinter’s Thought Trap, an environment intended to represent an abstract portrait of a fictional character, though inspired by an actual person. “Eric Quinter was a famed butterfly collector. What I was talking about in this piece is the strange things people do in order to connect with nature. Quinter deals with nature basically through capturing it and then putting it in these cases and attaching a title and language to it. I love obsessive occupations and people. I made different parts for the installation that represented his ways of thinking, that overrode his experience of nature, or they had become his experience of nature.”
Quinter’s Thought Trap includes several steel cases that Ostrander fitted with electric light bulbs and mechanical parts. Real butterfly specimens whirl inside the cases, and a small desk with a built-in display case contains bits of text under glass that take on the same commodified appearance as a butterfly collection or a similar natural-history collection.
Ostrander followed Quinter’s Thought Trap with Death Wishes, a large-scale installation dealing with life and death, this one based on her grandfather. The piece incorporates several chromogenic prints of a deer against a red background, a reference to her grandfather’s time as a big-game hunter. “I did another show at Chiaroscuro that was called Powder that was also sort of about life and death — gunpowder and the powder from pollen in the forest, because it was about the death of the forest.”
Ostrander works in a variety of mediums. Older works, such as those in her Alchemical Equation series, include steel-framed assemblages fitted with test tubes and glass jars containing organic materials. She has also made works on paper. “In the very beginning, I did a lot of paintings and work on paper that had to do with alchemy and mathematics — mostly geometry. What I’ve always been interested in with alchemy is this idea of taking a base material and transforming it into something else. I don’t do a lot of study for a piece because I feel my intuition is much stronger than my intellect. There’s a lot of technical problems to solve. I’ll get an idea really fast, and then it’s all about how to make it interesting, what materials to use, and how it’s going to come about. When a piece is actually done, I realize they’re very organized, very contained. I always want everything to translate into a beautiful interpretation in the end. Aesthetics come before the concept. The concept is important, but I believe a piece has to be beautiful because we’re losing a lot of that these days with a lot of conceptual art. It’s very dry and leaves you with this cold feeling, and I don’t think you remember those kinds of pieces that much.”
Ostrander’s more recent work includes a series of mandala images inspired by wabi-sabi, the Japanese principle of imperfect beauty. The wabi-sabi pieces are minimalist works composed of slivers of cut paper arranged in asymmetrical patterns. These pieces relate in terms of material to Seventy-Three in a Moment but contrast with her more involved, technical installations from the 1990s.
“Over the lifetime experience of an artist, you finally get to a point where you can take any material and do something with it,” she said. “Recently I’ve worked in glass with Stacey Neff at the New Mexico Experimental Glass Workshop. That was something I had no experience in whatsoever. We ended up making some great pieces. Stacy really enjoyed working with mature artists because that’s what they could do; they could come into an environment with the materials and just start to work. There’s nothing that gets in the middle of that experience. The current works on paper, for me, are these organic, very peaceful pieces. The color varies, but I go through the same process for each one. The result is very different in subtle ways. That’s where that wabi-sabi idea comes in. I’m such a perfectionist that, in the beginning, if things didn’t go in the direction I wanted them to go, I wouldn’t finish the piece. Then I thought, I’ve got to give the piece a life of its own. I love this organic quality that comes out. The background theme is our inner nature in reference to the natural world. It’s a celebration, but there’s also sorrow. There’s a sadness to our loss of nature.” ◀