Amanda McCavour turns the Chazen Museum’s courtyard into an ephemeral prairie

Floating flora embraces the scale of the modernist building

An ethereal meadow of floating flowers fills the courtyard of the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this spring, created by artist Amanda McCavour as a homage to the wild prairies of the Midwest.

Ode to the Prairie comprises over 450 individually embroidered plants, the largest of which are suspended from the coffered ceiling of the Paige Court to create a ghostly grassland inside the Elvehjem building.

Photography: Amanda McCavour

‘I designed this installation with oppositions in mind,’ explains the Toronto-based textile artist. ‘Transparency versus opacity, intricate detail versus large forms, organic versus constructed, and the lightness of fabric versus the weight of the court’s stone architecture. The fabric panels that hang from the ceiling emphasize the verticality of the space and the way that air moves through the man-made interior, as the panels twist and turn like flowers swaying in a summer’s breeze.’

McCavour’s fibre art typically embraces floral motifs, but the scale of Ode is a departure that brought its own challenges. ‘Usually, I make small pieces (8”x8” or smaller) and then multiply them by hundreds or thousands. For this space, I knew I needed to do something different.’

This move was partly inspired by several Salvador Dali sketches held in the Chazen Museum’s collection, depicting tiny figures gazing up at a sky filled with giant, floating flowers.

‘I thought this shift in scale was fascinating,’ she adds. ‘I’m excited about shifting the scale of the flowers to a monumental, surreal size to make the viewers feel small in the space. I also shifted the perspective of the field so the flowers would be cascading down to add to this feeling of fantasy.’

Photography: Amanda McCavour

To create the ‘Suspended Landscape’, McCavour printed enormous, high-res scans of the plants onto sheer chiffon. Scaled up, the thread lines have the thickness of yarn or rope. She then charred away ‘gaps’ in the fabric using a wood-burning tool before fusing the sculptural plants into chiffon netting.

Each of these 30 ft panels took three days to complete, and there are 60 of them hanging within the space to create the prairie.

Photography: Amanda McCavour

The verticality of the courtyard offers several viewing points and vistas of the installation, from its floor and balcony, amplifying the dreamlike haze of the netting and printed chiffon illuminated from the skylights above.

And at the opposite end of the scale, the Mayer Gallery houses 400 embroideries of plant specimens McCavour created using references from the Wisconsin State Herbarium (a repository for preserved botanical collections).

Digitally machine embroidered over a period of around 1,000 hours, these delicate, real-life scale pieces are a tangible thread from the dream world to the real world – which in this case, is no less magical.

Ode to a Prairie is on show at the Chazen Museum of Art through 11 September 2022

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