Transformations, Works by Rachel Rotenberg, on View at Adkins Arboretum

Transformations, Works by Rachel Rotenberg, on View at Adkins Arboretum


Rachel Rotenberg’s sculptures don’t just hang on the wall, they swell, twist, and turn around on themselves, just barely in balance, compelling the viewer to wonder at what dramas could have brought them into being.

On exhibit in the Adkins Arboretum Visitor’s Center, Rotenberg’s large cedar sculptures are so dynamic that they seem to yearn to tell stories. They are on view through January 28, 2011. A reception to meet the artist will be held Sun., December 12 from 3 to 5 p.m.

For the past 30 years, this Baltimore sculptor has been creating abstract sculptures from cedar wood, often incorporating found materials such as vines and wire. These evocative works explore the relationships of forms, textures and colors, while conjuring deeply felt memories and intuitions. They seem to reach out, to embrace and to entwine. Their surfaces are scarred with the scrapes and gouges of her tools, but although she often adds restrained areas of color, the natural grain of the wood always shows through.

“I want people to come in and respond to the work,” Rotenberg said. “I’m not telling them what to think. I’m saying let it speak to you as it will.”

There are many ways to look at these sculptures. Sometimes they resemble objects found in nature. Sometimes they seem like emotions or memories just beginning to take form.

The two sack-like shapes in an untitled sculpture might be empty nests or seedpods looped together with a figure eight of vine. But they are also uneasily balanced opposites. One is a dark, heavy wooden pouch, while the other is an open bag woven from tangled wire. Rotenberg leaves the forms and their relationship undefined, allowing them to summon whatever stories or feelings may come to the viewer’s mind.

Although all of her sculptures hang on the wall, they are large, often more than four feet tall. Their size, weight and animated forms give them a certain power, as if they are sharing your space as you look at them.

Rotenberg earned a BFA from Toronto’s York University in 1981 and went on to graduate studies at Banff Center School of Visual Arts and the School of Visual Arts in New York. She has been making and exhibiting art ever since, even while raising her five children.

Each of her sculptures begins with drawings.

“I draw until I come up with a form that will work itself into a piece,” she said. “It’s that intuitive drawing process.”

Working from her drawings, she makes a basic shape from standard eight-foot cedar posts, cutting, gluing, and doweling the wood together, then sculpting it with a chainsaw, grinder, sander and hand tools. Paint comes last, but she uses it sparingly to activate only certain areas of the sculpture. If she’s not sure how to proceed, she’ll stop work on the sculpture and go back to drawing.

“I can create 20 options on paper in an afternoon,” she explained. “I’m stingy about wood. I don’t like to waste it.”

Often she finds that the sculpture seems to want to develop in ways she hadn’t planned. Over the years, she’s learned to let go of her preconceived ideas and trust in the process of making art.

“I might start off with an idea, but I have to let it do its own thing,” she explained. “I’m feeling comfortable trusting in not knowing.”

This show is part of Adkins Arboretum’s ongoing exhibition series of work on natural themes by regional artists, sponsored in part by Caroline County Council of Arts. It is on view through January 28 at the Arboretum Visitor’s Center located at 12610 Eveland Road near Tuckahoe State Park in Ridgely. Contact the Arboretum at 410-634-2847, ext. 0 or for gallery hours.

Adkins Arboretum is a 400-acre native garden and preserve at the headwaters of the Tuckahoe Creek in Caroline County. Open year round, the Arboretum offers educational programs for all ages about nature and gardening. Through its Campaign to Build a Green Legacy, the Arboretum will build a new LEED-certified Arboretum Center and entranceway to broaden educational offerings and research initiatives promoting best practices in conservation and land stewardship. For additional information about Arboretum programs, visit or call 410-634-2847, ext. 0.

Photo: “Sara” (cedar, vine and oil paint) is among the works of Rachel Rotenberg on view at Adkins Arboretum.