The great Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher inspired mathematicians and fine arts lovers alike. He also influenced youth. So many of the kids I grew up with tacked posters of Michael Jackson and red corvettes to their walls, but the more creative, self-styled philosopher-type kids had bedroom posters of Escher's perpetual motion machines and continuous flights of stairs. Artist Lillian Nelson was that kind of girl. She was raised in the Swan Valley's Six-Mile area as a homeschooled, only child who loved writing stories and drawing comics and learning about Escher and other artists. Her enthusiasm for the world of art contrasted starkly with the looming dread she felt about being around other people.
"As a teenager I almost couldn't go out the front door without feeling like I was going to have a panic attack," Nelson says.
Nelson is the director and curator for E3 Convergence, a gallery in downtown Missoula that started in 2013 and primarily showcases emerging artists. The current exhibit, Reflections, features 50 works by 22 artists, including Nelson. Her pieces, "Stonemilker" and "Purge," hint at the influence of Escher and Salvador Dali in their color palette and fantastical elements. They also incorporate Nelson's long entrenched social anxiety and, in that way, her work is less focused on form and mathematics (like Escher's was) than it is on personal emotion.
"They're inspired by inner turmoil," Nelson says, and laughs. "Those two [pieces] especially. I've been placed on the autistic spectrum but that didn't happen until I was adult. I always wondered what was wrong with me. I had a hard time with social interactions for long periods of time."
That's not an easy thing to gather, by the way. Nelson comes off as a thoughtful and confident connoisseur of the arts. But you can definitely see the turmoil in her work. In "Stonemilker," two women made of rock sit facing one another. One of them has water spilling from her ears, mouth and eyes, and black birds seem to be flying either in or out of her mouth. The other woman is frozen still, her eyes closed and her face tipped toward the sky. Tiny monks walk a bridge that spans the chasm between their breasts.
"The two rock women represent the two dual sides of myself: the side that wants to express and the side that can't," Nelson says. "The little monks are like my secret thoughts, getting smashed or going off [the edge]. Even the monks and the staircase have a taste of Escher. I almost took it too far."
In "Purge," a young girl perches at the top of a stony mountain and large bubbles float above her head. This piece has a stormy aesthetic and seems like the perfect illustration for a Neil Gaiman novel. It's a picture of loneliness but it also has the quality of a second act—the moment before the heroine finds strength.
- Lillian Nelson’s “Purge,” top, and “Stonemilker,” are two of 50 pieces at E3 Convergence Gallery’s group exhibit Reflections.
"The girl is sending out her creative bubbles but she's in this almost fetal position, scared," Nelson says.
E3 Convergence was started by a church of the same name of which Nelson and her family are members. Religion doesn't play into the gallery, Nelson says, except for their goal to love thy neighbor, toward which they donate most of the proceeds to community charities such as Camp Mak-A-Dream and the Watson Children's Shelter. It's a family-friendly atmosphere but the exhibits still explore dark subject matter and edgy ideas. Reflections, a selection juried by the E3 Convergence church members, features some straightforward interpretations of the theme as well as some fairly benign imagery. But there are others that are more delightfully unnerving. Katrina Ruhmland's "Two Stories: The Rib v. DNA" hints at questions about the intersection of the Bible and science. In Adelaide Every's "A True Reflection," the viewer can put their eyes up to a mask and see themselves reflected in a light box as if they are someone else. Elisha Harteis' pieces "But I Like My Shoes" and "Five More Minutes" garnered the jury award for first place. The two life-size ceramic sculptures of children elicit a wide range of responses.
"I think for the judges it was a weird reaction we all had," Nelson says. "It was like we reflected our own idea of childhood onto each piece. I saw the children as being scared and afraid, and somebody else was just like, 'Oh, they're so cute.' [The pieces] really seemed to embody the idea of reflection."
Nelson, who got her BFA in visual art from the University of Montana in 2007, is more of a reemerging artist. Over the past few years, she's raised a family and put her art on the back-burner. It was opening the gallery that brought her back to it. At UM, she worked with light boxes but found the medium too expensive. Now she uses acrylic ink, graphite and colored pencil and pen and ink on wood to create her pieces.
The diagnosis of being on the autism spectrum has ended up a positive revelation in that it helped put a name to what she was feeling. It's also helped her make art that embraces who she is by way of distinct perspective and metamorphosis—just like Escher.
"It was a relief for me," Nelson says. "It definitely influences my artwork, though I don't think of it literally all the time. I do feel like I've come a long way."
E3 Convergence presents an encore reception for Reflections First Friday, July 1, from 5 to 8 PM.