When Elizabeth Whiteley attends a drawing exhibit, she always takes along a magnifying lens. The Washington, D.C.-based artist has different sizes, including one with LED lights.
“I really want to see exactly how the drawing was done,” she said. “When I (use the magnifying glass), I get a feel for the hand of the artist that did it. There is a connection there then. You can actually feel another person’s hand as they did their drawing. …I spend a lot of time looking at art and looking at it isn’t just saying ‘Oh gee, that’s nice,’ but actually trying to get a sense of the hand and the person that created it.”
Whiteley recently brought a lens to the Mid-Atlantic Invitational Silverpoint Exhibition at the Arts Barn in Gaithersburg through Jan. 8. Three of her works that explore the relationship between art and mathematical principles are in the exhibit. Her pieces include geometric shapes wrapped in silk, one inspired by the square root of the number two and another based on the geometry of a square.
Dating back to the Medieval and Renaissance era, silverpoint uses a fine silver or other metal point placed in a stylus, so the artist can make fine, very detailed drawings on grounded paper. Centuries ago, the ground was made of calcified bones and animal glue, but contemporary artists use a variety of grounds like gesso and gouache.
The main challenge for artists is you can’t erase. “Once you lay down a line, it is there, which means I have to do a lot of preliminary studies and I have to be very sure of where I am going with (the drawing),” Whiteley said.
Curator Mary Weiss-Waldhorn was inspired to put together the show, which features artists from New York to Virginia, after seeing the 2015 exhibit, “Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns,” at the National Gallery of Art. “We thought it would be nice to have it around the holiday season because it is a very traditional method of drawing,” she said. “It’s very beautiful and lends itself to super-representation because it is such a small point. When you draw with a small point, you tend to be much more detailed. …It is very exciting for the community of people who do this kind of work because it is very unusual to have a show like this. It’s an interesting medium and it’s not often shown.”
Celebrated artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Durer and Rembrandt used silverpoint, but the medium was largely forgotten after the discovery of graphite. During the past century, the technique has made a comeback. Weiss-Waldhorn believes the show reveals the importance of not losing traditional methods of creating art.
Whiteley first discovered the medium as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In an anatomy class, her professor created a silverpoint drawing. “I never would have imagined that you could draw with metal,” she said. “It was quite an experience to see.”
She gravitated toward mathematical principles as the focus of her art after designing a tattoo for a friend, who she wanted to see something different from what others saw when they looked at her design. Visualizing a mathematical idea inspires many of her pieces.
While living in another state, Gaithersburg artist Kandy Vermeer Phillips worked at a nature center, where she tended to birds that were injured and/or could not be released back into the wild. The experience helped fuel her lifelong interest in nature which inspires her art. She is particularly interested in abandoned insect/bird architecture — structures they make, like nests and cocoons, and then abandon. Her three pieces in the show depict a marsh wren nest, a blue jay fledging and a barn owl.
“(Silverpoint) is a slow and meditative technique,” she said. “In this busy world with everything now going digital, it is a throwback to a slower paced time. Perhaps that isn’t true, but we imagine it is. I just think it is a good way to withdraw from all the busyness and do something that has a connection with the past that we are still doing today.”
Drawing came intuitively to Patricia McMahon Rice. In fact, her mother knew from the time Patricia picked up a crayon that she would become an artist. Studying under artist Robert Liberace since 2004, she has focused on classical methods and materials. “Silverpoint is incredibly unique, incredibly challenging and so beautiful,” she said. “It really makes you take several steps in to have another look up close.”
McMahon Rice has three pieces in the show, including “Storm over the sea,” which is a profile of a bearded older man and a storm over the ocean, and “Unfurling,” which depicts a 12-hour-old infant curled up in blankets. “I’ve always loved drawing faces and, in particular, if there is very directional light with some reflected light — really showing the contours of the features or the fabric,” she said.
The Virginia-based artist hopes people will come to see the show because silverpoint exhibits are rare. “Silverpoint is very challenging. You can’t erase. What you put on, that’s where it is. It takes a pretty high level of mastery to work on it. It is a classical medium that not a lot of people are doing, and it is certainly not something that is in your average art show.”
Gaithersburg’s Arts on the Green presents the Mid-Atlantic Invitational Silverpoint Exhibition through Jan. 8 at the Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg. Viewing hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday,1:30 to 5 p.m. Call 301-258-6394 or visit www.gaithersburgmd.gov. Learn more about this exhibition on CultureSpotMC here.