It can be gaudy, kitschy and over-the-top, but can a shopping mall also be an art gallery? VisArts thinks so, and the Rockville-based 501 (c)(3) independent, non-profit organization has partnered with Westfield Montgomery to bring exhibitions to mall shoppers, guests and art lovers on a quarterly basis. It’s the VisArts Art Walk, a rotating art exhibit now on view along the vacant walls of the mall in Bethesda.
“It’s kind of, to go away from just having empty storefronts,” said Rockville installation artist Liliane Blom. “A way of engaging people on a different level.”
Blom, a classically trained painter and award-winning photographer, has perfected the art of engagement with her work: from kaleidoscope imagery to cherry blossoms to a roving robot, everything is colorful, unique and intriguing. And her contribution to the VisArts Art Walk is all those things and more, a huge mixed-media representation of a series she created called “Four Seasons,” which explores and compares the calendar’s seasons with the seasons in a woman’s life.
“In each season, I have three ages,” she explained. “So, I have early winter, mid-winter and late winter. I sent in different mockups because I didn’t know exactly what they wanted.”
The choices can be seen on Blom’s website, www.lilianeblom.com, where the full series of 12 mixed-media photographs is shown, circular shaped and 30 inches, as she created them. At the mall, by the Cheesecake Factory on the first floor, four huge pieces from the series gaze out over passing shoppers. And while an artist like Blom isn’t someone you’d expect to see showing her work in a mall, it’s a venue that really makes sense.
“I like to bring my art to the public and have it seen,” she explained. “And I like big things — so the opportunity to make something huge, and for people to have something beautiful in their lives, I think it’s great.”
It’s something Blom has been working toward for a long time. She came to the United States at age 18, along with her father, a Norwegian journalist, and her mother, who was from France.
“I started with photography at Montgomery College, got an associate of arts degree,” she said. “Then I got a scholarship to George Washington University, where I did oil painting.”
Blom started to fuse painting and photography early in her artistic career, but using a darkroom and hand coating pieces with silver in complete darkness led to frustrating inconsistencies.
“When digital imagery came out, it was something I gravitated to immediately,” she said. And photography has been an integral part of the career she has established and the art she creates, especially fulfilling when she can incorporate several genres into a big installation — Blom really likes to go big.
“I was really excited to be able to do this,” she said. “These were all created from individual photographs I’ve taken, and then of course I created everything around them.” The models are her friends, family and colleagues, their embellishments range from rabbits she snapped in her Rockville garden to berries from her native Norway. “This is my grandma’s cousin,” she said, standing before a portrait depicting Late Autumn. “She’s 90 years old and she lives in France; still sharp as a tack, an amazing lady.”
One of the ideas behind the series, according to Blom, was to showcase women of every age. “Not to hide the wrinkles, because that’s part of the beauty,” she explained. “We all feel younger than we look: that’s just as true at 90 as it is at 35 or 45, and I think that if we celebrated inner beauty, everyone would be better off.”
And so, at every age, inner beauty — and the beauty of nature — shines through. Her daughter, her fiancé’s co-worker, her friend: Blom’s Four Seasons women gaze from the walls of the mall embellished by fruits and flora, small birds and ripened grains, clear summer skies and sparkling patterns etched in ice.
“It’s almost like a collage within a photograph,” said Blom. “Each piece I have to cut out and drop in — I call it ‘digital painting.’”
Blom said she’d just gotten a grant from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County to work on the Four Seasons series when VisArts called to see if she had something suitable for the VisArts Art Walk. “Something they could print at this size,” she explained. VisArts curator and gallery director Susan Main had been thinking about Blom’s kaleidoscope print series; Blom thought Four Seasons would be a better fit.
Her art shares space not only with the mall’s Christmas décor, shop signs and windows dressed for the holidays, but with two other local artists taking part in the VisArts Art Walk. On the upper level near Nordstrom is “Garden Folly” by Frank McCauley, the assistant curator for VisArts; over by Love Sac is Jonathan Monaghan’s festive “Holiday Greetings, Earthlings.”
Like “Four Seasons,” these works are huge, colorful and instantly appealing, a respite for shoppers who want to take a break from their gift lists and the pressures of last-minute shopping to relax and drink in something uplifting and creative. Blom thinks that’s an excellent idea.
“I like to bring my art to where people are,” she said. “I’m all about democratizing art, not having it be just for the elite.
VisArts Art Walk is at Westfield Montgomery Mall, 7101 Democracy Blvd., Bethesda through January. Mall hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is free. Call 301-469-6000 or visit www.westfield.com/montgomery/visarts