In spring of 2018 I was commissioned, by the esteemed Wasserman Gallery in Detroit, to write on the exhibition of – and the Detroit influence on – the internationally renowned naturalist artist, Michele Oka Doner.
How this came to be – for years, I had been an admirer from afar, on social media, seeing photos of her amazing work, New York loft, and personal style. Her sculptures of bones, shells and natural ephemera are embedded in the corridors of the Miami airport, and she has significant installations all over the world.
I’d read my poetry at the Wasserman more than once and one day, I received a notice about an upcoming showing of Ms. Oka Doner’s work. I contacted my friends at the gallery and asked if the artist was going to appear at the opening; they said yes, and I was ecstatic.
On the night of the opening, I was thrilled to be in her chic, ethereal presence. I might say that we were mutually smitten – within moments after we met, she asked if I might consider writing for the exhibit’s catalog. We talked about her years in Detroit as a young artist, and I met her engaging husband Frederick (who is from the venerable Doner ad agency family in Detroit and who, back in the day, had been a professor at Wayne State University).
Ms. Oka Doner was as lithe and elegant as I had expected; a quiet woman, soft and steely at once. She was a reflection of the stone, shell, iron, porcelain and leaves with which she works. The installation covered a mass expanse of floors and walls. She, both humble and imperial, spoke at the event, and I read the words that had come to me, woven around her and her work. I formatted the lines for this page:
Ode to Oka D
She steps down from elegant clouds beautiful as birdsong
In quietude, gathering earthworks, bark; queen of tides summoning coral and anemone, in languages of mollusks, dialects of seas, telling tales of origins and endings,
dreamscapes in the crepuscule, betwixt day and dark
Raising altars to gods of order, earthen chaos, transfiguring
rebe offerings and honor, shrines to toil and industry
paeans to laboring and perfection, meditations on woman-work
speaks to shells in spirit language, talks in tongues of mystic remnants,
waxen, gilded, nautili and stone; holy ghosts, whispering, in divinations of trees
Root woman bears imprint of this place, of river, earth, and structure
and the unencumbered sky. Fossils of worldliness, the dialects of D’etroit
A hanging golem – grave, unvoiced – like chassis hung from hook and hoist
on olden day assembly lines, and she in foundry forging iron, conjuring the iron horse; ghosts of work inscribed upon the present art, the spirit source
She is mother, birthing giants, clans and clay homunculi, phantom wraiths and primal specters, born of scars and spirit tribes seaweed titan of the ether, revenant come from the bog; river rune of old black bottoms, magus of the urban fog
With thanks to Ms. Oka Doner, Gary Wasserman, Alison Wong, and Sarah Blakeman