Gallery Audio Tour

Grayslake Campus: A-Wing

Eleanor Spiess-Ferris

Oasis | 2006.02Pa

Audio Tour

In this audio clip the narrator describes Ferris's piece.
Length: 0:2:58 (two minutes and fifty-eight seconds)

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About the Piece

Oasis, 2005
Gouache on paper
2006. 02 Pa

Exhibited at CLC: The Magpie Chronicles, 2006

The work of Chicago artist, Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, is dense with symbolism. Migratory birds often appear in her work as symbols of life’s voyage.

Narration Text

Eleanor Spiess-Ferris is a Chicago artist whose work seems so dense in symbolism that it is not possible to come to a singular conclusion regarding its meaning. We know from her lectures that she invites multiple meanings and likes the idea of people inventing their own stories about her work (Spiess-Ferris).

In this piece, titled Oasis, she has referenced three distinct genres: Medieval manuscript illustration, botanical and wildlife illlustration, and surrealism. The Medieval references are very clear: this type of patterned background and birds are often seen in bestiary miniatures of the Middle Ages. But, rather than adorning the margins of a page of text, as is the case in illuminated manuscripts, her birds take center stage. She has even created a spotlight effect around the birds to tell us where to focus our attention. Since there is no written word, the illustration becomes the message. But what is the message?

Looking at the next genre reference could give us a clue. Botanical and wildlife illustrations have been popular since they left the margins of Medieval texts to be featured as subjects in their own right. Spiess-Ferris does not follow the legacy of bird illustrator, John James Audubon, who painstakingly rendered every detail of birds in their habitats. Instead, she only hints at the species, giving us monochromatic versions of three birds along with only one showing its natural plumage. It has the characteristics of a magpie, but even so, this bird may be more imagined than real. So, why the real with the imagined?

Here we turn to our third genre to find a possible explanation. Surrealism often employs the juxtaposition of things unlikely to be grouped for any reason other than for shock value. Surrealism invokes many messages and invites many interpretations. A close examination of the oasis reveals a flat, wooden scarecrow, the very purpose of which is to scatter wild creatures. Rather than being frightened away, these birds seem to have taken control of this environment. It is a social gathering of various species. Is the message a social commentary? Maybe so! This is a lush oasis; one where cherries, morning glories, and other vegetation grow and flourish in the same environment. It is a place where many species gather amicably to communicate and share the same space without any sense of pecking order, if you will. The scarecrow is the only human reference; obviously once an intruder, but now not even noticed. The artist could be making a reference to environmental restoration. But because we know that she invites multiple explanations of her work, there are bound to be many more possibilities that occur to individual viewers.

Written by Jane Ellefson, Gallery Preparator, Robert T. Wright Gallery, College of Lake County.

Works cited
Spiess-Ferris, Eleanor. Gallery Talk. Robert T. Wright Gallery. 3 March 2006.