It was a family move in 1974 to northern Michigan that would have the biggest impact on Bonnie Lalley’s artwork. Moving from Detroit to her grandfather’s 200-acre farm near Rogers City at the age of 16 brought Lalley to what she called a “very wild” environment.
“It was going from an intense urban experience to what was then a wilderness. That move had a strong formative influence on me as a creative person and artist,” Lalley says. As flora and fauna are main sources for all her work, one can see how her “big adventure on an ancient family farm” inspired her expressions.
You can view the artist’s works at the Saginaw Art Museum in Saginaw, where 15 pieces are on display through Nov. 18. “It was a huge honor to be asked to do a solo show there,” Lalley says of the exhibit, which is called “The Circumference of a Garden.”
Lalley’s current collage-style creations convey what she says is her true voice. After receiving her master’s degree in fine art from the University of Illinois, Lalley taught drawing at various colleges until she moved to the country with her husband, cabinetmaker and designer Timothy Lalley, and their daughter.
The Lalleys live in a restored 1911 farmhouse in Port Austin, near Lake Huron. They share their property with a handful of chickens that are “friends, not chickens,” Lalley says with a chuckle. Dog Pip also resides at the farmhouse. The nearby woods and ever-changing Lake Huron, which the family enjoys daily, have “imbued our lives and creative practices with atmosphere and passion.”
Like many artists, Lalley’s work has undergone a transformation over the years. “I painted traditional landscapes and portraits in oils for many years, but I felt like I was kind of repeating what’s been said over and over again. I didn’t have my own voice,” she says.
About 10 years ago, Lalley began to find that voice. Moved by the works of Mary Delany, an 18th-century artist who used cut paper and collaging techniques to create detailed botanical illustrations for books, Lalley says she realized she “didn’t want to do small. I wanted to make people sit up and take notice.”
She also had been impressed by Maria Sibylla Merian’s works. A German-born Swiss naturalist, Merian was a 17th-century scientific illustrator who demonstrated, through her drawings, such processes as the life cycle of caterpillars. “The work of those two women got me thinking differently, and I moved on to paper,” Lalley says.
From her upstairs home studio that has “amazing light, thanks to the skylights and the northern exposure,” the artist uses a variety of water-based paints, inks, gouache, Japanese rice paste, acrylics, and her handmade walnut ink to turn out on large sheets of cotton-based paper intriguing worlds in which the viewer becomes lost in everything from cut-outs to individual paintings to texture — which often comes from gold foil from chocolate wrappers or paper pieces she’s saved from butter sticks.
Lalley cuts, paints, draws, and applies. She often bends and crouches atop her large works (4 by 5 feet and larger) until she gets what she’s after — a fascinating, multilayered look. What the viewer gets is admission into imaginative theatrics where a mingling of cut-outs, papers, and paintings invite story creation.
“I might paint something right onto the paper, but then some objects are maybe painted separately and cut out and applied. Often, the cut-out shapes that are left over are even more interesting to me. ” Of course, she’ll work those leftovers into a creation. “My husband frames all my work; he mills the wood for all my frames. I’m so spoiled and lucky.”
Asked to name her style of work, Lalley hesitates. “I’ve revisited the term ‘lyrical’ again. I used it when I was teaching, and I think it does apply to my work today,” the artist says. “Lyrical is defined as an emotional expression of an idea or experience. I’d say my work is lyrical interpretations.”
Inspired by her daily walks and Lake Huron swims, Lalley’s masterpieces, which evolve organically as she works on them, are “driven by the natural world,” she says. And, of course, all those hours spent outside at her grandfather’s farm.
Bonnie Lalley’s work can be viewed at bonnielalley.squarespace.com. “The Circumference of a Garden” exhibit runs at the Saginaw Art Museum (saginawartmuseum.org) through Nov. 18. Also, if you’re walking around Tower Park in downtown Port Austin, you can see one of her pieces (“Shipwreck”) printed on a huge panel.