Professor’s photography exhibit ‘reveals the wonder of what’s underfoot’

 

A Flaten Art Museum visitor ponders a photograph of Sphagnum moss in Merle’s Bog near Webster, Minnesota. The photograph is featured in Professor of Art Meg Ojala’s exhibit, “I Want to Show You Something,” on display through April 15.

St. Olaf College Professor of Art and Art History Meg Ojala captures the experience of venturing into a bog with her new photography exhibit I Want to Show You Something.

The exhibit, which is open through April 15 in Flaten Art Museum, “is like going on a walk with her and seeing through her perceptive eyes,” say photography historian George Slade in his promotion of the show on Minnesota Public Radio’s “Art Hounds” program.

“I am intrigued by the ways in which the world is transformed in a photograph and by the way the camera and the photographer mediate our experience,” Ojala says. “Bogs are, in a sense, unfathomable. Like a photograph, they confuse our sense of scale.”

A bog is a particular kind of wetland that often develops in a depression, like a glacial lakebed, that doesn’t have nutrient rich water flowing through it or access to ground water with nutrients to nourish it. It is wet only because of precipitation. A depression of this kind is a perfect environment for sphagnum moss to develop. The slowly decomposing sphagnum gradually builds up as peat. Big Bog in northern Minnesota has peat up to 4 meters deep in some places that took 5,000 years to accumulate.

“Bogs are, in a sense, unfathomable. Like a photograph, they confuse our sense of scale.”

Ojala’s art process included researching and traveling to bog sites from Finland to Ireland, and back to northern Minnesota and a bog in Rice County. Beyond photography, Ojala’s research involved reading about the botany, hydrology, and topography of bogs, and how they develop over time.

“The dense, minute textures of mosses and lichens on the hummocks and in the hollows make a square foot of bog look like a miniature whole world,” Ojala says. “And those miniature worlds cover thousands of acres of northern Minnesota.”

Ojala also took a literary approach to her exploration of bogs, reading poetry to prose, including Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination by Barbara Hurd, who recently visited the Hill to give a lecture/reading, workshop with students on writing, visit classes, and have a dialogue with Ojala in the gallery.

Ojala says her favorite piece in the exhibition is “Cladonia and Labrador Tea in Mary’s Bog near Deer Lake, Minnesota, May 2017.”

“It is dark and dense, suggests the depth of the bog and also reveals the complexity, delicacy, and intricacy of the minutia in the bog,” Ojala says.

“Bogs are rich with poetic, psychological, and cultural associations. They are also ecologically crucial,” she says. “I want to convey the poetry, the instability, the unfathomability, the inaccessibility of bogs, but most importantly that bogs are alive — they are non-human, but they are living entities with agency.”

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