Friday, December 5, 2014

‘A Story Place’ at home in Olympia’s Matter Gallery

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Dec. 4, 2014

Nancy Thorne Chambers’ installation “A Story Place” is the culmination of a lifelong dream for the Olympia artist. A retired therapist, illustrator and self-taught ceramic artist, Chambers has long wanted to create a life size storybook world.

Imagine this: an 8 x 10-foot diorama featuring 30 life-size woodland creatures — anthropomorphized bears, squirrels, birds, a fox and a skunk, ducks and butterflies all dressed in their finest outfits and gathered in a sunny glade to listen to a girl read a tale from a storybook — everything from the leaves on the trees to the leaves of the book made from kiln-fired and painted ceramics. The artist taught herself to create this idyllic scene, and her brilliant and exceedingly handy husband, Lee Chambers, invented, designed and built special equipment for moving the delicate pieces and lifting them in and out of the kiln.

Every piece, from a mouse couple’s tiny tea set to a gentle bear wearing a red vest and carrying a book of poetry, is handmade and painted. Each piece is realistic and precise in detail, albeit imaginative. Here in this glade reality and imagination live together in comfort. Chambers diligently searched for just the right clothing and other props for her creatures and then sculpted and painted them with meticulous care. Note the expression on the face of the little girl in her blue party dress with one long blue stocking fallen to the ground. Note details like the butterfly on the stump next to her. Note that the book she is reading is the story of the piece itself — the story of the little girl herself and her woodland friends (the cover of the book she holds is a picture of the installation).  Note the dignity of the fancy-dressed pig and the quizzical expression on the beaver’s face. Every detail shows great observation, skill and love on the part of the artist.

I cannot imagine Matter Gallery, normally crowded with paintings, sculpture and hundreds of found-art pieces, as a setting for this installation; yet this artist-run gallery is the first venue (hopefully the first of many) to offer a public showing. It opened Sunday, Nov. 30 with a reception and an afternoon of readings, and will be on view until Dec. 29. I have not yet seen the work in place at Matter, but I visited the artist’s studio to see it on a couple of occasions and was greatly impressed.

The piece is homage to a daughter the artist lost as a young adult, and it is her way of sharing the things they both loved, giving them back to the world. She hopes it will eventually find a home in some place like a children’s hospital where it can give joy to thousands of children. I would love to see it travel to museums and libraries all over the country until it finds a permanent home in a place where it can be easily accessible.

Believe me, as you’re reading this: photographic reproductions do not begin to do the work justice. It needs to be seen in person. If you don’t take your children to see anything else during this holiday season, be sure to take them to Matter Gallery to see “A Story Place.”

A Story Place, Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tue. And Sun. noon to 5 p.m., Matter  Gallery, 422 Washington St. SE, Olympia, 360-943-1760,

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