Branching Out


"There is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright." — Henry David Thoreau

Over the past year, the power of the natural world became amplified as our social lives were frozen. On the flip side of the chaos and tragedy brought by the pandemic was the quiet of lockdowns that cleared a path for us to reconnect with nature. The invitation to rediscover the beauty of everyday landscapes is for anyone. For unexpected insights, fresh perspectives and more nuanced interpretations on exploring the natural world — we look to the artists.

Branching Out: North Carolina Contemporary Artists Interpret Nature is a new group show presented by The Umstead Gallery and Artsuite this spring and summer. The exhibition features works by Hannah Cole, Jim Lee, Tim Lytvinenko, Beverly McIver, Thomas Sayre, Randy Shull, Shelley Smith, Leah Sobsey and Damian Stamer. Each piece offers an intimate glimpse into the imagination of its maker, as themes like memory, identity and belonging emerge alongside the bits of nature depicted — a leaf, a thicket, a branch, a flower. From this talented group of artists we get not just a wide range of styles and sensibilities, but also an interesting mix of mediums: paintings with acrylic, oil and tar; unique photography using non-traditional developing processes and high-tech scanners; and textile works with embroidery and sequins.


“We hope visitors engaging with the works of art in this exhibition will become more aware of the beauty and nature around us every day.” — Marjorie Hodges, Artsuite co-founder

The setting for this collective ode to the human experience of the natural world could not be more fitting. A luxury retreat on a 12-acre estate, The Umstead Hotel and Spa is beloved for its lush gardens, tree-lined grounds and tranquil lake. “Nature inspires everything at The Umstead,” says Artsuite co-founder Marjorie Hodges. “The hotel is situated in nature, architecturally elegant and beautiful. It’s a wonderful place to experience art.”

The groundwork for a collaboration between Artsuite and The Umstead had been laid many years before, in the form of a friendship between Hodges and Leah Goodnight Tyler, marketing director at The Umstead. Their shared passion for contemporary art and their commitment to the North Carolina artist community inspired the two women to take action at a time when the strain of living and working through the forced isolation of COVID-19 was growing heavy. With few gatherings and no large art openings or museum events, people really missed being able to engage with art — and fellow art lovers — in person.

Online platforms like Artsuite have been a lifeline for many artists who turned to online sales when the pandemic put a stop to art fairs and gallery openings. The Artsuite show at The Umstead could be seen as an example of a kind of hybrid model (online + in-person) that some experts predict will emerge when artists and collectors begin to travel freely again and art fairs are rescheduled.

For now, Hodges is just pleased to be able to put a spotlight on both the talent and the beauty that lives inside North Carolina’s borders. “The goal of this exhibition is to celebrate these artists and underscore the natural beauty of our state,” says Hodges. “We hope it will make people stop and think about the role nature plays in their own lives.

How has being in nature affected your life and your work over the past year?

“During the lockdown in 2020, I began a meditative walking practice through the City of Raleigh’s greenway system. This became a way for me to slow my racing mind, temper the stress of the pandemic and feel connected to the natural world. The act of embroidering is intimate and time consuming and is itself a form of moving meditation. Walking and stitching became my companions during that time of intense isolation and uncertainty. I have often felt my most complete self when walking in nature, and one of my favorite activities is to find and explore pockets of nature in cities. This body of work is an exploration of the connection between the internal sacred space of self and the external space created by trees in urban landscapes.” — Shelley Smith, featured artist

How has the pandemic changed the nature of your art?

“I’m interested in creating a dialog between art and science and have spent the last decade-plus photographing specimens from National Park and University museum collections across the country to understand climate change and species loss. The pandemic allowed me to slightly switch gears and create my own taxonomy based on my daily walks by collecting insect-damaged leaves to create a new Lumen series.”  — Leah Sobsey, featured artist

Who Has the pandemic strengthened or intensified your relationship with the natural world? 

“Yes. Nature has been my home, my sanctuary, and my muse. The woods outside my studio are the same woods I grew up in and explored as a child. They are very close to my heart. When I’m stuck on a painting or tired of working, I walk amongst the oaks to quiet my mind.” — Damian Stamer, featured artist