Nature's Way: Cathy Barry's "Connatural" paintings at Matthaei Botanical Gardens explore biological patterns


Cathy Berry's painting Biosphere

Cathy Berry, Biosphere

Cathy Barry’s Connatural exhibit at the University of Michigan's Matthaei Botanical Gardens inspires the viewer to look at the natural world through a new lens. 

“Nature is the big umbrella of what inspires and has always informed my work,” the Ann Arbor painter writes in her artist’s statement. “My most recent work focuses on collecting and referencing biological sources and patterns found in nature.”

Some of those biological sources even provide colors for Barry's paintings as well as textures embedded into the works.

"I am extracting colors from local sources—in the backyard or the grocery store—including buckthorn, cattail, turmeric root, forsythia, beets, mulberry, yellow and purple onion skins," the Stamps lecturer writes in her artist's statement. "I then reference older practices by experimenting with inlay work of painted paper, traditionally used to create jewelry, furniture, mosaics and textiles. I am creating motifs and abstract compositions by cutting shapes from my plant-based paintings, fitting them together and assembling them. I am integrating materials with form and subject in my painting to evoke a peaceful wholeness that references the innate wisdom of nature."

Nature isn't the only thing referenced in Connatural, though only fans of one of the world's biggest pop stars might notice.

"For any Swifties out there, take a closer look at some of the titles in the exhibition," she said with a smile.

Barry answered a few questions about the exhibit, which runs through April 30.

Cathy Barry's painting Viability

Cathy Berry, Viability

Q: The dictionary definition of “connatural” is “belonging naturally; innate." How does that word reflect the themes of your exhibit? 
A: When exploring various titles for the exhibition, I came across the word “connatural” and its definition through simple thesaurus surfing. It is a method I use often to title paintings as well. I search words connected to ideas in my work or ideas I was thinking about while making the work and see what comes up. I select words I think apply best. Connatural really seemed to sum up what I have been working toward. 

Q: Your artist’s statement mentions how much of your past work involved landscapes, aerials, and even photography from space—viewing the natural world through a broadening lens. Yet this latest work takes a detailed, up-close perspective on nature. What led to that shift in focus?
A: The repetition of shapes and systems in nature from the very grand to the diminutive has intrigued me for a long time in my work. I’m always trying to push and pull the vantage point of the viewer so the images may be considered as either micro or macro. They go hand in hand for me. 

Q: You've made an effort to stop using petroleum-based products have led you to make your own pigments from plants. How do you go about doing that? Have you been able to find guidance on what works and what doesn’t, or has it largely been trial-and-error on your own?
A: Yes, it is both. There are many people making pigments from plants, rocks, and earth in so many different ways. I read, watch, and experiment. Usually, my process involves gathering the material, simmering it in water for varying amounts of time, mashing, and then straining the liquid out. Sometimes freezing and then straining is best, for example, with blueberries. At this point, chemistry comes into play! By adding vinegar, sodium carbonate, and gum arabic the color can be changed and enhanced. The color can then be used like liquid ink or watercolor.

Q: Are you happy with the results of these pigments? Are there any particular colors you’re still searching for good sources for? 
A: I am satisfied with the colors. I feel differently, more personally toward them because I made them from plants and knew them as their former selves. I like to think about the whole life of the plant before it came to be on my brush. It’s very special and unique because it is a new discovery for me. Some colors fade with time and exposure to light which at first concerned me but I have since come to appreciate this as just a part of the work, the color, and the life of the painting. Red, blue, and yellow are all you really need and there are many easily accessible sources for those. I am always trying to get darker values.

Cathy Berry's painting Biotic.

Cathy Berry, Biotic

Q: Would you describe the general technique or approach you used to create the pieces in this exhibit?
A: I begin by painting large pieces of paper. I make abstract passages of color, light, texture, and line. Then I use a variety of hole punches and start cutting into the paper. Once I have a good inventory of shapes, I start composing with them. Initially, I was layering pieces on top of one another. I didn’t care for the surface that was creating so then began inlaying pieces together. The process is very exciting and also mind-boggling because with each half-turn of a piece, everything changes. There are so many decisions to be made. Once satisfied, I glue it down.

Q: Leaves must be such an interesting element to work with—the closer you look, the more complex they become. What appeals to you about using them in works like these?
A: Working with the leaves was truly inspired by nature. At the University of Michigan Biological Station last summer I learned about leaf miners, a larval stage of many types of insects that eat the plant material inside the leaf. When studying the leaves, I noticed that the trails the miners left behind were like little drawings on the leaves and I instantly wanted to collaborate. I started to use the trails and leaf venation as lines and color, leading through the larger collage of hole-punched leaves. This was also satisfying my ongoing pursuit of greening my creative output. 

Q: Do you have a particular favorite piece in the exhibit?
A: I don’t have a favorite. Some ideas were more invigorating to work out and some results were more satisfying to my eye than others. I particularly like Labyrinth and Escalante River.

Q: What does a setting like the Matthaei Conservatory contribute to viewers’ experience of the individual works?
A: Exhibiting this work for the first time at Matthaei Botanical Gardens is the best setting I could have hoped for. The connection to nature and plants is obvious but its research and educational aspects also energized me to include a display with some of the process materials and experimental studies. Being able to share the process is wonderful for me and hopefully enhances the experience for the viewer. Taking in the conservatory and grounds, being surrounded by nature and plants suggests a deeper experience as well.

Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have been working more with leaves and other plant materials. I’m interested in weaving with grasses and learning how to make cordage from plant fibers. Some examples are tiger lily, iris, and daffodil leaves, banana peels, corn husks, and shag hickory bark. I’m not sure where this will lead but I am definitely vibing on more three-dimensional forms made from all-natural materials. 

Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and

Connatural” is on display at the Conservatory at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, 1800 N. Dixboro Road, through April 30. Hours: 10 am-4:30 pm. Tuesday and Thursday-Sunday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m.Wednesday. Admission is free.