Calista Lyon finds threads of community amid frayed ecologies

Joel Oliphint
A selection from "of our hand and in our time," photo collage on newsprint at 934 Gallery and part of the Calista Lyon exhibit "the bodies are mirrors: they give us ourselves."

Calista Lyon grew up in Australia’s Tallangatta Valley, where her parents farmed. A reclusive amateur botanist named Philip Branwhite lived in the same farming community, and Lyon got to know him while photographing him for a portrait project. He showed her his extensive collection of botanical illustrations and pressed orchids from the 30 years he spent documenting native orchids all over Australia.

“He wasn’t a professional. He did it out of the love of it,” said Lyon, an interdisciplinary artist who moved to the United States in 2012 to attend California State University in Los Angeles before relocating to Columbus in 2016 to undertake an MFA at Ohio State. Since then, Lyon has been digging through an archive of about 15,000 images from Philip Branwhite; his brother, Peter Branwhite; and Peter’s partner, Kerrie Foley.

That research provides the foundation for two of Lyon’s local installations: “A Violent Unmaking,” currently on view at CCAD’s Beeler Gallery as part of the “November” exhibition, and “the bodies are mirrors: they give us ourselves,” which opens Friday, Feb. 5, at 934 Gallery.

In “A Violent Unmaking,” Lyon uses overhead projectors in a darkened room to display collages of naturalistic images that serve as an anchor for memory, creating nostalgia for a place that’s likely unknown to most viewers. At 934, Lyon covers one wall of the gallery in a gridwork of similar images on newsprint, titled “of our hand and in our time,” which she nailed to the wall.

In both shows, Lyon presents the history of a particular natural environment in visual form. “The images themselves, they're really special, but to understand the complexity of what's happening behind them is also really important,” Lyon said. “The work centrally comes out of understanding how humans, and particularly settler colonialism, has impacted a specific ecology in Australia near where my parents farm — trying to understand how particular ways of living and being, and ideas of living and being, have affected land and the communities that live on those lands over time.”

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In one image from “of our hand and in our time,” the spine of a spiral notebook appears. “That particular notebook is actually the last notebook that Philip Branwhite ever made before he passed away of cancer,” Lyon said. “This last notebook listed all of the people that came to visit him and who made food for him in our community ... before he passed away. I think what he valued towards the end of his life was being close with other people.”

An endangered, reddish-purple flower known as the Crimson Spider Orchid also appears throughout the images. The orchid was thought to be extinct until Peter Branwhite and Kerrie Foley rediscovered it in 1994. “Since then, there's been a huge push with orchid conservationists in Australia to grow this orchid in the lab and do reintroductions into the wild,” Lyon said. “That orchid grows in only six known locations … and one of the local locations where it grows, Peter Branwhite worked very hard over many, many years to get that protected. He said it was the only success he had across his life doing conservation work.”

On two adjacent walls at 934 Gallery, Lyon displays two series of Peter Branwhite’s photographs — one depicting colorful fungi alongside small, highly reflective mirrors, and the other a trifecta showing the larvae of sawflies (wasp-like insects Aussies commonly call “spitfires”), all taken in the Box-ironbark forest near Albury, Australia.

Lyon said Peter Branwhite always carried a mirror with him so that when he found a fungus of interest, he didn’t need to remove it, or hurt it by overly manipulating it; he simply placed the mirror next to the specimen in such a way that when he photographed it, the mirror reflected and exposed the underside of the fungus. “The mirror is a kind of care that I see from Peter,” Lyon said. “I thought that gesture was really, really beautiful.”

The fungi photos tie back to the orchids, too. “Orchids can't live on their own. Their seeds don't allow enough nutrients to spread on their own. They require fungi, always. Every time an orchid is grown, it has to have this relationship with the fungi,” Lyon said. “I have a deep reverence for fungi, and Peter obviously did, too. … Fungi is a critical community builder that sustains many of us in so many different ways, human and non-human.”

Lyon found similar themes of community and interconnectedness in the sawfly larvae. The three Peter Branwhite photos Lyon chose document the larvae as they glom together while under attack. “In the nighttime they will move individually and eat on the leaves, but during the daytime, they almost always bunch together to avoid predation. They work as a collective to stay together and to stay safer,” she said. “I am very interested in ways to depict this collective imagining, and the larvae do that naturally as a species and when they’re threatened.”

“I'm thinking about the way our ecologies are deeply threatened and in a really dire place right now,” Lyon continued. “It’s speaking to the way in which settler practices try to break people into individuals when they live in individual homes. But really we're powerful when we work together and when we help each other.”

Calista Lyon's "the bodies are mirrors: they give us ourselves" at 934 Gallery