by Aaron Wilder, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at the Roswell Museum
“The Seed” (plate 2 of 3), 1973 by Michele Bourque Sewards, Color Lithograph on Paper – Acquisitions Fund Purchase
I want to start by thanking my colleague Cloe Medrano, registrar at the Roswell Museum, for stepping up to contribute to the museum’s monthly “From the Vault” column last month with her excellent piece on artwork by Pablita Velarde from the museum’s collection. I feel it is important to extend the opportunity to contribute to this monthly column to other voices at the museum and Cloe eagerly took on the challenge. The two of us will plan to alternate writing this column, and we may have other colleagues contribute in the future to further diversify the voices of those telling stories about the amazing collection at the Roswell Museum, your museum.
This month I would like to commemorate Earth Day, April 22, by taking a closer look at an artwork currently on display by artist Michele Bourque Sewards, The Seed, plate 2 of 3, and explore its significance not only with regard to the individual annual event of Earth Day, but also to the ever worsening impacts of climate change and the action required to avoid completely avoidable human destruction of our planet.
I’ll start with giving a little bit of background information on the artist herself. Bourque Sewards was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1944. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the New York State College of Ceramics in 1966 and her Master of Fine Arts from the University of New Mexico (UNM) in 1970. Bourque Sewards was then a Roswell Artist-in-Residence (RAiR) 1973-1974. For those of you not familiar with this incredible program, RAiR was founded in 1967 by the late Donald B. Anderson. It was initially organized by the Roswell Museum after Anderson approached the museum’s board of trustees to collaborate on bringing contemporary artists to Roswell. Now RAiR continues to thrive as a separate, nonprofit entity.
Bourque Sewards currently lives in Placitas, New Mexico and when I spoke to her over the phone recently, she explained to me her oldest son was born in 1970, right around the time she completed her graduate studies at UNM. Shortly thereafter, she was encouraged to apply to the RAiR program by her friend and fellow artist Bruce Lowney — who is himself a RAiR artist, 1970-1971. At the time, since she had a one-year-old child, the RAiR program explained it might be too difficult to be a resident artist with such a young child. This surprised me as there are many current RAiR artists who brought their children with them, including Eric J. García. He came to the RAiR program with a one-year-old child and currently has a solo exhibition at the Roswell Museum through April 24 called Space Invaders, but I suppose that has to do with social and programmatic changes over the past 50 years. Bourque Sewards re-applied the following year and after being accepted into the program, she brought her then two-year-old son to Roswell.
When Bourque Sewards’ residency was concluding, the RAiR program was getting rid of its printing press. Bourque Sewards needed a press as she intended to establish a lithography workshop in her home upon returning to Placitas. As printing presses are very expensive pieces of equipment, Bourque Sewards offered to give some of her prints created while in residency in exchange for the press. This is how many of her works came to be in the Roswell Museum’s permanent collection.
Throughout her career, Bourque Sewards has returned time and again to elements of the natural world, the flora and fauna that represent integral components of our ecosystem. When she completed her graduate studies at UNM, around the time of the birth of her oldest son, and before she came to the RAiR program here in Roswell, Bourque Sewards moved from Albuquerque to the then small village of Placitas. Many of those in the community were interested in pursuing the idea of community-sourced agriculture. At the time of her relocation to Placitas, Bourque Sewards became inspired to create her first garden as a means of providing food for her family. There was a village-wide approach to irrigation at this time, and Bourque Sewards became fascinated by watching seeds germinate. She reveled at imagining what the root structures looked like as they grew underground. As with many artists, this fascination fueled her artistic output.
When we spoke over the phone most recently, Bourque Sewards shared with me details about her project The Seed, a series of three lithographs in the Roswell Museum’s collection depicting stages of a plant progressing from a planted seed to a fully grown flower. The first plate depicts a single hill showing an imagined depiction of how the seed looked planted underground. The second plate is a much wider composition depicting two hills. The left hill shows an early stage plant with its roots spreading down while it emerges into the sunlight and rain as it sprouts above ground. The right hill shows a slightly more mature plant with its roots continuing to stretch down into the earth while its stalk and leaves continue to stretch up toward the sky. Between the two hills in plate two, as if to represent both the passing of seasons and the critical element of light and water in the development of plant life, the artist depicts a highly stylized icon representing both the sun and rain, the two essential elements in addition to soil that support the growth of flora. The third plate, like the first, depicts a single hill with the plant continuing to stretch both below ground with its roots and above ground with a large pink flower as its skyward apotheosis.
While continuing to focus on this progression of time depicted in Bourque Sewards’ series of three lithographs The Seed, I simultaneously want to connect the period in which these works were created — the 1970s — with our contemporary moment: Combatting human-caused climate change. Visit EarthDay.org for connections to initiatives to help preserve our planet, not only for one day, but continuously until we have a more sustainable relationship to our environment.
I will encourage both you and myself to revisit Michele Bourque Sewards’ The Seed, not only as a reminder of what we can preserve about the only known planet in our solar system that can perpetuate and sustain plant and animal life — if we stop sabotaging it — but also to help us generate ideas large and small, local and global, to reverse the course of our own current contributions to climate change before it’s too late. Plates one and two of The Seed can be viewed in the exhibition Michele Bourque Sewards: Flora & Fauna on display in the Roswell Museum’s Entry Gallery through July 2022.
For more information about the Roswell Museum, visit roswellmuseum.org.