The tension of form

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – Ethereal and modern, organic and orderly, the thread-and-paper art of Bozeman native Molly Stratton is a refreshing sight in the sea of Western art that dominates in the Northern Rockies.

Stratton’s work is representative of an internal landscape, a place where she explores the tension between the opposites that enthrall her, and attempts, through her art, to reconcile the unreconcilable.

For instance, her series “Lightweight” utilizes feather and rock symbolism, which she paints on embossed cotton paper, and geometric “drawings” of thread to examine notions of lightness and heaviness as they play out in male/female relationships.

“In every relationship one’s a feather and the other’s a rock,” Stratton said. In healthy relationships a couple takes turns, she added, but she had definitely found herself in a situation where she felt like she had to be the rock when she was supposed to be the feather.

The fine, hand-stitched threads—finer than one could achieve with pen or brush—create hammock- or sling-like formations that appear to be holding the rock’s weight.

“Here’s this heavy rock and this unbelievable delicate thing supporting it,” Stratton said, which for her, prompted further inquiries into the nature of weightiness—maybe that which seems delicate, isn’t; maybe heavy things aren’t as heavy as one might think.

Her unique choice of multi-media—paper, paint, thread—and what she constructs with them, points to other poles that preoccupy the artist: chaos and order, looseness and precision.

The paint, especially watercolors, is loose and unpredictable. The threads are linear, forming webs of mathematic perfection. Nature—as can be seen in Stratton’s cellular depiction of a bug’s wing—is both.

Stratton, who was on a pre-medicine track before realizing she had racked up more art classes than science while a student at Maine’s Colby College, is admittedly drawn to the perfectly ordered world of math of science, but is always striving to allow for more chaos in her work.

“I’m attracted to processes that require this sort of precision,” Stratton said, who is currently working on a series based on the intricate flocking patterns of starlings. “I tend to be attracted to control. I keep fantasizing about being freed from it, but I can’t escape it.”

Stratton is on a constant creative quest to strike an elusive happy medium.

“It’s a lifetime pursuit to get to a place where the looseness or chaos seems perfect, not perfection seeming perfect; to appreciate flaws and see them as expression rather than a broken thing,” she said.

There’s also the literal tension in her work between thread and paper. Left too loose, the thread sags; pulled too taut and the paper bunches.

“It’s interesting to find those things out that you wouldn’t have unless you reach the edge of what you can do,” Stratton said.

She traces her incorporation of sewing into fine art to her mother who, Stratton recalls, would come home from work, get on the sewing machine and make a skirt for a date that evening.

“Predation” is among Stratton’s newer work based on the intricate flocking patterns of starlings.

At one point, while working as a graphic designer, Stratton started a handbag business called Poppy, and sold her creations in local galleries and art shows.

Stratton still has her own graphic design business—you might have seen the humorous trail signage she designed for Gallatin Valley Land Trust to educate recreators on the importance of cleaning up after their pets—but her need to make tangible things is irrepressible.

“If money were no object, I’d just sit around and make things all day,” she said.

That’s why, when three fellow artists, among them Big Sky’s Liz McRae, approached her about partnering in Grainhouse Art, a gallery on Bozeman’s north side, she said yes, even though she had no idea how she was going to make it work.

“When that opportunity came along, I was so busy and thought I had no time for this, but I really needed to force myself to carve out time for [art-making] again,” Stratton said. “It felt like one of those things that comes to you and you know you’re going to say yes even if you have no idea how you’re going to do it.”

Whether exploring the poles of masculine and feminine, heavy and light, or looseness and order, like the way-finding symbols that often show up in her work suggest, Stratton is navigating, asking questions and answering them, through process.

“I feel like a lot of it is just about balance,” she said. “Balance everywhere in your life—in your relationships, within yourself, with work … it’s like the rock and the feather, trying to find balance in all parts of life at all levels.”

Visit grainhouseart.com to view more of the artist’s work.