Robin Chapman’s “Folklore Village Fields.”
Childhood nostalgia is straightforward for some of us: We cherish the town we grew up in and the time we spent outdoors with friends and family. Things are a bit more complicated for Robin Chapman, a poet and painter whose work is on display through March 17 at the Steenbock Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters (1922 University Avenue).
It’s not that Chapman, a UW-Madison professor emerita, doesn’t cherish her early days. Her newly published book of poems, Six True Things, is grounded in memories — but when you grow up in the Manhattan Project town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, things are a bit different.
“The town kept secrets,” says Chapman, describing how the village was turned into a nuclear laboratory during World War II, housing 30,000 workers who staffed plutonium and uranium enrichment plants that fueled atomic weapons.
The exhibit at Steenbock combines Chapman’s recent book, Six True Things (her 10th published collection), with a series of acrylic landscape and still-life paintings she has created over the last several years titled Trees, Flowers, Fields, and Woods: The Origins of Poems and Paintings in Child’s Play.
Chapman speaks of Oak Ridge with an undeniable fondness, recalling entire days playing with friends in green forests, fields and streams. What makes her work so interesting is the constant, lingering tension, just outside of frame and page.
For example, the poems in Six True Things describe childhood wonder while subtly acknowledging Oak Ridge’s reality. A section from “The Music Teacher” reads:
took over and taught us to play
the triangles and drums and wear
cocked hats for rhythm band
and it was years before we heard
the word Death in the classroom.
Chapman’s paintings are displayed throughout the gallery, and copies of Six True Things are available for viewers to peruse while taking in Chapman’s scenes of the Tennessee prairie and woodland. Although Chapman has marked specific poems with visual counterparts in a gallery handout, the connection between the two is, for the most part, “atmospheric,” says the author.
This logic takes over after spending time in Steenbock Gallery: The true experience of Trees, Flowers, Fields, and Woods is an immersive one. In fact, many of Chapman’s acrylics (such as “East Durham Creek” and “East Durham Farm”; “Owen Park in Fall,” “Owen Park Prairie” and “Sumac at Owen Park”) portray the same location at different times, or from different perspectives.
Chapman’s project is clearly one of exploration and immersion. We’re transported to Oak Ridge, not to a single point in time, but to the author’s childhood spent playing outdoors. “...in the greenbelt oak woods of the East Tennessee hills left as camouflage for the town by the Army Corps of Engineers.”