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Mark Bennett Opinion

February 20, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Imaginary lines: Borders that define, divide us depicted in artist's series

TERRE HAUTE — Invisible lines shape, alter and end lives.

Borders define people, even though the dirt, rocks and trees look the same on both sides. Boundaries between countries trigger wars. Laws change as people cross state lines in America.

“You cross that border, and suddenly there are different rules, and you don’t know what they are,” said Terre Haute artist Mary Kramer. “There’s this line that dictates so much about how we identify ourselves.”

Kramer has captured that odd, man-made power in paintings called “The Border Series.” Her artwork — on display from Feb. 24 through March 16 at Turman Art Gallery on the Indiana State University campus — depicts the often indistinct tracts of land found at international and state border crossings, and at boundaries between pueblos (Native American communities in the Southwest) and U.S. counties.

The series “is about imaginary lines in the earth, those that we feel protected by and those that threaten,” in Kramer’s words.

“A piece of land may or may not absorb the power of an invisible line running across it,” she added, “but we do.”

Indeed, the U.S.-Canadian border stretches 5,525 miles (when Alaska is included), with 13 states touching Canada, while the U.S.-Mexican border covers 1,933 miles and involves four American states. The U.S. Border Patrol employs more than 20,000 agents. The concept of an extensive fence to curtail illegal immigration remains a hot debate in Congress.

The Illinois-Indiana state line runs straight for 159 miles from the Wabash River in western Vigo County, Ind., and eastern Clark County, Ill., to Chicago. On the Illinois side, people can’t smoke in bars; on the Indiana side, it’s legal.

Worldwide, disputes over borders last decades. Hostilities between North Korea and South Korea have remained volatile since the peninsula was divided along the 38th Parallel after World War II. The African nation of Sudan is now breaking into two countries, with the formation of Southern Sudan.

The strange, compelling nature of borders has fascinated Kramer since she was a third-grader, trying to outline the shapes of countries. “I was always anxious about getting them right,” she recalled.

Born in Annapolis, Md., where her father taught at St. John’s College, Kramer has lived in Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Mexico, Mexico, Connecticut and now Indiana. While in graduate school in Connecticut, just before turning 40, Kramer incorporated every address she’d ever occupied into an artistic collage. Her addresses, then, totaled 40. Her current address is Terre Haute, where she works as executive director of Art Spaces Inc. Despite her “seemingly nomadic life,” Kramer, now 55, still considers New Mexico home. It was during a trip there, from Terre Haute, in 2008 that she first imagined “The Border Series.”

After touring the Grand Canyon and the Hopi Reservation, Kramer pulled her car off a small highway as she reached the Arizona-New Mexico state line. The separation point between the Grand Canyon State and the Land of Enchantment featured tiny plants somehow growing in the flat, dry, hard, rocky soil. She snapped a photo with her digital camera. “And it became the start of the whole thing,” she said.

Her “Border Series” includes nearly 50 paintings — using oil paints, bees wax and pigments — from borders in the U.S. and abroad, as well as “spirit borders” around sites special to Kramer, herself, such as the St. John’s College branch in New Mexico, where her father and her family once moved to from Maryland. In nondescript places, where one state becomes another, Kramer photographs scenery most people overlook. Beside the “Welcome to the Ponca Nation” sign outside a Native American community inside Oklahoma, she focused her lens on some slimy green plants growing in a drainage ditch.

“I’m not always thinking, ‘This is characteristic of Oklahoma,’” Kramer explained. “Once I stop [the car], the artist in me takes over and I look for something that might be interesting.” She bases her paintings on the border photographs, some of which have been shot by her son, Simon Peterson, a professional photographer based in Montana.

One painting shows the stones at a plaza along the Italy-Slovenia border. Inside the structure, now a memorial to freedom, visitors can straddle the divide with one foot in Italy and the other in Slovenia.

A similar situation exists in Four Corners, USA, where New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Arizona touch. Kramer painted images from that site, too.

The lines that split those states mystically influence the cultures. “Every state has an identity,” Kramer said. “There’s definitely a Hoosier pride that people think of when they visit Indiana, or call it home.” The distinctions among countries are even stronger, she said.

Kramer will continue to explore borders, artistically, beyond “The Border Series,” which was made possible, in part, by grants from the Indiana Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts.

She in the process of finishing a “Ghost Borders” project, involving boundaries that no longer exist or have faded away, such as the Berlin Wall or the old Mason-Dixon Line. In a third project, perhaps the most time-consuming, Kramer is reading one book by an author from all 212 countries on earth, and then using strips of text, canvas, bees wax and the outlines of those nations to form a 5-inch-by-7-inch piece of art. The books must be novels related to a person being separated from their land by choice or force. She’s about one-fifth of the way through her list, and hopes to wrap up the project by autumn 2012.

“One of the things that hits me from reading all those books is the universal nature of it,” Kramer said. “The other thing that strikes me is how little we know about other countries.”

The stories “can be very redemptive,” she said. “It certainly makes you aware of the differences and the commonalities.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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