“Meet the Artist” is a series of interviews with the Iowa Artist Fellows.
During the Renaissance, women who knew that plants could be used for culinary, medicinal and even poisonous purposes were considered dangerous. They were seen as a threat to the medical and clerical professionals and were often accused of witchcraft.
That history fascinates Molly Wood, who captures botanical beauty in photographs using only window light and the inspiration of Dutch-still life paintings. Each image is a metaphor for the natural cycles of life, death and rebirth.
The Des Moines photographer is one of five new additions to the Iowa Arts Council’s Artist Fellowship Program, which was founded in 2014 to support Iowa artists who contribute to artistic excellence and innovation in Iowa.
As part of the program, the fellows discuss their work at several public events, receive career-development training and a $10,000 grant.
We asked them to share their backgrounds, their work and their thoughts about the arts in Iowa.
So let’s meet Molly, who manages photo shoots for Meredith Corporation and teaches about the history of photography at Des Moines Area Community College. Here she is in her own words . . .
Where are you from?
I’ve lived in a lot of different places . . . Montgomery, New Orleans, Grand Rapids, Denver, Atlanta, Fort Worth and Dallas. I went to college and graduate school in Texas, then moved to Vienna, Austria, for two years and Vancouver, Canada, for five years before landing in Des Moines.
Where do you make your work?
I hunt for subject matter everywhere but most of my images are made in my home using natural window light.
What is your artistic medium of choice and why?
Photography. My grandfather taught me when I was little. He had lost people in his life and had very few photos of them, so he was a bit obsessed with making sure our family life was well documented. Photography was something we did together while he told me stories on our walks in the country where he lived in Louisiana.
A lot of those stories involved the land and the plants down there — enormous oak trees and magnolias with Spanish moss and crazy plants that only grow out in rural Louisiana. My photography has always been deeply rooted in those experiences.
What themes does your work explore?
In my photographs, I use plants as metaphors for human experiences. Aging, life cycles, poison, healing and sustenance can all be reflected in botanicals.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a series called “Fatal Flora.” The project is related to exploring plants that are toxic and medicinal, especially plants that were found in medicinal gardens that women grew during the Renaissance.
This was a dangerous field of study for women because certain plants had parts that could be used for food, other parts that could be used for medicine and other parts that could be deadly. I am interested in how this duality relates to human relationships that can be healing or toxic.
Beyond being physically dangerous, women’s herbal study became politically dangerous because it was opposed by the church and by the medical profession. Religious leaders wanted people to go to the church for healing through prayer and God’s grace. Early professional medical practitioners were wealthy men, and they didn’t want local peasant women to dispense herbal remedies and question their authority. Offering to heal people outside of the church or medical profession led to women herbalists facing accusations of witchcraft.
What do you enjoy about being an artist in Iowa?
The arts community in Iowa feels very welcoming. It’s so easy to get together with a group of people for a critique or a discussion over dinner or an event at the Des Moines Art Center. I always come away from those interactions
feeling enriched. There is an interwoven feeling of connectedness within the art community here that I love.
What is one thing you change about the artistic field in Iowa?
I don’t know if this would be considered a change, but I’d like to see things keep progressing the way they have been. The trajectory of the past 10 years in Des Moines has been amazing. I’d love to see the continuation of those initiatives that have led to art in public spaces, our amazing museums, the opportunity for creative people to come to Iowa and work freely. It’s amazing and it keeps getting better.
Are they any upcoming events or milestones you’d like folks to know?
A show called “Photo Sensitive” just closed at Olson-Larsen Galleries in West Des Moines, and “New Botanicals” just closed at the Potter Art Gallery at Missouri Western State University in Joplin.
Another show, called “Fatal Flora,” is tentatively scheduled for October in Winterset.
— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs