Written by Maia Hawthorne
Study the elements used in Rensselaer artist Bonnie Zimmer’s handiwork--foxtails, butterfly weed seed pods, corn kernels, rusty bolts, discarded tractor parts--and you could probably guess that she is from the area. Zimmer, who has earned numerous awards for “merit,” “honor,” and “distinction” for her art, and who has exhibited throughout the Midwest consistently over the last thirty years, grew up playing in the woods and fields surrounding her family’s Wheatfield farm. As she has evolved as an artist, it has been to the materials of the woods, fields, and roadsides of rural northwest Indiana that she has turned to shape an artistic vision. But developing that vision has been something of an evolution.
One early influence that would come to shape Zimmer’s aesthetic was the Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship she was awarded in 1995. The Fellowship sent Zimmer to the Pacific Northwest to study the contemporary Native American artists of Ketchikan, Alaska. Zimmer says she found herself “humbled by the reverence and gratitude those artists hold for all things” and the “logical, respectful practices of their daily lives.” Zimmer was inspired to see the sacred quality of the elements of the natural world, and she began trying to infuse her own art with the balance of “beauty, function, and economy” she found in the Ketchikan work.
At some point along the way, the revelation of Ketchikan began to resonate with Zimmer’s love of the Dada artists of the early twentieth century. Zimmer had always admired the Dadas’ protest of “a society gone mad.” The madness of contemporary society became increasingly more clear to Zimmer as the lessons of Ketchikan began to take hold in her imagination. “Our society seems to have veered so far off track in our priorities and practices,” she says. “Our lives are filled with over-consumption, greed, and waste.”
Determined not to waste and not to overlook the sacred in the everyday, Zimmer began to collect commonplace materials from the natural world--grasses, stones, feathers--and neglected and abandoned roadside detritus--rusty cans, bottle caps, chicken wire. These collected objects began to come together in her art in surprising ways: richly-textured mandalas that remind us of the cycles, patterns, and balance of the natural world, arresting installations that activate and spiritualize the surrounding space, playful totems that rise from rusty parts like merry tricksters. Zimmer’s aim in reconfiguring these collected items into artwork is to encourage observers to notice the beauty of those often unseen items. “I hope that viewers wonder at an object’s evolving history in its journey to finally be resurrected as ‘art,’” she says. “I hope, also, that my re-purposed objects and materials will inspire viewers to look at resources and possessions in a fresh way and pause before they throw away or acquire one more ‘thing.’”
But Zimmer’s vision of place includes more than just the material objects around us; it includes the people as well. This becomes clear when you appreciate that her career as an artist has included a great deal of community partnerships. Some of these partnerships have arisen through her teaching. Zimmer has been teaching art for 40 years at every level—first grade through college—winning a number of teaching awards in the process. These awards include Indiana Art Educator of the Year and Western Region Art Educator of the Year. But Zimmer has also been an active art educator and volunteer outside of school, serving as a board member of the Prairie Arts Council (PAC) since its inception in 1993, scheduling and curating art exhibits in PAC’s Lilian Fendig Gallery, fostering meetings among art educators across five counties, establishing annual Regional School Art Exhibits where the work of over 700 children is exhibited, and designing and managing ARTCAMP, PAC’s week-long summer series of arts workshops. These community service efforts have won Zimmer a number of accolades, including the Saint Joseph’s College Community Service Award, the Tippecanoe Arts Federation John Corey Arts Leadership Award, and the Indiana Arts Alliance Outstanding Volunteer Leader Award, among others. When you ask Zimmer what has driven her to put in such long hours for community projects over so many years, she will tell you that she has always felt called to work with like-minded people to bring experiences with the arts to her rural Indiana home.
And so Zimmer frequently finds herself at the center of a group of people working together to accomplish something surprising, beautiful, grand. When Zimmer was awarded an Indiana Arts Commission “Individual Artist Grant” to create a public sculpture for the ARTSPARK at the Indianapolis Arts Center, for instance, the experience was anything but limited to one individual. Zimmer invited dozens of people to join her, including area art teachers, local friends, and her Saint Joseph’s College students, who all worked with Zimmer to create over 90 orbs of various sizes made of natural materials. “Participants traveled to Indianapolis all five days of my residency at the Arts Center,” she says, “cutting truckloads of willows, weaving a giant orb the size of a Volkswagen Bug, installing pieces in trees, bushes, and grounds throughout the park.” She carries with her an image of the event that she says she will never forget: “I can still remember a number of us perched on huge ladders to install our giant orb about 15 feet off the ground between two tall trees as the focal point of the installation,” she says. “We had so much fun working together to create a major art project!”
Perhaps the ARTSPARK orbs resemble Zimmer’s vessels, which she describes as “baskets that hold ideas.” If so, the ideas they hold might include a reminder of what we could find if we were to practice slowing down, looking closely, connecting with our surroundings, surroundings which include the natural world, material objects, and other people. In the artist’s words, “I hope my art offers you an opportunity to discover an idea or gain sense of a place that takes you beyond yourself.” Zimmer’s art and art collaborations most certainly do call us beyond ourselves and put us more firmly in touch with our Indiana home.