“I have always loved making things, and I felt like an artist even as a child,” says Indianapolis artist Dorothy Alig.
But with degrees in art history and history behind her, she turned to conservation as a practical way to establish her career. That work ultimately led her to the Indianapolis Museum of Art (Newfields) and also contributed to what she does now as a full-time studio artist.
“It was a privilege to work with great works of art in several different museum collections,” she says, “to handle the objects and study them up close for weeks at a time when they were in my care. But I realized I wanted to take all that I had learned from those great works and make something of my own.”
Alig says experimentation brings her great joy, and indeed her studio is chock-full of supplies for every kind of painting, printing and art-making process.
“I like materials and combining techniques,” she says. “I like seeing what happens if you put a piece of Japanese paper with a skin of paint or a digital image.”
She makes her own silkscreens and etching plates and has been known to roll kernels of corn in paint and then across the paper to create the dots that often populate her paintings.
Alig finds inspiration for large bodies of work in a variety of experiences. A recent rereading of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s iconic poem, “Renascence,” reminded her of the isolation the world is feeling due to the COVID-19 pandemic and led her to undertake a series of six large paintings that express the infinity for which the poem’s narrator longs. Two of the pieces, “Silver Rain” and “Glad Awakening,” are among those in the “Errare” exhibition at 411 Gallery. A fascination with other cultures and a visit to Istanbul led to a series about the circles of lights in mosques. “Mosque Light East” and “Mosque Light West” also appear in this collection.
“Interior I” and “Interior II” are so named because they are small, intimate paintings. Her contemplation of enclosures that reveal their contents inspired “Mystery Contained,” “Mystery Concealed” and “Mystery Revealed.” The ideas she gleaned from her years as a textile conservator have also influenced what she does today.
“I like muted colors,” she says. “I think it’s from my work with ancient things -- the colors get grayed down. They soften and blend together and settle down over time.”
Sometimes she begins with a sketch or a study, others she dives in with just an idea. When Cummins gave her a commission for their Columbus headquarters, she imagined the potential of vibrant energy to create matter and then deconstruct it back to the atoms of which it is comprised.
“Everything is energy, nothing is solid,” she says. “To me it makes sense to break things down into little energetic particles -- the micro view as opposed to the macro view.”
For a series to hang outside the training area at the Cummins distribution center in Indianapolis she chose the Myers-Briggs test they use there as a starting point. Then she developed her own set of symbols in creating one small painting for each of the 16 personality types identified by Carl Jung in a series titled “Sense of Self.” Another Cummins commission hangs in Columbus at the LiveWell Center.
A painting might begin with her laying down a basic composition in bands of color on sheer Japanese paper, which she uses because of its beautiful surface, plus it can be manipulated and cropped more easily than canvas. Then dozens -- if not hundreds -- of layers of silkscreened marks, dots, patterns and shapes lend richness and depth to the work and bring it to life.
“To me it’s like a vocabulary of marks that I can play with,” she said. “I love doing this because it allows me to work quickly, but it also allows me to constantly surprise myself. When I put the screen on the surface I can’t see what is below, so I don’t know precisely how the ink in the new layer will affect the image.”
Alig decided to call this exhibition “Errare,” the Latin verb meaning “to wander” that is the basis of several English words – erratic, errant and error.
“I usually try to have a theme and have all of the work connected to that theme,” she says, “but this show is made up of pieces of different things I’ve produced in the studio over the last decade, so there is no cohesive narrative. I wanted to show a variety of techniques and works all coming from one person’s aesthetic. There are no ‘errors’ here but lots of wanderings and experiments.”
This is the best kind of exhibit Alig could have assembled since wanderings and experiments are what she is all about.
“If you can keep surprising yourself, you’re going to want to keep working,” she says. “If you always know what you’re going to end up with, why bother? You’re just going to get bored.”