The ideal kinship and real-life conflict between humans and animals drives artist Nancy Erickson’s new exhibition on the University of Montana campus.

“Kindred Spirits,” contains many of the Pattee Canyon resident’s hallmarks: Large, free-form animal and human figures cut from quilted fabric and decorated with stirring colors and references to ancient cave art from France.

While Erickson’s work has been included in more than 500 exhibitions over the years, the Montana Museum of Art and Culture found about a dozen selections from 2005 to the present that haven’t been displayed or are seldom seen, said curator Brandon Reintjes.

“Nancy’s such a well-respected, internationally known artist who we happened to have in our community, and we thought it would be great to celebrate her, and then it was in conjunction with the ‘Odyssey’ event this year.”

Erickson is being honored at the 2013 Odyssey of the Stars, an annual UM event that shines a light on distinguished visual and performing arts alumni.

Fabric art was not held in high regard when Erickson began her work, but attitudes have changed over the decades – not her approach. The listing of materials on the gallery entrance includes velvet, satin and cotton; fabric paints, oilstick and charcoal; machine stitched, applied and quilted. While she’s working on fabric, her work reads as painterly – the curving, stitched lines are reinforced with blunt brush strokes and pools of colored dye.

“She spends hours and hours and hours adding the layers to these,” said Reintjes, who noted that many of the richly saturated works begin as plain white fabric.

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Dominating one of the 16-foot walls of the Meloy Gallery is a group united for the first time, the five-member Toklat wolf pack.

In primitive, stitched handwriting, one 68-inch-tall wolf is branded in red with the dates of the pack’s existence. “Toklat pack: 1930s-2005.” The much-studied wolves from the area around Alaska’s Denali National Park were exterminated.

“We thought it was a timely point to venture into that argument,” said Reintjes. “Not necessarily to spark anything off, but to acknowledge it,” as Erickson is a committed environmentalist.

The shapes, scale and colors of Erickson’s work, meanwhile, posed a curatorial challenge. The white interior of the Meloy Gallery has been subbed out for black walls and adjusted lighting that helps some of the bright yellows and reds pop.

“The idea was to create sort of a cave space because she is so influenced by the Southern France caves ... the earliest artists known to us came to us from the south of France,” said Barbara Koostra, MMAC director. Those caves are the Chauvet Pont d’Arc, which is 32,000 years old, and the “younger” Lascaux, dating back 17,000 years.

The shapes, meanwhile, were a pleasant change for the curator, who said fabric art normally conforms to standard forms.

“It’s really unusual to have them free-form, these kind of organic forms that are floating, and we took advantage of that,” said Reinjtes. “It was a lot of fun to install because of that tension between the different elements, and then the height you can place them that.”

In addition to a slew of celebrity and docent tours of the works (see information box) there will be an accompanying audio tour element, available via headphones or cellphone. Visitors can dial a number and enter an extension for a specific piece, and it will cue up sounds of the animals, letting the wolves and panthers speak for themselves.

Entertainer editor Cory Walsh can be reached at 523-5261 or at cory.walsh@lee.net.

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