Michele Oka Doner at PAMM: Art From Nature

Oka Doner's work is inspired by nature.
Oka Doner's work is inspired by nature.
Artwork by Michele Oka Doner

Miami is ruled by color. Coral-stained hibiscus flowers sprinkle the city's pavement. Fuchsia sunsets fade over turquoise-hued homes. It's like a rainbow melted across South Florida. But when Michele Oka Doner emerges from her sister's Miami Beach glass-paneled home in a white silk tunic, her dove-gray hair pulled back into a crisp bun, she's a reprieve. The septuagenarian artist, born and raised in Miami Beach, is a minimalist. Her wardrobe includes select monochrome pieces, utilitarian and efficient. She's unencumbered, exuding an ease that feels like a soft breeze over a field of sawgrass.

This Thursday, Oka Doner opens "How I Caught a Swallow in Midair" at Pérez Art Museum Miami. The show highlights the arc of her 50-year career, featuring more than 20 works on paper, sculptures, chairs, jewelry, and other pieces inspired by the natural world.

"I like everything to be lean," Oka Doner says. "If I reach into a drawer, I want to know where the tool is." Her sculptural work is no different. The palette matches the hues that emanate naturally from the earth, resembling found artifacts and totems. For Oka Doner, we live in an unheralded natural world, ruled by ritual. And that is the purest truth.

"Isn't it nice to be outdoors?" she sighs, illuminated by a bright sunrise, Sunset Lake, and native spider lilies behind her. "This is an oasis."

Last week, after Oka Doner met with exhibit organizer and former PAMM director Thomas Collins, the two friends decided to walk from the museum to South Beach. They strolled for two hours along the Venetian Causeway, examining Miami's native elements: gardenias, the bay, and tree roots.

"We saw a homeless woman swimming nude with her hair like a mermaid," she says. "She saw us, and we smiled. It was such a human experience. The show will be a collection of small moments like these — small stops along the way of 50 years of work."

Oka Doner didn't want a grand gesture. She has grown tired of the "assault of art" that exists today, especially in Miami. Her work is more subdued, letting its esoteric nature hint at the spectacular universal magic that unites all life forms.

The noise of Miami's pop world yells "look at me," she says, but "that's not my interest. I see it as part of the trouble of an art world that has become money-driven and competitive. I grew up here, and I knew the banyan tree, I hunted for seeds under the native spider lily tree, I know there's power and might in a thing the size of the dime that has a tiny root or sprout."

She was born and raised near Indian Creek and 29th Street, imbued with strong moral values by her father, who was a judge and later served as Miami Beach mayor for eight years. Her mother was creative and came from a long line of scribes. Her grandfather painted the ceilings at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City in the early 1900s. Art was a birthright for Oka Doner. She can barely remember the first time she began creating.

The first time she visited the Everglades, she was around 6 years old and a Girl Scout. It was the early 1950s, and there weren't many highways. Her troupe took the back roads through Homestead, observing where life grew. "I was terrified. You could see the spider webs in the sunshine. You knew life was scary. You didn't have that experience on Miami Beach," she remembers. "It was the first time I felt primal energy."

She moved away in 1963 to attend the University of Michigan, and the next year, at age 19, she created Tattooed Porcelain Doll, an eerily serene, childlike figure without arms. Its body was engraved with dark swirls; the eyes were painted in an uncharacteristically bright magenta and indigo. The doll was part of a series exhibited at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and aired on the Today show November 4, 1969, before traveling to the Edinburgh College of Art in 1973. Oka Doner says she hasn't seen the doll in person since she packed it away in a barrel in the '70s. For now, she has only photos to remind her.

"It was a strange piece for its time. It's still a strange piece," she says. "I was trying to make a figure that looked like the coral I knew. I always had the idea I wasn't separate from the ocean or plant — I could look at my hand and see the veins; I could see the similarity between myself and other life forms."

After Oka Doner graduated, she moved to Detroit, where she exhibited at the Gertrude Kasle Gallery in 1971. The following year, she gave birth to her first son, Hollywood screenwriter Jeremy Doner, with her partner and current manager, Frederick Doner. She would later have another son, Jordan, who collaborates with her on select jewelry sculptures.

"My sons were brought up with no door to the studio," Oka Doner says. "They would come home from school, and I would have clay and plaster ready for them to create."

In 1981, she saw an image of a live-work loft in the New York Times. Such a thing didn't exist in Detroit, so she soon decamped to Manhattan, joining the first wave of artists to move into SoHo's Cast Iron District. During that decade, she began creating large-scale public works. Radiant Site, a 165-foot-long wall for Herald Square's subway station, consisted of gold luster tiles. In 1995, she was commissioned to create A Walk on the Beach, composed of more than 9,000 bronzes embedded with mother-of-pearl in terrazzo, taking the form of marine life and sea shells. It is now a highlight of Terminal D at Miami International Airport.

Oka Doner continued to merge human life with what she calls "the mysterium," underwater and natural life forms that humans do not fully understand. Ten thousand years ago, Miami was an island. As the climate changed, water receded, exposing corals and leaving them to dry. Their remains lie compressed in oolitic limestone. Now, as Miami's sea level continues to rise at alarming rates, change is coming once again.

"Slowly, as climate change continues to hit us, the birds will fly north, the grass will move, things will keep moving north,"she says. "The world around me speaks; it has a voice, and it's alive. The plants and animals that move north are harbingers of what's coming."

Earlier this month, she published Into the Mysterium, a photo novel. Shot at the University of Miami's Marine Invertebrate Museum, this is Oka Doner's dive into the unknown, discovering "gelatinous medusas evoking primordial memory, divine translucent abstractions." It's her ode to the nature that humans cannot access so easily.

The same idea is expressed in Oka Doner's wardrobe and set design for Miami City Ballet's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which premiered last week. It was all inspired by walks on the beach. "There's that wonderful reddish brown in the native tree the gumbo limbo, and counter to that, there's a golden color you see in the sargasso seaweed," she says. "Miami has that palette. It's very natural. It's not just the Necco wafer palette of South Beach."

Collins approached Oka Doner about the PAMM show after meeting her at a board of patrons meeting. They immediately connected over "lovely evenings discussing Miami and art." The artist was asked to choose about three dozen pieces that represent the arc of her career. They range from cyanotype to works on paper and clay and ceramic sculptures.

"It was pretty easy to choose... I try to keep the first piece even if it's not the best," she says. "You look at something that fell out of you — from some notion you were trying to carve out in your mind — and when it materializes, it gets very exciting."

Currently, she lives in a SoHo loft that doubles as her studio. On her return trip to New York, she'll walk through Miami International Airport, where A Walk on the Beach is on display. Not far away is her most accessed work, The Galaxy, a large swirling hurricane of black and white terrazzo color fields, balancing yin and yang.

Nature is her truth, she affirms, and then playfully recalls words from William Butler Yeats' poem "A Drinking Song": "That's all I know for truth, before I grow old and die."

"How I Caught a Swallow in Midair"
Thursday, March 24, through September 11 at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-375-3000; pamm.org. Admission costs $16. Hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. the rest of the week except Wednesday, when PAMM is closed.

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Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM)

1103 Biscayne Blvd.
Miami, FL 33132

305-375-3000

pamm.org


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