Mead visitors watching a video inside the Rotherwas Room
Visitors to the Mead exhibition "Rotherwas Project 3, Saya Woolfalk: Life Products and the ChimaCloud" watch a video that introduces the “Empathics,” a fictional group of hybrid women-plants imagined and created by artist Saya Woolfalk.

Now in its third installment, the Mead Art Museum’s Rotherwas Project exhibition series features works by contemporary artists in the museum’s historic wood-paneled room. The latest show, titled Rotherwas Project 3, Saya Woolfalk: Life Products and the ChimaCloud, includes videos, sculptures and prints by New York-based artist Saya Woolfalk and is the first to draw inspiration directly from the space itself.

The dramatic architectural elements of the Rotherwas Room—originally built in 1611 for a Court in Herefordshire, England, then gifted to Amherst in 1944 by Herbert Lee Pratt, Class of 1895—provide unique contrast to the contemporary works on view. “It’s hard to ignore the sensory experience evoked by the Rotherwas Room, with its moody light and stunning paneling,” says David E. Little, Mead director and chief curator. “In contrast, most contemporary exhibitions are presented in white cubes or spaces designed explicitly to show art.”

The first two installments of the Rotherwas Project in fall 2016 and spring 2017 respectively featured mixed-media paintings by New York-based artist Amanda Valdez and colorful drawings set in glowing light boxes by Japanese-German artist Kota Ezawa.

Woolfalk visited the museum last summer and took notice of the room’s intricate oak mantelpiece—which depicts four female figures as the four cardinal virtues: Justice, Temperance, Prudence and Fortitude—and decided to try something different. For the Mead exhibition, Woolfalk imagined the interaction between these four historic figures and the “Empathics,” a fictional group of hybrid women-plants she imagined and has been creating in various mediums since 2008.

Visitor looking at the four virtues prints
Four new prints by Saya Woolfalk, one for each of the four virtues, are included in the exhibition.

“Each work [Woolfalk] creates expands the narrative of the ‘Empathics,’” says Vanja Malloy, curator of American art, explaining that the “Empathics” modify their genes and fuse with plants. “Her work is a unique blend of science fiction and fantasy that visualizes an alternate society, or an alternate existence.” The exhibition includes five prints and a video Woolfalk created to illustrate the virtues within the fictional world of the Empathics, along with earlier examples of her work for context. 

Malloy hopes students who see the exhibition will be inspired by Woolfalk’s imaginative approach to creating art. “Her work is a great example of how art allows us to think freely with our imaginations,” Malloy says, not just visually in terms of what would look good aesthetically, but rather, about new ways we could reconfigure our everyday existence.”

Little’s goal is more focused on the Rotherwas Project itself: “We’re showing students art of their time, and we hope to inspire them through active engagement with living artists who are currently creating art.”

Rotherwas Project 3, Saya Woolfalk: Life Products and the ChimaCloud remains on view at the Mead Art Museum through Dec. 17, 2017.

Portrait of Saya Woolfalk

Related Event

Join Saya Woolfalk for a gallery talk on Friday, Sept. 22, at 4:30 p.m. in the Mead Art Museum. The talk is free and open to the public.