by Melinda Baker
The landscape paintings of Nashville artist Megan Lightell seem to whisper. Imparting a singular intimacy and stillness, her soft, open canvases urge you to come closer, to look and listen intently, just as you would for someone you hold dear.
Rendering the beauty of the land is fundamental to Lightell’s work, but she is perhaps more passionate about exploring and nurturing humanity’s vital connection to it. For her new series, “Saving Space,” on view at Zeitgeist Gallery, she partnered with The Land Trust for Tennessee (LTTN), a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of public and private land, including wildlife habitat, working farms, parks and historic land. From large-scale scenes to small studies, the exhibition captures protected sites throughout Middle Tennessee and helps raise awareness of the invaluable reasons why land conservation is important now and for generations to come.
Lightell spoke with the Tennessean about her work and current exhibition, on view at Zeitgeist through Dec. 16.
What inspired “Saving Space”?
For years, I have wanted to partner with the LTTN for a project, both to learn more about their work and to support it in whatever way I could. I wonder what is lost when we think of land in terms of grids on a map, earth to be flattened by large machines and replaced with concrete and asphalt. What has drawn me to certain places is something deeper than profit, a way of seeing land that accounts for living things and more complex systems.
What did you hope to capture about these protected lands?
I was looking for a sense of scale, and a sense of why these places feel important to set aside. One of the things that most interests me about the idea of conservation easements is that people who make these decisions about land use are choosing to view the land through a different lens than most; rather than seeing the land as a commodity or source of profit, many of these people see value in other things: personal or historical ties to a particular piece of land, wildlife habitat, the value of land to sustain food production. They see the sacred in the landscape and hold space for natural processes and ecosystems to exist.
You work on pieces both en plein air and in the studio. Tell me about this technique.
Painting en plein air allows me to record qualities of a scene that are impossible any other way; the color experienced through the light changing and entering the eye, the feeling of the air moving, the warmth or chill, the sounds of the animals and leaves, the smell of the air and the earth. These elements find their way into the paint during that experience. What I am often more interested in, though, is how to convey the memory of that in the studio work.
How do you decide the scale of each scene?
Some places feel best encountered on a larger scale, while others call for a more intimate presentation. In this show, one notable site in terms of scale was Berdelle Campbell’s garden. In contrast to the other sites that were anywhere from dozens to hundreds of acres with wide views, Berdelle’s garden in Germantown is about ¼ acre with close, dense vegetation. It felt appropriate that the piece be smaller and more intimate than the rest of the show.
What role can art play in conservation?
Historically, groups like the Hudson River School influenced U.S. culture to value conservation and were an important factor in the creation of our national parks system. Artists have a way of seeing the world and reflecting it back to us that can challenge our culture and spur us to question our values. We may not be making policy or have control of financial decisions related to land, but through our work we can call on the deeper relationship that humans have with the landscape and invite people to consider the value of these places.
If you go
What: “Saving Space: Megan Lightell”
Where: 516 Hagan St. #100
When: Through Dec. 16 with a reception 6-8 p.m. Dec. 2.
Admission: Free. Ten percent of proceeds from art sales will be donated to The Land Trust for Tennessee.