Inspired by the fluidity and evolution of nature, the acclaimed Canadian American artist Ilana Manolson expresses both a personal and abstract interpretation of the natural world in her paintings. Her first London exhibition, Chance Encounters features over 20 paintings illustrating the movement, change, and fragility of life and nature.  In the lead up to the exhibition opening at Cadogan Contemporary, Jenna Sachs caught up with the artist to find out more about her artistic and personal relationship with nature.

Nature has played an important role in both the development of your career as an artist and in your personal life. Can you elaborate on how this journey has inspired your work?

When I was young, we moved to Montreal and we spent weekends in the Laurentians where the forests are thick and I spent considerable time hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.  There, I learned to navigate by looking closely at the growth of the forest floor. After a year in Fiji working for the Canadian government after high school, I studied botany & art at Dawson and Goddard Colleges.

I took my first job as a naturalist at Parks Canada Western Region where I returned to my roots in Alberta.  At Elk Island National Park, I was asked to look closely at the landscape to ascertain the health of the park as a site for bison. My colleagues and I did so by repeatedly observing 1’ by 1’ squares of land. I was struck by the nature of Elk Island, which was intended to preserve itself as a snapshot in time. Yet, the only thing that is constant in nature is change, evolution.

As an interpreter of nature for park visitors, I started making large puppets. A supportive, understanding boss allowed me to replace didactic talks with various kinds of lively, artistic presentations. After I had transformed my office into what was effectively an art studio, I realized that I needed to study art and left to study printmaking and painting at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). I had my first shows at Brown University and a private art gallery in Providence upon graduation.

Ilana Manolson, Early ice, 2018, acrylic on yupo paper on board, 11in x 14in © the artist, courtesy of Cadogan Contemporary

I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts upon graduation from RISD and became a partner of a printmaking studio called Artist’s Proof, which has been recognized for its influence on the development of printmaking in the Boston area. I was fortunate to be represented immediately by a gallery in what was then the high-end gallery area and had my first solo show after a couple of years.

Since moving to Concord, Massachusetts, I walk outside every day (and kayak and cycle) and have been painting from nature ever since. But, I have returned to one of my core themes: what is consistent and what changes in nature. I return to the same places year after year. I used to be an interpreter of nature at the National Parks and now I am an interpreter of nature in my paintings. My paintings are figurative and abstract, as they draw on my impressions of nature and yet are my own abstracted interpretation of what I experience in nature.

The word nature is derived from the Latin word natura, and literally means “birth”. Nature is constantly shifting between rebirth and death I love to watch the process. Hiking allows me to experience nature and to anchor myself in place and time. My images deal with natural life, death and rebirth.  The chance encounters with the elements – the milkweed blowing, the fiddlehead unfurling, the rain on the pond – all enable me to tell the larger story of the land.

You spend a lot of time in nature but your paintings are created in the studio from memory, perhaps you could tell us more about your working process?

I hike daily, and return to my studio to paint the sum of my understanding of the landscape. I combine different scenes as well as different moments, conveying my sense of how they connect, how different landscapes impact each other, giving weight to elements of nature I remember and editing others. I reach into my pocket and use the rocks, acorns, and flowers that have travelled back with me from my hikes to anchor a piece, distorting the scene to capture the essence.

Your paintings combine both abstract and figurative elements which challenge traditional depictions of nature in art. What do you hope for visitors to take away from this exhibition?

I would like the viewer to understand that nature is not fixed but is fluid and always evolving. My marks suggest the constant movement and change that happens in nature, the fragility of life, and the glory of transitions.

As you began your career as a painter over twenty years ago, your work must have changed and adapted to the world around you. Can you elaborate on how your practice has developed over time?

I used to paint en plein air, taking paints, board, and easel outside to be true to the scene in front of me. Painting day after day at the same site, it became clear to me that what I wanted to paint was not a fixed and constant scene. The light shifted, the weather changed, the leaves fell; from moment to moment it was not the same place. I watched pond turn to meadow, meadow to forest and forest to concrete. I wanted to capture that. I have been expanding the context not just in terms of time but also space and causality. 

Your work is greatly rooted in the tradition of 19th Century Romanticism. Is there any particular artist that you look to for inspiration?

I have a huge crush on Per Kirkeby’s work for his sense of color and his ability to let his marks stand in for the geology of the land.

Ilana Manolson, Yala, 2018-2019, acrylic on yupo paper on board, 37in x 48in © the artist, courtesy of Cadogan Contemporary

As this exhibition is your first show in London, you must be very excited! How does it feel displaying your work in such an iconic city?

I am very excited to be able to show at the Cadogan Contemporary gallery.  It is a gallery that shows very interesting art that I respect.  I am happy to be included in their stable of artists.  I have always loved London as a city and have visited many times. 

Do you have any other exciting projects coming up?

I am presently working on a show for the Jason McCoy Gallery in New York. I am also excited about working with well-known architect Maryann Thompson on a project at Walden Pond, a pond near my home in Concord, that first received attention in 1845 when philosopher Henry David Thoreau chose to live deliberately in nature by its side.

Chance Encounters is open until 10 May 2019 at Cadogan Contemporary, London. For more information, visit:

Words by Jenna Sachs.

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