Local artist celebrates connection with nature

Posted 2/28/24

By Diane Walker  


“I often feel none of this would have happened if not for my dogs,” said artist Jeanne Simmons, whose exhibit, “Photographs, Artifacts, …

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Local artist celebrates connection with nature


By Diane Walker  


“I often feel none of this would have happened if not for my dogs,” said artist Jeanne Simmons, whose exhibit, “Photographs, Artifacts, and Intimate Works” will be unveiled at the Jefferson County Historical Society on March 2, as part of their new season kick-off. “They are my adventure companions, leading me to all these wonderful wild places.”

Trained as a sculptor in New England, Simmons once braided tall grasses in Maine, but by the early 2000s, when she and her husband Gunter first moved to Port Townsend, her life had become child-centered. Her creativity played out at home with her children, and later with children and families in local libraries, in her role as a youth services associate librarian. It wasn’t until 2015, driving down 49th Street one day, Simmons passed the iconic North Beach meadow and, reminded of her braiding experience in Maine, she found herself braiding a 20-foot diameter spiral in the grasses.

After that, Simmons spent several years imagining a grass cocoon to express our connection to nature and our shared vulnerability. She eventually invited Nicole Larson, a fellow artist and naturalist, to help bring that vision to life. As Larson lay in the field, Simmons braided grass into her hair, and then posted a photograph of the result to Facebook. To her surprise the photo went viral. The resulting recognition helped her realize her artistic vision had value.

“That piece changed my life,” Simmons said. “I learned to just make the things I wanted to make — to wrestle the voice of self-doubt into submission.”

In the smoky summer of 2018, when wildfires in eastern Washington turned the sun blood red, Simmons began feeling extremely anxious about climate change and our collective future. “I found the only thing that really helped me to cope with my fears was to actually spend time in nature,” she said. “The natural world was the only antidote to my anxiety. The more I homed in on my love for the world around me, the more I felt inspired to express it somehow. And this became my path, my way forward, my battle cry.”

Over the following years she created several more pieces, sometimes waiting months for the right confluence of weather, materials, and models to compose her photos. But each piece expressed her feeling that “I am an extension of the natural world and the natural world is an extension of me.” Brought repeatedly by her dogs to the beaches, fields, and forests she loved, she began feeling the landscape was giving back as many ideas as she brought to it.

Then, in 2022, Simmons and her husband lost their son, Corbin, and life changed irrevocably. She pulled back, curtailing her activities in the community.  “My life felt like a pile of ashes after losing Corbin,” she said. “Everywhere I went there were reminders of what we had lost. But I realized as I worked through the grief that there was a tiny ember still burning inside me, and I needed to keep it alive.”

Several of the pieces in her show emerged during that period, but perhaps the most significant of those creations is titled “Phoenix from the Flame.”

“It was a way of saying that life, however painful, still has value,” Simmons said. Unlike many of her other pieces, which were created on the spot, “Phoenix” necessitated substantial prep work. Making the cedar shakes herself, Simmons charred them with a torch and built a dummy form to test the concept. She then rebuilt the structure around her model, Katrina Wolfe. “It was a powerful ritual for both of us,” Simmons said. She also sees the piece as a tribute to Sinead O’Connor, who lost a son in 2022 and died the following year.

Simmons hopes pieces like “Phoenix” and her enchanting “Boots with Roots” might communicate her belief that our connection to nature, to the wild places in our communities, is healing. It's her reverence for those wild places — the fields, beaches, and woods of Port Townsend — that she celebrates in her upcoming exhibit. “It’s an incredible honor, and an opportunity to reaffirm and deepen my ties here. When you love something, you have to express it, and this is how I express that love.”

“Photographs, Artifacts, and Intimate Works” opens at the JCHS Museum of Art & History, 540 Water St., Port Townsend, on March 2 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission costs will be waived on opening day, and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. that evening, guests have the opportunity to meet the artist and experience walking artwork as models bring Simmons’s photos to life.