Where heart meets art: Joanelle Mulrain

by madeleine wagner
The idea of an artist-in-residence is kind of romantic, conjuring ideas of uninterrupted, focused work in an idyllic environment. The artist there, revealing, perhaps even clarifying facets of a place that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Painter Joanelle Mulrain is the artist-in-residence for Tree Hill Nature Center. However, instead of quietly slipping out to Arlington and using the space for her own benefit, Mulrain says, “What good is it if you can’t involve other people?” the artist rhetorically asks. At Tree Hill, Mulrain has instituted an “artists’ membership,” so that all the area artists can use the facility… “a kind of creative coalition for Tree Hill,” says Mulrain. “What better thing than to bring people together?”
However, she does look forward to the works she’ll produce in conjunction with the space (from her statement) “To merge nature and art is to juxtapose life and a glimpse, a blink, into how the artist perceives nature and its bounty and its relationship to the now. It is my hope to convey what I see at Tree Hill through brush strokes and the lens to bring about awareness of the awe of nature.”
Tree Hill is a 38 year old nature preserve located on Lone Star Road in Arlington. The center is dedicated to environmental education, conservation and awareness. With animal encounters, trails (guided and otherwise) and a butterfly garden, just ten minutes outside of downtown, Mulrain calls it “one of Arlington’s three hidden treasures, including the Jacksonville Arboretum and the Timucuan Preserve.” She believes that “we should celebrate these things… So I want to get the word out, at least to artists–because we all love nature so we need to paint it, talk it, write it. By putting artists together with the nature center they can take advantage of whatever they like.”
Sandy Wilson, public relations consultant for Tree Hill says, “For Tree Hill Nature Center’s Creative Coalition, Joanelle worked with fellow artist Allison Watson to identify leaders in this region’s art community and invited these leaders to serve as Tree Hill Ambassadors. In return, Tree Hill hopes to build a solid foundation of creative individuals who recognize that Tree Hill’s 50-acres serve as a beautiful natural backdrop for a variety of creative activities.”
Her work with Tree Hill really is an outgrowth of her consuming interest in her immediate environment, which though reflected in her work, is also reflected in her actions. She’s collaborated with Stetson Kennedy, authored a book called ReRooting (a self-help handbook designed to help career women reconnect with their creative selves) worked with military families, and is finishing a suite of paintings based on the life of Florence Nightingale.
In conjunction with the Nightingale suite, she’s put together The Nursing Inspiration Project, an open call to nurses to share their stories; the why and how of nursing. Giving nurses the opportunity to share their stories that developed in conjunction with the Nightingale project, has its roots in Mulrain’s work in healthcare too. For twenty years, Mulrain worked as a director of marketing for Baptist Health. In fact, she remembers that about fifteen years ago, as a thank you for their nursing staff, the hospital reprinted and bound in leather, Nightingale’s seminal work, Notes on Nursing (1859).
Throughout her research, Mulrain feels that there have been eerie similaries between her life and that of Nightingale. However, she believes it is most telling that though her mother was a nurse, she (Mulrain) never asked her about it. Perhaps the journey isn’t just about Nightingale, but a way to more deeply know and understand her mother.
“I tried to thread together the whole person… I tried to find the little pieces that personalize her,” says the artist.
The Nightingale project grew out of an opportunity Mulrain had to show at the Karpeles Manuscript Museum. At the time her work was scheduled to go up, the museum had planned to showcase personal letters and papers of Nightingale herself. “I thought, ‘my cattails and herons weren’t a great fit.'” So she set herself the task of learning as much about “The Lady with the Lamp,” as she could in about two months.
Her research even took her to England, where she visited Nightingale’s ancestral home and the museum dedicated to the nurse, “I read 4,000 pages in two months, created six paintings, and collected ephemera related to her life from all over,” says Mulrain, as she carefully handles a calling card that possibly has a signature from Nightingale on the back.
Mulrain approached the task of painting Nightingale’s life with manic energy; instead of painting a series of stills from the nurse’s life, she selected symbols from different periods in her life. The result: paintings that act almost as a narrative guide to Nightingale’s life. In fact, as Mulrain tells Nightingale’s story, she herself looks at her paintings for the little details that bring a person, not just an icon, to life.
That might be the distinctive quality defining Mulrain herself: a quest for the personal and communal-a way to detail experiences into a cohesive whole. For more information on Joanelle Mulrain, visit her site: greatblueheronstudios.com. The Florence Nightingale Exhibit opens September 11th, at the Karpeles Museum, 101 W 1st St., Jacksonville, 356-2992.