If you’re looking for your own astrological sign in artist Sigrid Eilertson’s mixed-media collage world, you won’t be surprised to see Taurus depicted as a bull, Leo as a lion, Cancer as a crab or Pisces as fish.
You might, however, take a surprised second look at Sagittarius. Instead of a centaur with a flowing mane, Eilertson’s Sagittarius is a lean, sinuous snake curving around an arrow. And because “Star Creatures: An Exploration of Astrological Signs in Mixed-Media Collages” is opening at Studio Ix on Friday, under the sign of Aquarius, one can’t help asking how the Charlottesville artist and art therapist is capturing the Water Bearer.
She chose a sperm whale.
Critics of the intellectual sign might agree with the choice of an animal with a massive head, while zodiac purists might question the use of an ocean dweller as an ambassador for an air sign. Relax; at least it jibes with the sign’s purported unpredictability. And as she described the creative process behind her new exhibit, Eilertson shared a memory of the sheer wonder of feeling tiny on a boat in the spray of a curious whale’s powerful blast of damp air.
“Aquarius always seems so adventurous,” Eilertson said. “I pictured the whale exploring the depths of the sea, the depths of dreaming.”
The collages in “Star Creatures” represent departures in a number of ways. For Eilertson the artist, it’s an adventure to create smaller canvases for this show than she normally paints.
“I usually work quite large,” she said. “It was a challenge for me to make a whale small. It’s more intimate. It’s more precious to me, and not so grandiose.”
Eilertson is fond of bringing animals to life on her canvases. “I predominantly like to paint fantastical creatures and goddesses,” she said.
Any actor or director will tell you to expect the unexpected whenever you’re working with animals. Eilertson understands; over time, she has grown comfortable being surprised and amused by her painted pantheon.
“They always turn out not the way you’re expecting,” she said with a chuckle. “I’m used to it now. Thirty years ago, when I was first getting into art, I was pulling my hair out. I’m making peace with it now.”
The animals in the new show assert their own personalities. Along the way, they ended up complementing the signs they represent, often accentuating traditional quirks and qualities attributed to them.
“For Virgo, I did a horse — a very strong red horse,” Eilertson said.
Libra’s stability and introversion surfaced in her depiction of a water buffalo with Libra’s scales balancing on one of its curved horns. “They’re very strong, but they keep to themselves,” she said,
And curious, adaptable Gemini came out as an “ornery” cat. “The Gemini, everybody gets,” Eilertson said with a chuckle.
“It’s all part of the process,” she said. “It’s almost like the neuroscience of it all. You’re thinking and feeling and doing.”
As for the surprises in her astrological canon, Eilertson’s comfortable with thinking, “OK, so that’s the way it’s supposed to happen,” she said. “You can always change it. It’s just paint.
“Art is more forgiving than people think. People get so uptight because they want it to be perfect.”
Eilertson needed to ease up on her own customary approach to her creative process and go with the flow, and it paid off. The scale of her smaller works suited the Studio Ix space; so does the dynamic dozen’s adventurous spirit.
“It’s an intimate show; these are small, intimate works,” Eilertson said. “And the light in there is amazing.
“I really had fun with this series. And that wasn’t enough, so now I’m working on a Chinese zodiac series.”
If you attend the opening reception for “Star Creatures” on Friday evening, or drop by at any time before the exhibit’s Feb. 25 closing, keep an eye out for the dragon from Eilertson’s Chinese zodiac collection. Eilertson’s own Boston terrier is her muse for the Year of the Dog — just in time for the lunar new year to arrive on Feb. 16.
You don’t have to believe in astrology to enjoy the category-bending critters in the Studio Ix exhibit, although it’ll make the opening reception’s optional personalized astrological readings a lot more fun. If you think all things zodiac are balderdash, there still are plenty of rich textures, flashes of unexpected colors, tweaks of convention and level gazes to explore. It’s an opportunity to leave judgments at the door and leave a little room open for interpretation and imagination.
“I’m a Pisces, and — surprise — I’m an artist,” Eilertson said.
Jane Dunlap Sathe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (434) 978-7249.