LEWISTON — Salt is a lot of things.
First and foremost it’s a foodstuff, a flavor enhancer, a preservative. Doctors might advise you to stay away from it, fancy chefs may have a wide selection of it on hand in their kitchens. It can be mixed with water and administered intravenously to treat dehydration. It’s even been used as a form of currency.
And Jody Hanson has used it as her preferred medium for her latest exhibition, “Imperfect,” a TopSpin series show at the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University, up through Jan. 12.
The Buffalo resident began her salt drawing series in 2003 when she was living in Salem, Mass., working on the grand re-opening of the Peabody Essex Museum. She spent her evenings mixing solutions of salt — regular table salt, grey Celtic salt and reddish Hawaiian salt — with water. She applied the solutions using paintbrushes and eyedroppers on watercolor paper — which is sturdy enough not to buckle too much when wet — and would wait until morning when the water evaporated to see what formed.
“I was just experimenting with the salt,” Hanson said. “I picked that medium because it as the property of its own motion as it recrystallizes.
“It’s a material that naturally does something on its own” as the water evaporates and the salt recrystallizes into its own, natural structure.
It’s that pure use of salt that Michael Beam, curator of exhibitions and collections at the Castellani, said made him and the TopSpin selection committee want to include her show in the series.
“What first drew me to Jody’s work, to be honest, is that it’s salt and I love salt. I love to eat salt and I love to look at salt and it’s incredibly bad for you in the long run. I’ve always had an attraction, literally, to salt,” he said.
“These works are all under glass so it’s not like I can lick them,” he added quickly, with a laugh.
But it’s more than just the salt.
“She has a unique ability to create an interesting synergy between art and science,” Beam said.
Hanson, who received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts at Indiana University and her master of fine arts at the University of Illinois, began her career as an artist in silversmithing, making art jewelry out of metal. She later moved into other media, creating pieces that projected images in light through containers of liquids.
“I was persuing work that was live ... every moment was unique,” she said, adding that working with salt was similarly live, though it tended to settle down once the water evaporates.
The self-proclaimed perfectionist said she viewed making salt drawings as an exercise in learning to let go of having complete control over her creations.
“Spontaneous or unspontaneous ... whatever she does with it, salt will always grow into a salt crystal. Salt is salt. You can’t make a crystal grow in a different shape. It is what it is,” Beam said.
“Early on in the process I decided I would embrace imperfection, which is very different than my personality and temperament,” Hanson said. “I wanted to be open with any mistakes that happen in the pieces and find a way to work through those imperfections.”
“It’s exciting to see her try to cut loose a little bit,” Beam said.
Hanson took a break from her salt drawings for several years and when she returned to them in 2012, she decided to incorporate more color, but without the aid of watercolors and other pigments. Instead, she added copper sulfate, potassium ferricyanide, chromium potassium sulfate and aluminum potassium sulfate to her palette, brining in a variety of hues of greens, blues, oranges and browns.
“If I were going to use watercolor, then I would have had a plethora of colors to choose from and that’s not interesting to me,” she said. “I use the colors in a way I find is interesting, but I don’t think I want to have it be about painting.”
Instead, she wanted to stick with the purity of her selection of chemicals.
“With the extended color palette, this allowed me some more complexity in the designs and a variety,” she added.
When she first began her salt drawings, she was more grid-like in her design approach, at times depicting series of salt crystals on paper as if they were scientific specimens, like insects on display.
With her “Imperfect” pieces, Hanson said she was drawn to creating a series of mandalas, a spiritual and ritual symbol, a repetition of circular shapes and spirals, important in Hinduism and Buddhism.
“I wanted to use (mandalas) because they have been forms associated with good, positive energy. I wanted to send that energy out into the world,” she said of the artworks, which she hopes evoke a sense of peace for the viewer.
“I think that when you slow down and look at the work, sometimes that allows for other thoughts to come in your mind.”
Hanson’s “Imperfect” exhibition is one of three TopSpin shows on display at the Castellani Museum each year. The series highlights emerging artists in the Western New York region, giving them “an opportunity to have a museum exhibition early in their career so it enables them to get more exhibitions in the future,” Beam said.
Contact Sunday Lifestyle editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116 or follow her on Twitter at @DanielleHaynes1.
IF YOU GO
• WHAT: "Imperfect" by Jody Hanson, part of the TopSpin series
• WHEN: Through Jan. 12
• WHERE: Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University
• MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.castellaniartmuseum.org or call 286-8200