Imagine stepping into a forest of gray, dead aspens and perched throughout or frozen in flight are 1,000 birds — all of them brilliant black.

This is the dreamlike setting viewers will step into at the Holter Museum of Art’s High Gallery beginning Friday, July 5, with the opening of Cathy Weber’s new exhibit, “Understory/Overstory.”

Friday is what’s called a “soft opening.” The opening reception is later this month — 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, July 26. It will include a dance performance with aerial elements by Weber’s sister, Dreya, an actor, acclaimed aerialist and aerial choreographer who has worked with such music idols as Cher, Pink and Madonna (See box for details).

She’ll be doing a “unique theatrical memoir “called “Witch Piece” that includes four local dancers, says Weber.

The public can watch it being workshopped, July 24-26, in the High Gallery. (Times to be announced.)

A human taking wing through the forest seems just the right flight of fancy to join the huge flock of porcelain birds that will be perched on quaking aspen branches, suspended in the air and mounted a-wing on the walls.

Weber, who was moving in her own personal whirlwind Monday morning — from the top of 14-foot scaffolding arranging track lights, to chatting with the fire inspector, to guiding one of her assistants in placing the first tree limbs — a perpetual motion of enthusiastic energy.

While some artists are known to raise the roof with their shows, Weber actually lowered the ceiling for hers.

Thanks to a grant, and the expertise of her brother, and a team of volunteers working long days and late nights — a new suspended ceiling of acoustic panels graces the gallery.

The old ceiling, which had pieces flaking off, was 21 feet high, while the new one is 18 — making it much easier to change out the lights with each new exhibit.

In a way, Weber, who makes her home in Dillon, has brought the forest to Helena.

She invites you to step into a drawing or painting of a forest that has suddenly come to life.

“I feel like the trees in the show function as a drawing mark,” she says, “so it’s almost like a graphite drawing of trees.”

And the artwork is seemingly alive with birds — all of a black, glossy feather flocking together.

Weber likes the symbolism of the work — “the conceptual notion of stick” and “the notion of bird,” with the added symbolism of “shadow.”

“Bird, stick, shadow.”

Emotional impact

“People’s reactions to the birds were beyond my imagination,” she says. A painter by training and affinity, Weber wandered into making ceramic birds about 12 years ago somewhat by accident. She was looking for interesting shapes to fill the corners of her kiln during firings and birds worked.

Much to her surprise, more and more people were drawn to her birds, which are often ornately painted.

“People bought them at a rate I found astonishing,” she says.

Even during the Recession when other artwork wasn’t moving, the birds sold.

“They kept me alive. They were a tremendous bread-and-butter thing.”

For this show, “Overstory/Understory,” Weber created black birds for a more powerful statement.

The exhibit explores the “emotional tug” of birds and their impact on the human psyche.

A smaller iteration of this exhibit premiered at the Missoula Art Museum, beginning last August and running through December.

While MAM senior curator Brandon Reintjes suspected Weber’s show move people, he wasn’t prepared for “how strongly the work resonated” with viewers, he says.

“We had such amazing comments from people coming through. Even Cathy was surprised.”

When Weber was thinking of abandoning making birds several years ago, she was reminded that renowned ceramic artist Dave Shaner, the former resident director at the Archie Bray Foundation, continued to make coffee cups throughout his career.

He “had a commitment to the $5 coffee cup.” The inexpensive handmade ceramic object gave people beauty and comfort in their everyday lives.

For Weber, the bird in hand offers that same comfort, she says. It’s “the moral equivalent of a beautiful handmade coffee cup.”

“What better thing can I do than to make a handmade object that people care deeply about.”

There’s something sincere about the birds, she says, and people relate to that.

So, when MAM invited her several years ago to dream about what she would do with a gallery if it was all hers for a show, it didn’t take her very long to realize she wanted to fill it with her birds.

Iconic symbols

“As objects, birds serve as metaphors for a wide range of human needs and emotions: aspiration and serenity, nesting and flight, fragility and freedom, community and solitude,” she writes in her artist statement.

Similarly, sticks can also carry meanings for humans.

“‘Stick’ is another seminal, iconographic, and universally resonant object,” she writes. “Together, birds, sticks, and their shadows create an immersive experience for the viewer.”

The name “Understory/Overstory” itself is resonant with meaning, referring not just to the layers of the forest crown cover and that which lies beneath the canopy.

The title is an invitation to create your personal story as you enter the forest.

Weber’s own story is very much an interwoven creation of art and nature.

Growing up in Michigan and Indiana, Weber always knew she was going to be an artist, she says.

One of six kids, whose mother is an actor and mezzo soprano, the house was bursting with artistic energy and artistic discipline.

All six siblings pursued different branches of art, from ballet, to aerial choreography and acting, to graphic design, painting and music.

Weber moved to Dillon in 1981, and being out in nature and painting nature, have been integral parts of her life.

The Holter exhibit, which runs through Dec. 30, will likely be the last showing of “Overstory/Understory,” Weber says.

The exhibit has consumed more than three years of her life.

Weber longs to have time to read a whole book and once again paint.

“I want to paint. I have millions of ideas for painting.”

Weber will give a gallery talk 10:15 a.m. Saturday, July 27. Dance performances by Dreya Weber and local dancers are 5 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 26, and 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday, July 27.

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