Photographer captures essence of Baker Wetlands

Sierra Club to benefit from work sold at Fields Gallery

Sunday, February 2, 2003

You might think of Wally Emerson as a Thoreau of the Baker Wetlands.

It's not that he lives a life of seclusion and contemplation in a swamp shanty. But, much like Henry David Thoreau used prose to capture the essence of Walden Pond, Emerson uses photography to chronicle the diverse beauty of the wetlands.

"I like to be there just to be there. It's not so much that I'm looking for anything. It's kind of a soaking process," Emerson said. "If something strikes me in an interesting way, I begin to organize it into a visual statement."

His visual statements can be viewed at Fields Gallery, 712 Mass. They've been on display there since October. But Friday, during the Downtown Friday Gallery Walk, a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Emerson's photographs -- and the work of the other artists represented at Fields Gallery -- will help preserve the natural space that Emerson has come to appreciate as sacred.

Fields has turned its February gallery walk reception into a benefit for the Wakarusa Group Sierra Club. Ten percent of that evening's gallery sales will go to the local group, whose main campaign at the moment is to protect the wetlands from being destroyed to make way for the incomplete eastern leg of the South Lawrence Trafficway.

"I've always imagined that nature is the primary muse for many artists," said Carey Maynard-Moody, vice-chairwoman of the Wakarusa Group Sierra Club. "The Fields benefit kind of affirms the role of the Wakarusa Group Sierra Club in preserving nature."

A natural theme

Most of the artists who show work at Fields are inspired by or pay homage to the natural world. James Nedresky photographs some of the most scenic natural areas in Kansas. Bob Lindholm, who won the Sierra Club Ansel Adams Award, spreads his message of nature conservation through his photography.

Colleen Zacharias Gregoire explores light and the reflection of space in her landscapes. Mark Mohr's watercolors express the grand scale of Kansas skies. John Hulsey paints landscapes in oil and watercolor. Concepts of the Midwest as desert and garden merge in Colette Bangert's work. And the rugged beauty of Western Kansas inspires the work of sculptor Ryan Paget.

Though Emerson also photographs scenes at Kansas University, his alma mater, the Baker Wetlands in particular is a place of inspiration for him.

"It's a beautiful place," he said. "It's full of life. It's a place of spiritual renewal. It's full of beauty."


Special to the Journal-World

"Snow pillows," a photograph taken by Wally Emerson at the Baker Wetlands, is on display at Fields Gallery, 712 Mass.

He first discovered the allure of the wetlands in 1992 while working on a story about the Baldwin Boy Scout troop that built the synthetic wooden walkway there. It was the first time he'd set foot beyond the area's 31st Street border. But it wouldn't be his last.

He returns often, camera in tow, at all times of the year.

"All year round, it has new treasures to find," he said.

More than a place

In one photograph, the treasure du jour happens to be a green frog, nearly camouflaged by moist green buds, that Emerson spied as he crossed a wood-planked bridge.

What: An art benefit, with 10 percent of gallery sales going to the Wakarusa Group Sierra Club.When: 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Friday.Where: Fields Gallery, 712 Mass.Other galleries on the Downtown Friday Gallery Walk include: Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.; Phoenix Gallery, 919 Mass.; Silver Works and More, 715 Mass.; Southwest and More, 727 Mass.; and the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.

In "Stemlights," he captures a fascinating interplay between light and water. At the points where stems from a thin grove of winter grass poke through a pond, menisci have formed and, at the moment Emerson snapped the photograph, the late afternoon sun reflects in the bubbles, making it look like the dark water is twinkling with subaquatic starlight.

As the seasons change, familiar spots unleash a whole new palette for Emerson's lens. Longer days and warmer sun may cover an entire pond with green growth where before stark trunks and branches rose like shadows from the surface.

Emerson, a native of Kansas City, Kan., graduated in 1976 with a photojournalism degree from Kansas University. He shot for news organizations such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, Louisville Courier-Journal and The Associated Press. He came back to Lawrence in 1983 and taught photojournalism at KU until 1988. He's been a full-time photographer since then.

He hopes people derive more from his pictures than just a sense of place.

"These are pictures of a place. They say documentary things," he said. "But I really want each picture to be a thing you'd like to look at and a thing of beauty in itself."

Emerson, himself a member of the Sierra Club, also has an altruistic ulterior motive for hoping people will buy his work: "To have anything to do with helping to save the wetlands would just be the best."