Bone Deep

Lauren Smucker earned degrees in sculpture and printmaking and names numerous mentors, but her greatest “teacher” remains the forest itself. Photo by Matt Rose

There’s no mystery about the source of Lauren Smucker’s art, no coy musings about inspiration in her artist’s statement. “My name is Lauren Smucker,” she writes on her website, “and I would rather be in the woods.”

From the forests of her native Central Pennsylvania to the deep valleys of Western North Carolina, the Hendersonville-based artist has always found bugs, bones, grass, and moss to be her biggest mentors.

Much of her rural northeastern childhood was spent outdoors. From playing in creeks in the woods to tinkering around the house with her father, “I was usually building, making, or planning something,” she says. “The natural world is my biggest influence when creating anything.” Her creations are fashioned from the skeletons, seeds, rocks, quills, and insect carapaces she collects during hikes, camping expeditions, and with permission from private landowners — a palette of nature’s remnants she arranges evocatively in glass forms or in wooden frames, often nestled in native grasses or mosses. “Bones are a beautiful memory of what once was,” she says, naming other favorite materials such as quills, teeth, hooves, horns, shells, beaks, and antlers: “amazing things created by the bodies of animals.”

The artist’s materials are collected during hikes. Photo by Matt Rose

The cast-off exoskeletons of cicadas appear frequently in her work, an homage to childhood summers accompanied by their constant hum. “I remember sticking their shells on each others’ clothing and scaring our mothers with them,” she says.

Her woodcuts are more botanical, depicting flora observed in the wild — grasses, leaves, and flowers against a background of sinuous patterns. They begin as rapid sketches Smucker makes outside, adapted and adjusted as the slivers of wood fall away under her knife. “I find the carving process to be very therapeutic and peaceful,” she notes.

Her degrees in sculpture and printmaking come from Pennsylvania’s Kutztown University, known for its visual-arts curriculum. Influential faculty there included sculptor Phoebe Adams, whose cast bronze and concrete pieces are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum and the Guggenheim, and printmaker Evan Summer, whose evocative collographs often incorporate elements, like Smucker’s, plucked directly from nature. “Evan and Phoebe prepared me for the real world, not just the art world,” Smucker says. The real world, right now, includes Woodlands Gallery in Hendersonville, where she works part time.

Lauren has been playing with the cast-off exoskeletons of cicadas since childhood — her fascination just found a more artistic form when she grew up. Photo by Msatt Rose

Equally influential, though, was Smucker’s post-graduate time working in Vermont’s Green Mountains, with the Youth Conservation Corps. She helped build bridges, shelters, and camping sites in state forests and parks and along the Long Trail, running the length of Vermont to the Canadian border. It was an experience Smucker calls the most rewarding decision of her life. “I learned how to live in the backcountry, work[ing] together to achieve big things, and taking responsibility for all my actions,” she says.

She gained particular respect for the sustainability and versatility of stone — its ability to divert water from flood-prone areas or provide footing over muddy patches of trail or on steep slopes. “The trail work my crew and I created is both functional and beautiful,” she says. “I highly recommend Conservation Corps to anyone who wants to serve their country in their country.”

Her attachment to living off the grid for extended periods of time will be taking her back to Vermont this season for a hike of the 273-mile Long Trail. Plus, she’s already planning next spring’s adventure on the far more challenging Appalachian Trail, going 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. Part of her preparation is making small, portable art pieces she hopes to sell along the way.

“I have no idea what to expect during and after these hikes,” Smucker says. “I’ll be carrying only what I need to survive on my back.” But her essentials also include a camera and a sketchpad. “I can only imagine,” she says, “what my creations will look like after these experiences.”

Lauren Smucker is represented by Woodlands Gallery (317 North Main St., Hendersonville, woodlandsgallerync.com). She also shows work on her website, laurensmucker.com. Follow Smucker’s outdoor adventures on Instagram at Smuckstagram.

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