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Mary Edna Fraser’s aerial-inspired batiks land at Circular Congregational Church

Flights of Fancy

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Flying runs in the family for environmental artist Mary Edna Fraser. Her brother, father, and grandfather are all pilots, and she sometimes takes the family's 1946 Ercoupe airplane on a quest for inspiration. Up in the air, she finds her position and relinquishes the controls so that she can fully concentrate on photographing the landscape below. Of the 500 or so shots she takes, she chooses just one that will inspire a new piece of art.

"Knowing how to fly allows me to change the altitude and angle during my shoot and gives me complete control over my vision," Fraser says. "The aerial perspective is burned into my mind."

Fraser paints and creates monotypes on paper, but she's best known for batiks that are inspired by these aerial landscapes. Batiks are large pieces of cloth that have been wax-resist dyed, an ancient technique that Fraser says is very meditative. She either projects the image onto the silk and traces it or draws it freehand with pencil. Sometimes she simply draws from memory before continuing with the dyeing process. "The medium of batik just kind of takes over," she says.

Fraser's silk panels depict slices of the land from as far away as space. Her work captures coastlines, waterways, mountains, skylines, and even other planets — in 1995, she won NASA's Artist of the Year award for her batiks inspired by photographic images taken from space. They're familiar yet fresh as she uses an array of bright colors to portray the generally subdued landscape. The disparate hues and the design of the images are inspired by both impressionist and modern art.

Her work is also thoroughly researched, as she uses her batiks to express the current state of global change. Fraser sometimes hires local guides to take her through the terrain she will later photograph from high above. She uses everything from topography maps to satellite images to study the land, supplementing her studies with boat excursions and hiking trips through the area.

"They're just part of the way I convey my environmental message," she says. "People listen to my visual voice. I feel my calling is environmental landscapes because it is my passion to protect what I hold dear."

Fifteen of Fraser's batiks will be on view this month at Circular Congregational Church for an exhibit honoring Earth Sabbath, a combined Earth Day and Easter celebration. The batiks, which will hang in the form of Tibetan prayer flags, have been dyed to reveal satellite images, sailing charts, and aerial views of the endangered Great Barrier Island. Appropriately, the exhibit is called Prayer Flags.

"I've always considered my batiks to be visual prayers," Fraser says.

She's thrilled to be displaying her work at the Circular Congregational Church because she appreciates its open-minded attitude. "Circular Church is a very progressive and important part of the community in Charleston," she says. "I'm a rather liberal woman in the study of religion. I respect all the different versions of how man worships."

On Sun. May 1, Earth Sabbath, Fraser will join South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth in delivering the morning message at the 11 a.m. service.

"After hanging my batiks, we'll sit in the quiet of the church and pray about what we'll say," Fraser says of the morning message. After the service, the church will host an "Eat Low on the Food Chain" potluck in its historic churchyard.

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