by Lou Mancinelli

When she was diagnosed with uterine cancer in her mid-20s, artist Maryann Worrell realized there could be no more delays in living her life according to her most passionate interests. One of those current interests is “Meditative Mediations,” an outdoor installation of her works of art now exhibiting at Awbury Arboretum through mid-February.

It’s a collection designed to catch people’s attention, making them slow down and reflect. Fabrics or red scarves hang from trees, catching wind. Two red sheets are draped between tree trunks. Branches have been turned into Edward Scissorhands-like spikes and added to bare trees. The installation is a collaboration with artist Carole Loeffler, a fellow professor at Arcadia University. “The first thing we talked about was how do we get the audience to take in their surroundings,” said Worrell.

As one pulls in or out of the arboretum, a red cube the size of a bush with a mirror like a half globe on top, designed and created by Worrell, is positioned with contrast in mind, waiting strangely between a clump of trees. Worrell hopes it strikes like a musical note that at first sounds out of place.

“The shape of it is very in juxtaposition with nature,” she explained. “It’s not a shape you would find in nature … In that way it becomes a marker. A pinpoint. The mirror reflects 360 degrees, so when you look in, you take in the entire landscape.”

Made of scrap wood from the studio and a mirror, the red (a constant theme) was a specific choice for reasons outside of its connection to the December holiday season. (The exhibit opened in early December.)

“It stands out in the landscape. It has a warm feeling. It can symbolize passion. It can also symbolize a star. Or fish. Red has such a different meaning for so many people for so many different reasons.”

Raised partly in the Philadelphia area by hippie parents, Worrell, 45, moved around as a youth. She lived in California and Washington state, taking many road trips before graduating from Perkiomen Valley High School in Collegeville.

After high school she wavered, taking classes part-time at Montgomery County Community College to become an architect and bartending. Diagnosed with cancer at 26, though, Worrell decided maybe it was time for a different path, so while she was sick she started taking classes part-time at Arcadia University in Glenside.

But if the disease gave, first it stole. After being robbed of her fertility, studying art became a way for Worrell to give life meaning. It was a channel for expression. “My experience is that cancer is not as scary when you’re going through it as it is for your family,” Worrell said. “For me at that age, I had no doubt I’d get better.”

Making sculpture was a way of dealing with the sickness and its aftermath. Deemed cancer-free, Worrell enrolled full-time in Arcadia at age 32, earning her art certificate and completing her bachelor’s degree in 2005.

Since then Worrell has taught at Arcadia, and while in school she began teaching at the Phoenix Village Art Center. She made jewelry for Lenora Dame Jewelry for a few years, but “I knew that making jewelry wasn’t my niche and installation was.”

A few years ago she was approached by a local company who were transforming an old steel mill into Franklin Commons, a mixed-use warehouse in Phoenixville, the town she’s lived in for 14 years. They wanted to use salvaged scrap material for an art installation. Worrell had no clue how to weld, which the project would certainly require. She said yes. At the time she hardly knew Doug Mott, who helped create the pieces and has worked with her on installations since then. In the past two years, Worrell’s work has taken a decided shift towards addressing environmental and ecological issues. On a trip chaperoning Arcadia students in 2013, Worrell fell in love with the rolling pastoral scene of western Ireland.

So much so that she searched for a school in Ireland where she could study, finding Burren College of Art. She returned to America with her students in March, and by August was back in west Ireland. She was the first and only student at the time in the school’s art and ecology program, earning her master’s last spring.

It’s essentially studying how to weave environmental issues such as sustainability and climate change into her art. Worrell particularly focuses on depletion of resources, tackling issues like genetically modified organisms.

As a result “I started really examining what I ate,” Worrell said. Growing food at home was something she knew about. In Ireland she created an installation called Crisis Farm Lab, basically a hexagonal wooden vegetable house with some fixed pieces and some removable pieces — something that looks good, teaches and can grow. An aesthetically pleasing and educational portable garden.

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