Bea Nettles

Among the items in Krannert Art Museum’s newest exhibit, ‘Bea Nettles: Harvest of Memory,’ which opens Nov. 5, is this 1979 gum bichromate print with applied color, titled ‘Young B in Pines.’

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I always like to describe Krannert Art Museum as lab, sanctuary and civic center in equal measure.

As a place for cutting-edge research, the museum is a lab in the visual arts, every bit the equal of other laboratories on campus.

Our curators forge new ideas, and our collections are meant for research by students, faculty and community.

In a world with increasingly few places for collective gathering, we serve as a civic center, a place of convening (both virtual and in person), interrogating urgent questions of today and coming together for discovery and joy.

We’re also a sanctuary — a space for reflection, safe harbor and contemplation.

The museum is that rare site where time can slow down and the imagination opens.

Museums sometimes shy away from embracing this quieter identity, but mid-pandemic, it’s been encouraging to see people in our galleries deep in thought, engaged in conversation and taking stock.

What better time than now for sanctuary? When so many are experiencing incredible stress, particularly as we hurtle toward the election and the surrounding uncertainty, I hope you’ll use the museum for regeneration, to stop “doomscrolling” on your phone for a while, and to see it as a place of care.

For those looking for psychic repair and an opportunity to reflect, it’s hard to imagine a better exhibition than “Bea Nettles: Harvest of Memory,” opening Nov. 5.

It looks at five decades of work by the experimental photographer Bea Nettles, one of the most significant figures in photography today.

She also happens to be a longtime Champaign-Urbana resident, and her humane, deeply personal subject matter is particularly conducive to healing in this moment.

Long before words like “experimental” and “multimedia” became commonplace, Nettles was creatively and influentially expanding the definition of photography.

For decades, she used alternative photographic processes for autobiographical works including self-portraiture; investigations of her body and its relationship to nature and landscape; and intense examinations of mothering, childhood, loss and aging.

Her use of many kinds of cameras, from the pinhole to the cellphone; her blend of handicraft with technological experiments, like hand-painting with photosensitive chemicals; her willingness to try new things, often being the first to make art with new inventions in film; and her poetry, bookmaking and card decks all mark a remarkably inventive, rigorous practice.

These works will move and mesmerize you. For just some examples: stunning color photographs of her daughter in “Rachel’s Holidays”; her tarot-card deck “28 Days,” a witty exploration of the menstrual cycle; “Life’s Lessons,” which speaks movingly to challenges of balancing motherhood, teaching and making art; and the meditative landscapes of Allerton Park.

After stepping down from teaching at the University of Illinois, Nettles remade herself as a teacher of book arts, and in 2010 started photographing names on tombstones, then developed them into poetry and stories in handmade books, a practice she continues today, including a new work that addresses living through the coronavirus.

Please step outside your routine and take sanctuary in “Harvest of Memory.”

Jon L. Seydl is director of Krannert Art Museum in Champaign.

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