Anna Hepler's art is a triumph of opposites: Though it looks fragile, it also gives an impression of tensile strength. And although she captures the moment of an object's dissolution, she celebrates the charged particles that remain. From installations of string and colored tape to a series of delicate three-dimensional spheres made of covered florist's wire to ink drawings on stacks of Plexiglas, Ms. Hepler tries to convey the moment of controlled explosion. She takes her cue from nature, tapping natural phenomena from tiny dandelion-seed puffs to night-arcing fireworks as inspiration.
Hepler is captivated by the way pieces come apart when suddenly freed from their moorings, like a nebula in space or the flight of birds when a flock simultaneously wheels into the sky. This rearrangement of particulate matter recurs in her work like a theme and variation in music.
The sphere holds ongoing fascination for Hepler, whose recent work is on display – along with that of 12 other New England artists – at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Mass. The 30-something artist articulates her ideas as readily in words as she does in art.
"My work has always had a quiet aspect to it," Hepler explains to a visitor to her studio in Portland, Maine. "There's almost nothing more restful than the perfect circle. The sphere is one of those perfect forms that allows you to appreciate the chaos without being overwhelmed because you're constantly held in stillness by the overall shape."
Hepler has spent a good part of the past decade observing spheres in nature and attempting to translate the range of emotions they engender in her. She built crude three-dimensional models of spheres out of wire and then moved to florist's wire for its softer, more stringlike look. She drew these shapes repeatedly in pen and ink, sometimes on paper, often on Plexiglas plates. Certain pieces achieve the precision of mechanical drawings, and others feel more free-form.
Hepler's methods are purposefully labor-intensive. In the DeCordova exhibition, a series of large scrolls, titled "Conduit," features row upon row of panels enclosing white bubble shapes with brightly painted squiggles, knots, and dot formations inside. Hepler painted the scrolls while in South Korea on a fellowship in 1999. She laughs now at what she describes as the obsessive process involved, which brought her to the point where, in bed at night, she would see rows of panels marching behind her closed eyes.
The time spent in Seoul proved to be a turning point. Before winning the fellowship, she had gone straight from graduate school into teaching at the college level.
"The year in Korea came along and 'undid' me in the best possible way," Hepler says. "The scrolls are evidence of that undoing; they're a remnant of this very academic mind-set."
Exposure to Korean pop culture brought hot pink and orange into her palette, supplanting the blues and blacks typical of her New England work. She appropriated the tools, but not content, of traditional Korean calligraphy, using brushes and the thick watercolor known as gouache. She eventually chose the scroll format (paper mounted on silk) so she could learn the technique.
Hepler found her greatest inspiration in observing the daily lives of Koreans. She was intrigued by the ways people improvised everything from their living quarters to office buildings. "The West is a culture of experts and regulations," she says. "Korean architecture is rigged in all different ways; no building codes, everybody innovates. I became aware, in a microscopic way, how people would just fix things, particularly with tape."
This flexibility and glorious impermanence of tape led directly to her installation for the DeCordova show that's called "Fall, Scatter, Float."
Over the stairwell leading to one of the galleries, she stretched lengths of string adorned with small pieces of colored tape that seem to flutter like confetti overhead. The installation fairly vibrates with microwaves of magenta and orange fragments.
On the wall, visitors can see the transparent strips of tape that anchor each string in place. Hepler makes no pretense of hiding the tape. She is confident enough to display the process, like the Koreans whose enterprise she admired. "I like the nakedness of those decisions. You can see their minds at work," she says.
The artist has returned to South Korea since then, and she says going back always throws off her comfortable Western rhythm. "None of [my] intuitions or first instincts are usually right. So I have to go with the flow. Every time I've been forced to do that, it's always been a great moment of epiphany or growth."
• The 2006 DeCordova Annual Exhibition continues through Aug. 20. To see more of Hepler's work, go to www.annahepler.net.