New York Times
ART; The Island's Woods and Wetlands Are Her Inspiration

Published: November 23, 2003

WHEN Barbara Roux grew up in Huntington Station in the 1950's and 1960's, her neighborhood included a farm, a section of woods and a vernal pond. As a child, she loved these places, which were untouched by suburban development. As an adult, she has devoted herself to protecting Long Island's shrinking natural environment while also capturing it in works of art.

Ms. Roux, 57, makes three-dimensional mixed-media displays using fallen branches she collects in the woods and wetlands around her home in Lloyd Harbor, which is still a habitat for deer, box turtles and red foxes. She also takes photographs of the area. Her work creates a somber vision of Island nature beset by both natural and human forces.

In her spare time, she volunteers with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, clearing trails at Target Rock National Wildlife Refuge near her home. She also is a member of Lloyd Harbor's conservation board, working on preserving the local shoreline.

''Her work is both environmentally conscious as well as aesthetic, and that isn't so common,'' said Mary Lou Cohalan, director of the Islip Art Museum, which presented an exhibit of Ms. Roux's art earlier this year. ''The impression she gets across about our natural environment is that it's fragile, it's poetic, it's beautiful. It's really a cautionary tale.''

Ms. Roux's work is on display in a group show at the new Dix Hills building of the Art League of Long Island. Her pieces include a wall-mounted installation that incorporates sections of gnarled tree limbs with sculpted replicas of branches. On the floor is a set of sculpted leaves and stumps crafted to resemble fossils, as if they were the last remnants of a once-flourishing woodlands.

Two of her forest photographs are also included in the exhibition, which is on display until Tuesday. Three other photographs are on view through Dec. 30 in a group show at Gallery North in Setauket.

Ms. Roux, an only child, said her interests in art and nature were shaped by her parents, whom she described as out of step with the Island's post-World-War-II suburban boom.

Her father was a multilingual, Notre-Dame-educated pharmacologist and amateur botanist who researched yellow fever in South America for the Rockefeller Foundation during the early 1940's. But his academic background did not translate into material success; he ended up making a modest living selling laboratory equipment to pharmaceutical companies.

In the family's home on working-class Spencer Avenue, Ms. Roux's father peppered his conversation with Latin phrases and taught his daughter the scientific names of plants in their neighborhood.

Her mother, a creatively inclined woman who sometimes taught piano, promoted Ms. Roux's artistic endeavors, buying her paints and books on how to draw. Although Ms. Roux would try to copy portraits from art books, she ''wasn't good at it,'' she said. ''I wasn't interested. So it was always nature. I was very much into the color and vibrancy of nature.''

Unlike everyone around them, Ms. Roux's parents did not own a car.

''We walked everywhere, and we went past areas that were still in flux before the developers came along, and we'd see transitions in nature,'' she said.

When walking alone on errands to local stores, she would sometimes be caught in driving storms. ''I developed not only a love of nature and a feeling that I was part of it, but I also felt the tension with nature, that it was also sometimes unpleasant,'' she explained.

In 1970, after completing high school, she worked for a geobotanist in South Africa for four months. But then she returned home to study art at the State University of New York, Old Westbury campus.

In a 1983 review of her work, Helen A. Harrison, a contributor to The New York Times, said Ms. Roux ''has developed and refined a tender, nostalgic idiom that is not at all cloying or corny.''

Ms. Harrison continued: ''By integrating images from her past with fragments of nature -- earth, plants, twigs and the like -- she sends out symbolic roots and turns what might be mere mementos into far more significant statements.''

Although Ms. Roux's time in Africa brought her into contact with exotic locales, she prefers the Island's setting as a subject for her art.

''I was never really excited by grandness,'' she said. ''I really think the intimacy of the environment around here is what interests me,'' as well as ''the friction between people and nature.''

When collecting branches for her installations, she gravitates toward specimens deformed by either damage or disease, ''parts of trees that manage to survive despite having been altered,'' she said, examples of ''the power and struggle of nature.''

For her photographs, she never shoots after 10 in the morning or before 4 in the afternoon, so that she can capture scenes that are, she said, ''dreamier, more dark, brooding.'' Often she will use a felt-tip pen to inscribe phrases on severed branches. Some are environmentalist (''Shadows of branches are missing''); some are cryptic (''A blind moon bids the sap to rise, buds to form'').

Pat Ralph, chairwoman of the Art League, called Ms. Roux's pictures ''mystical and mysterious.'' She added, ''You see something there beyond nature that you wouldn't normally notice.''

Ms. Roux's environmental work includes conducting a survey of what she calls the great trees of Lloyd Harbor. She hopes to mark the largest and most memorable with plaques.

''I want to contribute something positive to a village that's known for developing land in order to build more trophy houses,'' she said. ''I wanted to help recognize trees as having some significance other than as something to clear away for a new pool house.''

She hopes that people who view her art will experience similar concerns.

''I want them to take away the feeling that we have to stop pushing our way into nature without first seeing it in some way,'' she said. ''The sad part is that people don't realize that they're spinning by to get their latte and they miss a whole other driving force, a fascinating world. I want to feel in a grander scheme that I've done something honorable for nature.''