“I practically came out of the womb with crayons in my hands,” says Boulder artist Julie Maren, who remembers making magazines and walnut-shell creatures as a child, and being particularly fond of the kids’ craft kits that transfer drawings onto melamine keepsake plates. “That was my medium of choice in the ’70s,” she says.

Those early days were perhaps a precursor of the things to come for Maren—or at least, of the offbeat artistic mediums she would come to embrace. After a long career as a professional painter—she has a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting from the University of Colorado Boulder and specializes in nature-inspired abstracts—Maren felt the itch to think beyond the canvas once again. “I was tired of squares and rectangles and corners on my paintings,” she says. “I was ready to break out of [those constraints].”

In 2017, a fateful walk in the woods encouraged her to do just that: While living in Connecticut during a National Park Service artist residency—a program in which artists temporarily live on park land and hone their craft—Maren noticed heaps of acorn tops along the nearby trails. “Something inside of me was like, ‘Hmm, I’m going to try filling these with paint,’” she says.

That creative spark was the catalyst for Maren’s “Biophilia” series, an ongoing collection of wall installations comprising hundreds of acorn caps. Maren fills the caps with paint and other natural and synthetic materials (including mica, glass beads, shells, black rubber, and pyrite), affixes each cap to a hollow brass rod, and mounts the rods to a wall in a private residence or gallery (her work is represented regionally by 212 Gallery in Aspen). Up close, each acorn cap has its own ecosystem of texture and detail; from a distance, the installation resembles a pointillist painting, or even a galactic expanse.

“It feels like a continuation of my paintings. There’s so much there to explore,” Maren says of this work. “My paintings and installations are both very dense—you notice a different part each time you look at them.”

An experimenter at heart, Maren spent the isolated days of 2020 creating variations of these “paintings,” using materials including cloud-like clusters of mica and cascades of ceramic teardrops in addition to acorn caps. Each installation is a study in color, movement, unexpected materials, and the natural world—without the limitations of a canvas in sight.