A trip to the Amazon inspired Gisela Insuaste’s room-size installation, Anticipacion, at the Three Arts Club: “In the forest stillness it always seems something’s about to happen, whether it’s a two-inch ant crawling or a monkey jumping from one tree to the other.” She was also influenced by walks in the woods during a residency in New Hampshire. Anticipacion consists of some 650 eight-foot-tall square wooden poles set vertically a few inches apart and connected at the top by thin bars to simulate a forest canopy. Although one narrow path takes you all the way through the sticks, another dead-ends; you feel both trapped and embraced. She painted the piece the same color as the gallery walls so they’d blend together even as the forms were distinct, creating the sense of an apparition.

As a child Insuaste envisioned her parents’ native Ecuador as a magical place. Her mom talked about seeing a troll while pregnant, and her grandmother reportedly saw her grandfather fighting a shadow. The snowcapped mountains of her parents’ province, Chimborazo, awed her on a first visit there when she was six. Later, while majoring in anthropology and art at Dartmouth, she made trips to Ecuador that combined study and activism, witnessing the political turmoil there. When she arrived on a study grant after her freshman year, in 1994, the roads were blocked by Indians and campesinos protesting changes to the land laws. On a 1999-2000 visit after college, she took part in the protests, mostly by Indians, that ultimately brought down the government in Quito. During that trip she perceived the Ecuadoran landscape to be as unstable as the political situation: she saw volcanic ash rising from a mountain through her Quito window, then coating the city. After her second college trip, she began painting abstract fragmented landscapes inspired by the Andean mix of alternating patches of cultivated land with mountain rock. She noticed that similar geometrical patterns were also part of Inca textiles–and thinks they were inspired by the same jagged rocks and irrigation terraces. “I’m as fragmented as this landscape I love,” she says. “I’m never going to be whole.” During the trip after college, she began wrapping some of her canvases in prisons of wire.

In 2003 Insuaste hiked the Inca trail in Peru, past the famous ruins. Though enveloped in mist, she trusted her footing: “I accepted the natural forms, not questioning them as I would a person.” Returning to complete her MFA at the School of the Art Institute, she began making her first installations, based on the cityscape, but painted the floor the same white as the walls to reproduce the floating effect she’d felt in the Andean mists. “I trust the landscape much more than people,” she says. “I can’t challenge the landscape, I can’t beat it–I just want to accept it as it is.”

Yet asserting herself in space was always important to Insuaste. Five feet tall now, she was shorter than her brothers as a child and liked to climb trees with them as a way of feeling equal. She also liked building things, making dollhouses as tall as she was from scrap and in kindergarten one day creating a giant fort out of blocks that she later refused to dismantle. Having moved frequently as a child and an adult–she lived in three different boroughs in New York City in her six years there as a kid–she acknowledges her restlessness: “There is a place somewhere that is going to complete me, but I haven’t found it yet.” Each time she moves she realizes she’s making a lot of self-portraits “as a way of validating my presence in a new locale.”

For the last two years Insuaste has taught art classes at Association House. The not-for-profit social-services organization recently moved into a former hospital, where she wants to work with kids to create sculptures throughout the building. “We’re trying to get rid of that hospital feel,” she says, “and claim the space for our own.”

Gisela Insuaste

Where: Three Arts, 1300 N. Dearborn

When: Through June 23

Info: 312-944-6250