I was commissioned by the Higlands Biological Station to produce a large work of art for their new entrance. The art work will be a collage that incorporates species native to the area — the Southern Apps are one of the most biologically diverse — and the overall design will describe the shape of a local landscape, layers of mountains looking out toward Whiteside Mountain.
After playing with a few different designs and materials I realized I wanted to use fiber and fabric, because I think these are great metaphors for the interconnectedness of species but also because I am just drawn to these materials lately. I invited my friend and colleague Ellen Kochansky, who brings a great deal of depth: years of experience on collaborative arts projects, a sophisticated design sense, a love for materials from nature, and a real feel for working with fabric and fiber as sculptural elements. Here is a sample of her work — an artwork produced by staff at Mercy Hospital. Ellen says, “Contributors made personal commitments related to the hospital’s change toward more patient-centered care model, and wrote them on strips of sterile hospital trash, which they made into beads. They pass by their promises every day.” I think this result is magical — one of the best examples of what can happen when a seasoned artist reaches out to invite participation from the public. High design meets the real world. Anyone who knows me or follows me knows that I think collaboration is where it’s at. This is what I mean:
Here are some other pieces of Ellen’s that are closer in feel to the result we are hoping to achieve. They use some of the materials that we will be using — sheer silk and materials collected from nature.
Together Ellen and I worked last week to begin experimenting with materials and assembling the pieces for our Highlands Biological Station project. We started out with some elements I have collected: archives from the field station’s 86 year history, pages from an old book on meteorology, specimens collected from the area, and my own drawings and paintings on tea-and-coffee-stained watercolor paper, of species that are native to the area and special to the research done there.
Then we set about making glue! We used a modified recipe for bookbinder’s glue, made with corn starch, rice flour, and boiling water, later adding Elmer’s glue and using a hand blender to make the mixture silky smooth. We are experimenting with various modifications to this recipe, to achieve a strong bond with all the materials — layers of very sheer silk, a synthetic silk backing (for strength), papers of various thicknesses and various absorbencies, natural materials such as pressed plant parts, insect wings, lichens, feathers, snake skin — and we are aiming for an archival glue that will repel insect damage and not yellow with age, and that has a matte finish, is invisible, and flexible. So we’ve modified the recipe with more Elmer’s glue and also some versions with acrylic matte medium. Here’s Ellen making the glue in her kitchen / studio / lab:
After we got a few versions of glue mixed in various canning jars, we tried them out with our materials. We used as a backing a plastic surface meant for cutting fabric, to slather on various different versions of our glue onto some layers of silk, natural materials and archival papers — basically an art sandwich, with silk as the bread. We kept records of each sample — just like a lab notebook! We’ll peel up our samples in a few days and see which glue worked best. See, art and science are such close cousins: explore uncharted territory, invent and modify new materials and tools, trial and error, learn as you go. Or to paraphrase Einstein, “If we knew what we were doing, they wouldn’t call it… ART.”
If you are in the Southern Apps this summer and would like to participate in assembling this artwork, we are inviting participation from the community. Collect plant parts (responsibly – no rare plants please!), things you find like insect wings, snail shells, seeds, lichens, etc. … and my favorite, make some mushroom spore prints, then spray with hair spray or fixative so the spores are glued down. For more information on how to participate, contact Nancy at sciencecandance (at) gmail (dot) com.
This final art work will be installed and unveiled at the new wing of the Coker Laboratory at Highlands Biological Station, probably in late August. Stay tuned for more details!