It’s impossible to pin down where an idea starts. On the Blackboard page for my classes this semester is a banner : “start anywhere”. As (the first) artist in residence at the Rice River Center for the Fall 2015 what that meant was wide. Part of the difficulty of this was not having a clear identity ofartist, designer, or educator. The title of “Artist in Residence” became a license to explore what it means to be an artist, something I’ve never felt comfortable with as faculty in the Graphic Design department, even thought my BFA is as a fine artist in a studio arts program. Come to think of it, even as an undergraduate in the Fine Arts department at Cornell I’m not sure I even thought of myself as an artist.
My path since completing my BFA had been—more or less—creating a life as a designer and design educator. This may meet primary needs for creating a place in my life as a professional woman, but there has been a creative freedom lacking for much of the time since I left graduate school, and that was a very long time ago. My motivation for graduate school after working various production jobs in the profession was a desire for a creative challenge with the tools of the profession.
Decades later, with the tools of the profession in rapid flux, I had begun to search for how to maintain currency and relevancy in the discipline. My (very slowly) evolving realization was that rather than trying to keep up, I needed to address who I was and what (as I say to my students) floated my boat, or made my heart beat a little fast, or warmed my blood. Another thing I saw to my students is to “find you way in” to a project which I always try to make topical. My work at Rice has given me a way in.
The very first visit to Rice sparked in me a longing for “the woods”, and for my place in “the woods”. As a kid the safe escape for me outside the house was “the woods” down the street: the path that led to the back of my elementary school, the creek whose banks were covered in skunk cabbage and jewel weed. The path from the road crossed a narrow bridge of wooden planks over the mud to a clearing made by a girl scout troop (even before we moved to the neighborhood), with benches crafted from boards stretched across sawn tree stumps. There was an element of magic in these woods for me when I was of that age when fairies and magic were woven into my sense of world order.
The night I decided to accept the offer for a faculty position on the Graphic Design faculty at VCU, I cried at the thought of leaving the home I owned up in the “hill towns” bordering the protected lands of the Quabbin Reservior of central Massachusetts. Part of me still grieves the loss of an intimate connection to the woods of the Northeast, the sense of a place where I belonged, and the place that I felt belonged to me.
MY CONNECTION TO RICE
Soon after I my first visit to Rice I began to meet some of the affiliated researchers who, when they learned of my interest in birds suggested I join the Wintersession Avian Ecology trip to Panama, to document the work of faculty and students seeking to collect data on migrant passerines, and specifically the Prothonotary Warbler. One aspect of the work I’ve been doing in collaboration with the Rice Center is the crafting of several short narrative films about the work of the faculty and students in Panama, the partnership with Panama Audubon and National Audubon, and the critical ecological importance of the mangrove forests along Panama’s Pacific coastline. It’s not hard to justify the importance of these films.
I grew to deeply admire and respect the scientists’ commitment and depth ofexpertise and knowledge with the important conservation projects associated with Rice. The role of “artist-in-residence” became a way for me to explore the question nagging me, “What if I had my own study site at Rice?” “What would it be?” “What I do?” “Would I make something?” “What would I make?”
Conversations with designers come back to the statement that “we are makers”. As an educator my vast amount of energy is consumed with nurturing the creative growth of students, not to mention balancing this out with the emotional demands of being a parent. As much as running and music play a role to keep me from entirely loosing myself, what has been lost—what does get lost is the subtle call of the creative muse. The system, in a word, most often just isn’t sustainable. Which is why we all need a break, a retreat. a sabbatical.
My vision for my residency was to create a site-specific installation. I’ve written about this in in depth in another essay, I was inspired by the permanent labyrinth constructed at Shrinemont , a retreat center for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. The idea of building a labyrinth was a dream to bring something of a meditative experience to the Rice Center, to my site, and to create an experience of the sublime within the context of an environmental research station for other visitors. These short films began as a way to explore the site.
In the Fall of 2014 I had begun to explore an area just west of the entrance road. My first day with my camera, I discovered a skull lying beneath a tree. No other part of the animal, just a skull. I neglected to mark the spot and on my next visit I wasn’t able to find it. I continued to explore the space inside an upended tree, and the decay further west and down a gradual slope to the wetlands. Large downed decaying trunks were piled on one another like massive pick up sticks. Nothing quite captured my imagination.
Still playing with the idea of constructing a labyrinth, I mentioned I was looking for a good site to John the maintenance director of the center. John takes care of the site and building as if it were his own property. He pointed me to a flat open area with an open stand of mature hardwoods, and a thick carpet of fallen leaves, and a canopy of branches overhead. I headed off in the direction he pointed, found the flat open space and thought, “yes, this will do.”
On the first day I planned to explore the site, I brought a rake along with my tripod and camera. With the tripod and camera in place I turned the camera on and filmed myself walking from the road onto the site, raking the leaves, forming a circle. A circle, an enso, the female. These motifs, maybe far fetched—maybe not—are retrieved from my archive: the internal bibliography.
The hope was to return and continue to play, construct, “get to know”, and at the same time film and document this activity. I didn’t have an idea of where this was leading. It was both pure enjoyment, an hour or so of play time, of digging in the dirt, feeling the cool earth, the crunch of leaves, and a time to observe the lengthening raking shadows as the days became shorter and sun fell lower in the sky with the approach of winter.
After a couple filming sessions I met at the site with Jennifer Ciminelli, the ARC GIS specialist who records all the research projects to determine that research projects have the buffer needed, and that they don’t interfere with any other project, and that they’re in compliance with the mission of the Rice Center as not only a research but also and education and outreach station. Jennifer recorded the coordinates as 37.328439, -77.206033. It was important for me to consult with other members of the Rice research team. Not only did I want their opinion about how this might fit into the mission of Rice, but I also wanted to very careful about treading on other territory. Andrew Garey, the Director of Operations at Rice, and I talked about the labyrinth as a metaphor for the uncertainties of the scientific process, and especially as a process of unexpected blocks and turns, and a process of following connections and patterns with the hope of arriving at an understanding, and a view of the big picture—of how the pieces fit together in a puzzle, as Ciminelli describes her work.
At the same time, I was collecting conversations for the documentary shorts I was calling “the labyrinth dialogs”. In conversation with Jennifer Ciminelli, I described these dialogues as somehow connected to this more experimental project but I didn’t see a connection other than in name. (This is why I should be writing more to document the process). “I call them ‘The Lab Dialogs’ for short” I was saying ot her when I realized that I was thinking about the “lab” the work place as the common intellectual and creative space for scientists and artists that shared the Rice Center or—perhaps even broader, as I expanded who I was recording— the natural world as their laboratory or their “lab”.
The lab was where my father would head off to work. It was the mysterious place with cold dark surfaces, large metal equipment, and a dark room off to the side, a danger radioactive sign outside in the hallway, little molecule models on shelves. In some way calling those dialogs “lab dialogs” connected to that.
Somehow this made me think about “my study site” now as my lab, although it is still called my “study site”.
My hope was to return once a week to play and film. Thanksgiving came and we left town, then Christmas break approached. I took off for a spiritual retreat in Boston. Then Christmas came and somehow time got away from me without my having recorded more than 3 sessions. Still, without a clear idea of why or how it was hard to continue.
I returned in January and met with Anne Wright, the education coordinator. We talked about materials. My hope was to bring gravel onto the site. Given that the built environment would include all sorts of foreign materials onto the site, this didn’t seem inappropriate.
My first breakthrough came when I met with Jill Ware, a dancer. I don’t why I’m doing these, but I do and I’m hoping they make sense. As I talked with her, I began to realize how being in the space, being in Rice was a brief moment to escape, to connect, maybe to actually not be escaping from but escaping to.
More later as I’ve maybe finally reached the crux of what I’m doing and why but it’s time to close up the laptop and return later.