Birdworks Fiber Arts

Time for Change: A Collaboration Between Artists and Microbiologists

Hand/Eye Journal | March 2022

I have been creating textile-based artwork for over 25 years, exploring a variety of art forms. My current work, art quilts, focuses on shapes and patterns in the natural world. I hand dye most of my cotton fabrics in my studio using a variety of mark making techniques. My work is primarily hand drawn and cut, fuse appliquéd, machine stitched, machine quilted and often hand embroidered.
Over the last three years, I have been part of a scientist/artist project focused on the microbial world, specifically in the Arctic region of Alaska. In a Time of Change: Microbial Worlds (ITOC) is a collaboration among artists and scientists spearheaded by Mary Beth Leigh, Professor of Microbiology at University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
As a result of several interactions with scientists studying the landscape of the high Arctic tundra, the ITOC artists produced a wonderfully eclectic exhibition focusing on the microbes that are the building blocks of that landscape. The Microbes Series is in that collection.
A highlight of the ITOC project, and perhaps a refocusing event, was a short residency at the Toolik Lake Research Station, 120 miles south of Prudhoe Bay on the Dalton Highway. The research station hosts scientists from around the world who are studying the tundra ecosystems. One of the activities was helping collect water samples from Toolik Lake, a small kettle lake fed by two pearl lake-stream systems. The group spent several hours studying and drawing the microscopic creatures found in the water column, most of which have never been studied or named.
My Microbes Series is the result of the Toolik Lake experience. I have always been fascinated by the microscopic, as much for the shapes and forms of the creatures and plants as for the science. The creatures floating in the water come in myriad shapes and forms. Big and small, they survive the harsh cold environment forming the foundations of the ecosystems.
Because microscopic images are often black and white, I chose a gray, black and white palette with bits of color for emphasis. The Microbes Series pieces are all small, 14” x 14”, with a circular center motif, as if looking through the eye piece of a microscope. Many of the creatures are from the water column studies but others are imaginary, sometimes based on Ernst Haeckel’s drawings.
Each piece begins with a gray background and the central circle. From there the microbes are cut out, positioned and fused in whatever organization is pleasing to me. The pieces are machine stitched, machine quilted and bound. The last step is the decision to add hand embroidery for emphasis – French knots and/or seed stitches – using hand dyed #8 pearl cotton thread. I make the embroidery decision after the piece has had time to rest…what else does it need to be really resolved?
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