On one level, the process of being an artist is simple to describe. The artist recognizes the unknown as a workable reality. In this, the artist and the scientist are joined, both driven by inspiration. For the scientist, however, exploration into the unknown is a process of discovering that which can be proved. The artist, however, freed from the responsibility of proof, approaches the unknown by crafting imaginary solutions.
As a daughter of noted art historian, George Kubler, I was nurtured in an environment rich in visual arts and intellectualism. Extensive travels abroad and schooling in Latin America and Europe gave me an unusually privileged exposure to the world’s great cultures. The breadth of my art historical background has been very important to my work as a sculptor.
Years ago, when I began carving stone, my husband called me Henrietta after Henry Moore. It was Moore who stipulated that a sculptor must be obsessed with the intrinsic emotional significance of shapes…that sculpture must be expressive yet still, reflective yet physical, monumental yet meditative, reveal nature not copy nature, and more than beautiful, be timeless. This set of principles continues to guide my approach.
Working initially with stone, I thrived in the noise, mess and mysterious moment of revealing form. Although my sculpture slowly evolved to become more complex conceptually, as illustrated by the “Shape of Time” sculptures for the 2005 Venice Biennale, much of my early work focused on simple biomorphic shapes inspired by nature.
Something significant happened to me, though, after seeing news of the devastating tsunami that swept over Banda Aceh in 2004. I felt that my work could no longer serve beauty without conveying a deeper message. I would try to find ways to reconcile the paradox of water as a source of life and as a carrier of horrific destruction. For the past seven years I have tried to portray aspects of water that address this dichotomy, where ravages are counterbalanced by renewal through numinous aspects that calm, restore and support all life.
Beginning with the TSUNAMI PROJECT in 2006, an exhibition of imagined tsunami waves reviewed in the December 2006 issue of SCULPTURE, I turned to the melting of the polar ice cap. Previewed in the Ninth International Polar Weekend at the American Museum of Natural History in 2009, and later exhibited at my New York Gallery, ARCTIC ICE MELT: moulins of my mind, was based on the tubular chutes in glaciers through which melt water cascades into the sea. Two Moulin sculptures are currently displayed at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, in “Ripple Effect: The Art of H20” in the Interactive Art & Nature Center.
While working on the moulins I began collaborating with scientists to verify that my abstract sculptures were, indeed, recognizable expressions of natural phenomena. Productive working relationships developed with Stephanie Pfirman, Hirschorn Professor of Environmental and Applied Sciences at Barnard College (my alma mater), Professor Konrad Steffen of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and for this body of work, with Dr. Gareth Lawson, a biological oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
As I was completing work on the moulins, something I read drew my attention to the hundreds of flourishing ecosystems at the edges of glaciers in Arctic sea ice. Wondering whether this rich environment might make an interesting sculptural installation, I began studying algae, crustaceans, even organisms that ‘sculpt’ channels in the brine. Curiously, many of these minute organisms have appealing shapes evocative of Arp, Miro and Kandinsky.
Finding the perfect marine animals to render into form was an arduous task. One day, by chance, I discovered an electron microscope enlargement of a pteropod, commonly referred to as a sea butterfly. Appearing to glide through water, this animal was graceful, translucent, vulnerable, and ideally suited for the emotion I hoped to invoke. Since most pteropods are no bigger than a grain of sand, the prospect of sculpting them was daunting. I chose two species of pteropods to begin with, and began filling the studio with photos, sketches and small maquettes. Starting with Limacina helicina, I enlarged the wings (actually called parapodia), inverted shells, and even created voids in some so light could wash over the forms. These abstractions were done to suggest how ocean acidification threatens these beautiful creatures.
With Limacina retroversa I attempted to convey the threat of ocean acidification symbolically, in a series of three interrelated, but separate, sculptures. The first, or healthiest of the retroversas, swims in its watery world with outstretched wings, an encompassing, exuberant gesture. More stressed, the middle retroversa struggles to survive on folding wings. The third retroversa actually sinks, its shell pierced in several places. It appears to collapse as it tumbles to the ocean floor.
To bring THE PTEROPOD PROJECT: charismatic microfauna into being, I am extremely fortunate to collaborate with Gareth Lawson. His intellect, sensitivity to the artistic process, and delightful sense of humor have encouraged me to keep carving away, despite inherent challenges. Midway through the project, for example, I complained to Gareth that I did not want to carve a Clione limacina, no matter how abstract, because I thought it was ugly. More troubling, its diet consists almost entirely of my beautiful Sea Butterflies. Gareth quickly wrote back that I had to carve a Clione for the integrity of the exhibition! And, of course, he was right. My Clione limacina, enlarged one hundred times, swims menacingly above the others in an extravagant attack mode, honing in on its prey.
Clione, of course, is just playing out its role in the balance of nature. Ocean acidification is the real problem. Its destructive effects on pteropods will continue unless their plight is made visible, It is my hope, that through this collaborative exhibition with Gareth Lawson and the Lawson Laboratory Research Team at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, my ‘imaginary solutions’ help raise awareness of the threats to these beautiful marine animals.