by Lindsay Olson
When I begin a new project, the whole effort feels risky. I am stepping into a new and unfamiliar branch of science, a new work culture, and using materials in a novel way. Add to this the normal concerns that all artists have at the end of a project: will the work connect with gallery managers and the public. Working this way requires a certain comfort with uncertainty and confusion while I find my bearings in the project.
The first thing I do is to obtain enough information to ground the work in accurate science. We are living through an era of confusion and misunderstanding about science and I want the art work to clarify my message, not add to the confusion. I work carefully with scientists as collaborators who can articulate their work to an outsider. This collaboration has provided me with a rich source of inspiration. Through such back and forth communication, I find the common ground for a novice to enter a given discipline. Often in our discussions, a scientific collaborator will suggest an approach to me or a novel way to use. They help keep me on the correct path and depend on me to help get their message out into the world.
My sketchbook ‒ see examples in last week's post ‒ is important to my learning process but it is not the only influence on the finished art work. Because I am stepping into someone else's territory, I am sensitive to the culture of the laboratories with whom I work. It requires good listening skills and... thoughtfulness.
Some of this work culture winds its way into the finished piece. When I worked with a police department, for example, I wanted to express the grit of the street, some of the cop humor I heard, and the chaos of patrolling a beat. In the example of the waste water treatment, I wanted to use a democratic assortment of textiles to express how many people work together in the treatment plant: operators, scientists, engineers, administrators, and tradespeople. I used silks, table linen, denim, heavy duty canvas and lots of labor intensive hand processes. Such extravagant embroidery, beading and hand work are the sorts of textile processes historically reserved for royalty. In the Carchesium ciliates for example, I've stitched the stalks and heads on in silk and attached sequins to express the nucleus and food vacuoles. By using such fancy and these labor intensive techniques, I am elevating the subject of waste water treatment in the minds of the viewer. I'm using art to challenge the cultural perception that waste water is something to flush and forget.
In the early stage of the work, I spend a great deal of time investigating materials and how to use them. Whether I'm working on paper or stitching textiles, the one part of the project I don't want to struggle with is the expression of my ideas. Drawing on my arts training, I am incorporating the language of art & design into the finished work: color, line, texture, size of the finished work, value (light and dark), balance and harmony. Carpenters express this idea by the saying "measure twice, cut once." I have a similar aphorism: "many samples makes for stronger work".
So what I'm juggling all at the same time is researching the science, collecting visual ideas, working in my sketchbook and with art materials, learning the culture in the lab, meeting staff, scientists , taking training, and braiding all this together in the finished art. The process is fluid, dynamic and wholly satisfying. It's taken me years to figure out how to put all these pieces together and it's a rich and satisfying experience.
Lindsay teaches textiles in the fashion studies department at Columbia College Chicago where she graduated with a BA. She worked in the fashion design field for many years before beginning her teaching career. She is known for her unusual, science based residencies. She worked with the Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District in Chicago and was Fermilab’s first artist in residence in 2014 – 2015.