Geology, The Sleeping Giant

Geology is ever-present and abundant in the most expansive and also the most microscopic ways. I’ve been asked to serve on a panel next month at Southern Graphics Council International with three other printmakers who also incorporate geology as major themes in their work, and I’ve used this post as a research opportunity to develop my opening remarks. There are many ways that we use the history of the earth, rocks, and the crisis of the Anthropocene to make artistic statements. Some artists approach the work through the realm of the story teller. Others realize that our societal and economic structures depend on geological resources. Still others are interested in the multitude of phenomena that shape our world to create the landscapes we see before us. In all these ways we become thinkers that overlap artistic training with scientific thought and experimentation.

I utilize printmaking to reveal the connection I have to rocks on a personal and psychological level, as it is the best medium to create the stories I wish to tell. I can produce multiples, submit matrices to thousands of pounds of pressure, and utilize processes such as tracing, etching, and lithography, which all have the ring of something very geologic. When I layer my images, I see similarities to the layers of strata I see in the field. I want to connect the human experience of our memories and history to the realm of deep, geological time.
In my research, I came across several things that made me think about what it means to label oneself as a printmaker. I am at a point where I am considering the definitions of my practice, and looking at this work by Perdita Phillips from her R Series makes me feel as though I can start to be more inclusive. In my last post, I mentioned my love of collecting postcards, and this work seems to blend the use of the postcard with the experience of the search for place into a compelling travelogue. These postcards are printed ephemera and have lots to tell, much like the rocks. (The White Cliffs of Dover are just the accumulation of years upon years of dead little sea creatures.)

Perdita Phillips, R Series: The White Cliffs of Dover, 1999.

Among my other discoveries in this rock research are everyday folks who, for one reason or another, felt the absolute urge to take rocks from the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. On the one hand, I can sympathize, for the desire to bring home rocks is so ever-present in my life that I often find pepples and little stones in pockets and bags days or even weeks after a trip. But on the other hand, the preservation of a place like a national park is the ultimate goal. Imagine if we each tore a page out of a book when we read it, then returned it to the library. I suppose one could make sense of the story with context clues, but it would be so much richer to read all the words.
Maybe that’s a hokey metaphor, but I really like the idea of people returning what they took so that we can all enjoy it. According to Nicola Twilley’s reporting for the New Yorker, that’s what some people have been doing at the Petrified Forest National Park. And some of the notes that come back with them are absolutely wonderful. The attachment that some people have formed for their pieces of silica-replaced wood is understandable to me. A piece of geologic history is suddenly in your hands; the actions and consequesnces of millions of years have all been brought to this point, and it’s beautiful.

Image from The New Yorker, Jan 23, 2015. Courtety Petrified Forest National Park.
The staff calls them “conscience letters”, and I think this example speaks volumes.

Lastly, I was inspired to look at antique prints for some examples of what I find to be a unique blend of science and art – prints that represented the scientific realm, drawn by the artist’s hand. I found some wonderful examples of early wood and copper engravings that capture the features one would expect to see in certain outcrops or landscapes for reference or teaching purposes, yet hint at a Romantic notion of fiery, unexpected chaos that could rise up from within.

Copper engraving by Storer, published by Longman and Rees, London, circa 1803.  6.6″ x 9″ 

These antique prints remind me of Andreas Vesalius’s famous codex De Humani Corporis Fabrica, which is known for its woodcuts depicting anatomical studies of humans in various poses. Unfortunately, the artist(s) of those works is unknown, but the careful rendering and almost playful attitude toward death and knowledge are themes I see revealing themselves through the veil, or the skin, of the sleeping giant that is geology. Many of us go about our day to day activities pretending that death is not a part of life, nor greenhouse gas emissions, nor dying polar bears or drought in California. The truth is revealed to us through these slow actions, or in the case of Vesalius, when the skeleton is all that is left, it still begs for mercy.
I hope that I can unify these themes in my opening remarks and I look foward to collaborating with a group of truly amazing printmakers. My own work can only benefit by listening to them and being around their great energy and experience.

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