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Friday, March 8, 2013

Geological Mosaics

Mutual Core by Björk (video director: Andrew Thomas Luang).

In a previous post, we cited Björk and her geology-inspired songs. Crystals and tectonic plates populate Björk’s last album, Biophilia, which is celebrating natural phenomena in music.
In this context, continental drift is poetically described in Mutual Core, which is explicitly subtitled as "Tectonic plates, chords". Terse but expressive lyrics account for scale, a persistent theme in geologic art: “As fast as your fingernail grows, / The Atlantic ridge drifts / To counteract distance”.
Such visual verses have been recently mirrored by a colourful video, premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Los Angeles.
Directed by Andrew Thomas Luang, the Mutual Core video represents a plethora of geological objects framed in the context of plate tectonics. For this reason, Björk’s video can be described as a geological mosaic, where individual tesserae – layers, lava, tectonic plates – combines in a larger picture. Consequently, a question might arise: are there any geoartistic analogues? Geological Inspirations in Textile Art – an exhibition at Bewdley Museum – provides an immediate answer. A similar language is adopted by the ceramic mural The Story of Life by Lorraine Malach, exhibited at the entrance of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology (Alberta).
Geological textile art by Georgia Jacobs. Image from the website of the Abberley and Malvern Hills Geopark.
The Story of Life by Lorraine Malach.
In this context, the artworks of Rachel Sager occupies a place of prominence. In fact, the artist authored mosaics sensu stricto, adopting  materials and themes intimately linked to geology. Specifically, Sager's tesserae are realized with sandstone, limestone, slate, shale, and even coal, whereas themes ranges from layers to natural gas reservoirs. As Rachel Sager writes in her website,
"My artistic process includes large chunks of time spent sifting through the earth itself, gathering material. I am specifically dependent on my native Southwestern Pennsylvania geology".
Rachel Sager, Mighty Marcellus No. 1.
I had an interesting interview with the artist.

At what age did you become a ‘geologic artist’ and how did you know?
I would have to say fairly recently, although I believe becoming an artist of any kind involves a lifetime of real world learning and osmosis. I can remember spending long days as a child building stone dams in creeks and creating playhouses in rock formations. I have been surrounded by stone all my life, having grown up in a 200 year old sandstone farmhouse and having an amateur geologist for a father.  I knew I had become a geologic artist after I had built my first Marcellus mosaic in 2010. A light bulb flicked on in my head when I realized that sourcing my tesserae from the earth was not just possible, but entirely necessary for me. 

Do you have formal training in art or geology? 
I have a minor in art history and formal studio training in the Ravenna Method of mosaic. I am fortunate to have studied with renowned mosaic maestros from Italy who have instilled in me a great respect for a medium with thousands of years worth of  history and a future of very exciting possibilities. I consider myself a perpetual student and enjoy the self-taught lifestyle of reading on many subjects. In another life I see myself working toward a degree in geology. But in this life, mosaic is my commitment so I do my best to educate myself about the earth sciences in the extra slices of time.
Why do you feel the need to create mosaics about geology?  
Working with the earth’s own material gives me a visceral connectedness to it. It’s not about being a sustainable or green artist, which I consider to be unattainable labels anyway. It’s more about my direct relationship to the natural world around me and the sense of comfort it gives me to be up close and very personal with it. My native South Western Pennsylvania has a rich history of coal mining. My father, his father, and his father’s father worked small mines and made and lost their fortunes from the business. Coal is inextricably tied to my family history, and now, once again, geology has become centre stage, this time in the form of natural gas.  My home has become a hot spot in the world’s energy vortex, so there are many questions being asked and much tension being created about how it will all play out.  As an artist, I feel incredibly fortunate to have the tools to communicate my small part in the drama.
Detail of Mighty Marcellus No. 3.
Where do you get tesserae and how do you end up using them in a work of art?
Time spent in fields, rivers, roadsides and quarries takes up a large part of my artistic process. It’s one thing to appreciate a beautifully shaped or colored stone and pick it up to place on your coffee table. It’s quite another thing to hunt for stone with the awareness that you will be chopping it up. I will fill up a bucket from wherever I happen to be gathering and bring it home to my studio to be categorized. Using a traditional stone hammer which has sharp edges on both ends, I chop each stone into small pieces, and then smaller pieces, and often even smaller pieces. I will separate the cuttings from various stone into containers until I have the palate of shades and color I want. This cutting process is one of the great joys of my work. Witnessing the cracking open of a rock that has been sealed up for millions of years, to breathe in its dust, its smell, sometimes even its taste… this is one of the reasons I will always be a Geologic artist. 
Portrait of the Artist: Rachel Sager. From the artist's website.

What kind of workspace do you have?
My husband has built me a wonderful smallish 16’ x 15’ studio with one whole wall of windows for natural light, a concrete floor and a view of my garden.  I don’t mind that it’s not large because it’s well organized and I also have access to his much larger carpentry workshop when I need the big tools. The walls are covered with shelving to house clear glass jars full of hundreds of shades of glass, stone, and ceramic. I have a growing collection of rock hammers, each for its own specific task. I like to say that a girl can never have enough hammers! Having worked in many bad spaces over the years, I am very aware of the gift of a well-designed studio. It has become the heart of the house. I believe in rigorous studio time and part of getting myself there every day involves adding my personal magic to it. A studio should be a sacred space.

What is the favourite geological artwork you created?
This is a hard question to answer. Many of my works feel like little children who I appreciate for their distinctive gifts so picking just one feels a bit like being a bad mother. But, I will say that Fracture is a piece I continue to look back on as a little slice of perfection that I am unable to pick apart with a critical eye.  One of the realizations I have made as an artist is that every piece starts out perfect. Very few manage to hold on to that ideal all the way through to the end.  Fracture is a great blend of inspired concept, technique, and design. I still get a thrill when I’m fortunate enough to see it in person once in a while. I guess the only improvement I could have made to it would have been to make it much bigger! 

Rachel Sager, Fracture.
What artistic and conceptual metaphors have you used in the ‘Lithosphere series’?
For years, I felt compelled to work in circles without quite knowing why. I still feel and indulge in the compulsion, but I have a better idea of the why now after having done the research after the fact. The circle is an archetypal and universal symbol. It’s repeated in every culture, in every age, and represents many primordial human instincts tied into the psyche, spirituality, and the self. I have come to unapologetically embrace my circle obsession and enjoy integrating it’s symbolisms into my art.  The earth’s lithosphere, or outer crust, is a great circle image. Litho: meaning stone and sphere: translating to circle…what more could I ask? The perfect title for my circle series! 

Lithosphere Series No.3 was accepted in 3R's prestigious Prix Picassiette Exhibition in Chartres, France.

Please, explain the narrative of ‘A World Divided’.
This piece is very much tied into the Marcellus Series. It’s a much more abstract deep well image but viewed within the other geologic works, one can see the drill references.  I have been watching Pennsylvania communities splinter into taking sides for and against the idea of fracking and gas drilling in general. I often feel as if I am straddling a deep chasm, because I understand both sides. I see the direct improvement in our local economies; no small thing at this point in time. I also see the beautiful farmland I’ve grown up around being dotted with a new industry. So, I think A World Divided represents my small little corner of the world and its struggles to come to terms with its role in a crucial point in the history of Energy.

Rachel Sager, A World Divided.
Some of your works present an ‘abstract’ feeling, being at the same time representational. What is the role of abstraction in representing geological themes? 
One of my favourite parts of working with and manipulating natural stone is the freedom of expression that it gives me. I like to let each stone do what it was meant to do.  Any given rock will behave in a different way from its neighbour. The act of cutting in mosaic is a very important and sensitive stage of the process. Each stone cleaves in its own distinct style. Some cut squarishly; some cut in a beautifully irregular way. My point is that appreciating the beauty of the stone is in letting it have its personality and laying it into the mortar in a way that best lets that personality shine. As a mosaicist, I am very familiar with forcing any particular material into the shape that I want, but I have found there to be a freedom in giving the stone the lead and seeing where it takes me. As in geologic formations, where stone moves in flowing, directional layers, I find the abstract fields of pattern and movement to be almost meditative, both while building them and later as I appreciate the finished art.  I find that creating these fields of abstraction within a larger more representational image creates a pleasing movement for the eye. People who love mosaic understand, even if unconsciously, that there are many little separate worlds to be discovered and contemplated within a work of this kind.  

How do you reconcile the representational ‘Marcellus’ series with the more abstract ones?
There is so much going on in the field of gas drilling right now that I have my pick of themes, images, and concepts to bring it to life in my art. I sometimes feel bombarded by these flashes of images, and am only restricted by time as mosaic is a very slow art. As an example, the piece titled Frack represents the idea of what the shale might look like as it is fractured or fracked by the high powered water shooting down through the pipeline. I use actual Marcellus shale in this piece and I have found that people are fascinated by this very abstract image and come away with a better understanding of what the heck is going on down there 8000 feet below them.
Rachel Sager, Frack.

How important do you think it is for artists to know about Geology, and why?
Well, I think it’s very important! Any artist should be in a constant state of learning about the world around them. Art imitates nature, right? Especially for the mosaic artist, what lies under them should be of great interest because mosaic is so invested in materials and the earth’s product has been proven to be an excellent source of long-lasting, highly expressive material.  I am, of course, very passionate about the use of natural stone in mosaic. Over-machined and processed mosaic products hold very little interest for me and I believe, take some of the magic away from the artist’s relationship to her material.

What is your idea of ‘Geologic Art’?
I love that this is an almost unanswerable question. The book, Geology in Art, and Andrea Baucon’s blog have helped to open my eyes to the vast interpretations that an artist working in any medium can apply to the subject of geology. But, for my own personal needs, I would say that geologic art is my way of connecting to the earth under my feet while at the same time using that earth to express my visions and ask my questions.

What are your latest works about and where are you going with them?
This year I have come above ground and am creating a collection titled TerraIncognita, which translates into unknown land. In the series, I use map imagery to connect two mismatched groups of people; the explorers from The Age of Discovery and us as virtual, social networking, armchair explorers. Cartography, for me, complements geology as a science and an art.  I am delighting in the overlaps I’m discovering in the worlds I create above and below ground. In many ways, the pieces from The Geology Series are themselves, a kind of map art. As with all my work now, geology plays a starring role as the building blocks that make up the tiny worlds found in all mosaic.

Rachel Sager, Terra Incognita.