All posts by Nicole Geary

Power Over the Land

One major aspect of Romanticism that draws me to it over and over is the deep and ever intense experience of we feel at the vast and powerful places in our landscapes that leave us feeling in awe of nature and – perhaps – at the whim of it. This quality is called the sublime, and is a feeling of some perpetual study in aesthetics and, whether it be spiritual or artistic, I find myself returning to works over and over that tangle with the immensity of nature.

John Pfahl Crystal River Nuclear Plant, Morning, Crystal River, Florida (January 1982)
John Pfahl
Crystal River Nuclear Plant, Morning, Crystal River, Florida (January 1982)

Continue reading Power Over the Land

The Art of the Book and Romanticizing Landscape

For several months now, I have had the pleasure to work on a project with my friend and fellow artist Cat Snapp. On a Texas summer evening, we discussed over dinner our overlapping interests in the outdoors and the influence it has on our work. Through connection to the geological past or ties to personal culture, we each use print media to speak about the personal, historical, and psychological relationships we have with the world around us. At a certain point, we realized that the project that would best unite our voices and express the feeling we wanted was a letterpress printed artist’s book. It has the power to be intimate with the reader, yet it transcends the starkness of simple text on a page – it can reach into places travelled and landscapes desired.

Continue reading The Art of the Book and Romanticizing Landscape

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.

Continue reading Geology, The Sleeping Giant

Understanding the Past through Sculpture

I reach over my workdesk to find a suitable bookmark. I come up with a postcard of the Carlsbad Caverns, and I place it into the exhibition catalogue that I’m engrossed in. As a slight aside and a confession, I have stacks of old postcards. I’ve been collecting them since my teens. I have always loved their bygone-era designs, but now find that I’ve been literally taking pictures of places I’d hoped to see someday. Greek sculptures, highway motels, the desert southwest of the United States, and the White Cliffs of Dover are just some of the amassed places or experiences I’d hoped to have. Continue reading Understanding the Past through Sculpture

Laura Moriarty and Geologic Motions

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Art.Science.Gallery – a fresh and inventive place that is nestled in Austin’s Canopy Studios of artists, musicians, galleries and other creative spaces. Hayley Gillespie, Ph.D., the founder of the gallery, is an ecologist and artist with a specialization in endangered salamanders. Though the mission for the gallery is to exhibit art merged with science, Gillespie and her team incorporate events and lectures that help to promote science literacy and increase communication between other scientists, artists, and the public.  It’s hard not to be smitten with a gallery that also has a Laboratory for classes – but not a typical art class listing. This summer at Art.Science.Gallery, you can register for Climate Science 101. Continue reading Laura Moriarty and Geologic Motions

The Desert: Spirit of Place and Encountering the Dream

“A work can be as powerful as it can be thought to be. Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface. ”

-Donald Judd

My notions about the desert seem a distant and beguiling set of imaginary scenes: as a woman-child of swamp and humid coast, enclosed by longleaf pines and surrounded by ocean on (almost) all sides, the desert seems a fairytale topography created by the mythos of the American West – a gunslinger’s paradise, a no-man’s land, a red-rocked canyon of impenetrable access. Perhaps the desert came before me, but only just slightly. The landscape of familiarity to me was one of green, moist terrain that barely spoke a word of its past except to whisper every now and again in small, chalky rocks of its ancient seas. On occasional walls in bright, sun-drenched rooms hung pictures of faraway places, cacti and high rock walls that I had never imagined. These places surely must be the archaic leftovers of my grandparents’ time – ephemera of nation-building and ranching that only exists in stories. A desert, to my own senses, was a place residing only in the collective past of textbooks and black-and-white television shows.  What follows is my report as an investigator of this mythic place.

My current home is in the city of San Antonio. A place nestled geographically and geologically at the center of Texas, riding just under the hill country and atop the Balcones Escarpment, it seems a perfect place to begin an adventure. About one hour in any direction and the topography changes enough to be dramatic. My husband and best friend are my compatriots in this journey, heading west on highway 90. Out in D’Hanis, all the buildings are made of brick and, rightly so. The exterior walls of my apartment and the gallery I used to work in in San Antonio are built with D’Hanis stamped rich red bricks – a testament to the history of kilns originally built in the town I am now driving through. Like vast swaths of sedimentation across a landscape, a source can eventually be located for the small outcrops of clues that bear this interesting feature.

In another few hours we cross the Pecos River, where it has cut so deep down into the lower Cretaceous limestone here that the canyons are concave and bellowing with resilient whites and creams. In some places, the dreary shale gray has stained the limestone over ages, a palimpsest of story upon story.  The Pecos itself seems still and chillingly cerulean. To stand and ponder how it could have ever worked at the task of carving stone seems one I can understand logically but still never grasp on a human scale. This canyon took time – time that I can’t fathom in my excitement. It’s not even a very big canyon in the scheme of things geological.

Fig. 1. Pecos River looking north from the high bridge crossing on Highway 90, Texas. Photograph taken March 9, 2014. Photograph by Nicole Geary
Fig. 1. Pecos River looking north from the high bridge crossing on Highway 90, Texas. Photograph taken March 9, 2014. Photograph by Nicole Geary

West of the Pecos, the roadcuts get a bit more interesting, as every few miles a new rise has been blasted to make way for the road we travel, and within those slices of high hillside, strata that make up the earth are revealed. Some strata are nice and even, with beautiful separations, and some show great interfingering and mixing up of their constituent parts. It’s a mystery book teasing me from the shelf as I drive past. I want to, in every sense of the word, read it – to find out what happened and in doing so, gain a greater understanding of the land I’m traversing. But we keep pressing on to our destination.

What can the desert offer me? I have a desire to go – to see. The author Rebecca Solnit frequently writes about place and its importance to us spiritually, asthetically, and even within a greater social construct.  “The very word desert refers to desertedness, to lack, and the desert is defined by what it is missing,” (Solnit, 65). I think about the times that I have been defined by what I am quite literally “missing,” or what terrible inadequacies I seem to present based solely on patriarchal structures in my life. I can see that the desert is being unfairly compared to ecosystems that it is not and never will be. Much like a desert, a woman has to hold her own in a world defined by male domination, expansion, and desire. In this case, the desert is a place without sufficient water supply to support large human populations, their agriculture, and livestock. The roads and towns are increasingly less populated, with fewer familiar comforts and more trucks. You wouldn’t need a Starbucks to live out here but you would definitely need four-wheel drive. I ponder these ideas as I become acquainted with a place that’s been obscured from me. In the metaphorical tales that I spin while watching wild birds fly up from the roadside brush, I think the desert must be a woman.

Camping in Big Bend Ranch State Park is very remote. We spend about an hour and a half just getting off the main road and driving to the ranger station.  There are no paved roads, and our campsite can be located with GPS coordinates. Wind blows around and through you, and you can hear it coming. It rustles the dry brush and sweeps through the openness, warning you of its presence.  All you can do out there is knuckle down.

Fig. 2. Looking south toward the Mexican Mountain range. Photograph taken March 11, 2014. Photograph by Nicole Geary
Fig. 2. Looking south toward the Mexican Mountain range. Photograph taken March 11, 2014. Photograph by Nicole Geary

Desert Thoughts:

Is it possible to overuse the term majestic? It seems that every view is deserved of the word, the crest of every hill a new splendor.  Something about the setting sun and the large expanse of open space sets the stage for the feeling of true sublimity. Counting posts in the road (one of the only signs of humanness out here) and adding them up to see how far we’ve come, my friend and I decide that, should the Jeep break down, we don’t want to trek 9 miles in the desert sun back to safety. These aren’t city miles near other people, or the possibility of finding gas or shade; these are wide open, scorching miles.

“To be deserted is not to be alone but to be alone with the thought that it could be otherwise,” (Broglio, 34). Reading this essay by Broglio sets the feeling of being alone like a puzzle piece into a greater picture.  In the desert I feel small, detached, and even somewhat awestruck, but by being so far away from lots of people, I am open to the possibility that there are other voices to be heard, including my own. “Voice is the attempt to communicate, the desire to be other than abandoned,” (Broglio, 37). Imagine the braying of a wild donkey as it runs past your tent in the middle of the night, its own agenda afoot, with little regard for your temporary dwelling amidst its home. Your heart beats wildly as you wake up, identifying the voice you just heard, listening for danger and finding none. You coo yourself back to sleep with the sound of your own small voice.

I listened to myself in the desert.

***

There is more color here than I every imagined. My previous sketches of “what the desert looks like” might have included raw sienna and burnt umber. Of course I’d imagined the crisp, green cacti, but never did I grasp the varying greens of the scrub in the arroyos, including cottonwoods. Rich purple cacti grow up near small, red and yellow flowering bushes. Rocks of all colors seem to tumble out of the ground, as if their volcanic past is waiting to be told in mafic blacks and greys, punctured by ochre to red iron-stained gravels. Fold in the blue sky upon this picture and the whites of the sunbaked gravels and this is what I saw for two days outside my tent – a place where every color was an inspiration.

Fig. 3. Desert floor with rocks, cacti, and brush. Photograph taken March 11, 2014. Photograph by Nicole Geary
Fig. 3. Desert floor with rocks, cacti, and brush. Photograph taken March 11, 2014. Photograph by Nicole Geary

***

A fine layer of dust still covers my Jeep after returning from Big Bend a few days later.  In the cracks and corners of doors and seams, it collects like silt. Though I washed my hands after breaking camp, every time I touched my jeans or jacket, my fingertips were loaded with the smell of dust again, as though I were still there, my teeth still gritty with sand and my eyes still watering with the irritation of working at survival.

I was hours away from the campsite now, driving east toward home, a clean stretch of lonesome highway in front of me, and my hands were coated anew in rich desert dust. My senses are alive with the smell of something so new and yet so ancient.

 

Works Consulted:

Broglio, Ron. “Abandonment: Giving Voice In The Desert.”  Glossator 7 , 2013. Web. http://glossator.org/2013/03/03/glossator-7-2013-the-mystical-text-black-clouds-course-through-me-unending/

Judd, Donald. “Specific Objects.” Arts Yearbook 8, 1965. [reprinted in Thomas Kellein, Donald Judd: Early Works 1955–1968(exh. cat. New York: D.A.P., 2002)]

Solnit, Rebecca. “Scapeland.” As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

Spearing, Darwin. “Roadside Geology of Texas.” Mountain Press Publishing Company. Missoula: 1991.

 

What I Learned About Truth in Pursuit of Reality

In response to Deven’s post regarding her journey toward archaeology via the pursuit of reality, I wanted to use the resonance I felt in her story as a jumping off point for my own post about the nature of reality. While I am compelled by approaches to understanding defined by logic and reason, I find myself sometimes working against both in my role as an artist. I make work in a system that allows for the full creation of possibility and ideas – a world that ascribes to sets and grouping but also readily casts them off in order to make great leaps and bounds of the imagination. Contemporary artists, unfettered by traditional labels that have served much of western art history (though still enriched by that history), move about from media to media, always seeking the best solution to visual questions. Art of the mind is valued as well as art of the hand, and at that juncture, pragmatic fixes need not be applied. As a printmaker interested in geology and compelled by the scientific method, I was searching for artistic solutions that had practical, empirical answers.  I wanted to find the place where art and science met. Perhaps after one too many philosophy papers, I decided to close the book on abstract ideas and go out into the field.

Much of my work deals with narrative and the quest for the truth in that space. Truth, for me, was about getting to the heart of what really happened on a cold day in December that has long since passed and can now only be accessed through memories. I have no observable data or evidence. The reality of each moment is a driving concern, and if I can create output of those moments, perhaps they will be easier to analyze and interpret. The prints that I create deal with specific times and places, and I can correlate that nicely with rocks in the field that I learned about through geological field exploration. For instance, pick a memory from your childhood, say, around fourth grade. Were there other people there?
What kind of day was it?
Can you recall what you were wearing?
In the epochs of the history of this earth, that blink in your existence could be akin to a river flooding in the Late Cretaceous. Perhaps some plant matter is trapped in with the sediments rushing over the banks, a picture of that day in the memory of the earth, now lithified. Literally, set in stone.

People will remember things differently, and focus on separate parts of events. Humans get details wrong and let their emotions dictate how they feel about certain memories. The earth, however, could only ever tell you the truth.  It records events as they happen, and if you wanted to find out the story – “the reality” – all you need to know is how to read the rocks.

 

Nicole Geary, Wonders of the Rocks, detail, Exhibited 2013. Granites, Gypsum, Limestones, Prints. Dimensions Variable.
Nicole Geary, Wonders of the Rocks, detail, Exhibited 2013. Granites, Gypsum, Limestones, Prints. Dimensions Variable.

 

Going forward with this proposition, in late 2012 I set about making an installation titled Wonders of the Rocks: Passages I – IV. It is a collection of various hand-collected granites, gypsum, shale and limestones, placed onto shelves of varying widths. Each shelf contains a set of rocks meant to signify some narrative or implied story amongst the grouping. Some of the rocks used in the piece were covered with my own interpretation, or memory, of that rock so that you could no longer see its real story underneath. The piece is hung low on the wall and arranged in a linear format, meant to be “read,” as one literally reads rocks in the field, looking ever downward. I wanted the viewer to come to this piece and kneel down or bend over as one does when searching for samples. If the meaning of some small passage was lost to the passerby who did not fully engage with the piece, to me this is symbolic of the geologist who loses sight of the details and fumbles even the smallest of notes. A misinterpreted strike and dip of strata could change how one reads a formation entirely, much the same with small intonations in the translation of a foreign text.

Nicole Geary, Wonders of the Rocks, Passages I-IV, Exhibited 2013. Granites, Gypsum, Limestones, Prints. Dimensions Variable.
Nicole Geary, Wonders of the Rocks, Passages I-IV, Exhibited 2013. Granites, Gypsum, Limestones, Prints. Dimensions Variable.

 

I am still working on the idea here between what is meant by the signs and signified, but now I am incorporating cues from language. Maps still play a role to me as guides in making meaning for geological work, but the idea that these rocks can transcend that and become a new language interested me. I’d attempted to construct a meaning, a language, and a truth from reality – actual pieces of the geological record of the earth. I specifically thought of the work One and Three Chairs, executed by Joseph Kosuth in 1965. He gives us an artifact, documentation, and an explanation, but wherein lies the truth?  At one point, a member of my committee had to tell me, “You need to let go of this idea of the truth.”  I had become stubbornly attached to the idea that each rock was telling me a true story. It is okay to walk away from a set of rocks and misunderstand them, as their language is multifunctional, in a constant state of change (literally from sedimentary to metamorphic to igneous), and open to vast interpretation. There is no one set of passages that can equal one meaning, much the same in language.

 

But the question persisted: What do we hold the most important? The thing or the idea of the thing?

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965. MOMA.
Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965. Wood Folding Chair, Mounted Photograph of a Chair, and Mounted Photographic Enlargement of the Dictionary Definition of “Chair,” Chair: 32.38 x 14.88 x 20.88 in. (82.00 x 37.80 x 53.00 cm.), Photographic Panel: 36.00 x 24.13 in. (91.50 x 61.10 cm.), Text Panel: 24.00 x 24.13 in. (61.00 x 61.30 cm.), Museum of Modern Art, New York, URL Link to Artwork

 

Along the way I began to think of reality and truth as the same. I could hold a rock physically in my hand, inspect it under a microscope, classify it, and make a very good estimation about how it was formed. Touching a rock was, to me, like picking up a page from the history book of the world. Each rock was a true statement, and if I collected enough of them, I would start to have an alphabet from which to begin a new language.

If these minerals and rocks are important to me as signs, so is what is signified. When I look back at Kosuth’s Chairs, I am reminded of a print that brings this entire endeavor back around again for me. Blue Print, 1992, by Abigail Lane is one of a series of inked chairs that has a felted inkpad in the seat. The placement of the chair so near the wall, the print of the bodily mark hung nearby, almost as evidence but more as connection, calls forth the Kosuth as an artistic antecedent. The print in this artwork acts on several levels: as a record of an action, as a tie-in to the sculpture, and as an image for visual consumption. There is a language beginning to take shape in the print, which is made directly from the body. Almost like a trace fossil found near an outcrop, you can safely guess that one came from the other.

Abigail Lane, Blue Print, 1992.  http://abigaillane.co.uk/
Abigail Lane, Blue Print, 1992.
http://abigaillane.co.uk/

 

I wanted to tell the story of place and of memory with 100% accuracy, but here’s the rub – even in geology you cannot do that. You can make very educated statements and qualified guesses, but there will always be some unknown factor. In the sciences, they warn of “observational bias” tainting your results, but in the art world, observational bias is the most important thing you’ve got.

Inaugural Post to the Artist in E-Residency Position

Something From Home Nicole Geary intaglio, collagraph, chine collé 11" x 14"
Something From Home, Exhibited 2013. Intaglio, Collagraph, Chine Collé, 11.00 x 14.00 in. (27.94 x 35.56 cm.

 

I first want to thank the NASSR Grad Caucus Board for such a warm welcome to this blog and, also, to the NASSR community. I am thrilled about the many ways in which my role as an active artist can contribute to conversations about, and in response to, issues in Romanticism, illuminating both historical frameworks and existing political or ideological currents. I’ve been provided such energetic feedback to all of my initial questions that I now feel I am ready to tackle an initial post. To do so, I’ll introduce myself more thoroughly. I recently graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Printmaking from the University of South Dakota and I am currently living and working in San Antonio, Texas. I teach printmaking, make prints and sculpture, and also involve a good deal of geological and art-historical research in my practice.

To more fully explain my work, I need to talk about where I’m from and what I’ve studied. I’m going to take some latitude to go into a little selected personal history and write at some length about what drives me to make work.

I grew up in North-Central Florida for most of my life, born and raised in a swampy and green part of the state that informed most of my understanding about nature and animals. The idea of mountains, snow, desert, or indeed of other spaces, is foreign to me. I am captivated by the idea of travel while at the same time am imbued with a sense of desire for “home.” In many ways, the work that I make is about exploring the feeling of longing for two places. As a young art student, Jean Baudrillard’s “The Precession of Simulacra” always resonated with me, perhaps because I grew up in Florida, and he most briskly takes Disney down to a mere order of infantile fantasies. [It should be noted that Baudrillard is referencing the Disney Land in Los Angeles, but I hold that the same is true for its own iteration in Orlando, again the simulation of itself.] I believe Baudrillard’s writing on simulacra also held sway with me. I felt that a place could hold a fantasy, a wonder, significance – and be in reality nothing more than a swampland.

By the time I reached graduate school, I’d found that my attention to land and the impression that certain areas had upon me were developing into a research-based artistic practice focused on maps and geology. I was interested in understanding more thoroughly, on a scientific and rational basis, why land was so important to me. I specifically wanted to take emotion out of the equation. It was my point of conjecture that my feelings of homesickness, anger, pain, or regret were, to put it logically, contaminating my results. In an attempt to dissolve those feelings into a solution of metaphor, charts and graphs balanced sensitive marks. It was tricky at first, because old anger and severe homesickness didn’t want to be dealt with. I looked for ways in which I could talk around these feelings without being too blatant. The more I read about maps, the more I realized that signs and signifiers wouldn’t work for me anymore. Replacing emotion with a symbol was too simple an answer; the reality of emotion goes deeper and is felt more thoroughly than any pocket-size road atlas could contain. To go forward and really grapple with emotion I must nod to the oft-referenced Jorge Luis Borges fable and say , “the map is not the territory.”

Geology seemed to have all of the answers. As a printmaker, I work in layers and stages naturally, and the process of observation and investigation is something of a peek into history. I had been slowly growing more aware that to know what my work was about in the present, I needed to know where it came from. I desired to be able to read the strata of my own history. Geologists can do a wonderful thing: they can walk out into the world and, using careful observation, tell you what kind of environment used to exist there thousands or millions of years before. They see the world as it is now and as it was then, peeling back the layers of time before them like the blankets on a press bed to slowly reveal the surprise beneath. Geologists and printmakers both work in strata.

My prints are often akin to a journal page or even a field note, a place for working out internal thoughts or recording events: poetry of inner questioning and curiosity. Formally I tend to be drawn to the work of artists that utilize their own handwriting or found items into prints or drawings, like the pages of a well-loved diary or sketchbook. To me, this is part of the process of knowing. Scientific diagrams are beautiful and clean, as they are meant to be effective teaching tools. What tends to be forgotten is the disarray that went into the collection of data to get to that well-prepared and perfect outcome. I’ve become more interested in the mess that came before.

I welcome any comments in response to this evolution and to these thoughts as I’ve outlined them. As this is my first post, I’d like to share more as I go along, diving into more diverse realms of pedagogy, practice, and specific areas of research.