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ISSUE 121 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 3/21/2008

Batiks illustrate climate change

By Margaret Wade
Arts Editor

Friday, March 21, 2008

The current Flatten Art Museum exhibit, "Expanding Oceans," reveals an innovative collaboration between textile artist Mary Edna Fraser and scientist Orrin Pilkey that explores global climate change through a collection of batiks on silk.

As a science-phobe, I was a little wary when I arrived at the gallery, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the splash of vibrant colors that filled the room. Through Fraser's batiks and Pilkey's messages, this project opens up dialogue and conveys new perspectives beyond the scope of the human eye and the best cameras available.

Everyone is "going green" these days, using trite messages to profess both sincere and not-so-sincere environmental concerns. In this age of environmentally-friendly campaigns, there's a new friend in town.

Each work includes a brief description by Pilkey and Fraser. I appreciated the dual perspective as I viewed each piece.

In "Boston, Massachusetts" (2007), muted greens, oranges and browns compose the fluid harbor, and geometric cobalt shapes emerge at the horizon to show the Boston cityscape. Fraser comments, "Each city has a dynamic skyline as well as shoreline."

Inspired by a photograph taken 200 miles from Earth by astronaut Jay Apt, Fraser created "Pacific Full Moon" (1999), which depicts a full moon framed by black space in the upper third, and a swirling purple, blue and white sea below. Pilkey explains that the Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean because tectonic plates between the Americas and Asia are still moving.

In "Mt. McKinley, Alaska" (1993), Fraser uses a palette of soft creamsicle streaks with purple shadows to capture ice. "Our lives often have deep crevices as we struggle to maintain equilibrium," Fraser comments.

Fraser modeled "Monterey Canyon, California" after an aerial photograph taken 500 miles above an undersea canyon. This batik is a large-scale silk prayer flag for her stepson who has Cystic Fibrosis. "You cannot see his disease as you cannot view the canyon easily," she comments.

This exhibit never spews facts or guilts the viewer, but instead Fraser and Pilkey share their perspectives through the world we cannot easily see.

"Katrina" looks down on the earth from space on August 29, 2005, capturing an ominous swirl of white. Layers of dye create depth in this piece, and the whiteness of the hurricane contrasts sharply with the deep blue and green tones of the planet.

"Slopes of Mauna Loa, Hawaii" (1994) caught my eye immediately--this batik reminded me of a lush tropical flower, flowing from the ceiling like a hibiscus flower climbing a trellis. Pilkey comments that Mauna Loa is the largest volcano in the world and also the site of key carbon dioxide measurements indirectly indicating the presence of global warming.

There's a profound sense of wonder and beauty in "Expanding Oceans" abstractions. The pieces drew me in from a distance with their aesthetic presence, but the messages by each work made me stop and reflect on the danger of rising oceans.

The exhibit includes a video in fast motion of Fraser in the studio that allows the viewer to see the color emerge as she crawls under long panels of silk to evaluate a work and paints with meticulous strokes.

"Expanding Oceans" uses art to share scientific information, thus educating and inspiring people through an accessible, visually rich medium. In this marriage of art and science, Fraser and Pilkey engage viewers with both emotion and fact. The National Science Foundation, National Academy of Science, Duke Museum of Art and Emory University have featured Fraser and Pilkey's work.

Fraser rejuvenates the ancient medium of batik with modern dye technology, satellite imagery and aerial photography. She was the first woman to be honored with a one-person exhibition in 1994-95 at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Fraser's work has been exhibited and collected around the world, including public commissions for the American Embassy in Thailand and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Pilkey is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology and Director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines (PSDS) within the Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke University. The "Expanding Oceans" exhibit reveals the work of his current book, tentatively titled, "The Expanding Ocean: A Creeping Nuisance or a Global Disaster." He has written "The Beaches are Moving: The Drowning of American's Shoreline," "Living by the Rules of the Sea" and "Useless Arithmetic." Dr. Pilkey has coauthored or edited 36 books, and he writes for publications such as the New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Oceans Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education and National Geographic.

"The sea level's rise is widely recognized and accepted by the public as fact," Pilkey writes in the introduction. "It is an intriguing subject to most people but there are many nooks and crannies of this phenomena that have not been exposed to public view."

"Expanding Oceans" and joint exhibit "Celebrating the World's Barrier Islands" at Gould Library, Carleton College will run through April 13. Pilkey and Fraser have a series of events planned in order to engage the Northfield community and to open up dialogue on the issue of climate change.

Pilkey and Fraser will give a public talk, "A Science and Art Collaboration," on Monday, March 31 at 7 p.m. in Dittmann Center 305. They will lead a round table discussion to discuss "Celebrating the World's Barrier Islands" project and book on Tuesday, April 1 at 4 p.m. in Gould Library Athenaeum at Carleton College.

Pilkey and Fraser will join a panel of professors -- Luce professor of Asian art history and Asian studies Karil Kucera; professor of art history Christine O'Malley; professor of physics Robert Jacobel, Grace A. Whittier Endowed Chair; and professor of biology and environmental studies John Schade -- for a public discussion, "What is it about Expanding Oceans?" on Wednesday, April 2 at 7 p.m. in Dittmann 305.

To conclude the series, Pilkey will give a public talk, "Global Warming and Coastal Ecosystems," on Thursday, April 3 at 7:30 p.m. in Boliou Hall 104 at Carleton College.

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