I'm beyond thrilled to share that my cyanotype diptych, "At the Edge of Remembering," was selected as the first place winner for the inaugural art exhibit at the Ryan Resilience Lab, which is part of the Elizabeth River Project. This newly built living laboratory will serve as a global model for urban coastal living that protects both the ecosystem and humans as sea levels rise. It's a space for art, education, and demonstration of sustainable living practices, and I'm honored and thrilled to have my work appear there. The theme for the exhibit is “All Water Has a Perfect Memory: The Poetics of Resilience and Return."
“You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”—Toni Morrison
The River Remembers Itself: My Approach to the Exhibit Theme
Cyanotypes are a printing process that involves placing objects or photo negatives directly on paper or fabric coated with light-sensitive chemicals. I created these cyanotypes on the banks of the Elizabeth River using a hand-drawn river map and in situ natural elements—leaves, feathers, sand, debris. After exposing, I immersed the prints in the river’s waters to develop them. Thus, the river can remember itself by being physically present in the fibers, textures, and shapes of these images. The sun, water, and natural materials manifest the river’s memory.
In this piece, I delve into themes of the ever-changing nature of water and the impermanence of the natural world. The composition harnesses the inherently unpredictable qualities of cyanotypes to mirror the fluidity of water and its pathways. I aspire to evoke a sense of reverence for the fragile equilibrium that sustains us all: plant, bird, human, world.
Behind the Scenes: The Making of Cyanotypes on the Banks of the Elizabeth River
It was a blistering hot day in June when I set out to a lovely little nook along the Elizabeth River Trail in Norfolk, Virginia. I brought with me several large pieces of fabric coated with cyanotype chemical, a map of the Elizabeth River I drew on a sheet of clear acrylic, and a patient and kind friend who assisted me.
Once the treated fabric makes contact with sunlight, it begins to transform, so it was a frenzied, fun process to create designs. I'd pull a sheet of treated fabric from its light-proof envelope, spread it out on the ground, and begin making designs with natural elements (sand, leaves, wrack, feathers, wood debris, and more), as well as human-made debris I found (plastic wrap, chip packages, a drink cup). (I collected and took away all the human trash on my way out.) I also used my hand-drawn map as a negative over some of the pieces, and I experimented with sprinkling the fabric with salt, vinegar, and spices like turmeric and paprika.
I exposed some pieces for only a few minutes, and others for hours, letting the tide creep up over them as time passed. Once I was done exposing, I rinsed the fabric in the water of the river. Water develops and fixes the images into their characteristic blue and white hues.
I let the pieces dry in the sun, and ended up with a beautiful collection of images that celebrate the river's impermanence.
About the Lab and the Elizabeth River Project
from The Elizabeth River Project:
"The Pru and Louis Ryan Resilience Lab is located on the Elizabeth River, a waterway that already has changed dramatically with human action and is changing once more as humans cause sea level rise. In the last century, the river was back-filled and redirected to two-thirds its historical width and twice its depth, so that the cities of today are built where the river once was.
Now, as glaciers melt and the water levels rise, the waters of the Elizabeth are remembering their way back to their ancestral beds and perhaps beyond. The Ryan Resilience Lab is intentionally situated in the path of the coming floodwaters and aims to inspire people to connect to and protect the returning river, rather than fight it. The living lab has been outfitted with eco-conscious green systems designed to address the causes of climate change, sea level rise, and flooding, as well as make it resilient to its effects.
When the floodwaters reach a critical point in 50-100 years, the Ryan Lab will be gracefully surrendered back to the remembering river, a process called planned retreat. In the meantime, the Ryan Resilience Lab hopes to model how to live in right relationship with the returning river. This inaugural exhibit aims to explore the poetics of the river’s return and the resilience of communities in its path. How can we work, play, and live with the rising water?
How can we welcome the river back to its remembered home?"
Come to the Exhibit Opening!
Please join us for the opening of the exhibit on November 17 starting at 6:00! You can tour the incredible space and see work from nine artists selected from all over the east coast. You can also hear a special preview of an original symphony piece composed by local artist Jerome Ellis in collaboration with Virginia Symphony Orchestra, a tribute to the Ryan Lab’s unique, ever-evolving wetland, designed to migrate with the rising tide.
The event is free and open to the public, but space is limited. Register now to attend!