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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A GeoArt exhibit: interview with Greg Wessel

Geologic Art is a collective term for artistic phenomena in which geology brings its own aesthetic and conceptual baggage.
  Baucon (2009). Geology in Art

Geologic Art (GeoArt) cannot be regarded a style or a movement; nevertheless, it is a definite, peculiar field as it records the work of “geologic thinkers”. From the layers of Leonardo da Vinci to the fossils of Allan McCollum, “geologic thinkers” traversed centuries and continents to express the emotional charm of the Earth. Despite its importance and diffusion, GeoArt lacks of spaces in which geoartistic objects meet an audience.
In this scenario, there is an art show which is singularly significant in developing and collecting works of Geologic Art: “Geo sapiens, The Fusion of Geology and Art”. Geo sapiens is the first-ever show dedicated to Geologic Art and it is hosted by the Two Wall Gallery (Vashon, Washington, U.S.A.). The first edition of Geo sapiens featured the work of nearly 50 geoartists from across the world (US, Canada, the UK, France, Slovenia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan) and expressed geology in art through a plethora of media and styles.
The upcoming second edition (announced for September, 2010) led me to contact Greg Wessel (figure on the left), the curator of the exhibit, and ask him about Geo sapiens, a breakthrough in the universe of GeoArt.

1.    How was the Geo sapiens exhibition born? What was the catalyst?

I’ve been working as geologist since finishing my MS in 1977, and have done a little art of my own of various sorts (stained glass, printmaking) over the years.  Every so often, I’d stumble across another geologist who also did some kind of art, including music and dance.  For a long time, I’ve thought that there had to be many more geologists around who had a second creative outlet, perhaps because we tend to be creative people during our day jobs.  At the same time, I sensed a decline in the artistic part of being a professional geologist, such as the decline in geologic mapping (so basic to our profession) and more dependence upon computer models and computer assistance. 

A couple of years ago, I volunteered to co-curate a small gallery (Two Wall), which really is just a volunteer group dedicated to having fun and working with art, but not dedicated to making money.  Shortly after taking over, it occurred to me that there had to be enough other artistic geologists out there to make a good show, and to highlight both the creativity in the profession and our connection with the natural world.  The main problem would be finding them.

2.    What inspired you to pull together this exhibition? What were your goals?

I think I was inspired by my wife, Margaret, who loves to dance and who also loves to go rock collecting (she’s an igneous petrologist by training).  I presented the idea of a geo-art exhibit to her, and she challenged me to try it.  My goals were simple:  to connect with other geo-artists and create a venue where they could exhibit together, creating a group exhibit centered on geologic features and principles.

A virtual visit to Geo sapiens: the geoartists John Jackson and Elisabeth Hill. On the backround a colorful artwork by John Jackson (if you want to know more about him, see this past issue of Geology in Art)

3.    How would you describe the organization of the exhibit itself?

Geo sapiens was somewhat of a “dog’s breakfast” of geology-related art works.  We had oils and acrylics, water colors, etchings and linocut prints, pencil drawings, pen and ink drawings, fiber art, carved rock sculptures, a stained glass window, a lamp made out of thin slices of quartzite, photographs, digital manipulations, cartoons, and several works based on topographic maps.  We even had some poetry, handmade furniture, and mosaics made from rock slices that incorporated fossils and amazonite crystals.  The common thread was that all of the artists had some kind of background in the earth sciences and a great appreciation of geology and the natural world.  You could see it clearly in this collection. 

4.    How did you select the artists involved?

The original idea was to limit participants to those who were working earth scientists or had a degree in geology of some kind, but it quickly became clear that there are a lot of talented students out there and it made sense to be as inclusive as we could, so we advertised it as open to professionals and students, and then we defined “student” rather loosely.  Of the nearly 50 participants, better than three quarters were working scientists or engineers.  The rest were college students, part-time students, or retired.  Employment status was not important.

Space was a problem for us, and remains so for Geo sapiens II, so we limited the number of pieces each artist could show, and we were unable to include everyone.  That is probably my biggest disappointment, that we ran out of space and could not show everyone’s work.  I really didn’t have to choose between “good” and “bad” was ALL good!

Devonian Dash by Susan Judy. This sculpture tells a geologic story with geologic materials: a trilobite and its associated trace.

5.    Which were your sensations and suggestions working in-between Geology and Art?

I think this exhibit made it clear to all of the people who participated that they should be more artistic when doing geology and that they could rely more on geology to give them inspiration for their art.  You can put the two together at both ends.

6.    Can you walk us through some of the show's highlights?

I would refer you to our web site (, click on Archives) where you can see almost all of the works we exhibited.  My father (Ralph Wessel) photographed all of the works, and some of the artists, and my son (Nathaniel Wessel) created the web site. 

I love everything in the show, but I do have a few favorites.  One is the large painting of western Washington and the Cascades (from high up) by Dee Molennar.  Dee is a famous mountaineer who has climbed Mt. Rainier over 100 times and other mountains including Denali and K2.  He is now in his 90s and still really active.  When we went to get the painting for the show, he was up on his garage roof fixing it.  Always the climber, Dee.  Another favorite is a painting by Sylvie Pinard that stylistically represents river meanders.  I love that one.  And there are two incredible rock sculptures by Bill Laprade and a lamp made of thin slices of quartzite by Al Dahlstrand.  Susan Judy’s mosaics are also amazing.  And the two felted fabric sculptures by Linda Hope Ponting...oh my gosh...and the paintings by John Jackson from Australia (who actually came for the opening).  There are just so many great works that you have to check the web site.

Dee Molennar: geologist, mountaneer and artist.

7.    Which themes stood out most consistently?

There really was only one main theme, and that was a fascination and a love of the beauty and complexity of the natural world.  There was also one smaller theme, present in a few of the works, and that was of sadness and loss because of pollution and the destruction of the environment that we treasure.  In fact, those two themes embody the contradiction in geology that exists for me personally:  We love to work in the field studying and treasuring the landscape, but many of us wind up working for mining or petroleum companies who have a vested interest in damaging those things that we so treasure. 
Left: Elisabeth Hill, Volcanic Seed Pod
Right: Geoartists at Geo sapiens: Dianne Noseworthy.
8.    Could you add something about the quantity and diversity of artworks involved?

Quantity...our little gallery was packed.  And diversity...yes, lots of media represented, and lots of different representations of how much we, as geoscientists, are fascinated by and respectful of the Earth.

9.    What do you think is the commonality between the artists collected and what is the main differentiating quality?

The commonalities I think I have already described.  The differences...well, each of the geo-artists came from a slightly different background.  Be it a different home country or a different specialty.  You can see these differences in their works.  The art is both universal and personal.

10.    How can someone who's not a geologist understand Geo sapiens?

There were only a few pieces in our collection that needed a little background information, and we provided that.  It’s amazing to me how basic and understandable geologic ideas are to everyone, but schools these days teach basic geology at several grade levels and lots of people vacation at places like the Grand Canyon and Mt. Rainier, where you can’t help but learn geology.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, most people have a basic knowledge of volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis, and have experienced at least one of the three.  Still, art is supposed to make you think, isn’t it?

Geo sapiens featured several sculptures, such as this inspired view of plate tectonics (Subduction by William Laprade). 

11.    Geo sapiens was exhibited at the Two Wall Gallery, which hosted other shows of Geologic Art (i.e. Excuse My English: Layering on the Light Side by Stephanie Lasalle).  How would you describe the role of the Two Wall Gallery within the geoartistic world?

I wish I could say we occupy some kind of prominent position, but there are a lot of folks who would argue that we’re just a small gallery with a geologist for a curator.  And I’d be one of the people saying that.  Anyone else can do this; you just need a good venue and a lot of advertising.  In fact, I’m convinced that geo-art shows could be held all over, even simultaneously, without running out of interest.  There are enough artistic geologists, for example, to easily fill two or three regular shows in the US and Canada, probably at least two in Europe, and others elsewhere.  Some of our Geo sapiens exhibitors have offered to help host satellite shows, but none of those have come together yet.  I’d love to help put together a show in Europe, for instance, and we have an Australian who wants to do one down there.  You just need to find a gallery space, and off you go!

Left: Méandres bruns by Sylvie Pinar.
Right: Trilobite Coquina by Ancil Meacham.

12.    What does Geo sapiens tell us about Geology that many people might be surprised of?

I think it tells us that geologists as a whole can make connections and understand realities that many people cannot see in their day-to-day existence.  We’re good at seeing the big picture, and part of the reason we’ve studied the natural world is because we so love being in it.  Putting those two characteristics together can make for some impressive art.

13.    Geo sapiens II has been announced for September, 2010. What are the biggest challenges facing it?

Organization and marketing.  As with Geo sapiens I, the trick is to get the word out to geologists that we’re doing this.  Geologists typically don’t see calls for artists, and most artists are not geologists, so the problem is figuring out ways to connect with those geologists who ARE artists.

Stephanie Lasalle is an abstract painter who is inspired by the patterns and microstructures of rocks and minerals as viewed through the microscope. Geo sapiens exhibited her vivid Who Said Gabbros Didn’t Have Heart.

14.    Is there a possibility of the exhibition touring?

The most likely way to start going on tour would be to coordinate an exhibit with a professional society annual meeting, such as in my case the Geological Society of America or the Geological Society of Canada.  Some of the societies already do similar things.  The GSA, for example, typically has a photography exhibit (which always has amazing entries) but they don’t curate collections of other media or fine art.  What I find really interesting is that the National Speleological Society has several art salons that they organize along with their annual meetings.  One is just about designs for insignias and patches.  Apparently, cavers are really interested in art!  It’s funny that I used to be a caver myself. 

But the real problem with going on tour is the shipping expense.  I had originally hoped that we could go on tour, but I quickly learned that although there are plenty of people around the country who would love to see an exhibit like ours, getting the money together to take the show on the road was not going to be easy.  We still haven’t figured that out.  If we could find a source of funding and hook up with a good museum (Los Angeles, Denver, New York, Smithsonian, are you listening?) or several good galleries, then we’d have it made.

15.    Is there an audience for Geologic Art?

I can answer that with two words:  YOU BET!  Everyone loves it.  There is absolutely no doubt about that.

Geosapiens: everyone loves GeoArt!

NOTE: All the pictures of this issue come from I suggest you to visit the website, there you will find a comprehensive gallery of Geo sapiens!

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