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Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Wax Kaleidoscope for the Carboniferous

More than 300 million of years ago, during the Carboniferous period, humongous insects and gigantic amphibians populated vast, swampy forests. These inextricable habitats originated vast deposits of coal – from which the name Carboniferous – and, in much more recent times, they inspired the creativity of artists.
Among the artworks inspired by this geologic period, the wax habitats of Kenneth Parsons are some of the most awe-inspiring creations. Abstract but representational at the same time, these environments take the visitor into the intricate atmospheres of the Carboniferous period. Wax is the vehicle of chronological exploration and kaleidoscopic patterns are its language. In fact, the artist created a geologic narrative entirely sculpted in wax, and experimented with illumination to obtain a totally immersive experience.
More in detail, there are two Carboniferous forests - one is a wall in 'The Wax Room' which was exhibited at the Edinburgh Festival and Wolverhampton Art Gallery and one is a geodesic dome which was specially commissioned and exhibited, as part of a tour called 'Forest' at York, Nottingham and Newtown Art Galleries. The exhibition spaces were covered by thin sheets of wax, permeable to light, designed in 30 years of work.

I interviewed Ken Parsons about his peculiar and inspiring form of art.

At what age did you become an artist, and how did you know?
Made and painted a large box when I was 15 but I suppose it all started when I was about 8. My mother had to work so left me alone when I was off school with asthma. We had some very old lead toy cars. I would light a fire in the grate put the cars on a shovel and watch them melt into a beautiful silver puddle – then I would pour the molten lead into a glass of cold water and hey presto – lots of lovely shiny abstract shapes.

Wax sculpture is a very peculiar form of art. What career path did you take to get to where you are now?
Studied for a degree in Geography at Exeter University, dropped out and taught myself.

What inspired you to create the Wax Room? What were your goals?
Love stained glass windows – a room made of stained glass/wax seemed like something I would really love to see…

Why have you chosen a Carboniferous Forest?
Mandala type designs can easily be interpreted as trees and the wax comes from the Carboniferous era so hey!

Particular of the Carboniferous Forest.

Please give us some insight on your journey in making this artistic project.
Long hours (3000) tricky problems to solve, 2 good fellow workers, scraping up money to pay for it.

Carboniferous forests are not the only geologic element inside the Wax Room. What is the role of volcanoes and lava in your artwork?
They are part of the narrative from the big bang to the formation of the earth.

Sculpture, sound, vision... Please explain the narrative of the Wax Room.
3 narratives – one a philosophic concept of splitting and bringing together, another a geography lesson for kids and another about the creation of the Wax Room

The Wax Room. Picture from its official website.

Wax and Carboniferous Forests are the axis of your “Wax Room” and “Wax Dome”. What is the (emotional) role of these elements in your artistic creativity?
Very forgiving and plastic material, love gardening and nature.

The Wax Dome: What media, what artistic metaphors have you used?
Time in a day and stretching through countless days.

What is the concept behind the Wax Dome?
Rebirth of the dead material in wax to glow again with the light of the sun that created it.

A review of the Wax Dome, from the official website.

The Wax Dome as an experience: is it a progression or a static experience?
Progression through a day in the Carboniferous era using different lighting.

Do you think your work reflects a specific fractal look?
Mandalas are a favourite Jungian motif and his concept of the collective unconscious is reflected in the connectivity in fractal patterns in say leaves and deltas, ammonite shells and galaxies.

How important do you think it is for artists to know about geology?
Just as important as any knowledge

What projects are you working on now, and what do you have in line for the future?
Lampshades and trying to find homes for the Wax Room and the Wax Dome.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dinosaurs invade the Visconti Castle

The cover of  'The First Fossil Hunters' by Adrienne Mayor.
"The First Fossil Hunters" (Mayor, 2001) is one of the best books to explore the wonders of ancient palaeontology. The first edition of this rich historical portrayal starts with a gorgeous cover: the Corinthian vase painting commonly known as the “Monster of Troy”. This fine work of art – dating back to the sixth century B.C. – depicts Hesione and Heracles, fighting against the legendary monster that appeared nearby Troy. A question might arise: “What is the link between Heracles and palaeontology?”
Intriguingly, the artist depicted the monster with atypical features: the monster protrudes from a rocky cliff, it has a hollow eye socket with a ring of bony plates, it presents a clear jaw articulation and it is rendered with a pale pigmentation. In other words, the “Monster of Troy” was inspired by a fossil skull protruding from an outcrop, as confirmed by the rich fossil fauna of the Mediterranean coast (Mayor, 2001).
Fossils have fascinated artists not only in classical times. Many Renaissance naturalists depicted fossils and their pioneering work is the base of Earth sciences as conceived today. Despite these notable examples, it was only in the 19th century that the reconstruction of extinct animals entered its modern era. At that time one of the masters of paleontological illustration was Édouard Riou (1833-1900), well-known for his direct collaboration with Jules Verne. Riou, a former pupil of the famous engraver Gustave Doré, illustrated both fictional and scientific works (Rudwick, 1995). His style has been called “realistic Romanticism” (Marcucci, 1956), and we cannot but agree when admiring the illustrations in Flammarion’s Le Monde Avant la Création de l’Homme and Figiuer’s La Terre Avant le Déluge. In that same period other excellent artists were producing palaeontological illustrations, among which James Beard, Mary Mitchell and Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.
Iguanodon and many others sculptures by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins are still preserved at Sydenham Hill (South London). Photo by Wikimedia Commons.
Hawkins’s name is intimately linked with the Crystal Palace, the building originally erected in Hyde Park (London) to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. After the Exhibition the building was moved to Sydenham, and it was suggested to decorate the Crystal Palace park with reconstructions of dinosaurs.
This episode marks one of the most successful, ephemeral and famous marriages between geology and art. The well-known palaeontologist Owen was the project’s scientific coordinator; Waterhouse Hawkins was chosen as the sculptor. At the end of 1853, Hawkins, who had already completed several dinosaurs, had a bizarre idea: he organized a gala dinner inside a dinosaur. A sculpted Iguanodon was prepared for the event; the back of the reptile hosted a dining room, with a large table, chairs and chandeliers. The crème of British geology was invited to the dinner, which was a great success. According to contemporary newspapers, in 1854 Crystal Park was visited by Queen Victoria, who greatly appreciated the dinosaurs (for more on the dinosaurs of Crystal Palace see the excellent Ruggieri, 1975).

The famous gala dinner inside a sculpted Iguanodon: paleoart in the 1850s.

Recently, a modern equivalent of the Crystal Palace was hosted by the Visconti Castle (Pavia, Italy), an awe-inspiring fortified structure built by Galeazzo II Visconti in 1360. In fact, the travelling exhibition Dinosauri in Carne ed Ossa ("Dinosaurs in the Flesh") colonized the park and the arcades of the ancient building. The exhibit emerged from the collaboration between palaeontologists (Simone Maganuco, Stefania Nosotti), artists (under the umbrella of GeoModel) and an active palaeontological association (APPI, represented by the palaeontologist Alessandro Carpana).
I must admit that I already visited a previous installation of the show, located at the Urban Center of Piacenza. I was really impressed by the quality of the Piacenza exhibit, therefore I went to Pavia to document this amazing cross-pollination between art and science. Between a photographic report and a personal diary, here are my impressions of the exhibit.

Some of the highlights of 'Dinosauri in Carne ed Ossa'
“Dinosauri in Carne ed Ossa” was centered around several life-size models of prehistoric animals, covering a time span from Palaeozoic to Quaternary. Scientific panels explained the scientific background behind the sculptures, excelling for their aesthetic appearance. Indeed the prehistoric creatures appeared very dynamic and vividly coloured, with very detailed textures.
What would Hawkins say if he had seen this haptic interface?
Alessandro Carpana explained me the innovative techniques used to sculpt the models.
In fact, several reconstitutions were realized with the Clay Tools system. This system includes an haptic device, that is a a true 3D joystick with force feedback. This technology enables artists to use their sense of touch to create virtual clay models. In other words, digital sculpting at its best. In other cases, traditional maquettes (scale models) were digitalized by 3D laser scanner.
Both techniques resulted in a digital 3D model, succesively sculpted at 1:1 scale by rapid prototypying equipment. Then, artists applied labor limae: textures, fine details and colors.
Nevertheless, these artistic and technical aspects would be mere appearance without an accurate scientific approach. As concerns this aspect, the models are very accurate. It is not a case that Jack Horner – one of the leading vertebrate palaeontologists of our times – officially supported the exhibit and presented several events linked to it.
It is worth to note that the exhibit gave a great allocation of space to paleoart. Infact “Dinosauri in Carne ed Ossa” presented several panels with the work of leading Italian paleoartists, from Davide Belladonna to Fabio Pastori, from Troco to Prehistoric Minds, a team devoted to palaeontological illustration.


Paleoart played a significant role in the exhibit: from techniques to materials, from themes to artists.

Many events accompanied 'Dinosauri in Carne ed Ossa'. Among others, palaeoartists Troco and Lukas Panzarin discussed about palaeontological illustration, and the palaeontologists Andrea Cau and Alessandro Carpana dealt with the cultural heritage of Jurassic Park,

Paleoartists Troco and Lukas Panzarin held an interesting conference about palaeontological illustration.
This exhibit is surely a must-see for the art and palaeontology enthusiasts. However, after Piacenza, Cormayeur and Pavia, where will be the next installation? I will conclude this issue with a scoop: rumours say that “Dinosauri in Carne ed Ossa” will be held very soon in Florence, the city which saw the activity of Leonardo da Vinci - artist, naturalist and pioneer of palaeontology!

When dinosaurs ruled the Visconti Castle of Pavia... See you soon in Florence!

...well, not only dinosaurs!



Marcucci, E.,1956. Les Illustrations des Voyages Extraordinaires de Jules Verne. Bordeaux: Ed. Société Jules Verne, pp. 18–19.

Mayor, A. 2001. The first fossil hunters - paleontology in Greek and Roman times. Princeton Press, 361 pp.

Rudwick, M.J.S. 1995. Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World. University Of Chicago Press, 294 pp.

Ruggieri, G. 1975. La scoperta dei fossili – il romanzo della paleontologia. Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 122 pp.

Monday, November 7, 2011


By the end of 1990, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee had developed the first web server, web browser and web pages. Nowadays, after more than 20 years of World Wide Web, hyperlinks are so pervasive to be invisible to the eyes. We are used to directly follow a reference to a document as a way to access information.

However, today I felt the power of (hyper)links.
Climate researcher Brandon Murphy was part of the Coldigioco scene, a uniquely vivid scientific and geoartistic environment; for this reason he found this blog, since I had published a post about this geoartistic school. Then he came across an article about Luke Jerram, an artist who produces sculptures of 3D renderings of seismographs, and signaled it to me.

That’s a linked information sharing!

Seismogram of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and its sculptural expression by Luke Jerram.
One of the most impressive sulptures by Jerram was made to contemplate the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. According to the artist’s webpage:
“To create the sculpture a seismogram of the earthquake, was rotated using computer aided design and then printed in 3 dimensions using rapid prototyping technology.”

This technique could be defined the tactile counterpart of geologic sonification, mastered by Alessandro Montanari, one of the main figures of the Coldigioco environment. Again, links.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

From musical to technological fossils

Fossils are not only palaeontological objects, but evocative cultural symbols.
For instance, the French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns wrote The Carnival of the Animals, a musical suite of fourteen movements, among which ‘fossils’. The sharp, vibrant sound of the xylophone represent magnificently the idea of fossil bones, analogously to Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre. Indeed the composer had a parodical intent, and alluded to many popular themes of his own times: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Au clair de la lune, J'ai du bon tabac, Partant pour la Syrie, as well as Rossini's Una voce poco fa. As Hazel Gertrude Kinscella wrote in her Music and Romance, “Saint-Saëns took the opportunity to ridicule certain too-well known (as he asserted) melodies both of his own and other’s writings”. Melodies as musical fossils.

The 'musical fossils' of Camille Saint-Saëns.

In more recent times, a contemporary artist embraced the same concept. In fact, Christopher Locke 'fossilized' some technological artifacts of our recent times, including a cassette tape, a walkman and a Nintendo controller. The artist used binomial nomenclature to refer to his own creations (i.e. the walkman is named Ambulephebus sonysymphonia). 

Asportatio acroamatis, a modern fossil by Christopher Locke.

Modern fossils: Locke's
Repondicium antiquipotacium, or the 3.5'' floppy disk.
 With the words of Locke himself: “These are modern fossils. They are made from actual archaic technology that was once cutting-edge.”
“Most people attribute the shortened lifespan to aggressive predators or accelerated evolution, but this is not necessarily true. It has been shown recently that the true demise of most of these specimens came from runaway consumerism and wastefulness at the high end of the food chain”.
Modern fossils are a paleobiological metaphor realized with a very special process. According to the website of Christopher Locke, "these items are reproduced in a proprietary blend of concrete and other secret ingredients, giving them the look and feel of real stone fossils".

The rotary dial telephone, or, according to Locke's nomenclature, Deferovoculae circumdactylos.

Hilarofustis atarium: the Atari joystick, fossilized by Christopher Locke.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Mineralogical Record Museum of Art

What happens to us
Is irrelevant to the world’s geology
But what happens to the world’s geology
Is not irrelevant to us.
We must reconcile ourselves to the stones,
Not the stones to us.
- Hugh MacDiarmid

Hugh MacDiarmid, one of the leading poets of the Scottish Renaissance, had an intellectual fascination for geology. Born in the burgh of Langholm in 1892, MacDiarmid often celebrated the aesthetical and conceptual beauty of geological objects. This aspect fiercely emerged in his volume Stony Limits (1934), where he described dense geological landscapes:
All is lithogenesis—or lochia,
Carpolite fruit of the forbidden tree,
Stones blacker than any in the Caaba,
Cream-coloured caen-stone, chatoyant pieces,   
Celadon and corbeau, bistre and beige,   
Glaucous, hoar, enfouldered, cyathiform,

- Hugh MacDiarmid, On a Raised Beach (to James H. Whyte) 

Shetland Islands. Photo by Dave Wheeler.
Probably MacDiarmid’s ‘metaphorical geology’ derived from his long travel to Shetland Islands. As Lyall (2006) says: “The poem [On a Raised Beach] drew genuine sustenance from the 1933 geological survey of Shetland conducted by GV Wilson, whose five-strong team included Thomas Robertson, with whom MacDiarmid became friends”.
Despite his poetic uniqueness, MacDiarmid is not the only poet fascinated by geology. From Wolfgang Goethe to May Kendall, literature had been populated by geologic imagery since remote times. Still nowadays, poetry finds successful application in mineralogical teaching: “A high school earth science teacher and a college education professor team-taught a lesson to ninth graders on using poetry to learn about minerals” (Rule et al., 2004).
Visual arts particularly register the aesthetic recognition of minerals, prized objects of beauty. This aesthetic fascination is wonderfully represented by the Mineralogical Record Museum of Art, a remarkable example of the relationship between mineralogy and art. I interviewed Wendell Wilson, editor-in-chief of the Mineralogical Record and curator of the museum.

1.  Tell us about your professional and scientific background.
I carried a double major of Art and Geology for my undergraduate (B.S.) degree at the University of Minnesota. I had always been an artist while growing up, and had been a mineral collector since age 10, so I loved both fields. I finally decided that it would be easier to earn a regular income as a geologist than as an artist, so I went on the get my PhD in Mineralogy. When the offer to take over editorship of the Mineralogical Record magazine came in 1976, I jumped at it because a good science magazine is both an artwork and a scientific document; so I’ve been able to follow both of my passions. In my spare time I do mineral and mining-related artwork, primarily to please myself, and it sells very well, but I don’t have to do it to put food on the table. The artist Peter Max called that “creating from purity.”

2.  How was the Mineralogical Record Art Museum born? What was the catalyst?
The Mineralogical Record Art Museum is entirely virtual. When we expanded our website about 10 years ago I wanted to add various kinds of free content, so I had our webmaster design the Art Museum section. It is wonderful to be able to add unlimited content at no cost. Of course, I have daydreams about a real, physical museum like the one facetiously pictured on the Art Museum home page – but that’s actually a picture of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Susan Robinson, geologist and artist, painted the mysterious beauty of a copper mine (Robinson, In the Copper Queen Mine; from the Mineralogical Record Museum of Art).

3.  How is the museum organized on an architectural and logistical level?
The Art Museum has two departments: Mineral Art and Mining Art. Both are of interest to mineral collectors (our main constituency at the Mineralogical Record), especially field collectors who have the experience of collecting in mines and underground workings. The mineral art (the primary focus of the Art Museum) consists almost entirely of portraits of individual specimens. The mining art consists of various mining scenes. Each department has a drop-down menu allowing you to select a particular artist. That takes you to the artist’s first page, containing a brief biography of the artist, and the first eight of his artworks. By clicking to successive pages you can seen more of his artworks, eight at a time. In the case of my own section, a total of 111 of my own artworks are pictured. If you click on the small thumbnail version of an artwork you can see a larger image.

The Mineralogical Record Museum of Art provides extensive resources about mining art. The image shows a fired-clay tablet (ca. 575 B.C.) depicting miners at work. The tablet was excavated at Penteskuphia (near Corinth, Greece),

Der Mineraloge [the Mineralogist] by Raphael Ritz.
 4.  How many people make up your staff? 
Just myself and our webmaster, at least as far as the Art Museum is concerned. The magazine has a larger staff.

5.  How did you select the artists involved?
The standard is that artworks depicted must be of sufficiently high quality that they could hang in a real museum of fine art and not look amateurish or out of place. Although I certainly encourage the work of beginning and intermediate artists, the Art Museum is only for artists who have achieved a professional level of skill.

6.  What do you think is the commonality between the artists represented and what is the main differentiating quality?
All of the (mineral) artists have a personal passion for minerals, and this is what seems to drive their creative process. Art is all about selecting, emphasizing and showing the rest of the world the particular kind of beauty that appeals to the artist. Mineral artists come in two types: scientific illustrators and fine artists – the second type being rarer. Scientific illustrators strive for a kind of photographic accuracy, sometimes insisting on a reproduction scale of 1:1, but one in which the important physical aspects of the subject are subtly made easiest to see and understand. Fine artists take it to another level, using mineral specimens to create fine-art compositions and effects; sometimes the minerals they depict are actually fictitious specimens.

15th century painting, showing a miner. From the Mineralogical Record Museum of Art.
7.  Can you walk us through some of the museum's highlights?
Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) produced the first series of engraved illustrations of mineral specimens in a book published in the last year of his life. We have that book, in pristine condition, in the Mineralogical Record Library, and it is a thrill to page through it looking at the oldest surviving mineral illustrations. For me, one of the highlights of the Art Museum is the work of Leroy de Barde (1777-1828). He painted a highly detailed representation of an 18th-century mineral cabinet. The painting is accurate enough for scientific illustration but transcends that genre to become first-rate fine art. More recently, Claus Caspari (1911-1980) published a fine series of color mineral specimen portraits that really brought more public recognition of mineral art. Among the living artists, Eberhard Equit and Hildegard Könighofer rank among the best; both are hard-core scientific illustrators of tremendous skill.

Leroy de Barde, Minerals in Crystallization. From the Mineralogical Record Museum of Art.

8.  What is one of your favorite pieces in the museum and why?
That’s a tough question, because I love so many of them. And it is somtimes hard to separate one’s appreciation of the art from one’s attraction to the specimen itself. But one of my favorites is Eberhard Equit’s painting of a cluster of brilliant blue sapphire crystals. I  like the depiction of the gemminess -- and the specimen itself is exactly the kind of thing I like to collect.

Ebherard Equit's sapphire.
9.  Let us consider the path between the oldest and the most recent painting in the Mineralogical Record Art Museum. How would you say that mineralogical art has evolved over time?
Mineral art has not really evolved much, if at all, since the 16th century. The goals have always been the same, and it was just a matter of the medium chosen by the artist (engraving, watercolor, oil, etc.) in combination with the artist’s skill and the selection of subjects available to depict. Mineral enthuiasts 400 years ago loved minerals for most of the same reasons we do today.

10.  According to your experience with the Mineralogical Record Art Museum, is there an audience for Geologic Art?
Well, there is certainly a market for it, primarily among well-funded mineral collectors. The best artists working today get plenty of commissions, and their work sells for good money, in the thousands of dollars per painting. One painting by a living mineral artist recently changed hands between a couple of collectors for $35,000, so there is a genuine appreciation of mineral art as real fine art.

11.  Where to next for you? How do you think the Mineralogical Record Art Museum will evolve in the future?
I don’t expect that it will change much. We’ll continue to add new artists who are good enough, but they don’t come along too often. The Art Museum’s primary benefit is that it provides a focus for the widespread community of mineral artists, and a place where interested viewers can get a sense of perspective on the history and breadth of the subject. We’re satified with that accomplishment, as formerly there was no place, no book, no website, where a person could go to learn about mineral art in detail.

Wendell Wilson himself is a skilled mineralogical artist. From the Mineralogical Record Museum of Art.

12.  Why are minerals beautiful?
The question of what constitutes beauty has tantalized philosophers for a long time. There is really no explaining it, because it is such a deeply human thing. I think some minerals showing fresh, clean colors and rich transparency tap into an ancient mental program for seeking out fresh fruit to eat, but then how do you explain the beauty of black minerals? The appreciation probably comes from many directions. Mineral crystals have an architectural quality based on their crystal structure at the atomic level, and it is wonderful to see all the ways that structure can manifest itself in shape and appearance. To those of us who love minerals and are fascinated by them, and have been since the first time we saw one, it seems to be an appreciation that we were born with.

Lyall, S. (2006). Hugh MacDiarmid's poetry and politics of place: imagining a Scottish republic. Edinburgh University Press p. 200

Rule A.C., Carnicelli, L.A., Kane S.S. (2004). Using Poetry to Teach about Minerals in Earth Science Class. Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 52, n. 1, January, p. 10-14