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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 Kรถnighofer 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

Monday, October 3, 2011

Art or Science? Geology!

Arte o Scienza ('Art or Science') is a photographic contest supported by the University of Trieste. It aims to build awareness of scientific culture and promotes the relationship between Art and Science.
Building on the success of the previous editions, the 2011 competition featured numerous entries and diverse themes. Geology had a pervasive role: 2 artworks by Bernardo Cesare were exhibited at giant size in Trieste (Italy)! 

A petrographic photograph of Bernardo Cesare, exhibited at large size in the roads of Trieste. For a more detailed analysis of Cesare's creative process, check out his interview.
A granulite in all its magnificence!
Besides the gigantic petrographic photographs, other geologic photographs were selected and exhibited at the Art Hall of Trieste (Sala Comunale d'Arte).

I tried my luck with this close-up: it's tectonic art!
Waiting for the 2012 edition, it is possible to see the scientific photographs at Scienzartambiente (Pordenone, Italy, 12-16 October 2011).