Down to a Science: #5WomenArtists Spark #5WomenScientists

For Women’s History Month, NMWA posed the question, “Can you name five women artists?” While social media users shared stories of women artists with #5WomenArtists, other science museums and cultural institutions expanded the challenge by posting content about #5WomenScientists.

Maria Merian, Plate 9 (from "Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/4 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Maria Merian, Plate 9 (from “Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam,” second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/4 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Art and science are two fields which seamlessly overlap. Both encourage close observation, experimentation, and innovation. Women are often overlooked and underrepresented in both fields. NMWA features a collection of works by women artist-scientists.

Because of their purported keen powers of observation, women artists historically were encouraged to render the natural world. After studying dried specimens of plants and animals that were popular with European collectors, botanical illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) decided to study them in their natural habitats. At the age of 52, Merian and her younger daughter embarked on a dangerous trip, without a male chaperone, to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America. She spent two years studying indigenous flora and fauna. Her book, the lavishly illustrated Insects of Surinam, was published in 1705 and established Merian’s international reputation.

As tools for observation became more advanced, photography emerged as a new medium to explore, record, and interpret nature. Molecular biologist-turned-photographer Amy Lamb (b. 1944) continues the tradition of women artist-scientists by producing large-scale “portraits” of plants. For Lamb, observation is a vital part of her creative process. She grows most of the plants that she photographs, which allows her to become intimately familiar with their life cycles. Studying plant maturation repeatedly helps her anticipate when to have the camera ready.

Amy Lamb, “Magnolia,” 1998, Iris print, 13 1/4 in x 20 1/8 in; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, Maryland, in honor of the artist, ©1998 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

Amy Lamb, Magnolia, 1998, Iris print, 13 1/4 in x 20 1/8 in; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, Maryland, in honor of the artist, ©1998 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

The influence of science is a common thread in NMWA’s collection. Floral still-life paintings by Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750), cliché-verre prints by Maggie Foskett (1919–2014), and etchings by Monika E. de Vries Gohlke (b. 1940) engage with science and nature. Angela Strassheim (b. 1969), trained in forensic photography, lends a scientific eye to her oeuvre, while Michal Rovner (b. 1957) simulates the feeling of a laboratory through a video work involving petri dishes.

Continue exploring the stories of women artist-scientists. Browse a selection of #5WomenScientists posts from institutions ranging from the Field Museum, to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the Franklin Institute, and the Science Museum, London.

—Madeline Barnes is the winter/spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Interview with Maggie Foskett

Maggie Foskett (American, b.1919) would not have you call her a “nature artist;” nor is she a romantic about humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Rather, she is an artist who creates images that suggest, as she says, “How delicate our balance with mortality is.” As a lover of the darkroom myself (how I miss making my own prints!), I am fascinated by her work and leapt at the suggestion of an interview.

Ms. Foskett was born and grew up in Brazil. Vacations were horseback rides through the country and great care had to be taken that “you didn’t step on the wrong things.” This was the root of her keen observations of the cast-off bits of nature, its debris and refuse. She walks through the woods and picks up small, organic objects that simply aren’t meant to last and brings them back to her darkroom.

Once she has the materials for a particular composition together, she layers them between glass plates to create her own negative – no need for cameras or film. The technique is a variation of cliché verre, which traditionally uses drawings made on glass projected onto photographic paper, usually a gum bichromate print. “Cliché verre is not a photograph,” she says. “I can usually get three prints from each composition before the materials fall apart.” She places the “negative” in a photographic enlarger to project it onto light-sensitive paper to create the prints. It is vital that light be allowed to pass through the materials.

Maggie Foskett, Rain Forest, 1996. Cliché-verre. Gift of the artist.

Maggie Foskett, Rain Forest, 1996. Cliché verre. Gift of the artist.

One might think that this would put some serious limitations on the materials suitable for creating the images, but Ms. Foskett has no lack of ideas. Leaves, snake skin, even onion slices are fair game. “I made an entire series with onions, but I have no sense of smell… the darkroom with all the onions and chemistry was very interesting at that time!” One of her favorite materials is the x-ray image; she collects x-rays and even uses her own. “Animals have always fascinated humans. When the x-ray came along, it gave people the opportunity to see inside animals like they never had before. I love bones because they tell a story – in a way they’re almost eternal.”

Science is a great inspiration for Ms. Foskett. Advancements in technology such as DNA sequencing and space exploration all lend to her view of modern science as being turned inward in a reflection of human existence. She sees the natural world not in the context of being conventionally “beautiful,” but as an “arena of survival” in which mortality and the relationship of pattern echo one another.

Ms. Foskett has been working in the darkroom for many years; she has worked alongside many artists, not just photographers, in Maine where she spends her summers. When I was looking through her resume I noted that she had worked with Ansel Adams, so I couldn’t resist asking about that experience. “They always start with him!” she said. “He was a wonderful teacher, and a very kind man. Students would come up and ask him, “What camera should I use?” He would look at them very directly, and then point to his eye and forehead, saying: “The camera is up here.”

I asked Maggie what her advice to young aspiring artists would be. She thought for a minute and said: “Use your hands – anything tactile. Touch, volume, and texture are very important. Mix anything, use any materials. And make sure you pick darkroom materials they won’t discontinue!”

Six of Maggie’s cliché verre images will be on view in Telling Secrets: Codes, Captions and Conundrums in Contemporary Art – a perfect fit, as she has always been “attracted to the ambiguity of nature.” I would like to thank her again for the wonderful conversation and generous advice.

About the Author: Carolanne Bonanno is NMWA’s communications and publishing intern with a soft spot for the darkroom.