Multimedia artist uses microbes as her muse for Women & Their Work exhibit
One year after humans go extinct, a billion birds will live because power lines have gone cold. A century later, elephants will re-conquer Africa and house cats will thrive outdoors.
So writes the author of "The World Without Us," a hypothetical experiment that wonders how an earth without humans would change, in the hours and millenia after we've gone.
Jasmyne Graybill is a San Antonio artist who makes art that could adorn the walls of just such a world.
"I was teaching and I had all these students who were sick with the swine flu," says Graybill, walking through her exhibit "Home Sweet Home." She was teaching at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville when elementary schools began shutting down and the nation feared a coming pandemic. "So I kind of got paranoid, about all these sick students who were touching doorknobs and desks and chairs," the petite artist continues. "I started thinking, what would all these viruses look like on all the surfaces that we touch?
"If we could see it, where would it be and what would it look like?" So she began making sculptures that visualized wildly colorful strains hanging on a stair railing and growing in giant petri dishes.
The first thing we see is a muffin pan overrun with a thriving pillow of yellow-orange mold.
Inside, the gallery is the dining room at the end of the world — milky white saucers, fine China, decorative spoons, glass pickle plates and bake pans, all gone slightly awry. Decorative hobnail glass bowls in psychedelic colors are spilling with well camouflaged lichen. A stack of floral teacups is teetering, as they brim with red polyps.
But it's all, unexpectedly, beautiful.
It takes hours and hours to meticulously imitate the delicate red loops of lichen or the sub-millimeter columns of mold. "Sometimes I feel like I'm doing surgery," she says. Much of the time is spent extracting or forming clay with the dental tools in Graybill's studio, which is conveniently located in her dining room.
"A lot of it is just kind of inventive," Graybill says. But these inventions come from her documenting lichens, molds and bacteria anywhere she can find them. "And of course, any science experiment that happens in the kitchen, and I think is particularly beautiful, I take pictures of.
"I try not to let that happen very often, but it does happen."
The "mold" has, in the past, caused some viewers to complain about "unsanitary conditions" or pass quickly by her work, especially a Houston installation with a room made to look like a flood line. "It was just charcoal," says Graybill, who is an asthmatic and actually allergic to mold.
Graybill — whose husband, Buster Graybill, is currently displaying his geometric deer feeders at Laguna Gloria — talks about the bipolar way we see nature: in its awesome beauty and its frightening or pestering encroachment on our lives. She wants to make a viewer desire the undesirable; to find beauty in the bacteria.
The mold and lichen is actually polymer clay, despite whatever fantasies and paranoia strike us from the images. And all the polymer clay, says Graybill, hangs on by suction alone. Most of the pieces are baked for 10 minutes, a period during which she desperately hopes her colors and shapes survive.
Despite humans sprawling their way into once-natural areas, "nature has this insidious way of infiltrating back into those spaces in small ways," Graybill says. She sees grass buckling sidewalks apart, trees growing through chain-link fences, and the unpredictability of her organic garden ("Go ahead squash vine borers, eat all my zucchini"), the persistence of oysters and barnacles.
"You only have a degree of control," she says, with a tone of acceptance many gardeners know well. Inevitably, nature fights its way back.
"Jasmyne Graybill: Home Sweet Home"