Arts, Science & Culture Profile: April Martin & Nicole James

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What is the role of disorder in the formation of material structures? A perfect crystal is perfectly ordered, but in reality crystals have defects that introduce elements of disorder into the system. Crystals also typically precipitate in fluid media that are the epitome of molecular chaos: orderly material structures arising from haphazard interactions. As one of six teams this year to have received a 2015–16 Arts, Science & Culture Graduate Collaboration Grant, these are a few questions April Martin (MFA candidate, Sculpture, SAIC) and Nicole James (PhD candidate, Chemistry, UChicago) are asking themselves as they collaboratively investigate how materials – ceramics, salts, metals, glass – order and disorder themselves over time. 

Their working process has been a slow series of conversations, punctuated by energetic sessions together in the lab or in the studio – activities archived on their collaborative tumblr Xtallography. We had a chance to catch up with April and Nicole this Winter Quarter to ask them some questions about their process and to observe the beautiful, slow-growing forms they've been producing over their months of experimentation and exchange.

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Can you tell us a bit about your respective backgrounds and your current research?

Nicole: I'm a chemist working in a physics lab at the University of Chicago; my research background has taken me through glass science, environmental chemistry, nanomaterials, and now to surface chemistry and soft matter physics. My current research examines how suspensions of particles in a fluid can form a material that's a liquid at rest, but can be transformed into a solid by shearing or impacting. My question is: how does the chemistry of the individual particles affect this process? Can we tweak that chemistry to design certain desired responses? 

April: I studied studio art and humanities in Montreal before moving to Chicago in 2014. I am originally from Manitoulin Island in Northern Ontario, and grew up surrounded by nature. The Sculpture program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) was attractive for me as the Department’s philosophy resonates with my interdisciplinary approach to materials and ideas. Much of my excitement and inspiration for work comes from observing the colorful, dirty beauty that surrounds us. Right now I am obsessed with the purple salt covering Chicago’s sidewalks!

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What seeded your interest in crystalline forms? Did your desire to work with crystals emerge from your conversations together, or were you independently researching crystals before you met?

April:  I had been working with salt for some time, having built a salt fountain from commercial salt lick cubes and an aquarium pump. Mixed with the ingredient of time, salt emerges from water in different crystalline formations depending on saline concentration, exposed surface area, and the shape of the container that the evaporation occurs within. Nicole’s descriptions of the inherently ordered nature of crystal structures transformed my understanding of the material. On a molecular scale I could see that it was matter building itself according to its own ordered logic.

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Nicole: I've always thought crystals are beautiful, both from a macroscopic and a microscopic perspective. When April and I first met she was working with salts, and processes where they dissolve and recrystallize. On seeing her work the idea of order and disorder stuck out to me. Crystals are inherently ordered, but there's this important interplay with the solid crystal and the dissolved, randomized components. Crystals are kind of the opposite of what I was researching before we met – glasses and particle suspensions, which are governed by randomness and disorder – making this [April’s work] a fascinating foil to my previous experience. 

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You two have been investigating numerous types of material interactions over the past year, looking at slow processes of growth and accumulation. Can you talk a little bit about the role time plays in your collaboration? What happens during your time together in the lab and is that different than your time together in the studio?

Nicole: I think time is the crux of our work in many ways. As crystals grow, the substituent parts have to widely explore space to find their perfect spot in the material. This takes a lot of time. I feel our time in the lab is very directed – if we come into the lab, we usually have a pre-determined goal, and a clear idea of what we're going to accomplish in that time. In the studio we spend more time examining and reflecting on parts of our project; it gives us an opportunity to assess where we are, and what direction we want to go – it tends to be more contemplative, where we explore space in our way.  

April: Time is really interesting in terms of the time Nicole and I actually spend together. Those moments seem so fast, like we have to cram everything into our visits. I spend a great deal of time thinking and linking, constantly questioning and coming with new questions about color and order. I find it a pleasure to give time to a process. Multitasking in the studio leads to fruitful and inventive unforeseen pathways emerging especially when different processes exist simultaneously in a shared space at different stages of life. It really makes one question the unfolding of the object, is it a sculpture now? Or now? Or always?

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Nicole: We've looked at crystals that form or decay instantaneously, and others that take weeks or months. These same, or similar, processes also play important roles all around us over geologic time-scales. Time is a fascinating component of this work to me because it's the thing we have no control over, which, as a scientist, is an unusual thing to focus on. We are all hurtling through time at the same rate: we can't speed it up and we can't slow it down. It's intrigues to me to examine the parts of this project we can control, and the things completely out of our control – notably time.  

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I’ve been interested in observing the fragility of the sculptural experiments you’ve been producing: any disturbance or movement can potentially destroy the delicate crystalline forms that often take months to grow.  Is fragility part of your collaborative interests, or merely a frustrating byproduct?

April: Fragility is reality: all things fall apart. In the studio I find I create a labyrinth between the fragile stacks and forms. Using non-precious materials like newsprint instills in the object a sense that it will cease to exist – and perhaps this can help a viewer to see geologic time stratified and sedimented through this ordinary material turned extraordinary. Things also get dusty and dirty, just as we do. I am not interested in producing pristine sculpture. I think about Eva Hesse when I respond to this question: I think about how she often had to deal with people asking about collecting her work, and what would become of the degrading latex over time. Eventually I think she just had to ignore these questions and make the work, which thankfully she did. It makes me think of expectations of femininity embedded within form. I wonder how this direction of thought could be productive – perhaps in terms of bolstering fragility to be viewed as a form of strength: the risk to be fragile, the boldness to be delicate. It’s exciting.

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And what are you each reading right now?

Nicole: I recently finished a book by Laurie Palmer, In The Aura of a Hole, about how we mine various material out of the earth that really influenced how I think about the experiential of our project and how it changes the appreciation of crystallinity and time. I'm excited to start reading Arte Povera by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. 

In my largely hypothetical free time, I'm also reading a book called Animal Weapons by Douglas Emlen, about the nature and repercussions of the prevalence of extremely large weapons in various animals, ranging from beetles to people.  Also, more embarrassingly perhaps, I'm in the middle of a zombie apocalypse series focusing on journalism – Feed, by Mira Grant. 

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April: Over the break I have been reading the journals of women artists and writers: Anaïs Nin, Anne Truitt, Clarice Lispector. The separation of life and art is not a question for me: I know the intimacy of their linkage. I’ve also been reading Philip Fisher’s The Vehement Passions and Wonder, The Rainbow and Aesthetics of Rare Experiences, which have been extremely helpful for me in articulating a balance between the wonderous and the sublime – a necessary balancing act when working within a scientific realm. With many of our experiments I often find myself desiring to propel them in the direction of the sublime through scale and affect. This is perhaps the romantic side of our project that I can’t cease to untangle – I keep finding poetry in liquid nitrogen! I feel that I am often playing in the studio and question if this is enough. Nicole made a post on the blog about a similar feeling. Wonder is motivational, it is the unknown. This has to be enough; this is what pulls us forward. There have been a lot of seed crystals throughout our collaboration together – we'll just have see which ones are given time to flower.

Nicole James is a Chemistry Ph.D candidate in the Jaeger Lab at the University of Chicago. She works in a soft condensed matter physics lab investigating the role surface chemistry plays in non-Newtownian fluids.

April Martin is a MFA candidate in Sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). April investigates materials that mark the effects of time through cumulative natural occurrences such as evaporation, erosion, and sun bleaching with materials such as Miracle-Gro, salt, copper and styrofoam.

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