Megan Singleton is a St. Louis based artist who uses hand papermaking as a main component of her mixed-media installations. Her research focuses on the environment and how invasive plants affect an area. This takes her around the country where she explores a chosen location, collects plants for paper fiber, takes photos and talks to locals. Later, she creates an installation to educate and move her viewers about her experience and findings.
Megan’s work will be shown at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum beginning January 2015.
The interview took place by email in Fall, 2014.
1. You seem captivated by landscapes near water, whether it’s the swamplands in Louisiana or a barrier island off Cape Cod. (It seems fitting since water is so important in making paper!) Is a river or body of water part of what attracts you to a place? Are you interested in the landscape first or does your research about an invasive plant lead you to a place? Or is it something else altogether?
I would very much consider myself an explorer. Growing up in the Midwest, with the Mississippi within sight, definitely contributes to my attraction to places where a body of water plays a dominant role in the landscape. I am drawn to places with unique ecological characteristics. I am inspired and invigorated by traveling and learning about the biodiversity found in different regions of the United States.
Preparation for my travels involves collecting a variety of plant identification books and field guides for the area, as well as looking at the USDA plant database and contacting professionals at parks and universities in the area. From here I am more prepared for the field work that I love, which includes exploring through hiking, canoeing, photographing, and the collection of plants to test their potential for papermaking.
So to answer your question more clearly, I am drawn, emotionally and maybe even metaphysically, to areas where a body of water plays a dominant role but that by no means are a requirement for my practice. My recent travels have been a collaboration between organizations interested in how I approach making art paired with my interest in that particular geographical location. From there, I begin my research to learn as much as I can about the native and introduced plants that exist in that particular ecosystem.
2. Your installations “Manchac” and the recent “Berlanderi in the Balize Delta” build on the work you did in “Eight Thousand Daughters.” How did the ideas and works develop and change in your new installations?
(Manchac refers specifically to the Manchac Swamp area in Louisiana. Berlanderi is a subtropical common reed that is a sub species of Phragmites australis.)
“Manchac” has a direct relationship with the exhibition “8000 Daughters Woven into Bayou Braids.” It is essentially an expansion of that body of work, but the reorganization of pieces and the addition of new works pinpointed this exhibition’s focus on the specific area known as the North Pass of Manchac, where I conducted much of my research for “8000 Daughters.” The North Pass is the stretch of water that connects Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Maurepas in the Manchac Swamp. The works “Lines of the Dredge”, “Swamp Lilies”, and the video animation “In the Wake of North Pass” were created after I moved back to St. Louis. In the making of those pieces I used imagery and research I had accumulated while working on 8000 daughters. Once I was back in St. Louis and I had a chance to reflect on my experiences in Louisiana, I had many ideas for new pieces based on those reflections.
When I had the opportunity to have a solo show at LA Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana it seemed like the perfect time to wrap up this body of research. I was particularly excited about creating the installation “Lines of the Dredge” because I had been thinking about using high shrinkage pulp for a 3 dimensional drawing for some time and I was really pleased with the results. This installation is a drawing of the dredge lines created in the Manchac Swamp at the turn of the 20th century by loggers set on deforesting the swamp of its cypress trees. These lines can still be seen today from aerial images. The lines were created using a mix of water hyacinth and abaca pulps laid down with asqueeze bottle and left to air dry. The lines were then composed into a 20 foot by 40 foot drawing on the wall.
Photography also plays a large role in my practice as an artist. While creating my MFA thesis work I had taken hundreds of photographs of water and light moving beside my canoe while I was out collecting plant fiber. With the gracious assistance from a video editor at my current job I finally had the opportunity to turn these photos into an animation that also included a textual component that faded in and out of the images of moving water. This text gave viewers information about the history of “Manchac” and the plants used to create the exhibition.
So in terms of “Berlanderi in the Balize Delta,” I was using a similar approach and applying it to a new landscape and new plants. For this body of work I was experimenting in new ways (for me) of making pulp paintings to mimic aerial photography of specific areas of the delta. I was also working with wax as a surface treatment for the first time. This exhibition was the first iteration of “Kokedama in your Landscape” (see question 5 below). I am becoming interested not only in using invasive plants as an art making material but also coupling this with the poetic gesture of informing people about native plants that are used for regional restoration projects. This happens through the exchange of experiences and information that flows among active participants in the Kokedama Project. I felt very fortunate to work with a range of plant experts from Tulane University, Nichols State University, and the USDA while making this body of work.
3. Will you continue working in or with the swamplands in Louisiana? If so, are there other ecological issues you want to address or do you want to continue exploring the issues around invasive species?
I will continue to make work in and about Louisiana as the opportunity to do so arises. In addition to the problems of invasive plants in Louisiana I am also very interested in issues surrounding the coastal subsidence of land in the delta region and wetland efforts using native plants. Louisiana holds a special place in my heart and I see myself returning there in the future for sure. I have just been invited to exhibit elements of the “Manchac” body of work at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum in Baton Rouge. The exhibition will run from January 10 2015 - March 23 2015. I do not have any new project planned for the immediate future there though.
4. Tell me about your research process with invasive plants. Is it important to you to get most of the information you’ve learned across in your artwork? I am thinking of novelists who believe they have to know everything about their characters - what they had for breakfast and all their bad habits - even though much of it won’t get into the novel. Is your research and art making happening simultaneously? Or, at some point, do you set the science aside and just make some art?
Generally my research process starts online. I will get images of whatever plant I am examining in each of its growing cycles. As some plants look drastically different whether they are flowering, have gone to seed, or are newly sprouted. Next I look at the ecosystems that the plant thrives in, what native plants it may be affecting or other adverse affects it may be having on an area. Then I look at how the plant was introduced and the general history and evolution of its species.
Then I go out and try and locate it and collect it from the landscape. Here I will record notes and take my own photographs of the plants and their surrounding landscapes. It is not so important to me that viewers of my work learn everything there is to know or that I have researched about the plants I use. I do like to make that information accessible though, and tend to include it in an artist book, a video, or online for people who want to make the effort to become more engaged with that knowledge. It is a balance to include such information but not make the work too didactic.
I always hope my viewers learn something about a plant, their landscape, the fascinating transformative process of papermaking, or at the least engage in some type of dialog around one of these topics as a result of experiencing my work.
Generally making and researching happen simultaneously, especially with the material research, many times I am bending wire forms while in the canoe or by the campfire while out on a trip collecting fiber.
5. Creating handmade paper from invasive plants or from the plants you highlight in the “Kokedama” series seems to be a way for you to “analyze” the plants that you are studying. What do you learn about the plant besides whether or not it makes “good” paper? Since plants cook down so much, it seems like it would be a very labor intensive process to gather enough plants for an entire installation. Tell me about your process to achieve this.
(“‘Kokedama in your landscape’ is a project by Megan inspired by her desire to create art through interaction and spread information about local and native plants using the Japanese Bonsai method of containing plants into small moss balls, a technique known as Kokedama.” from Megan’s website)
For me, I think it is fascinating to learn how different plants function within an ecosystem or environment. So while looking at the plant Phragmites Australis as an invader and noxious weed in most of the country, I was intrigued to learn that outside New Orleans though it is considered an invasive plant species, there are also sub-lineages that have migrated to the area over a hundred years ago by natural means. This variety, known as berlanderi, is actually holding areas of marshland together with its rhizome root systems in areas of the Balize (Bird’s Foot) Delta. Other more noxious strains are also there holding land together as well, it seems that as the salinity levels of the gulf marsh have risen native grasses are not so salt tolerant and cannot survive, but phragmites can.
I also enjoy looking at and interpreting the quality of a plant’s form and the gesture of its movement. As many know, papermaking is very labor intensive, and when I am working on a large scale installation I spend a lot of time collecting and processing fiber. To help speed things up I converted a beer keg into a large cooking pot, which saves time and propane. While in graduate school I had access to a 7lb Reina beater, but now I just make multiple loads in my 1lb Valley beater. And like I said earlier I utilize my time when I am out in nature to bend wire and make small armatures that then get assembled into larger forms. Really it just comes down to time, patience, and passion.
6. If a plant makes poor paper, does that affect the art you make? Would you allow yourself, for instance, to add another fiber to strengthen the plant fiber you are working with or would that take away from what you’re trying to do with the project?
Sometimes if a plant doesn’t work well for paper I will set it aside for another use, such as dipping it in paper pulp or clay to cast the gesture of the form and create a sculptural object. As far as adding a little abaca to plant pulp to aid with the strength or structural stability of an object, I am totally guilty of that. I always make some sheets of pure plant paper to have as samples for book pages, but usually I add a little high shrinkage abaca for my sculptures. I don’t feel like it takes away from the intellectual content of the work, and it certainly adds some stability to weak fibers that have strong implications.
7. You balance aesthetics and activism well. At times though, I found myself so moved by the beauty of the objects that I’d lose sight of the destructive nature of the plants used to make them. Is it important to you for the works to be beautiful? Would you ever make them ugly and scary? How do you balance aesthetics and activism? (As I said, I’ve just seen your installations online.)
I guess I would consider myself more of an educator than an activist. I am drawn to the subversive power of art and enjoy making seductively beautiful objects that draw a viewer in and results in questions or a desire for further inquiry. I use artist books, text in video recently, or artist statements to help viewers gain an understanding of the plants I use or the history of a landscape I am expressing in the work.
8. How important is the journey itself - the collection of the plants, the documentation, the walking or canoeing, etc? How does the journey become part of the finished work? Your paperworks could be shown by themselves and be a great show. Yet, your amazing photography and the other documentation enrich the viewer’s experience so much. Do you see the works as individual pieces that work together as well as apart, or as works that are interdependent?
The journey itself is very important. I like to think my art making process begins when I open the map and choose a location to explore. This journey is documented in field journals I create for specific places in the form of a handmade book as well as photographically. Photography is a huge part of my practice, whether I use my images as reference when making sculpture, drawings, or pulp paintings; or sometimes they exist as stand-alone images printed on handmade paper and framed; or sewn into a book.
It all works together as a whole, even though slightly disjointed at times to describe a sense of place. By disjointed I mean, I may only exhibit a series of sculptures or pulp paintings in a gallery, but if you look at my website you will generally find a gallery of photographs relating to that body of work. I have also just joined Instagram, so this will give people an even more intimate and immediate view of the experiences that inspire my work.
9. Could a collector buy some of the objects in one of your installations and show them as stand-alone objects? Would the loss of the scientific context or the presentation make the objects invalid somehow?
Yes, collectors and patrons do and can buy my work as stand-alone pieces from large installations. I think, as some of my installations get broken apart and sold, their visual impact is altered, but at the same time as the works get distributed into the world outside the gallery and studio walls they have the power to start conversations amongst new audiences in homes that I would not be able to reach otherwise. Every time my work is sold it comes with information about the body of work from which it came and a statement on the research that informed its making.
10. How did graduate school help you develop your ideas and processes for your artwork? Was your scientific bent already in place? Why did you choose Louisiana State University? Did you go there to work with handmade paper? How has your work and process changed since you finished graduate school?
While in graduate school I really developed an approach to making art through the exploration of landscape and plants. I am definitely inspired by discovery, and while living in Louisiana I discovered a very unique and majestic place abounding with bayous and plants held within scenery I had never experienced before. I was determined to figure out a way I could incorporate exploring this landscape into my artwork and practice as an artist.
I ventured into graduate school with a passion for papermaking and working with plants. I also arrived with desire to embed more content into my work and to challenge myself to find what would the development of that content be beyond formal beauty and dynamics. I chose LSU because of their amazing papermaking facilities and the quality of work being produced by the faculty in sculpture, printmaking, and ceramics, the areas I was interested in.
Since graduating I have had incredible opportunities to travel across the country and take my established methods of exploring place and apply it to new and exciting landscapes. I am still working with wire armatures and interpreting plants and other natural phenomena, but it all changes and becomes new again as the environment shifts. I have also become increasingly interested in creating work that is socially engaging. This is prevalent in the “Kokedama in your Landscape” project, where people from the community become active participants in the work. So I guess the process hasn’t changed too much, but the locations I am applying this process to have been shifting which leads to new inspirations and new works.
11. What are you working on now?
Currently, I am working as Artist in Residence at the Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern central Colorado. I am exploring, collecting, and identifying plants now. My goal is to create a handmade book that examines 6 different ecosystems that exist within the park which include the Dunefield, Grassland, Sabka (alkaline salt flats), Wetlands, Pinyon/Juniper Forest, Montane, and Sub-Alpine. I unfortunately will not be making it all the way up to the Alpine.
The book will include paper samples from plants collected from each of the areas as well as landscape and macro photography printed on handmade paper. I am also interested in doing a series of pulp paintings that depict the movements and life force of the Medano Creek patterns in the sand. I am only here two weeks so photographing and making the plant fiber paper is first priority and other works can be made later back in my studio.
When I return to St. Louis, I will be organizing elements of the “Manchac” body of work to be exhibited at my first museum show in January at LASM in Baton Rouge. I am excited that I have also just been informed that I have been selected as a CAT fellow. The Community Arts Training (CAT) Institute was founded in 1997 on the belief that art has the power to be an agent for positive social change and that cross-sector collaboration is the key to enhancing that power. Since its inception, the CAT Institute has trained over 250 artists of all disciplines, social workers, educators, community and social activists, and policy-makers. These CAT Institute alumni continue to create relevant arts programs that serve under-resourced communities in a variety of settings, including neighborhood organizations, social service agencies, churches, and schools, as well as development initiatives.