Our environment shapes us. A white-tailed deer's tawny body disappears into the surrounding grassland. Its strong, lean legs allowing it to bound swiftly away from predators. Every aspect of its body is an adaptation, an accumulation of responses to the environment in which it lives.
The Adaptation Series (2014) explores the ways in which we adapt to our environment, whether it is the biological adaptations we've inherited through natural selection, or the interventions and extensions we provide our bodies--the tools and technology we use to enhance and perpetuate its function. My interest lies in the fact that limitations in our environment, including the environment of our own bodies, provide pathways for adaptation, innovation and growth. Additionally, the process of overcoming one's limitations demonstrates the resiliency of the spirit despite the fragility of the body.
Our greatest inheritance is the legacy of natural selection written in our bodies. Natural selection, the key mechanism in evolution, determines most of our heritable traits such as morphology and coloring. I find it fascinating that beauty can emerge from limitations: the roundness of a femur's head, the strength and hollowness of a bone. These were not designed by an artist or an engineer and then built; the design comes, instead, from a history of phenotypic expressions and mutations that were either well suited to the environment or not, resulting in the myriad of skeletal structures and skin patterns from species to species around the world. If our bodies are sculptures to be admired, then the environment is the sculptor by way of natural selection.
But despite how well adapted to our environment we become, natural selection has not prevented our bodies from aging and ailing. Bones can break, joints become arthritic and cancer threatens our bodily functions and lives. Nevertheless, humanity has built upon nature's legacy of adaption through technology; and what interests me is what we are able to adapt to: not just the world around us, but to the ever shifting environment of our aging bodies. We can invite foreign materials and moving parts into and around our bodies to perpetuate its function. One no longer has to endure the disabling pain of worn out hips and knees; we can replace our joints with metal ones like worn out car parts. Even people trapped by paralysis can move about their environment using electric wheelchairs controlled by subtle eye, tongue or head movements.
Indeed it is those who experience some of the most severe disabilities and hardships that are the most experienced at adaptation--their very lives and well-being depend on it. And what speaks to me is seeing the resiliency that is born out of the limitations of a fragile body. I am moved by those who can and must acclimate to a body losing function over time, still finding ways to pursue livelihood, avocation and happiness.
To me, a prosthetic leg is as beautiful and compelling as a natural leg. While the natural leg speaks to the legacy of adaptation to our environment via natural selection, the prosthetic one speaks to human ingenuity and the strength of the human spirit to overcome the challenges of living in a fragile body. The ability and desire to adapt to our environment shapes the beauty in our living world: body, mind and spirit.
About my technique
Though I have a background in metals, I am also drawn to other materials and more intuitive techniques such as felting. Needle felting facilitates my favorite design approach: creating form by processing and responding to a material. Wool felt, in a sense, is pliable like clay. It deforms when I poke it with a felting needle, and I react to this change. Thus begins a cycle of action and reaction, designing as I create.
Needle felting also lends itself to combining with other materials, allowing me to cross the borders of traditional felt making. I add metal mesh armatures to give the felt some dynamic properties. Starting with a cylinder of mesh, for example, I work the wool strands into the mesh and through the cylinder. This creates a tense web of threads inside the cylinder. Then when I needle felt the wool inside the mesh form, the strands tangle up, pulling the form into sometimes unpredictable shapes, as though the work has a mind of its own during its creation.