In April 2022, I was awarded the Henry Moore Foundation Research Grant, its purpose being to enable me to expand my knowledge of fabric casting and to consider potential new ways of working. For several years I have been utilising an architectural technique called fabric forming which was part of an on-going exploration of material and form and was central to my sculptural practice. Initial research was carried out in the UK, with specific reference to Richard Bush, an Architecture researcher at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Over the past decade, I had developed a way to free form cast using PU expansion foam. While this method is low tech (domestic scale), I have become increasingly conscious that the expanding foam is harmful to our ecosystem and that this method of producing work is not sustainable nor environmentally friendly. I am seeking new ways to develop my practice in a way which has a significantly lower environmental impact and is more sustainable longer term.
I contacted Mark West, a researcher and academic at the University of Manitoba and he suggested that the department may be interested in offering me an opportunity to share my previous research ( freeform casting using 4-way stretch fabric and PU foams) as a part of research which could be valuable for the architecture department, and additionally to provide me with an opportunity to develop new working methods which are potentially more environmentally sustainable.
Please find below further details of my time at C.A.S.T and the developments which resulted from my research conducted during my stay.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my thanks to the University of Manitoba, the staff at C.A.S.T, and specifically to Eduardo Aquino, Liane Veness, Philippa Alexiuk, Mercedes Garcia Holguera, Lancelot Coar, Joe Ackerman, Owen and Teresa who have been extremely generous with their time and kindness in their support.
Sculpting with Mycelium
It was both fortuitous and a great pleasure to meet with Mercedes Garcia Holguera, an Associate Professor in the Architecture Department at the University of Manitoba on my first day at CAST. Mercedes was delivering a collection of lampshades which had recently been on show at Nuite Blanche 2022 at Stephen Juba Park, Winnipeg, Manitoba. These were no ordinary lampshades. Developed by a group of students under the guidance of Mercedes at Sustainability in Action Facility (SiAF) - @biom_labs, these beautiful objects were grown from a relatively new bio material called mycelium.
There has been a recent boom in using mycelium to produce a range of products and building materials, including fashion items, packaging, insulation and furniture and although this new material is still in its infancy there is much to explore regarding its potential as a viable sculpting material. I was, as Mercedes said, 'hooked like a worm' to the idea of using mycelium to grow sculptural forms. Much has been published and is freely available on the internet about mycelium, its organic structure and purpose, its chemical makeup, its symbiotic relationships and its potential uses. For the purpose of this review, it is not my intention to reiterate the already researched aspects of its function as a viable material, I am however interested in it as a potential material to facilitate the production of new sculptural work. Aside of this however it also resonated on a metaphorical level. In working with such material, we attempt to impose our human meaning onto organisms that have no say in the matter. We want to intervene and control their behaviour for the sake of producing a more interesting form or a commercially viable product and we must question how much intervention is appropriate, especially as there is an artistic need to showcase the material we are working with. It is simple to apply our own meaning and dialogue to a work constructed out of a living material, especially with a species that we are unable to communicate with. In this case, fungi, which inherently evokes a sense of rebirth, growth, loss, decay and displays elements of other worldliness, prehistoric formations and organic biomorphic growths.
A Playful Curiosity
I have been considering the process of fermentation, brewing, medicine making and distilling for a separate project in the Charente, France with fellow artist Fiona Paterson. The project is primarily concerned with a black, crusty growth called Baudoinia Compniacensis often referred to as The Angels Share. It is a fungus which grows in and around distilleries across the world and is prevalent in the Cognac factories of France. Much of my practice focuses on female iconography and I have been considering the ancient practice of distilling, a process that traditionally was practiced predominantly by women across the world, from the Whisky houses in Scotland to the ancient medicinal practices in Persia.
Prior to my arrival in Winnipeg I had produced a series of pulped paper roofing tiles, again originally made by women who used leather chaps over their thigh to cast terracotta curved slabs (Tuiles).These black paper forms were stapled together to create an undulating black ‘ourlet à volants‘ or frilly hem, which resembles the blackened distillery roofs of Cognac and is directly associated with the women who produced these tiles historically. This investigation was put on hold during my research time at CAST, however the direct link between the fungal growth in the Cognac distilleries and the potential of growing living sculpture using mycelium resonated.
I was shown around the department upon my arrival at UoM and was intrigued by the insulating material which had been ‘grown’ in CAST and SiAF (Sustainability in Action Faculty) under the guidance of Mercedes Garcia Holguera.
I began to construct a series of 12 free form fabric shapes, some were drawn by hand and cut manually from a 100% Cotton canvas fabric. For other forms I used the 3D Rhino laser cutting equipment available in Fablab (one of the workshops forming part of the architecture department). In many ways, the process is similar to my previous form making - the free form casting with foam. The patterns are cut, stitched, occasionally supported or have frameworks inserted followed by the insertion of foam. In this case, the foam was replaced by a substrate - mixtures for which it was necessary to construct from natural materials - effectively providing a food source for the mycelium to feed upon. These substrate mixes included: cotton kapok, seeds (collected from the nearby dead grasses outside CAST), jute, sawdust, pulped paper, corn starch, coffee grinds and natural fibres. My own casting systems (foam and in this case mycelium) involve setting up a process of making and then ceding control to chance. More than a creative method, though, this microbial system reflects on the role of human intervention within a larger ecosystem, highlighting the value of collaboration with other species. Below you can see a stage by stage record of the process to date. The first series of images record details of the Freeform Casting Workshop conducted at C.A.S.T. Here you can see how students cast forms using simple forms and foam in 4-Way stretch fabric to cast shapes. Secondly, the process of constructing sculptural forms using Mycelium is illustrated. Further images are available on my Instagram account. @jillgibsonartist
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