“I think that one of the most alluring things about art today is that there is no strict definition; that anything goes.” Jessica Blackmer, a Summer 2012 resident fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America, often works in the zone that many might call design or technology. As an artist, she places more than usual emphasis on her works’ practicality when weighed against its aesthetic or formal qualities.
Science is the defining methodology of the previous century. By appropriating and undermining the tropes and paraphernalia of science, artists tap into culturally resonant subject matter. In earlier eras, they might have been attracted to themes drawn from mythology or history or religion. Science is particularly attractive to post-glass artists partly because glass in the form of lenses, test tubes, retorts and other objects is a staple of research — from alchemy to Frankenstein and still today.
The “aestheticization of science,” in Blackmer’s phrase, is a style phenomenon but it isn’t exactly her quest. Through art, though, she hopes to make real, useful contributions to life. Her inventions, as one might reasonably call them, may have an engaging appearance because they are well and functionally constructed. In Blackermer’s studio in the glasshouse at WheatonArts, the day before taping a podcast with Rika Hawes’ (coincidentally a 2008 CGCA Fellow), a glass vessel stood on a high shelf, the warmest part of the room. Bristling with glass tubes, it appeared to be filled with vomit and, if one got close it smelled a little like an outhouse. This prototype “biodigester” was designed to capture the methane gas produced by kitchen scraps and deliver combustible gas in a form that Blackmer can use to power a flameworking torch. Unfortunately, the digester was not a complete success. “It looked elegant but did not function as it was supposed to.” The seals were not efficient and it smelled bad. Eventually, with improvements Blackmer thinks a series of such vessels might produce enough methane to make it possible for a flame worker to have a “green sustainable art career.”
“In a way what I am doing is rediscovering ideas that were already there and recasting them in a more technologically ‘savvy’ form. My work is not super gallery-related. I like to makes sketches of large things by starting small and making sure they are complete. I’d like to make more and more elegant solutions to my practical problems as well as aesthetic problems. It’s working towards a larger form. The single flask now might someday be a series of flasks, individual cells that would then digest and power a much larger thing. Right now when the gas is
created I can turn a valve and hook it up to a small burner and light off the gas. It could be an emergency lamp.”
At WheatonArts, Blackmer also made a glass mouse trap that takes advantage of the fact that mice cannot ‘climb’ down. When the mouse climbed up a surface to get peanut butter bait, it could not retrace its steps. When she first set it out, she caught a mouse in 23 minutes. She released it in the woods and speculated about the possibility of having a mouse sanctuary where “you could drop off your mouse” and it could live out its life naturally and happily. Mice do not live much more than two or three years. If the genders were separated, the population in the sanctuaries would die out.
Different traps for different tastes: Blackmer also makes a trap to collect wild yeast spores and lactobascilli from the air. Each place, each micro-environment, has a distinctive character. “It’s not just yeasts themselves but the relationship between the yeast and the bacteria that in combination with flour, water and sugar creates a flavor that can be sensed by humans. After these yeasts are collected you can use it as a sourdough starter or you can put it into a state of stasis by drying it out and flaking it up.
“I’m trying to draw attention to the idea that the homogenization of yeast has made bread (today) taste similar regardless of your region, but there is actually a flavor to a region.” She’s made bread at Wheaton. “The yeast I’ve caught here is incredibly active — really nice flavor, kind of mellow.”
It seems that for Blackmer, the appearance of her work, though important, is a goal on a par with, or perhaps even less important than its meaningful functionality. Or, from another perspective, something that is highly functional is intrinsically elegant and beautiful. Being an artist is not such a big deal. “The artist and scientist are two diverging branches of the [same thing],” she says.
Written by Robin Rice