ECO Art + Science Series: Metalsmith + Entomology Enthusiast Charity Hall

Entomology Collection. Copper, enamel. Image © 2008 by Charity Hall. Used here with permission of the artist.

Welcome to the first ECO Art + Science Series post of 2012! Today, I’m excited to feature the first metalsmith and jeweler in the Series: Tucson-based artist-scientist Charity Hall, who creates enameled works of art that are grounded in her fascination with botanical and entomological imagery. Her art-science collaborations with entomologist Paul Marek are sensational examples of art-science crossover that truly advance both fields in creative and mutually-beneficial ways.

 “With my passion for botany extrapolated outward to entomology, I create enamel and metalwork pieces with biological imagery. My botany loupe became my stone-setting loupe, and a few more tools have been acquired. My work as an artist is based on the tiny intricate details and fascinating biological stories that first captivated me.” – Charity Hall

[biocreativity] Welcome to the biocreativity blog, Charity! What type of work do you do? How would you describe your interests or profession?

[CH] I am a metalsmith and enamelist who makes jewelry inspired by biological forms. I’ve created a lot of enameled jewelry and bowls that depict different insect species. In some of my jewelry, I use actual insect specimens-or pieces of them by embedding these in clear resin. Recently, I’ve been making sculptural jewelry based on abstracted invertebrate forms (everything from radiolarians to articulated insect legs).

Kissing Bug Brooch. Copper, enamel, garnet. Image © 2011 Charity Hall. Used here with permission of the artist.

[biocreativity] Where do you see yourself on the biocreativity spectrum?

[CH] I feel a bit polarized on both ends. I have a bachelor’s degree in biology from Colorado College (I majored in biology, but they had a very nice Arts and Crafts program and Dindy Reich taught me my first metalworking skills there) and have worked professionally as a botanist for the U.S. Forest Service, although that was awhile ago. I also have a Master of Fine Arts in metal design from East Carolina University. I am a full-time artist now, so I guess I’m more on the arts end currently. But, I also help my entomologist husband [University of Arizona research associate Paul Marek] with field work. In fact, we just came back from 5 nights of collecting millipedes in northern California. Last year, I cast a millipede in bronze to make a press mold for making hundreds of clay millipede models for one of his research projects which is described in this article on Discover blogs.

Paul Marek made hundreds of clay millipede models for a research project examining the function of bioluminescence in millipedes using a bronze cast of a millipede made by Charity Hall. Image © 2011 by Paul Marek. Used here with his permission.

[biocreativity] To summarize, the clay millipedes were used to help discover why Moytoxia millipedes glow in the dark! Half were painted with glow-in-the dark paint, half were not, then they were left in the forest overnight. About half as many glow-in-the-dark models showed evidence of attacks by predators (mainly rodents) as the unpainted ones, leading researchers to conclude that bioluminescence in this species lends protection from predators! Charity, that is a fascinating research project and a great example of art-science collaboration for field work. That is relatively rare since such collaborations are often focused on the final product of the research: the results. How do you view the interaction of arts and sciences?

[CH] Art and science are surprisingly similar in many respects. In both fields, the work is largely based on observation, creativity, analysis, and drawing conclusions that inspire the next project. If we got rid of labels to designate one person a scientist and another an artist, we might find more opportunities for crossover and could benefit from the skills of each other more readily. As artists, we are constantly working with our hands, developing a skill set and a mindset that makes it easy for us to build things. But that ability to build stuff is remarkably important for scientists too. There is always some jig or specialized piece of equipment (maybe it’s a special insect trap or collapsable terrarium) that they need which might not yet exist or perhaps does, but needs to be modified. I remember helping with an insect collecting project once, but the scientist leading it had forgotten to bring the collecting nets. I just took apart some old wire hangers and used some netting to construct a makeshift net. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

Katydid Pendant. Copper, enamel. Image © 2009 by Charity Hall. Used here with permission of the artist.

[biocreativity] That is very true. When I was working on my dissertation research, my lab-mate and I often joked that we should also be getting a “Master’s in Fabrication” because we were always building new contraptions for our field and lab work. Interestingly, the Association of Art Historians just released a call for papers today for a conference entitled The Two Cultures: Visual Art & Science c. 1800-2011, which will challenge the assertion that the visual arts and sciences are separate entities. Charity, what inspires your work?

[CH] I’ve always been fascinated by insects and other biological species. When I was in college, I loved botany and collected plant specimens for my college’s herbarium (basically a museum of dried, pressed plants).  Occasionally out in the field, I would witness these dramatic scenes…a bug attacking another and eating its head while it was still alive…or I would notice the tiny insects back in the lab while identifying the plants and seeing them under the microscope looking absolutely monstrous on leaves and flowers. Maybe its because I’ve never studied insects scientifically that I find them so fascinating.  I love their forms, from their tiny intricate leg hairs to their articulation in their joints.

Dobsonfly Belt buckle. Copper, enamel, silver, garnet. Image © 2009 by Charity Hall. Used here with permission of the artist.

At the same time that I studied botany, I started illustrating plant specimens and dabbling in metalwork.  It took a long time to realize I wanted to become a professional artist.

Moss o menos. Copper, enamel. Image © 2006 by Charity Hall. Used here with permission from the artist. Collection of Gail Brown. All proceeds for this piece benefitted Oxfam to assist the victims of the Myanmar cyclone.

[biocreativity] I love the botanical illustrations on your enamel work – especially the Moss o Menos pieces. I also have a lot of entomologist friends who would love to get their hands on that Dobsonfly belt buckle! What is the most important thing that you want others to know about you and your art-science work?

[CH] I’m an artist, but I’m also a collector. I collect insects, rocks, fossils, and anything else that seems useful. Mostly, I collect stuff for inspiration or sometimes to embed in resin. I am lucky that some of my friends collect things for me too (mostly dead insects and parts thereof). I’m always surprised by what I receive from friends who seem like they’d be too squeamish to collect dead bugs.

I hiked in the Appalachians during one of the huge cicada explosions and there were dozens of dead cicadas on the forest floor. Their wings are beautiful (and the birds don’t eat the wings anyway), so I carefully removed the wings off of several of them. With some of them, I roll-printed them onto sheet copper (sending them through a rolling mill -2 steel rollers kind of like a deluxe pasta machine), and the impressions of the veins were forever preserved onto the metal.

Cicada Wing Necklace. Image © 2011 by Charity Hall. Silver, cicada wing, yellow sapphire, resin. Used here with permission of the artist.

[biocreativity] Tell us more about your Metalbug series, which quite literally puts insects into your jewelry.

Metalbug is a collection of jewelry with real insect specimens. Many of these pieces are available for sale at my Metalbug Etsy store. These insects were humanely collected mostly in and around Tucson, Arizona. Occasionally, I also collect specimens when I travel.

Beetle Legs Necklace. Silver, resin, beetle legs, cz. Image © 2011 by Charity Hall. Used here with permission of the artist.

[biocreativity] What is the most common question or comment you get about your work?

[CH] “How do you make your work?” I use a variety of metalsmithing tools, including torches, hammers, and anvils.  Many of the techniques I use are the same techniques that metalsmiths have been using for centuries.  I like the continuity and traditions of craft, but I also use contemporary processes.

My starting material for the enameled bowls is a 6″ disc of copper sheet.  Using hammers and a rounded stake (looks like a trailer hitch), I pound the metal into a depression carved out of an old stump until it is shaped like a bowl.  Then I clean the bowl and apply a coat of liquid-based enamel, allow it to dry, and then freehand draw the design (in this case drawing=literally scratching through the enamel to get to the bare copper. This enameling technique is called sgraffito. Once the design is done, the bowl is fired at about 1500degrees F, a second coat of clear enamel (in this step, the enamel is in a powdered form) is applied and the bowl is re-fired, but for a shorter time  just until the clear enamel starts to fuse to the base layer. This is how I maintain the grainy, matte surface which is very different than the smooth surfaces of traditional enamels.

Tailless Whip Scorpion Bowl (detail). Copper, enamel. Image © 2007 by Charity Hall. Used here with permission of the artist.

For the enameled brooches, I enamel copper in more or less a similar way and fabricate the settings. My starting materials are only sheet, wire, or tubing. Everything else is formed (again with hammers), cut (with a manual jeweler’s saw) and soldered by hand.  (and of course there is a lot of filing and sanding too). The Metalbug series are pieces that incorporate real insect parts or entire specimens. The fabrication part is the same as the other pieces. The only difference is that I mix clear resin to use to embed the insect parts in place.

Rainbow Beetle Earrings. Silver, Copper, enamel, garnet. Image © 2011 by Charity Hall. Used here by permission of the artist.

[biocreativity] What’s next for you in art + science? 

[CH] Right now, I’m actively working on this new series of sculptural jewelry. Imagery in this series includes the articulation of insect legs, the dogged march of a millipede, radial patterns in unicellular life, and diurnal states of being. This body of work will be showcased in a solo exhibition at the Penland Gallery this August/September.

“A millipede crawling upon your hand feels halfway between barely noticeable and lightly tickling. You can feel the overall sensation of movement, but not the individual legs so delicately fragile on your callused metalsmithing hand. But if you existed on the same scale as a millipede and had it walking upon you, I imagine it would feel quite different; its legs formidable, with the tips digging as it marches doggedly along.” -Charity Hall

Metallodesmus trigintaduopes. Image © 2011 by Charity Hall. Used here with permission of the artist.

[biocreativity] I really love the glow-in-the dark pieces from this new series:  Lumenorbis and Radialaris! Are those inspired in some part by your husband’s research on bioluminescense in millipedes?

[CH] Sort of, but mostly just in the material. He needed a really high quality glow substance for his clay models and gave me a little bit of it to play with. The forms of these 2 pieces are not really about millipedes. Although the piece, Metallodesmus trigintaduopes, is based on a wandering millipede.

Lumenorbis. Images © 2011 Charity Hall. The background of this piece glows in the dark. Used here with permission of the artist.

Radialaris. Image © 2011 by Charity Hall. The center of this piece glows in the dark. Used here with permission of the artist.

[biocreativity] Your collaborations with your husband are truly great examples of how art and science can be mutually beneficial to one another. Do you have any websites that you’d like the biocreativity readers to know about? I hear you also teach classes. 

www.charityhall.com features my work, upcoming events including shows, classes and workshops I’ll be teaching and more links to my favorite websites. I will be teaching a class on making brooches for the Idyllwild Metals Week program through Idyllwild Arts in California. 

www.metalbug.etsy.com is my Etsy store where my Metalbug series, and other works, are for sale.

www.apheloria.org is my husband’s website on millipedes.

[biocreativity] Charity, thanks so much for participating in the ECO Art + Science Series. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you and your work! 

The biocreativity blog’s ECO Art + Science Series illustrates the many ways in which artists and scientists are combining their talents in the modern world. Stay tuned for more interviews each week right here at www.biocreativity.wordpress.com! If you or someone you know should be featured in this series, please send an email to biocreativity@yahoo.com. 

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6 thoughts on “ECO Art + Science Series: Metalsmith + Entomology Enthusiast Charity Hall

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