Anthotypes: Art by Melanie Dockery
Art by Melanie Dockery
Racing a Curtain of Rain, anthotype, 30x22 inches, 2018. All images courtesy of the artist.
The tension in making the invisible visible has driven my creative process for about 26 years. Scientists use instruments to see beyond the naked eye into the micro and macro world. I paint, draw, play with paper and plants to explore my own ponderings about the seen and unseen, questioning what it means to see, feel, sense. The sensations that moved through me as I completed my first serious painting still linger with me. No longer making pictures I dove into process rather than replication. Working with idea and inquiry rather than trying to capture only the visible. Was I questioning what I saw or trying to see underneath or beyond?
The earliest work in this submission, Glow, was the result of the question “can I paint nothingness?” I was working with nothingness in relationship to form and void, both a scientific and spiritual sense of it. According to quantum physics, the void or vacuum state is full of quantum particles and waves blinking in and out of existence. In Buddhist meditation practice the void, emptiness, is a state of releasing thought, story, and ego to be with what is just as it is.
Impermanence and change accompanied nothingness and captured my attention. I wandered why I created objects of nothingness that reached for impermanence, yet were protected by being a solid structure carefully assembled to last. Rambling on about my struggle with nothingness, impermanence, and a want to capture change at an art opening a fellow artist listened. They wrote down the word “anthotype” and handed it to me knowing I was also a gardener. Anthotypes use dyes from plants to create photographic images that are often fugitive. The urge to create in my studio and in the garden often battled for attention and energy. Anthotypes opened a door to interact with plants, light, weather, and the movement of life in the natural world.
Recently, I returned to paint on canvas exploring the energy of mark, color, and gesture interacting. The particles are still blinking on and off while I'm attempting to capture clusters of them as they appear.
- Melanie Dockery, July 2019
Video reproduced with permission from the McLean County Arts Center. We caught up with Melanie and had a conversation about some of the things that were brought up in the video. Conversation via email with Shawnacy Kiker Perez, July 2019.
CHARGE MAGAZINE: I'm captivated by these images, and not only for their beauty, but by what they contain, how they come to be, and the idea of their -- for lack of a better word -- inarchivability. In a field where preservation and restoration are of such importance, anthotyping seems not only to resist such ideas, but to actively glory in rendering them counterproductive. Certainly, one can - as you have done here - archive the process through photographs, but then, it occurs to me, the photographs are less like a reproduction of the art, and more like looking at a photograph of oneself as a child, or perhaps even a photograph of someone who has passed away. The picture becomes a photograph of a moment in time, a moment that is no longer graspable, rather than a reproduction of something that can be seen in a museum. This, for me, makes the work seem so much more alive, part of the process of life, growth and death. Can you speak to what it means as an artist to create work that is intentionally impermanent?
MELANIE DOCKERY: This is something I wrestle with regularly and lately I’ve been painting with acrylics again. I suspect it’s my attempt to “bridge the space from and to impermanence.” At the moment, “bridging the space” is about capturing the sensation, the feel of the energy when communing with nature and the garden.
Stonehenge is a favorite topic of mine. That work was in process for around 2,500 years. That is not so evident in photographs or the solidity of the stones. It was not always stones. First it was wooden posts and burial pits. Generations worked on Stonehenge unlike the Great Pyramids at Giza. The pyramids were build in one generation to celebrate or elevate one individual. Stonehenge was a long-term collaborative project. How was information passed through all of those generations? How did the information change? Who decided stone is better than wood and why? Was it to create something longer lasting?
My process can be a lot of questions with no specific answer. I do intend to continue with both paths of work. Those that are intentionally impermanent, fleeting, changeable and those that capture the sensation of the change in a more enduring material.
CM: I can very much relate to a process that is driven by inquiry and questioning. Along with creating a piece that comes with an expiration date, your process here necessitates a surrender of control. You are not, as in traditional representational painting and drawing, working toward a specific image that you have in mind at the outset. The finished image is entirely a work of process and chance. Was this a new experience for you? How does it feel to work toward an unknown end? Can there ever be a "mistake"? or a "failure" in such a case?
MD: I loved to draw when I was young. Sometimes someone would ask me to draw something: a tree, a house, a dog, a portrait. Then I would try to recreate the look of the something on a piece of paper. This is great practice for observing. Slowing down to look and record what is there. Careful overlapping, placement, and perspective is used to create the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. I’m not sure I would be slowing down to watch the garden as much as I do if I was not first trained in representational drawing and painting. With representational work there are the “failures” that do not resemble the object. Maybe. In the failure, what does not work is discovered so one can try again.
Somewhere along the way I became fascinated with the materials I was rubbing into paper, board and canvas. I think a sensation of newness was in that moment. I was not trying to replicate what I saw. Instead I was interested in the movement, sense, qualities, and origins of the materials.
When I started working on the anthotypes it was a way to explore sources of those materials. What are their physical limitations? How do they interact with the environment? Sometimes I wonder scientist or artist? Both do copious experiments to learn. I’ve considered asking a botanist or chemist if they would like to make anthotypes together. I bring my instruments, they bring theirs. We see what chemicals are in the colors. Measure the wavelengths of light and record the way the light changes the color of some of the dyes. I’m not sure if gathering layers and layers of data would lead to a known end. I am mostly comfortable working towards an unknown end, and from my experiences each data point could lead to another unknown.
At the end of the day when I pull the material off of a dyed sheet of paper to see what has developed underneath, I often hold my breath. I’ve created dozens and dozens of anthotypes. Each one is unique and some come together compositionally and some do not. What that composition is, why some work and not others, I think I’ll leave that a little unknown for the moment, too.
CM: What a fascinating project a science collaboration would be! Art and science do not always overtly have the same end goal, but maybe underneath they are both working toward a kind of discovery. And speaking of end results, although these prints are process-driven rather than representative or even abstract, how do they speak to you as finished works of art? Do they convey different things to you? Have you seen any relationship between the outcome of the images, and what went into their creation? Can you give us an example of one piece you feel especially drawn to (or pushed away from) and why that is?
MD: Beetles Make Lace and Jalapeno Cherries is a work I return to sometimes frustrated with the composition and sometimes fascinated with how the sun captured the skeletonized leaves. Japanese Beetles did the damage or created those lacy ethereal forms. I wish the light was not so focused in one area of the composition. Yet, it captures the way I stared at the trees as the beetles munched. I watched the shade under the trees slowly turn to light as the leaves fell. The trees are still alive. They survived the infestation. It’s July now so the beetles are back. I wonder how many seasons the cherries could survive being turned to lace. This year has been a struggle for them because of a late frost. The late frost froze some of the early buds meaning lack of blooms, lack of fruit, and some branch tips missing leaves. It’s seldom just the beetles, the frost, a drought, a flood. It’s a myriad of elements of nature that can destroy (change) what can grow and flourish. I love cherry pie with brown sugar jalapeno crumble on top. That choice was a moment of wonderment. I saw both cherries and jalapenos on the counter and decided to combine.
CM: You tend what appears to be a large and wondrously wild garden from which you gather the materials used in your anthotypes. In the video you mention that you are waiting for the right time of day to harvest passion flower blossoms (which you will use to create pigment), so as to ensure that the bees have plenty of time to frolic therein, and the garden as a body has the ability to benefit from those plants before they are removed. This ecosystemic method of collaborating with the elements used in your art, reminds me a great deal of Donna J. Haraway's ideas in her book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016). In her introduction, Haraway writes, "The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response [to the "Trouble" - the murky and turbid times in which we live]. [...] The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection of a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present." She goes on, "Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings." Your work and the collaboration that emerges between yourself, the plants, the sun and other elements, and the made-space that holds these things for a time, is, as I see it, a profound expression of this very kin-making, and chthuluing of the living forces and elements with which you are surrounded. What has been your experience working as a team in the fugitive present with these varied co-creators?
MD: Wow, Haraway’s book has been on my want to read list for at least a few months now. I’m a meditator and study Buddhism and yoga. The practice of being in the present moment is something I have worked with for over 20 years. Glow was part of an exhibit titled “The Ever-Present Moment”. This is what I wrote about the exhibit in 2007: These paintings are representations of the Buddhist idea that form and void are one and the same. I repeatedly layer gestural calligraphic strokes and meticulously blend them into an amorphous atmosphere that is neither empty nor does it contain discernable objects. The viewer is left visually floating in a space that is solid as a cloud. That last sentence is clunky, but captures what I sense being present is. It’s never quite there, yet discernable, maybe because each moment has so many living beings creating it. All of those subtle and not so subtle energies existing, moving simultaneously into the next moment, unable to stay in the present moment. Referencing Haraway’s words, I’m thinking about what happens if time is dropped. What if it is just about being with the other creators? Then time does not determine the moment. Attention does. Sometimes I like to ask, “how big is the present moment?”
Getting back to the garden, each season I learn and change. What I did one season may not feel appropriate the next. That brings me to squash bugs. They can decimate a patch of pumpkin vines in days. I love to grow pumpkins and winter squash. I hesitate saying I have a “favorite” in the garden. They are at least close to a favorite. For several seasons I could be found picking squash bugs off of the vines in the early morning or evening. It’s easier to see the bugs when the sun is low and shining through the leaves. Their silhouettes are revealed. I would squash the bugs or toss them in soapy water to drown. Then, one season as much as I loved the vines, I could no longer pick the bugs off because I loved them, too. I feel a moment of stuckness with this story. The bugs can destroy the vines. The vines feed the bugs. The vines could feed me if allowed to grow fruit. Can space for all of us exist? Can I eat the bugs? I have not, yet. More than once I’ve shared space in pumpkin patches with other gardeners, and we have dared one another to eat a squash bug.
The creatures of the garden reveal connections, pose questions. When I am setting up an anthotype, whether gathering materials for dyes or to create shadows and silhouettes I watch to see what is present, just to see, not necessarily to know where the observation will lead.
CM: You seem to have a great adeptness at Keats’ negative capability, which is something deeply invisible, and by no means easy. An expression of profound empathy, this ability to eschew certainty and definition and create space for the unknown, the unintended, the unconsidered, is a supremely human and supremely poetic act. You mention briefly in this video the similarity you have felt between what you are doing artistically, and the work of gardening and cooking. Do you feel this project has revealed to you anything about these activities that are perhaps considered more quotidian or commonplace? Do you think there is a difference between what is considered "art" and what is perhaps deemed "craft" or "work" or "process"?
MD: When I work and when I teach, I often ask repeatedly what is art? What can be art? Is it what is made? Is it a state of mind when making? Typing “the art of” into google offers a number of options: the art of racing in the rain, the art of the brick, the art of self-defense, the art of the deal. Two are titles of 2019 movies. One is a currently traveling exhibit of lego sculptures. The last is an infamous book.
CM: Thank you so much, Melanie, for your time and for your work. It’s been a pleasure to think with you about it here.
Melanie Dockery grew up in rural southern Indiana near fields, farms, woods, the sky, stars, streams, and a river. The cycling seasons and landscapes inspire her to explore the ever changing nature of life in the universe. She completed a Master of Fine Arts in painting at Northern Illinois University in 2004 and a Bachelor of Arts in fine art at the University of Southern Indiana in 1997. Her work has been exhibited at the Evansville Museum of Arts and Sciences in Evansville, IN; the McLean County Art Center in Bloomington, IL; Woman Made Gallery in Chicago, IL; the Around the Coyote Art Festival in Chicago, IL; and The Project Lodge in Madison, WI. International exhibits include Liste 09 in Basel, Switzerland and Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien in Berlin, Germany. Bacteria, Fungus, Plant at Jan Brandt Gallery in 2014 included dried kombucha scobys as paper, pollen as a drawing medium, and a canvas that was planted and harvested for transformation into a new work of art. For A Practice in Permanence at the McLean County Art Center in 2018 she joined a group of artists questioning permanence, change, and transformation in visual art and poetry. Melanie lives in Bloomington, IL, teaches art and yoga part-time, and tends a large garden.