The Aesthetics of Scale

What happens when an artist and an environmental scientist combine forces? An exhibition that explores the aesthetics and sustainability of landscapes.

Rachel Simmons and Lee Lines, 
“Unconformity 1,” 2013,
Ink, charcoal, and photo transfer on paper Rachel Simmons and Lee Lines, “Unconformity 1,” 2013, Ink, charcoal, and photo transfer on paper

In 2010, Rollins professors Rachel Simmons and Lee Lines traveled to Iceland. Their focus was different—Simmons, after all, is a mixed media artist whose work explores marine pollution, ecotourism, and sustainable development; Lines is a physical geographer whose research focuses on conservation and environmental design. The artist and the scientist were working together with a student as part of a Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship project that examined Iceland’s dedication to renewable energy and its role in reshaping their physical and cultural landscapes.

Combining Simmons’ artistic background and Lines’ knowledge of geography and environmental issues, the two used that trip—and the photographs taken while there—as a springboard for a new exhibition, entitled The Aesthetics of Scale. The exhibition, which also includes images from the United States, Switzerland, and Dominica, explores landscape in terms of aesthetics, scale, and sustainability. It is on display at the Orlando Museum of Art through April 28, 2013. Admission is free.

 

How did this project get started? Why Iceland?

RS: Our student, Sarah Griffis ’11 was a double major in environmental studies and studio art. She had this idea in mind that she wanted to get to Iceland.

LL: An obsession, more like an obsession.

RS: Yeah, it was really an obsession that I could relate to. I had been to Antarctica in 2008 and 2009, and Iceland was a place I was obsessed with, too.

LL: I think we both had been thinking about going there for quite some time. There are all sorts of interesting things going on there with renewable energy and beautiful, physical landscapes.

 

What’s one challenge you’ve faced while working on this project together?

LL: We are definitely coming from different backgrounds. I’m a physical geographer by training, and Rachel is an artist. There have been many moments along the way where it’s very apparent that we see some things differently. For example, at one point, we were putting together a visual presentation—working with a specific photograph of a river flowing through a landscape in rural Iceland. Rachel and Sarah started talking about flipping the image because visually it worked better.

RS: Lee had this moment of serious concern, exclaiming “That misrepresents the geography of the landscape!”

LL: This isn’t a real place if you flip it. There’s no place on earth that looks like that. If someone from Iceland saw that photograph, they would surely recognize the place, but once it’s been flipped it becomes a landscape that doesn’t really exist.

RS: And for artists, that kind of manipulation of an image might allow them to better articulate an idea or concept, so they wouldn’t have any qualms about it.

LL: We’ve had a lot of moments like that along the way.

RS: It’s a kind of inter-cultural exchange. There’s nothing like trying to understand the point of view of another academic discipline to help you understand your own.

 

Tell me about the process.

RS: We start the process by discussing and selecting photographs from Lee’s field work. Not just any images, but photos that highlight specific aspects of scale and sustainability.

The photos are then transferred onto printmaking paper using an etching press and solvent. Afterwards, I assess the contrast and overall readability of the images and add drawing as a final layer as needed.

The fun thing that happens with this transfer technique is that by brushing the solvent on, it’s like painting with the image. These techniques help push the image further away from photography into a drawing space where you can then shift the perspective of the viewer to focus on certain things. Working in the space between realism and abstraction allows us to represent the ambiguity and complexity of the landscape.

 

Why the ambiguity?

LL: We’re not only wrestling with aesthetic questions in the art, but also with thematic questions about scale and sustainability.

There’s a fundamental tension between human-scale structures and the large industrial-scale structures that exist in many landscapes. Different places have resolved it or not resolved it in different ways. In some places, large fixed-scale structures completely dominate the landscape.

RS: Like in Central Florida.

LL: Yeah, many of these landscapes are not physically accessible to people unless they’re in an automobile. Yet, in many other places, we see the persistence of the original human-scale patterns. We’re exploring the tension between these two things and this is where the challenge comes in. We could easily take the work in the direction of, “Okay, these landscapes have a low carbon footprint, and these landscapes have a very high carbon footprint.” But that is only a part of the larger picture.

RS: There are large geothermal plants in Iceland that are great from a carbon standpoint, but still end up feeling very industrial. It’s just not clear, aesthetically, how all of this plays out.

LL: You can design very green structures that have no real connection to the landscape they’re in. You know that kind of cold, eco-architecture you sometimes see, like geodesic domes. They really look out of place in the landscape. So the question becomes, how do you design landscapes that are sustainable, yet scaled in such a way that the organic patterns and structures, which have a long history in the place, remain intact?