It’s not everyday that I attend a launch event for an arts project and find the room filled with microscopes, stacks of specimen slides, and mineral and plant samples. Located at CAST in Helston, the experimental Cornwall Morphology and Drawing Centre (CMADC) created by artist Gemma Anderson, offers the opportunity for both learning and productive interdisciplinary research.
The launch event on 21 March 2015 marked the opening of a series of experimental workshops that Anderson will offer until November 2015. For this launch about fifty people gathered in CMADC, all eager to find out what this new lab/studio would offer. Each microscope featured an illuminated specimen, and next to each microscope a drawing board, paper, a pencil, and a selection of samples of plants and minerals. Some members of the audience excitedly peered into every microscope in the room. Others looked warily at the microscopes, and others – like me – looked warily at the blank paper and pencils. Examples of Anderson’s detailed drawn studies of groups of scientific specimens hung on one wall and placed around the room were a series of mysterious symbols cut out of wood.
The launch event consisted of three presentations: one by Anderson on her work and the evolution of CMADC, another by Dr Colin French from the Cornwall Botanical Group, and a third by mineral collector Courtenay Smale. What shone through each of these presentations was the complete mutual respect all three speakers have for one another’s work. Dr French detailed in his presentation the immense value of drawing botanical samples. He showed us the ERICA database for recording plant species found in the British Isles, and demonstrated how valuable it is when the records include drawings, rather than just photographs. The level of detail resulting from the close observation required by drawing makes it easier to distinguish the sometimes-subtle differences between plant species.
Mineralogist Courtenay Smale showed part of his collection of nineteenth-century wooden models of mineral crystal formations. Models of this type were traditionally part of the process used to identify minerals. These are representations of ideal forms – the way a mineral crystal would grow if it was completely uninhibited by environmental factors. Smale’s wooden models had the audience fascinated, especially when he demonstrated mineral ‘twinning’. Holding a small wooden model in his hands Smale twisted it to alter the shape, demonstrating the need for careful craftsmanship and close observation in creating these mineral models.
Anderson’s concept of Isomorphology is the subject of her PhD and is described by her in her new book as: ‘…a comparative, drawing based method of enquiry into the shared forms of animal, mineral and vegetable morphologies. As a holistic and visual approach to classification, Isomorphology runs parallel to scientific practice while belonging to the domain of artistic creation. It is complementary to science: addressing relationships that are left out of the scientific classification of animal, vegetable and mineral morphologies.’
The term ‘morphology’ was coined by Johann Wolfgang Goethe in The Metamorphosis of Plants 1792, and refers to the study of form. Anderson has created Isomorphology as the study of shared forms. The abstract wooden symbols around the walls of CMADC are a new system of visual classification resulting from Anderson’s research. They represent the forms and symmetries that she has found to repeat through various animal, mineral and vegetable samples she has observed through drawing. Already, Dr French and Anderson are working together to use Isomorphology as a means of navigating the records of the ERICA database.
With learning as a central goal, the Cornwall Morphology and Drawing Centre holds huge potential by offering participants the chance to improve drawing and observation skills while learning about plant and mineral morphology. What is so unique is that whilst these learning activities are central to Anderson’s practice as an artist; every participant is offered the opportunity to make an active contribution to the new study of Isomorphology, which provides endless opportunities to study shared forms in nature.
Gemma Anderson and Dr. Colin French
Anderson’s abstracted Isomorphic symbols provide a means for study and a new system of classification that crosses into a number of scientific disciplines. Since everything on this planet – animal, mineral and vegetable – is formed of the same elemental building blocks with predetermined habits, then perhaps Isomorphology can offer us a unique insight into the nature of these building blocks. It brings us out of various scientific ‘ologies’ into a kind of ‘meta’ causality, referencing the principle of uniformity in nature. Anderson’s series of abstracted symbols representing the consistent forms she has found throughout her observations are reminiscent of those found throughout ancient art. These Isomorphic forms are there, constant within physic’s natural laws: we only have to join Anderson on her quest as this study evolves.
by Kenna Hernly.
Kenna Hernly is an independent event curator and Learning Curator for Adult Programmes at Tate St Ives. She studied at Falmouth University and at St Mary’s College of Maryland, USA.
Gemma Anderson graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2007. She is currently Associate Lecturer in Drawing and completing a practice-based PhD studentship at Falmouth University.
Cornwall Morphology and Drawing Centre (CMADC) offers a series of experimental workshops combining artistic and scientific approaches. Itis based at CAST, Helston, until November 2015.
Cornubian Arts & Science Trust (CAST), Helston, is an educational charity that promotes participation, appreciation and learning in the visual arts and sciences.
Find out more: The Cornwall Morphology and Drawing Centre