I’ve been a stitcher since I was a kid. I learned to sew by making outfits for a tiny stuffed bear named Cinnamon. I worked as a theater costumer in my teens and 20s and I was the only person in my college dorm with a sewing machine. Sewing is not the kind of skill you win trophies for; the uncoolness of having something “homemade” was a reason to kind of keep quiet about it. In fact, years later as a full time artist who uses my sewing skills in nearly every piece that I make, those same skills are rarely the aspect of my work that I talk about. Exhibition labels and artist statements about my work often describe the surface design and the beautiful materials, but the process that transformed a flat piece of fabric to something 3-D and functional is almost an afterthought.
As with many things in 2020, that afterthought was turned sort of upside down with the need for face masks. Suddenly my sewing skills were in huge demand. Today, you can buy masks at every checkout counter and from every online retailer, but just a little less than a year ago they were nowhere to be found. I started to realize how many people I knew who didn’t know how to sew and didn’t know someone to make a mask for them. I made hundreds to donate to organizations and give to friends. Supplies were very hard to get, so I worked my way through years worth of leftovers and art samples: odd thread colors from making Halloween costumes, leftovers from baby gifts, and samples and scrap fabrics from exhibition pieces.
It was inspiring to see the creativity that came from the need for masks. Every week I would find a new design or pattern that another stitcher had created to make them fit better or be more functional. The creativity wasn’t about making them pretty, but it was the careful engineering of transforming something soft and flexible into a very specific three-dimensional shape. I read articles about the filtering properties of different fabrics and looked at microscopic photos of the fiber structures that influenced the effectiveness of the filters. Scientists studied the electrostatic properties of silk vs cotton and woven vs non-woven fabrics and how that changed the way they filtered particles. Making masks became a real fusion of art and science; the handcraft of sewing combined with the physics of fibers.
In 2020, I was chosen to be a resident artist with the Bell Museum to create some art inspired by something from their collections. Like many things, being a “resident artist” had a new definition in 2020. As everything has needed to evolve into a more virtual experience, I was struggling trying to find a way to really connect my art to the collections at the Bell Museum when no one could visit them in person. Thinking about the art and science of mask making made me wonder about other fields of science that could be involved in studying aspects of the pandemic; not just the epidemiologists and materials engineers, but also the scientists studying plants. Not only have they been studying plant fibers like cotton used for making masks but there are also scientists who study the medicinal qualities of plants for treating illnesses. A lot of those plants grow in Minnesota and are represented in the Herbarium Collection at the Bell Museum.
This collection of art represents my artistic research of those medicinal plants. Studying the Bell Museum’s digital herbarium collections and MN plant field guides, I chose 25 native MN species and created a cut paper illustration of each plant to be featured on a cotton mask. The original illustrations are made with paper, also made from plant fibers, and then digitally printed on to organic cotton fabric using eco-friendly inks. I sewed each mask, using a pattern I adapted from some of the designs shared with the sewing community throughout 2020. In keeping with the need for a virtual experience, I photographed the collection in my studio to create a virtual exhibition that you can explore from anywhere. I also created a collection of videos, activities and other ways that you can interact with and learn more about the art. We are hoping to show the masks as part of an in-person exhibition in 2021 and after the exhibition, the masks will be donated to local art and science teachers to inspire their students to look at the intersections of art and science in different ways.