Faculty Member Bridges Art and Nature Through Smithsonian Fellowship

Both art and science can attempt to explain what lies beneath the surface. A Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (SARF) has helped Fiber Department faculty member Annet Couwenberg combine art and science to present nature in a new light.

Couwenberg was one of 13 visual artists chosen for the prestigious 2014 SARF program this past summer, meant to give artists the opportunity to collaborate with Smithsonian scholars and access its collections to conduct research that can help them to produce new work.

Couwenberg chose to study the interrelated systems of the bone structures and the outer membranes of fish by comparing images of the skeleton and skin from the same fish to better understand their relationship. Her work is sponsored by and takes place in the lab of Lynne R. Parenti, PhD, a curator at the Division of Fishes, Department of Vertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. There, Couwenberg uses imaging technology and microscopic photography to explore how 3D structures are supported by 2D planar surfaces. By taking into account fishes’ mechanics, movement, speed, and flexibility, generated from these complex systems, she entered into the fellowship hoping to create better informed sculptures that move, bend, stretch, and twist.

Couwenberg explained her attraction to learning from the natural world with, “What I realize is that every single thing—that data, that info—in the lab has a function. For an artist, especially in a decorative field, when do we stop decorating? When is it ‘functional’ and when is it not?...I love that the economy of materials in this visual data is so on the mark; everything is there for a reason. I believe in the inherent quality of materials; materiality is an integral component of fiber. In addition, the fish anatomy is a natural analogue to the work of the fiber artist who develops dynamic 3D forms from a planar structure.”

As her fellowship has continued, Couwenberg has taken the information from the biological observations to make technologically supported creations. “I take the physical, import the scans into the computer, and visually blow them up, making them tangible for me to understand and manipulate,” Couwenberg explained. “Through up-close observation, I want to go from the object to the virtual world, back to the physical world.” After studying the images in the computer, Couwenberg then uses them for laser cutting and engraving, experimenting in a variety of materials such as felt, wood, Plexiglas, paper, and vellum. She has even brought in students to assist with the 3D scanning and laser cutting so they can teach each other.

Couwenberg and Parenti both appreciate how the SARF program brings together different perspectives. Parenti, having grown up in a family of artists, said, “The SARF program is different in the way that it brings in artists who are going to use the collection in a way that people really haven’t used the collection before.”

Both Couwenberg and Parenti agree that artists and scientists aren’t as different as many people think. “Most of the biologists I know are very good artists,” Parenti said. “We already understand and speak the same language.”

Before SARF, Couwenberg participated in science, art, and technology collaborations through two National Science Foundation (clockwise from top left) A selection of pieces of the skeleton of a sturgeon that is part of the collections of the National Museum of Natural History; Fiber Department faculty member Annet Couwenberg surveys some of the fish specimens preserved in alcohol at the National Museum of Natural History; Annet Couwenberg, Gonad Testis Collar, laser engraving on paper, 2014; and Fiber Department faculty member Annet Couwenberg (right) and Lynne R. Parenti, PhD, a curator at the Division of Fishes, Department of Vertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. grants, one through The Johns Hopkins University and one through the University of Pennsylvania, as well as through her Collaborative Smart Textiles Research Lab at MICA, which partners with The Johns Hopkins University Digital Media Center.

Since the SARF program began, Couwenberg said the way she thinks about technology has changed, as has the evolution of her own work. “I am an experiential learner,” Couwenberg said, adding, “And that is what fiber is. We learn from the process.”

Enjoying the immersion immensely, Couwenberg continues her fellowship through March, and she is enthusiastic about sharing her experiences with her MICA students and with the public. She will take part in a free talk, titled Intersecting Inquiries: Conversations Between Smithsonian Art Fellows and Scientists: The Skeleton and the Skin, at the National Museum of Natural History’s Q?rius Theater (10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC), on Sunday, February 22 at 2 pm.