Exploring the themes of sustainability, diversity and food innovation, OSU’s Art about Agriculture exhibit aims to feature artists’ work on the agriculture industry. The exhibit is currently on display at the Giustina Gallery in Corvallis, but will tour to Baker City and Newport. We’ll hear from artists Deb Stoner and Tallmadge Doyle on their featured work.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. For 39 years now, Oregon State University has put on an artistic competition and touring exhibit that focuses on the intersection of art and agriculture. There’s a different theme every year. This year, it’s ‘The Sustainable Feast.’ So artists were invited to explore sustainability, diversity and innovation in our food system. About four dozen northwest artists took part. This year’s exhibit is currently on display at the Giustina Gallery in Corvallis, but it will be installed later this summer in Baker City and in Newport.
I’m joined now by two of the artists whose work is featured. Deb Stoner is a photographer, jeweler and teacher in Portland. Tallmadge Doyle is a painter, printmaker and teacher in Eugene. It’s good to have both of you on our show.
Tallmadge Doyle: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Deb Stoner: Thank you. Yes, glad to be here.
Miller: So, Deb Stoner first. I should say we have links to both of your websites so folks can see for themselves the work that we’re going to be talking about. But can you describe the profusion of botanical life that you’ve been capturing in photographs for a few years now.
Stoner: Yeah, almost 10 years. I make large scale, high-resolution photographs of flowers and bugs. And the photographs are … the camera that I use is actually a flatbed scanner. So the incoming data is necessarily quite flexible and quite wonderfully weird in that, instead of photographing something in the field, I’m able to make a composition on a horizontal surface. And the restrictions are that the flatbed scanner has a extremely shallow depth of field, meaning that I don’t have any options over what’s in focus, what’s not in focus. My only option is to create a composition that leads one’s eye around the visual space. And I’ve gotten quite interested in making still life floral images in that way.
Miller: One of the things that’s striking, among many things in these images, is the background: the black or super dark background that has the foreground of flowers or a tomato or stems or leaves or, in some cases, butterflies or other things that crawl or fly. It really makes them pop out. Is that a distinct feature of the scanner, that behind the foreground, it’s just black?
Stoner: It’s more than just behind. And it’s it’s the easiest thing about my process in that people, when they think of a scanner, they think they have to shut the lid. If you don’t shut the lid, then what you get is the scanner trying to make sense of what’s above it. And it loses the ability to make sense because of that shallow depth of field in about an inch and a half or so. And after that it just says, well it must be black. I can’t figure it out. So ways around that are to use certain backdrops and things like that. But I’ve gotten very interested in what happens when there is just that saturated lack of extra color and it gives the work specific unity that I’m really interested in. Miller: As you noted, some of these images have critters on them. Do you have to get them to stay, whether it’s a butterfly or a bee or something else?
Stoner: Oh gosh, you’re getting all my top secrets.
Miller: [Laughing.] Sorry, that’s this show.
Stoner: [Laughing.] That’s right. That’s right. The flowers are all alive. The bugs and bees and that sort of thing are all, they have passed away. They are calm and sedated. And the interesting thing is that it’s super easy to find dead insects in the world. Their lifespans are not very long. And if you just wander around looking for these things, you find them on the ground. There’s one particular image that I made with live fauna, and those were caterpillars. And that was because the caterpillars, in in my view, they look terrible when they’re dead. They’re flat and squished and they do not look alive. And so I thought, well, I’ll just use the live caterpillars. And they’re interesting because they would lay on the vegetation that I would put them on. And then as the scanner bulb would go by, it would alert them that something was happening and then they would start moving. But if I press the button about 10 times, I think they got quickly used to the idea that this was not going to hurt them, and then they calmed down. And then by image 11 or 12, I got some great shots.
Miller: And you weren’t going to get stung, because they weren’t bees.
Stoner: By the caterpillars? Yeah, nah, it was fine. Yeah. The bees … bees are fabulous. You know, I find them wherever I go, and they’re wonderfully preserved ‒ their lifespans are so short ‒ as opposed to a the butterfly, whose wings may be battered and bruised by the time they’ve passed on.
Miller: Tallmadge Doyle, my understanding is that some of the work that you submitted to this year’s Art about Agriculture exhibition was influenced by a trip that you took to the Bay of Fundy in eastern Canada, a place that’s famous for having, I guess, it’s the highest tidal change from high tide to low tide in the world. What did you do there?
Doyle: Oh yes, that was a very beautiful place. I was very fortunate to go to the Kingsborough International Artist Residency, and there is what we call the Kingsborough Gardens ‒ 26 acres of botanical garden. And myself and four other artists from around the world were able to live in the garden for a month in a beautiful house, and I just really soaked in the area. And you know, the weather would come in and out and everything was so dramatic. Let’s see, it was the month of June that I was there. And you know, the tides are so huge, and just watching them was amazing. So I just sort of soaked it all in, and I started to work.
And this beautiful garden is at sea level, and I began to think about in 20, 30, 40 years from now, where is this garden going to be? Is it going to be underwater? And so I started on this series, Underwater Garden. And so and there’s mapping and cartography included. You know, my stuff made created maps and there are references to real landmasses and imaginary cartography that I invent. And I work in different printmaking techniques, but mainly etching techniques: traditional printmaking, etching on copper plates, and would cut and monoprinting and addition printing. But I started to work on this series of prints while I was there and then brought it home and I’ve been working on it on and off for the last several years. So yeah, that’s what I did there.
Miller: I’m curious about another series as well that you’ve been working on ‒ basically at the same time, going back and forth ‒ that’s also included in this year’s competition. The series as a whole is called Celestial Oceans. Can you describe these works?
Doyle: Yes. Okay, so, Celestial Oceans I started working on during the pandemic. I’ve been very interested in the ocean for a long time, and over the years, worked with creatures from the ocean. Octopus kept on popping into my work. And I’ve been very interested by this phenomenon called The Blob. You probably know what it is. I think the scientists first noticed it in 2013 off the coast of Alaska. It was this giant mass of warm water, and it floated down through the northwest down to California. And it created havoc in terms of marine life, from microscopic marine life to salmon migration. I started studying about this blob and it started appearing in my work. And then as I was working on these paintings and drawings about The Blob, I started incorporating very spontaneously celestial maps, which I used to work with many years ago, and they started popping in my work and I just decided to go with it.
And the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me. You know, the vast solar system and the deep, deep ocean: two very mysterious places and places that we really haven’t figured out. And some of the forms, both in the deep ocean and in way out there in the Milky Way are very, very similar in terms of the organic forms that are created in star forms, and then in sea urchins and other kinds of sea life. So I started noting those similarities and that was really, really fascinating to me. And so all that has come out in this series and the specific piece that I have in the Art about Agriculture show, the smaller piece is, let’s see, it’s Algae Universe. It’s called, yes Algae Universe. It’s traditional etching techniques with hand coloring.
And I was working on a portfolio piece … a group of artists were invited by the Smithsonian Marine Scientists Center in Annapolis, Maryland to create an addition of prints which would then be put together in a portfolio and shown in ‒ go into their collection ‒ but also shown in a traveling exhibition. And so I started to work in round compositions because I was looking at images from electron microscopes and regular microscopes that were round. And I had been working with a lot of round images already, so it was a natural progression for me. And that was that has been really fun to really change the format and have no corners. So sort of operating out of the box a bit. So that’s the other piece in the show.
Miller: Deb Stoner, if I could go back to you, I’m curious how you responded as an artist to this particular prompt. As I noted, the theme for this year for this annual exhibition and competition is The Sustainable Feast. I’m curious what that means to you as an artist.
Stoner: Okay, well usually my work in the still life photographic images that I make have to do with paying attention to what is in bloom. What is in blossom? What little bug is alive at any given moment? So it’s a snapshot in time. I work specifically from gardens very close to home, or if I’m on the road, then I’m not taking bits and pieces of different time periods and compositing with them, for example. So in the summertime, especially when the half of the foliage and the blossoms are dedicated to food sources like beans and lettuce and varieties of beets and root vegetables and all of that, they become the things that I look at and including my still life images. And so two of the images that I had in the Art about Agriculture show had to do with just paying attention to that at any given moment.
Like in one of the pieces called ‘Other Things that Might be Happening During the Eclipse’ has an image of katydid right next to a watermelon right next to some green beans and some eggplant, and the green beans are huge compared to the watermelon. And one might think, ‘well, what kind of Photoshop skills are you using to make that happen?’ And it’s not at all. It’s just the idea that when picked very, very young, the watermelon looks like a watermelon. It doesn’t change that much. It’s just size. And so it’s quite fun to take these objects that have a life that changes and develops as they grow and just pay attention to them.
Miller: Tallmadge, before we say goodbye, I’m just curious what or if there’s a connection for you between the art you make and the activism? I mean, you were talking about The Blob and climate change, rising sea levels. These are obviously hugely important policy and political and social and psychological issues. You’re making art about them. Is this activism for you?
Doyle: For me, it is. And I think there are many forms of activism. This is a more subtle one, obviously. I think that my work tends to draw you in with color and composition and flow. And then after a while, you figure out what it’s about, as opposed to in your face graphic statement ‒ and not that there’s anything wrong with that at all ‒ it’s just not what I do, you know? And I’m still in the process, honestly, about figuring out how and where I can make a difference with art and the environment in terms of issues in the environment. So that’s sort of an ongoing process for me. Yes.
Miller: Tallmadge Doyle and Deb Stoner, thanks so much.
Both: Thank you.
Miller: Deb Stoner is a photographer and a jewelry maker and a teacher in Portland. Tallmadge Doyle is a painter and printmaker and teacher in Eugene.
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