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Nola Studiola Dispatch: Pippin Frisbie-Calder

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One of the drawings from printmaker Pippin Frisbie-Calder and Dr. Tim McLean's exhibition on phytoplankton.

As part of a content partnership with Nola Studiola, a collaborative online platform where various artists -- visual and literary -- curate the site with their own content for month-long "residencies,” we will feature monthly “dispatches” from Nola Studiola's artists. This feature series focuses on the artists’ reflections of their curatorial work at Nola Studiola.

The site's latest guest curator was New Orleans-based printmaker Pippin Frisbie-Calder, whose works primarily focus on littoral ecosystems and interconnected wetlands throughout Louisiana. Here, Pippin writes about her experience working with a Tulane biologist to produce a current exhibition focused on local species of phytoplankton. 

When I first applied to the Flint and Steel: Cross-Disciplinary Combustion residency at A Studio in the Woods, I knew next to nothing about microscopy, let alone phytoplankton. At the time, this local residency program on the Westbank of New Orleans was launching its first ever pairing of artists with a group of Tulane professors. The residency aimed to create new, risk-taking works to ignite social change and expand professors’ research into the larger community. As a local printmaker, my work is often rooted in some collaboration or research but less direct interaction with scientific research than the collaborative residency proposed. (Full disclosure: I knew so little on the subject of phytoplankton that I initially misspelled the word.)

Regardless, I applied to the program and was pleasantly surprised when I was selected. Microbiologist Dr. Tim McLean became my Tulane contact and together we wrote the second proposal, gleaning new ideas from his interest and vast knowledge of the subject. In the end, we proposed to create an exhibition concerned with micro-algae awareness, aiming to demystify local freshwater phytoplankton.

Dr. McLean and I ran in to our first obstacle when -- while searching for the precise angle for the show -- we realized that while we had a plethora of research on phytoplankton at a general, global level, we had few resources concentrated on local, freshwater Eukaryotes (any organism whose cells contain a nucleus and other organelles enclosed within membranes). Subsequently, we set out to acquire our own research, which ultimately required us to gather water samples with a canoe and loads of expensive equipment.

After four months of collecting water samples from all over Louisiana, Dr. McLean and I finally spotted magic under the scopes -- our water samples teemed with photosynthetic, microscopic organisms (phytoplankton) that look to the untrained eye like sci-fi aliens, complete with whirling appendages, flailing whips and translucent glass houses.

Developed over billions of years, their dizzying array of sizes, shapes and colors allows each unique phytoplankton species to fill its niche in the ecosystem with the ultimate purpose of surviving and reproducing.

After many hours of observing the species under the microscope, I realized that woodcuts (my primary form of artistic expression) were not quite the right form of visual representation to render these organisms.

As A Studio in the Woods is designed to do, the new subject matter had encouraged the greatest “risk-taking” I had attempted in years. I called upon friends and family and together we built a show that pushed the realms of my comfort as a printmaker into something I am truly excited about. For my reevaluated approach, I decided to mimic the organisms’ microscopic appearance. Under light microscopy, phytoplankton appear translucent, glowing and prismatic. Thus, I focused on the phytoplankton’s transparency, delving into the craft of mold making, resin casting and electrical lighting.

The show opened (with negative one minute to spare) on May 9 in collaboration with the Wetlands Art Tour. The display leads viewers through three rooms showcasing drawings and glowing sculptures of local and significant phytoplankton. Together the visuals produce an interactive landscape, inviting viewers to “activate” the chloroplasts of local phytoplankton or flip through documentation of the 4 months of collaboration that preceded the exhibit.

Many viewers who say they’ve never heard of phytoplankton leave with an increased knowledge and awareness of the beauty, diversity and utility of the microorganisms that are the basic building blocks of our vibrant wetlands, including our fishing industry. Others have expressed concern after learning the scary truth about the deadly consequences that unregulated ships’ ballast water might have on us local New Orleanians.

For me, after many years of recreationally canoeing local Louisiana swamps, this project really emphasizes why we have to keep fighting to save our local wetlands. With every inch of water teeming with life, our land loss of a football field of land every hour is exterminating and changing these vibrant, microscopic communities. I for one, plan to continue making art about them -- they're unworldliness deserves to be seen.

The show will be up for three more months at Bywater space The Tigermen Den (3113 Royal Street). Visit Pippin's official site for exhibition updates.