March 29, 2004

Spring on silk

Mary Edna Fraser, an artist living in Charleston, S.C., was commissioned to create a silk batik of Lullwater Preserve in honor of Emory's Inauguration Celebration.

Aerial landscape photographs are the foundation of my artwork. These photographs are transformed into designs for large-scale batiks, an ancient artform using dye and wax on cloth.

My exhibition in the Math & Science Center, "From Outer Banks to Outer Space," features batiks of the world's barrier islands as seen from the air, as well as images of the earth, solar system and galaxies drawn from satellite images. To me, the silks serve as "prayer flags" for the planet we call home, and the goal of bringing this aerial art to Emory was to ferment intellectual imagination and cross-pollinate disciplines.

My friend, Kate Bennett, has followed my work for 15 years, and she first proposed the exhibition. Kate, coordinator and assistant to the chair in physics, realized that the content of my work dovetailed with the building's academic pursuits.

I came to Emory in September 2003 and gave a presentation introducing my work. Physics chair Ray DuVarney and his counterpart in environmental studies, Lance Gunderson, agreed to take on the task of an exhibition. The show opened with the Charter Celebration in January and will close after the inaugural celebration for President Jim Wagner.

I am indebted to many people who work in the Math & Science Center. Hope Payne, office manager in environmental studies, arranged for insurance. Kate curated the silks, edited the texts and made the magic of an extensive exhibition appear seamless. The installation was dramatic and exciting. Kate and I unrolled 45 silks and directed their placement within the magnificent architecture. John Wegner coordinated the two-day installation. Dimitrios Nikolakis oversaw hanging the silks and provided protective paper to shield them from sunlight. Horace Dale and Bud Puckett fabricated special hardware needed for the display.

But I had the most fun at the show's opening. Following a lecture, an assortment of people gathered, strolling up and down the variety of views provided by the building's walkways. Each department offered engaging comments, and Ray and Bud played in a washtub band, enjoying their music as much as the listeners. I brought out my banjo, which is played sideways like a dobro. The fishing-line strings added an oriental jazz sound. Ray even let me play his washtub, and my husband danced while I sang like a gypsy. This is one diverse group of scientists you have here.

It is odd to use an ancient dye technique--paired with modern technology and a vintage airplane--to convey visions beyond our small planet as well as oblique, earthly views, but I found in Emory a conversational audience. The students asked intelligent questions, the professors shared their knowledge, and the campus felt like a healthy, academic community. Through my lectures and other activities at Emory I met exceptional people like astronomer Richard Williamon, University Secretary Gary Hauk and Emory College Senior Associate Dean Rosemary Magee.

Still, when Gary first proposed a batik of Lullwater, I was hesitant. Having flown over Atlanta for aerial photographs in a little 1946 Ercoupe with my father back in the 1980s, I had no desire to batik skyscrapers. But Gary's insistence that I view the Lullwater site was prescient; the green space proved to be a delightful launch for an artist. A nice fall morning walk had me marveling at how well the grounds were kept.

Betsy Tanner from the president's office gave a wonderful tour and escorted me inside the manor house. Colors for the batik floated out of the mansion's bones: the slate roof, the stones, the woodwork, the tiles. Digital photos preserved a memory. A meeting with the groundsman, Mike Ward, revealed the blooming plants: wisteria, George Tabor azaleas, forsythia and light-pink crepe myrtle. He noted the red and white oak, pecan, magnolia and cathedral pine. We added Emory blue and shades of spring green. One of the pieces in the Math & Science Center is a banner of Venus, which Kate said looked like a lush English garden. This Lull-water work is similar in feeling.

After measuring the curved wall, three 36-inch-wide by 7-foot-long panels seemed perfect for the architecture. The batik silk is on a textured basket weave that echoes the block background.

In the studio a window made to scale was rotated on the Lullwater photo until three panels emerged that can stand as single units or as a triptych. The pencil drawing on the silk recalled memories of the filtered light through the woods and the glittering lake. It is spring now in Charleston, and the season's blooming began to find its way into the batik.

For reference, Utagawa's woodblock "Ayus Swimming Upstream with Hagi Branch," Matisse's oil "Port de la Casba," Van Gogh's oil "Branches of an Almond Tree in Blossom," O'Keeffe's oil "Oriental Poppies" and Frankenthaler's watercolor "St. Caste Land-scape" all were sources of inspiration. The ambiance of the gardens surrounding my creekside studio became part of this bucolic aerial view; our acre of land contains 50-year-old camellias and azaleas.

Attacking the huge silk, adrenaline made me feel as if I were diving into a clear lake. The first layer of dyes ranged from citrus to cool greens and warm reds; as many as 75 colors would come into play. Each dye bath is brushed on to create an abstract painting. This is waxed with paraffin and beeswax to resist the next layer of dyes. The process is repeated until the sunlit floral garden in my mind's eye has helped transform the silk to a tapestry suitable for a manor house. Ironing between newsprint--five minutes per square foot--heat sets the dyes. Dry cleaned, washed and sewn, the silks then journeyed to Emory.

This commission was an artistic dream. I hope the viewers respond to this silk window to the outside on the inside.

My involvement with Emory has been rewarding, and I am grateful. My work has always been at its best in an intellectual community. I appreciate the opportunity to tour your lovely buildings and meet so many kind and thoughtful people. Most of all I take my cap off to Kate Bennett; she gave me a fine feather as we bridged science and art.

For more information on Fraser's artwork, visit