A Life Unwoven: Katie Grove in the StudioSeptember 30, 2016
In the etching studio, Ora Schneider resident Katie Grove sifts through the remains of an abandoned home once belonging to someone she has never met. Everything they owned, tangled and weathered, is laid out, carefully inspected, and categorized. An idea of the stranger’s life takes form: they were fond of rootlets and dried grass, collected grapevine bark, and kept a few delicate leaf skeletons. Of the nine total materials found in the home—a bird’s nest—Katie wants a second opinion to help identify six twigs; their short, angular contours suggest hemlock.
Before coming to WSW, artist and amateur naturalist Katie Grove created Language of the Nest, a series of drawings depicting the twigs found in a nest that had fallen during a winter storm. In taking the nest apart, she was enthralled by the amount of information she learned about the local woods and the bird who lived there.
“A bird carried nearly 700 pieces of stick to its nest and wove it together. There’s a true artist,” she says. A friend of Katie’s noted that her persistence and attention to detail in creating art seemed to mirror that of the bird and its nest. Honoring these shared characteristics, Katie drew every single piece of the meticulously disassembled nest with pen, recording the fine lines of each unique silhouette.
For her residency at WSW, she expands this practice by deconstructing a second nest and dividing the 242 twigs, bark chips, ribbons, broken elm leaves, leaf skeletons, sticks, rootlets, and grass stalks—plus one small, whole leaf—into groups. Because there are too many pieces to print with copper plates, she only chooses one from each category to etch, but still privately records the number and percentage of each material found. The series, titled Nest Unwritten and Rewritten, totals ten works, including one of the entire nest, and permanently chronicles these fragile items in metal, ink, and paper.
“It’s not a limitation, it’s an opportunity to do more with less,” Katie says. Working in intaglio allows her to etch the thinnest lines of leaf veins and rootlet hairs with a precision similar to what she can achieve with pen. She repeatedly proofs and edits her plates to capture the textures, shadows, and details of the subjects. “I love printmaking because of the collaboration that you have with the process. You never entirely know how a print is going to look when you pull it off the press.”
As she works, the balance between objective observation and Katie’s aesthetic preferences wavers. At first, she considered omitting the broken elm leaves to showcase the single, small leaf that sat in the center of the nest, but decided against editing the project’s results. These prints are both a comprehensive catalog documenting her investigation of a bird’s life and a framework for future projects studying the natural world.
Interested in the role art played in early modern science, Katie wants her work to follow in the tradition of naturalists whose illustrations advanced the field of biology. She is particularly inspired by Ferdinand Bauer and Maria Sibylla Merian’s journals, in which watercolors, sketches, and field notes composed portraits of nature that were published for the first time in Enlightenment-era Europe. Ultimately, she hopes to rekindle this collaboration between art and ecology as a means for her audience to feel connected with the natural world, and is searching for a scientist partner to continue this project.
Katie’s approach is largely modeled after activist and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams’s 1991 book Refuge, which intertwines stories of the author’s family hardship and the diminishing bird populations around the Great Salt Lake into one personal, educational narrative. Systematically classifying and depicting nature, Katie wants her work to present a half didactic and half poetic exploration of the environment.
With this body of work, she forms a relationship with a bird by paying homage to the life it left behind. First, she trades the time the bird spent collecting the 243 pieces of its nest for the time she spends untangling, examining, and sorting them. Then she trades her own precious metal, the copper plates, for the twigs and leaves with which bird built its home. It’s a form of communication and understanding. Katie says, “I want my work to be a love letter to nature.”
Katie Grove is a printmaker, fiber artist, and nature educator living in Rosendale, NY. She holds a BFA in Printmaking from SUNY New Paltz. You can find more of Katie’s work on her website kategrove.net and more photos of her residency on our Flickr.