Emma Powell’s experiences through her life, photography, and explored sciences culminate in her one-person exhibition, “Juggling Butterflies,” now on display in the Coburn Gallery. Powell, an Assistant Professor of Art at Colorado College, explores the connection between fantasy and fact in the multiple series of the exhibit, though the main concepts of each vary. One can tell that she is deeply influenced by her interest in the history of photography and its processes that have developed through time by her application of dated techniques.
Images that are truly moving decorate the walls of Coburn. One feels connected to Powell because the works are so personal, yet relatable and engaging. She describes her most frequently shown body of work, “In Search of Sleep”, as a series that is representative of the environments, moods, and metaphors that presented themselves during her days of childhood insomnia. The subsequent, spontaneous bedtime stories her father would tell her, she says, would regularly begin on the familiar streets of her neighborhood, but were full of possibility; anything could happen, and often did.
The artist’s use of cyanotype process allows ethereal blue tones, enhanced by subtle tea and wine tannin dyes, to establish a relationship between fantastical dreamscapes and real-life experience. The dream-to-life connection is reinforced by the fact that she uses herself as the model for all of the pieces, making the audience-to-artist connection all the more real and enchanting.
The works are both a self-portrait and an escape for Powell as she portrays a character of her imagination in each.
“In Search of Sleep is a visual lullaby that allows me to safely explore what I love, fear, remember, and imagine,” Powell writes. She says that this series, produced mostly in 2011, has the potential to be expanded upon, though she is uncertain if she will do so.
In “Offerings and Elegy” for the Honeybee, the artist’s exploration of historical visual processes is depicted. In the former, Powell uses natural and mechanical objects to create blurred images of collected scientific specimens, cultivating the relationship between surrealism and realism through a scientific lens. In the latter, which is her most recent work, she develops the idea of “having multiple elements of vision that add up to one image,” inspired by the vision that honeybees possess.
Having studied photographic processes from the 19th century, she is able to effectively utilize techniques such as wet plate collodion on acrylic plates, seen in her two series Offerings and Elegy for the Honeybee.
In these, she combines historical and modern processes, digitally printing the plates after scanning them. Wet plate collodion is traditionally applied to metal or glass, but Powell uses black acrylic plates instead, which yields both a negative and positive impression of the subject matter on the transparent support. This, combined with the laser cutting experience she gained while working at Iowa State University, allows the artist to produce patterns within carefully crafted shapes that construct one larger image.
Powell’s interest in the collection of scientific specimens, through both the concept and subject matter of this series, was inspired by her time working at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Additionally, photographing specimens at Middlebury College in Vermont, and collaborating with an etymologist at Iowa State to work more closely with specimens, has also heavily influenced the focus of her photography.
“Juggling Butterflies” will be on display in the Coburn Gallery on the main floor of Worner Campus Center until Dec. 17.