I get all kinds of commissions, from very large (17 feet), to very small (6×12”). Sometimes a client simply wants a piece that ‘looks like’ one I’ve already made, but most projects are far more complicated. I rarely turn one down though. Thinking back, some of the most memorable, cherished and not, moments of my art career came to me via commissions.
So, just before Christmas 2013, I got a call from the wife of a retired Professor of Biochemistry who was about to enjoy his 80th birthday. Knowing of my interest in the sciences, she wondered if I might create a wall piece to celebrate her husband’s research in mitochondrial biogenesis. Now I had heard of mitochondria in my Science courses, ummmm…. literally back in the last century, but couldn’t, at that moment, recall a single thing about them. My right brain raced as we discussed practical matters like size, shape and timing.
Then I thought, what the heck… that’s what Google is for, right? And I love abstracts. Thus began the steep learning curve from mitochondrially-challenged to mitochondrially-knows-just-enough-to-make-a-wall-hanging.
Just so all that knowledge doesn’t go to waste, let’s get up to speed on mitos. They are small, really small: less than 1 micrometer in size. They live inside most of the cells of living organisms. They are often described as “cellular power plants” because they generate most of the cell’s supply of energy. Electron micrograph photos show globular forms filled with parallel strands (threads! Yes!), and either alone or nestled amongst others of their kind. They can both divide and recombine. The reasons scientists are interested in them are many – with implications for health, aging, growth and even memory.
Some of this was coming back to me. Could it be my own mitochondria were dancing?
I’ve always trusted in my ability to rise up to the occasion, however happy or dire. For this project, as with most others, there was research – reading, gathering images, making rough sketches, pondering techniques. I drifted off at night thinking about possible layouts. After a few weeks, it was time to commit to paper. With a few attempts and some tweaking, this was the result:
The colours came from electron micrograph images of the interiors of cells. I wanted to show all the energy at the moment of division, so one of the mitos broke out from the border. The dark background provided an atmosphere of mystery while also creating a foil for the bright neon colours.
I sent the drawing off to the client with bated breath. Normally after viewing a first attempt, the client comes back to me with all kinds of suggestions and changes, but not this lady! … It was a solid ” GO FOR IT!”
The next challenge was technique. This design was quite different from recent work and would require more attention to the strong clean lines, to stand clear from all the background details. For the solution, I harkened back to 2002 and 2009, recalling two series of Seed designs I’d made with the same sharp edges (image below). Great! A precedent!
I cut the globe shapes in fabric, leaving the edges bare and crisp, filling in the centres with other fabrics and clippings. Once the globe shapes were done, I added the interior strands using strips of a semi-transparent print. They looked good but a bit washed out. Would couching a contrasting yarn around them create more contrast? Oh yeah! And it was pleasant, meditative work, not at all the chore I had anticipated. The design did change somewhat – it always does as I’m working on the real thing. That bottom mito needed to be whole, not cut off.
Then came the finishing: backing, batting, quilting, sleeve…. Ta-da!!! Six weeks after that first call, “Microcosm” was delivered, rolled up in a cardboard box we hoped would escape detection until Presentation Day, in early February. The final word? Instant recognition, and very well received.