“Hidden Worlds: The Universe of Pollen Revealed in Large-scale Ceramic Sculptures”, artist Susan Crowell’s exhibition of monumental ceramic pollen sculptures, is on display this spring in the conservatory at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The sculptures, each representing a different kind of pollen, bear witness to the complexity and variety of these tiny plant structures.
Crowell, a Fulbright scholar and professor in the Stamps School of Art and Design and the Residential College, went deep into the world of flowers for inspiration. Rendered at this scale — some of the works are two feet or more in diameter — the sculptures reveal a universe of surprising beauty that for most of us remains unseen.
The artist’s aim is multilayered. First is a new appreciation for “the delicacy and intricacy of the natural world,” says Crowell. Pollen also tells the story of the interconnectedness of all things, she adds. Even if pollen’s annual rite of spring is largely taken for granted, Crowell hopes that when visitors experience the show they will “think about flowers, and about pollen and pollinators and realize that there’s a network we’re all a part of, and that we’re dependent on things we can’t see.”
Crowell’s sculptures also test the limits of ceramics. It’s about getting it to do what hasn’t been done to it before, she explains, and breaking out of the issue of weight “so things can hang, roll, or float, rather than the static idea of what we usually expect ceramic to do.” In real life pollen floats through the air and settles on surfaces, something visitors will see in the conservatory with groups of pollen sculptures clustering like clumps of real pollen or hung with thin filament and suspended in the air.
To honor the 80-year-old American agave that bloomed at Matthaei Botanical Gardens in 2014, Crowell has created agave pollen sculptures based on scanning electron microscope images of the pollen taken by the UM imaging labs. The agave sculptures will occupy the space left behind by the American agave, which died in 2015 and was removed last winter.