Interview: Ingrid Erickson

During Penland’s Winter Residency, I had a chance to catch up with Ingrid Erickson, a mixed media artist who specializes in cut paper. She often includes scientifically accurate images of birds, bones, and other natural history subjects. Ingrid has had several opportunities to install herself as a sort of “artist in residence” among several scientific groups, something which I have done as well. We had a chat at the Penland Coffee Shop in January.

NL: I’d like to talk with you about the ways in which you insert yourself as a sort of artist in residence working in the lab or in the field among scientists, and what that process is like. I’ve done that a few times and it’s really interesting.
IE: I’ve just found scientists to be really welcoming in general, once they understand I have a certain seriousness about the topic and that we’re approaching it from a very, very different set of lenses. I’ve found people to be really welcoming and supportive.

NL: So when we talked before you were saying you’ve been working Prairie Ridge. Can you tell me more about that?
IE: I have data from the last twelve years from Prairie Ridge Ecostation and I’m doing a project about bird banding, an installation piece, it will be large scale involving paper infusions and an actual ornithologists mist net. I went there several times to observe bird banding, and also went to the National Bird Banding Laboratory, an office at Patuxent [Wildlife Research Center] in Maryland.

NL: What did you do at Patuxent?
IE: I was there for three weeks and I was actually a member of the Crane Team. So I was working with eight scientists primarily, raising endangered Whooping Crane babies.
NL: That’s so cool. You got to actually participate in it as one of the researchers?
IE: Yes. Every morning there would be a team meeting and then people would suit up and you’d have to wear your costume, which is a head-to-foot white outfit with mesh screens so you can see, but your face is not visible. You have a puppet on your hand to feed the chicks, and you’re teaching them to eat and drink as they grow.

NL: So were you working mostly with postdocs and graduate students? Who are the folks that are on this team? Are they volunteers?
IE: There are some volunteers. It’s a really interesting interface. There are volunteers from the community who’ve been helping out for years and years, there are graduate students, there are scientists who’ve been working there for the past 20 years or so and they all know each other, so it’s sort of an interesting community.

NL: How did you get involved with that? I mean did you sort of write somebody and say, can I come join you?
IE: When I decided I wanted to do this piece on cranes, I found out there is an International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin that’s involved in research and conservation and then there’s also a team of biologists who meets every three to four years for a conference, and so I went.
NL: Where was that?
IE: It was in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There were about 300 scientists there, and then me, the lone official artist.

NL: When you first started doing this kind of work, did you reach out to a specific scientist whose work you were interested in? What was your first step towards this sort of partnership?
IE: Well, for this particular project, I went and I heard all their papers and I talked with people about their research, and then identified people I might like to work with. I found some folks who were receptive to the idea of an artist collaborating. So that’s how I found out about going to Patuxent and doing some work at the vet hospital there, and also met some wildlife biologists in Mississippi and Louisiana, folks from the Calgary Zoo… it’s a really big operation.

NL: So when you first approach them are you showing them examples of your work?
IE: Yes.
NL: What appeals to me about your work, both as an artist and a scientist, is that I look at these species of birds and they are identifiable, it’s almost like scientific illustration using cut paper. So they were taking you seriously because you’re taking the science seriously?
IE: Yes, absolutely. The specific reference point is that I’m interested in a particular species and the ecosystem that it’s involved in and the role that it plays, why it’s important.

NL: Are you weaving other things like that into the work somehow? Do the background patterns have something to do with environmental information?
IE: Yes. In some of my older work, there are architectural references that I’ve developed but in the newer work I’ll include numbers sometimes.
NL: Representing what?
IE: Specific data points that have to do with the project. For instance, I decided I wanted to include some of the costume-wearing puppets, so I have 186 of these individual paper cuts that are part of the installation, and some of them are eggs. I got to watch the whole incubation process and see how they number them and how they clean them. It’s really complicated and intriguing to me. They sterilize the egg before it’s put in the incubator so it won’t contaminate any of the others. They collect it in a cooler and transport it.
NL: So when you were there, there were cranes at lots of different stages? Egg, newly hatched ones, older ones…
IE: Yes
NL: Is there a breeding season?
IE: The breeding season starts in January and then there is hatching going on throughout May, so it’s the beginning of May when all of that kicks into high gear.

NL: What’s next for you?
IE: I’m doing a project with the Duke Lemur Center and I got a grant for some video equipment which I am really excited about. I don’t have a background in video or anything like that.
NL: Do you have a background in lemurs?
IE: [laughs] No! But I’m going to be gathering a lot of visual information, filming some of the nocturnal species. I’m particularly fascinated with the Aye-aye. They have a really strange, attenuated third finger which is thin and long – it’s for feeding and grasping. And they’re really just kind of bizarre-looking creatures.
NL: And you’re going to do an installation based on this?
IE: It will be an installation involving large scale paper cuts but I’m not sure about the specific form yet

NL: What’s your relationship like with the scientists that you work with? Do you have an example of working with a scientist where it changed the direction of your work in some way?
IE: That’s a great question. The lemur project is just starting for me so I don’t know if can draw an example from that. But thinking back to some of the research that I’ve done for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, I’ve done some research in their bird collection and I just keep my ears open when I’m sketching and working in the collection. I hear conversations when people talk about their work and there all kinds of things that come up that are really interesting to me, so always keeping an eye out for interesting topics.

Ingrid and I chatted some more about what a great intellectual and creative adventure it is being the lone artist among a scientific team. We agreed that we are glad that art-science is gaining acceptance so that this kind of adventure is becoming less rare. Thanks so much to Ingrid for sharing her process with us!