Joslyn Richardson’s Final Project -
College of the Atlantic senior Joslyn Richardson is enthusiastic about the opportunity to talk about final project. After months of solitary lab work, she’s excited to share details of her work. She’s producing a stop-motion animated short, shot almost entirely on the microscope, that explores the relationship between telescopic and microscope scales, and the particular sense of centeredness that we experience when observing infinite planes of space both above and below.
“I have been mostly photographing tiny creatures called radiolarians, which are single-cell marine organisms that have incredibly complex, three-dimensional silica exoskeletons. During their life cycle they actually absorb silicon compounds from the ocean waters and secrete their exoskeletons, which forms a lace-like geometric framework that surrounds them. Most animation moves on the x or y-axis; this animation is shot on the z-axis, which means each new frame is shot in a different plane of space. When shooting on microscopes, the focal length is so minute that to animate on the z-axis ( or ‘pull focus’) really means to take multiple photographs at every micrometer,”
Joslyn first encountered radiolarians when she was young, poring over a book her mother gave to her titled Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckl. Her knowledge of Haeckl is so vast that she could do a second final project on his life and work. “In 1859, Haeckel (aged 25) had spent a year practicing medicine in the footsteps of his father, but found himself drawn to landscape painting. He convinced his parents to let him travel to Italy, and was so drawn to the life of an artist that he seriously considered leaving the scientific life that had been so clearly laid out for him by his parents and education thus far. In Italy he took a job doing systematic research on the marine plankton in the Straight of Messina, where he discovered new species of radiolarians; the organisms were so complex and beautiful that their study provided the crux between science and art that Haeckel had been seeking. In 1862, after three years of work on radiolarians, Haeckel was appointed associate professor of zoology at the University of Jena and published his Monograph on Radiolarians, with 35 exquisite color plates of the carefully rendered organisms. So to use radiolarians in this animation has layers of meaning for me; Haeckel is by far one of my favorite artists and I endlessly admire the unique way that he structured his life around his particular passions.”
“Before Copernicus and his theory of a heliocentric universe, astrology was based on geocentric model, where the earth occupied the center of the universe. Though we are now told that this is not true, looking through a telescope and into a microscope tells us the opposite story. Looking up, we see infinite above; looking down, we see infinite below.” The title of her project, “As Above, So Below” comes from the ancient hermetic philosophic tradition that refers to the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm. She reverentially reads a passage from one of their most important texts, the Emerald Tablet, reads:
“True, true. Without a doubt. Certain: The below is as the above, and the above as the below, to perfect the wonders of the One. And as all things came from the One, from the meditation of the One, so all things are born from this One. Its father is the Sun, its mother the Moon; the Wind carries it in its belly; its nurse is the Earth. Separate the Earth from Fire, and the subtle from the gross, cautiously and judiciously. Thus you will possess the brightness of the whole world, and all darkness will flee you.”
“I love reading these ancient words; the mystic approach to the study of the universe resonates with me, because it holds fundamental the tangible unity of the world around us,” says Richardson.
Joslyn has tried to include this holistic approach in the day-to-day work on her project. “I try to find a balance between a definitive schedule of concrete goals and a conscious openness to whatever happens to feel right that day. This generally means that I keep weekly objectives on my calendar, such as ‘shoot opening sequence’ and ‘order and assemble speaker parts’, but make sure that each morning I ask myself if that is actually the right thing to be doing that day. Sometimes this means that a day I was meant to spend in shooting on the microscopes at JAX I spend drawing on my floor for 12 hours; other times it means that on a Friday night I blow off my plans to instead play with scummy pond water on the compound scopes in the botany lab. I have found that this studied looseness is actually the most productive way for me to work. Whenever I try to force something that I know isn’t the right thing to be working on, looking at, or thinking about, I am almost always unhappy with the results and end up having to re-shoot or re-work whatever I tried so hard to coerce. The days when I make the most spectacular progress are almost always the days when I do not expect to make any progress at all.”
COA’s distinctive approach to education has been an ideal environment in which Joslyn’s project could take shape. She remembers high school being a place where her interests in science and art had to exist on two separate tracks. “I wish I had been self-aware enough at the time to tell whoever told me that, that I was living proof of the fallacy of that statement; we are all embodiments of the intersections of our particular passions.” At COA she feels supported in her quest to articulate the intersection between her passions of science and art.
“I think COA is the only possible school I could have ever attended. At least, that’s what it feels like retrospectively. I don’t think I chose to come here; I think I knew I would come here as soon as I set foot on this island. When I arrived, I had a fuzzy sense that I had to complete a final project, but it never occurred to me to worry or even think about it much. The particular way that my classes were falling into place, my interests opening and unfolding and expanding, seemed counter to setting a definitive plan for a project. I think I always had a sense that a final project that reflected a cumulative knowledge could only be considered once that knowledge had some time to accumulate.”
Books that Inspired and Informed Joslyn Richardson’s Final Project
Art Forms from the Ocean, Ernst Haeckel
Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aestheics of Avant-Garde Film, William C. Wees
The Shape of Time, George Kubler
The Life of Forms in Art, Henri Focillion
The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector
A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Wing-Tist Chan
The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard
Micrographia, Robert Hooke
Animal Forms and Patterns, Adolf Portmann
The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, H. Porter Abott
Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon, Jodi Hauptman and Odilon Redon
Cymatics, Hans Jenny
A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Edmund Burke
Henry Von Ofterdingen, Novalis
Richardson is grateful for the help of her many advisors, both official and unofficial, on the project. Catherine Clinger, the Allan Stone Chair in the Visual Arts, is serving as final project advisor. “Her vast and varied knowledge in so many fields, as well as her advice, support, and innate sense of the artistic process, have been invaluable. She is also incredibly patient with me; she understands that to end up in any place of value, it is necessary to walk down numerous wrong roads and continually self-correct until you find the right path. She has guided me through this process of continual self-correction and discovery with simultaneously the lightest hand and the highest expectations, the combination of which keep me in perfect check.”
Praise for her advising crew extends to John Visvader, professor of Philosophy of Science and Technology, Philosophy of Nature, Cosmology, History of Ideas, and Chinese Philosophy. She has taken several classes with him and notes that he has influenced her articulation of the essentially philosophical questions of how humans perceive the experience of space and what contributes to a sense of self and being-in-the-world. “John usually encourages me to research and write about anything that interests me, even if it is not necessarily on the syllabus. This format works well for me because I can follow threads of interest that I would otherwise have had to leave undiscovered. Though, it seems that every time I finish a paper I am left knowing less than when I started; John would probably be happy about that.”
Richardson doesn’t want to forget to mention Nancy Andrews, professor of Performance Art and Video Production. She taught Joslyn in Animation I and understands “the innate trial and error of the artistic process, and that is reflected in her open approach to teaching such a strange, tedious and demanding medium.”
Along with the final video, what will remain with Joslyn once the project is complete? It’s no surprise that Joslyn’s answer is detailed, well-informed and inspiring, much like her project as a whole. A favorite memory is of the first time she looked through one of the microscopes at Jackson Lab, the mammalian genetics laboratory that partners with COA on numerous academic research opportunities. “I don’t even remember what I was looking at – probably plant cells – but I remember feeling as if something gigantic and rapidly fluttering was trying to escape from my throat. In 1757 Edmund Burke famously wrote his text A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. In it, he claims the ‘Sublime’ is that which illicits feelings so large that they seem to push out our sense of self; these are generally feelings of fear or passion, and, according to Burke, are often caused by visions of vastness, infinity, and magnificence. I felt exactly what Burke articulates, only not before the Grand Canyon or an endless horizon, but rather in a dark room, peering into the eyepiece of a strange machine.”
Joslyn plans to apply to graduate school and is in search of just the right MFA/MPhil program. But first she’s seeking silence. “School is an incessant exercise in articulation – a beautiful exercise, and one I am incredibly lucky to participate in – but an exercise nonetheless. I think for this exercise to have concrete value in my life, I need to actually use it – which is to say, live it. To this end, I plan on being quiet on another beautiful island – right now, it seems like Vancouver Island, BC, but that could change any day. I hope to learn what I have not yet at COA, namely: how to farm and grow my own food, how to surf, how to inlay wood, how to not speak for days on end, how to bake really good brioche, how to use a pottery wheel, how to read an entire book from start to finish (I knew this one once), and probably a million other things.”
Given her deep connection she feels to her final project, Richardson seems like a great person to ask for advice on how to select and approach a final project topic. Her answer leaves one thinking that she should be on-call as a project advisor for future students.
“Do something that you would be doing anyway with your free time, or something that you would be daydreaming about doing in your free time. Do something that you know nothing about, but care deeply about. Find people who understand what you are trying to say when you can’t say it, and then ask them to be your advisors. Try to explain your project to your friends every week – it will change every time. And, perhaps most of all, don’t worry about how much it changes. A continually changing project isn’t a reflection of lack of clarity, but rather evidence of the fundamental nature of any creative undertaking.”
Interested in Viewing Joslyn Richardson’s Final Project?
You’re Invited to a Screening on Thursday, May 3rd at 4p.m. in Gates Community Center. Fellow senior Luke Madden and Joslyn will each be showing their short films — a double feature of sorts — with Q &A after each movie. Richardson is hoping people will come, watch and, “in a perfect world they would then ask really probing and strange questions that I haven’t yet considered.”