Prepare for the Swarm: Q&A with Tasha Lewis ’12

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Tasha Lewis ’12 is preparing to invade Swarthmore and Philadelphia with her herd of wild animals.

Sometime during the first week of classes, a swarm of 1,000 cloth butterflies will descend upon Swarthmore’s campus in a surprise location. This guerilla installation is part of an exhibit that Lewis began during her senior year at Swarthmore and has continued in her hometown of Indianapolis this summer. They will only stay up for about fifteen minutes, so watch carefully.

Next, the stampede will storm Philadelphia as Lewis’s gallery exhibition, The Herd, makes its way to the Napoleon Gallery September 7. The Herd comments on the wild, man’s attempt to capture nature, and the idea of life and death in taxidermy. Their thought-provoking content aside, the blue, antique-looking pieces are simply beautiful.

Lewis makes these creatures through a process called cyanotype, so named for the blue color it produces. Lewis figured out how to use this method to print photographs (taken from Google images and rare books, then PhotoShopped) onto fabric. From there, she creates three-dimensional sculptures using this fabric. For the butterflies, she uses a magnet to stick them to existing metal sculptures. She sews all of her work herself, allowing the viewer to trace her hand throughout the process. Though she works in stages, it takes about 30 minutes to make an individual butterfly, and 10 to 30 hours to make a member of The Herd.

The Daily Gazette got a closer look behind the scenes at Lewis’s installations:

Lily Jameson-Cash: How did you enter the cyanotype project technically? Did you start with photography?

Tasha Lewis: I started working in cyanotype in the summer of 2007. I had been photographing the world around me since I was 11 or 12, but it was in the beginning of high school when I experimented more with the nature of my images; it was my search for a more experimental photography which eventually led me to a summer camp where I was introduced to Alternative Processes Photography and more specifically to cyanotype. The reason cyanotype is so accessible is that you only need to have water on hand to develop it: no fancy set up needed.

LJC: How did you get started on the butterfly and herd sculptures? What gave you the idea?

TL: When I started this new body of work for my senior year at Swat; I was actually back up at the Maine Media Workshops working as a teaching assistant for my old teacher Brenton Hamilton. I had begun the summer by trying my hand at embroidering cyanotype photographs printed on fabric. It was in the midst of this project when I realized that I could make a three dimensional object from the fabric.

My first thought was to stuff the object so I made the head of a heron and stuffed it with cotton balls. Although this piece looked more like a sad disembodied child’s toy, the conceptual idea of faux taxidermy was developing in my mind. Thus the herd which I made for my senior show – and which I am expanding for this show – is what I would imagine what would happen if all the animals in a hunter’s lodge were actually jumping through the wall and not hanging on it. In my head the wall is now permeable and my creations are slipping in and out of it.

In the case of the butterflies, the relationship to the space around them has changed quite a bit since the iteration in my senior show. There, I had them chaotically swarming across two hand-made wooden shadow boxes with glass separating them from the viewer. In a way this was how butterflies are preserved for collections—there was the glass to protect them and the pins to keep them still, but at the same time they were flying out of order in a chaotic cloud. My new butterfly project takes them out of any container and frees them to attach and cover any metal object in public spaces. To me it feels like the logical next step from the butterfly cases in my show.

LJC: Where do you plan to go with them conceptually?

TL: I am still working out the conceptual meanings of these pieces. There is certainly something there about invasion and aggression— a kind of rebellion even. Because their skin is photographic they play into a kind of dialogue with the media and our over-stimulating visual culture, but because they are cyanotype they are also tied back to the specific era of the early 20th century. They are liberated specimens that interrupt our urban landscape. I think the dominant feeling of The Herd installation at Napoleon will be a kind of claustrophobia and feeling that you are literally in the middle of a mass-migration or stampede— at least that is what I am hoping you feel.

LJC: Where can we expect to see the butterflies on campus?

TL: My main ideas for now are the stairs in Kohlberg and possibly around the coffee bar area, the stacks/bookshelves in McCabe and the Rose Garden gate. There may be others as well . . . you will have to wait and see.

LJC: Do you plan to take them anywhere after their stint in Philadelphia and at Swarthmore?

TL: I have a show scheduled for January in Indianapolis, but after that I was thinking of going on a stint of pre-employment world travel. I have close friends in both Cambodia and Jordan for the next year so I am hoping to take advantage of their couches to get these butterflies to more exotic climes.

LJC: Why taxidermy? Why the focus on animals?

TL: I think what draws me to animals and other natural forms is the fact that the root of the cyanotype was in preserving nature. More than the documentation of the previous centuries, I take cyanotype into the modern artistic world where the detail and history of the photograph transforms simple paper and tape forms into magical and lyrical bodies in space. And it is absolutely a transformation.

LJC: Could you explain the connection between photography, cyanotype, and the message you’re trying to send?

TL: I think the overall message I want people to take away from an encounter with my work is the magical power of photography, and especially the transformative quality of a historic process like cyanotype. I hope that people can read the use of the cyanotype as a kind of return to an era we never really grew out of. We are still cataloguing the world around us – now digitally instead of through physical photographs – and thus my abrupt invasions (both the butterflies in public spaces and The Herd in the gallery environment) create a wave of objects out of place. They should make the viewer stop and think about their relation not only to these animals but also to the space that they now share.

LJC: How are these pieces special for you in the scheme of your artistic career?

TL: Well for now I hope they are the base for my eventual career in the arts. I know I have a lot of growing to do as an artist, and I am allowing myself to take at least the next 5 months to push myself to continue to develop on my own. I am happy to evolve quickly and in many directions because right now my overhead for creating work is really low (lots of free space to be had in my parent’s basement). So the pieces of The Herd will not be entirely abandoned but merely improved upon.

I think the butterflies are also special because they are my first kind of public art. It is fun and exciting and quasi-illegal at times, but I really think it is a fun way to make art and to get it out into the world.

You can join Lewis and The Heard in the Napoleon Gallery for the opening reception on Friday, September 7, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The exhibition will stay up through September 28.

— photos courtesy of Tasha Lewis 

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