Shadow Forests – Angela Gilmour’s Research Practice

Originally from Scotland and formerly a physicist, Angela Gilmour now lives and works as a visual artist in Cork, Ireland. She holds a Masters in Science and an Honours Degree in Physics from the University West of Scotland and an Honours Degree in Fine Art from Crawford College of Art and Design, Ireland. Gilmour has exhibited nationally and internationally with shows across Europe, America and Australia. Her work is represented in private and public collections including, the Office of Public Works for the Irish State Collection, University College Cork, Manly Art Gallery and Museum, Australia, New York Hall of Science, SciArt America, Tyndall National Institute and Irish Photonics Integration Centre. 

Shadow Forests will open in The Lord Mayor’s Pavilion, Fitzgerald’s Park in Spring 2022. For more information visit http://www.angelagilmour.com or @gilmourstudio

From a very early age I was curious about the workings of nature. I spent most of my time outdoors and art was a way for me to record a world that I found infinitely fascinating. I always used art and science in combination to analyse my environment, but at high school the curriculum did not support the integrated study of art and science.  Because I showed ability in both, an exception was made, however I was unable to have an art instructor in my final year. As a result, I was mostly left to my own devices, which was both liberating and surprising. I would often go to the botanical gardens in Glasgow or the natural history museum instead of sitting in an empty art classroom, a visually engaged student alone with four walls. 

At university there was no option to study both art and science, so I chose geology and mathematics, with physics as my major, and art as a constant parallel. I continued to enhance my skills in art through night courses and in 2011 after many years as an engineer, I made a major shift, electing to study visual art at MTU Crawford College of Art and Design.

As an engineer I had worked in the semiconductor industry. The work was fast paced, always striving to develop and build the next generation of computer chips. However I didn’t agree with the demand for designed obsolescence and I began to question the balance between progress and preserving the environment. I saw first-hand the waste often produced by the technology sector. I wanted my art to reflect my concerns and my questioning transferred to my art practice. 

In 2019 while preparing for a three-week journey on the Arctic Circle Residency (an art and science expedition sailing the waters surrounding the Svalbard archipelago), I spent time with scientists from the Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences department at University College Cork. I have worked consistently to frame my art with science as a primary focus. This is the case for my upcoming exhibition Shadow Forests with writer Beth Jones in the Lord Mayor’s Pavilion in spring 2022. 

I met Beth, a Boston-based writer, journalist and digital storyteller, while on the Arctic Circle Residency in June, 2019. We both have an acute interest in observing our environments and translating the important stories told by nature, history and time into visuals and text. In Svalbard, it did not matter to us how cold or wet the weather may have been, how exhausted we may have felt, we sat on the deck of Antigua, a 14-masted brigantine, night and day under a 24-hour sun, watching the icy landscape as we sailed through fjords, within 10 degrees of the North Pole. 

Beth and I continued to explore shared ideas of work and imagination after the residency, chatting frequently, and often discussing issues regarding human impacts on varied environments. During the Covid-19 lockdown we discussed the extensive  destruction of forests across the globe, and how the history of trees holds parallels for human history, as related to the accelerating impacts of development on climate change. We had visited fossil forest beds in Svalbard, and observed how climate changes in deep time had played a part in their demise. 

We expanded our conversations to include other ancient forests, both older and younger. I live near the Macroom bypass. To build the bypass, many trees were felled around the ancient glacial forest of the Gearagh. The Gearagh was decimated to build a dam that continues to power Cork City. 

We discovered that the most ancient fossil forest ever identified is in New York State, not far from Beth, dating back over 380Ma to the Devonian period. We began to look more closely at the effects the first trees had on their climate, as a way of understanding the atmospheric impact of trees both in deep time and now. 

We contacted and have received support from leading scientists to help us further understand distant time and ancient forests. Paleobotanists Dr. William Stein and Dr. Christopher Berry, and polar climate glaciologist and geomorphologist Dr. Sean Mackay have been instrumental in helping us better understand the complexities of botanical deep time.

Our field work has included trips to Svalbard, the Gearagh, the fossil forests in New York State and special access to the fossils within the New York State Museum and Gilboa Museum. We will both be making artworks in response to these four on-going residencies. Beth will be producing a digital story derived from research, photo images, historical documentation, and interviews. 

In my own practice, science research plays a major role in the development of the artwork. This is especially true for Shadow Forests. Working closely with Dr. Berry via frequent emails and zoom calls, I have been able to build a picture of the first trees and their ecology. Drawing is always my starting point but often can be the end point as well. For this exhibition, printmaking lends well to the overlaying images, ideas and data that will be included. As the research progresses I find that I am also using painting as a way to convey the ecology of these forgotten and distant landscapes. 

In past projects I have been invited to create installation and sculpture works as a way of providing an immersive experience for the viewer. Beth and I are collaborating to develop sculptures from true fossils and petrified wood from Svalbard, which will add an extra layer of authenticity and textural experience to the exhibition. 

I often produce the same images in several different mediums, creating an unexpected newness by reflection. I will visit the exhibition space as the work develops, to determine which medium(s) best suits our ambitions for Shadow Forests. 

The Lord Mayor’s Pavilion is a unique venue for an exhibition. Set in a green park beside the river Lee, ironically the same river that runs through the Gearagh and supplies electricity to the venue, it is reminiscent of the pavilion in Glasgow’s Victoria Park where the unique and extraordinary Fossil Grove is located. I grew up near Fossil Grove, and the first time I stepped into the pavilion as a young child I was overwhelmed and deeply impacted by the experience. The stone tree stumps from the Carboniferous Period have always remained imprinted in my mind. I’m hoping to return there before our exhibition opens, to be reminded of the similarity between the venues.

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