Q&A: Jessica Swanson

The colorful ceramic vessels that make up Trygve Faste and Jessica Swanson's project "Intertidal Deployment of Objects" were specifically created to be submerged in the ocean and encourage barnacle growth. Once the vessels are removed from the ocean, Faste and Swanson complete them by adding ropes and nautical knots, a reference to the marine environments where the barnacles grew.

This is the latest project by Faste, a professor in the UO Department of Product Design, and Swanson, an instructor in the Department of Art.

We checked in with Swanson to ask her a few questions about her project with Faste.

Your project is an interesting intersection of art and marine biology. How did the idea originally develop?

The idea came from combining our earlier project growing moss on ceramics with a rock that I picked up on the beach that was covered with barnacles. We know that rocks are very similar to ceramics and it was exciting to pursue another animal that often attaches to rocks in the wild. Intertidal species frequently grow on rocks, but barnacles leave their shells behind when they die, and we appreciate the exciting texture they create. We felt like we were not only getting an opportunity to collaborate with marine biologists but also another life form.

How did the Idea Award support your project?

Receiving the Idea Award helped us to purchase special glazes and other materials we used in our testing phase: however, most of the grant was used to employ undergraduate students who helped us on the project. Their help was invaluable to our project, and we were able to show them things that we don’t teach in the classroom, so it was a good learning experience for them as well. Overall we were fortunate to work with such a large number of people, from faculty at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB) to undergraduate students to a harbor master in Washington. It’s great to have the opportunity to develop our work so quickly and the grant was critical for that.

What were you hoping to learn from this project? What did you learn? Any surprises?

We were hoping to learn what surfaces barnacles prefer and ways to encourage barnacle growth on ceramics as well as discovering how to prevent them from growing in certain areas. We learned this and much more.

For instance, we discovered that barnacles are not as picky about what they settle on as we thought. We also found out that sometimes what seemed like good growth resulted in weak barnacles that fell off easily leaving only a circular, white mark behind. It turned out that many other species were happy to attach to our ceramics, including mussels and seaweed. Some of these are on display in our exhibit at the Bellevue Arts Museum as the results are very beautiful, although quite fragile.

Faste lowering crate into bay

The biggest surprise was when I pulled up some of our ceramics and found fish, and other life forms living there as well. It was amazing to see the abundance of species that were interacting with our art.

Richard Emlet of the Oregon Institute for Marine Biology (OIMB) educated us on the life cycle of the barnacle as well as the ideal depth and placement for achieving good barnacle growth. He and Nora Terwilliger, professor emeritus at OIMB, helped to deploy our project at our first test site in a protected area near the OIMB campus. They kept an eye on the ceramics and barnacle growth while we were in Eugene and were both engaged any time we were in Charleston. It was a great experience to work with faculty from a different area of expertise.

Were there any challenges you encountered during any phase of the process?

There were a lot of little challenges along the way, but none of them were so great that we were forced to rethink or redesign our project. Early on we thought that we would use a potter’s wheel and produce vase like forms with openings around the top. This was a good design in many ways, but we improved it by making the ceramics in segments (top, middle, and bottom) so that we could provide better ways to secure the ceramics while they were submerged. Also, we hadn’t considered the potential for theft initially and because our ceramics were submerged for months, we realized it was better to make something less desirable and not obviously valuable the way a vase would be.

Will you continue with this project? Has this project inspired ideas for future projects?

Yes, we are continuing with this project, as we are excited to keep experimenting with additional glazes and other seaweeds and marine life. We also have ideas for future projects involving ceramic designs that engage other life forms.

Intertidal Deployment Objects (with the barnacles) along with Bryophyte Edition 1 (with the mosses) is on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum, through Aug. 16, 2015. The work is being shown as part of the exhibit, "The New Frontier: Young Designer-Makers in the Pacific Northwest." Swanson and Faste’s barnacle-clad ceramic vessels were featured in The Seattle Times review of the exhibit.