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Stamps professor's sculptures reveal beauty, diversity of pollen at Matthaei

Sycamore (genus Platanus) by U-M Stamps School of Art & Design professor Susan Crowell

“Hidden Worlds: The Universe of Pollen Revealed,” an exhibition featuring artist Susan Crowell’s monumental ceramic pollen sculptures, is on view this spring in the conservatory at the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The sculptures, each representing a different kind of pollen, bear witness to the complexity and variety of these tiny plant structures.

Crowell, a Fulbright scholar and professor in the U-M Stamps School of Art and Design and the Residential College, went deep into the world of flowers for inspiration. Rendered at this scale—some of the works are two feet or more in diameter—the sculptures reveal a universe of surprising beauty that for most of us remains unseen.

The artist’s aim is multilayered. First is a new appreciation for “the delicacy and intricacy of the natural world,” says Crowell. Pollen also tells the story of the interconnectedness of all things, she adds. Even if pollen’s annual rite of spring is largely taken for granted, Crowell hopes that when visitors experience the show they will “think about flowers, and about pollen and pollinators and realize that there’s a network we’re all a part of, and that we’re dependent on things we can’t see.”

Agave (americana) pollen by U-M Stamps School of Art & Design professor Susan Crowell

Agave (americana) pollen by U-M Stamps School of Art & Design professor
Susan Crowell

Crowell’s sculptures also test the limits of ceramics. It’s about getting it to do what hasn’t been done to it before, she says, and breaking out of the issue of weight “so things can hang, roll, or float, rather than the static idea of what we usually expect ceramic to do.” In real life, pollen floats through the air and settles on surfaces, something visitors will see in the conservatory with groups of pollen sculptures clustering like clumps of real pollen or hung with thin filament and suspended in the air.

To honor the 80-year-old American agave that bloomed at Matthaei Botanical Gardens in 2014, Crowell has created agave pollen sculptures based on scanning electron microscope images of the pollen taken by the U-M imaging labs. The agave sculptures will occupy the space left behind by the American agave, which died in 2015 and was removed last winter.

U-M Matthaei Botanical Gardens is located at 1800 N. Dixboro Rd., Ann Arbor. The exhibition is free and open to the public April 2–May 8, 2016 (10 a.m.–4:30 p.m. daily).

By Joseph Mooney

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