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Faculty Focus: Poetics of Science and Space
Heather Harvey, assistant professor of art, has always been fascinated by science. Concepts such as gravity, quantum physics, and radio waves, she says, provide metaphors for ideas that are difficult to talk about — topics such as class and gender disparity, difficult and complex emotional experience, and uncomfortable impulses such as aggression and hostility. Using found objects — trash that she collects on her daily walks around her home in Talbot County — Harvey began constructing three-dimensional pieces that employ scientific references to explore what she calls invisible architectures. In the process, something of no perceived value — discarded items each with its own story of previous owners — is transformed into something beautiful, dynamic, and powerful. That tension is palpable in each of Harvey’s works. Feynman’s Sister and Other Space Weather Hazards, an installation informed by the life and research of astrophysicist Joan Feynman, conjures the gender constraints imposed on this brilliant female mind. The younger sister of Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, Joan Feynman was dissuaded from pursuing science at an early age despite her obvious curiosity about the universe. She suffered bouts of depression and anxiety as a result. With her brother’s encouragement, Feynman eventually went on be a respected NASA scientist who contributed to our understanding of the origin of auroras, and the interactions between Earth and solar winds.
The 2015 installation, at the Gibbs Street Gallery in Rockville, evoked a child’s sense of wonder for scientific discovery and a poetic response to the beauty and complexity of the physical world. Also at work were the invisible social and familial structures that shaped Feynman’s life and career. Harvey incorporated into the installation the same astronomy textbook that Joan Feynman received as a gift from her brother at 13, and an illustration based on research by noted astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.
With Periodicities in Chaotic Forcing, a 2016 installation in Charlottesville, Virginia, Harvey’s work evolved into a more open-ended dialogue about aggression and violence. “This was in the time leading up to the election, and I found myself surrounded by aggression and hostility, not only in the political realm but in my personal life, as well,” recalls Harvey. “At what point do you fight back for ethical reasons?”
In the right hands, she says, the tension between opposing forces can be used for good. “But in the real world, they are as often tools of social control, coercion, and persuasion. I use humor in a lot of my pieces as well, so there was a certain cartoon quality to the work, with an aggression of stuff coming out from the wall.”
A collection of assemblages amassed on one wall drew viewers in to examine what had been lost — and then found on a single day. “Part of the story is to look at these cast-off objects in a new way, and to find the visual connection in random things,” Harvey says. “There is a certain tenderness there as well, to think of the people who once held these things.”
With her most recent show, Encampment, Harvey says she moved even further from hard data to celebrate marginality. Shadows are as prominent as the pieces fabricated, again, from the trash she found on her evening walks.
“The show opened at Maryland Art Place in Baltimore the day after the inauguration, and everyone who has a ‘provisional’ life was freaked out and scared. The piece entitled “Quagmire” demonstrates that a social safety net is incredibly fragile, and yet can actually keep us entrapped. It’s a lot like a spider’s web; you can get stuck in your own identity.”
With her students, Harvey always stresses that art is about ideas, not about the medium. “My job,” she says, “is to show them how to conduct research, how to figure out what they care about. I don’t even show them my work. I want my voice out of it. I want to help them find their voice.”
Now, with the support of the Maryland State Arts Council grant, Harvey intends to delve more deeply into intimate interior spaces as a tribute to her late aunt who was close in age and recently died. Using a close reading of Gaston Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space” combined with the memory of an object from her childhood that was made by the same aunt, Harvey says the project “will have an elegiac quality and will explore the fluidity and unreliability of memory. I remember the object’s effect, but cannot recall its specifics. Its details remain vague and change every time I try to recall it. Through repeated attempts to recreate the object – as 2D paintings, 3D sculptures, and an installation – I will explore the inherent untrustworthiness of what we think we know.” “She showed me how to be an artist,” Harvey says. “Even as a child, she had a way of putting things together that were shockingly beautiful.”