Courtesy of Cornell University

October 3, 2022

Cornell Research Associate Jenifer Wightman Debuts Mud Paintings for Cornell Biennial

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Ithaca has long been known for its beauty, but for artist Jenifer Wightman grad, that beauty is more than meets the eye. Her most recent exhibit, unveiled this past week at Mann Library, uses microbes to facilitate her creative vision. 

“I’m a lifelong biologist…I really love concepts. I was very much interested in communicating those concepts in a more aesthetic way,” Wightman said. The exhibits — “Shared space: Seasonal color shift of species succession” and “Grounded: Life is Soil, Soil is Life” — mark 18 years of Whitman’s exploration of beauty in the otherwise overlooked. 

The Shared Space exhibit is made up of two distinct works, both of which use mud collected from Beebe Lake placed in a double sided plexiglass as the primary medium. 

The pigmentations of the pieces will change with the seasons, as different species grow and prosper in the frame. The more intricate details and patterns of the piece will unfold in the coming weeks, as microbes begin to photosynthesize and create color collages. 

The Grounded exhibition features a number of other works by Wightman similar in style collected from all across the country. The locations of the mud collection include three superfund sites, sites that require long term pollution clean up and care, all located in the New York City area. 

Wightman said her work is inspired heavily by other conceptual artists who explore biological processes in their work, most notably Hans Haacke, a German artist known for his condensation cube installation. 

Wightman’s art is often an expression of her research in some capacity, which has been focused on greenhouse gas emissions in the crop and soil sciences for the last 20 years. To Wightman, her art is a form of communication. 

“We need to work on telling stories that are complicated,” Wightman said. 

One of the biggest of those stories is climate change. Her pieces emphasize renewability and the circular nature of all materials: the mud contains living microbes that all work in harmony to survive. Because a number are photoluminescent, the nutrient distribution in the mud sample naturally facilitates the continuous growth of new populations. 

“[You’ve] got all these different ecological niches, which then support all different kinds of microbes that can live in those different ecological niches,” Wightman explained. 

She used this medium to emphasize the importance of having a harmonious relationship with one’s environment — a lesson mankind has yet to embody. 

“I think we can come to a true understanding of our connection to this earth, but most of us walk around on top of it, conquering it, as opposed to trying to live with it,” Wightman said.

Climate change is just one example of a number of destructive effects mankind has contributed to, and one especially relevant to Wightman. Part of her Shared Space exhibit contains a memento to the subject, and the research behind finding a solution. 

The left frame contains five percent rice husk biochar donated by Johannes Lehmann’s Lab, which could serve as a carbon sequestration mitigation opportunity to fight climate change. 

Wightman uses her art as an extension of her work, finding new ways of approaching old conversations, a testament to both fields. Her work will be displayed through the month.