Genetically Commodified Art
Issue Number 011- March 2013
Kirsten Stolle is on a mission. Through her art, she is communicating how our now genetically modified food supply is harming our bodies and other life in our world.
Not a lot of people really think about GMOs and their presence in our food supply. I, myself, was not that concerned until I looked into it more. I thought, how could that be harmful? It’s still a tomato. But I found out that I was wrong and people like Kirsten are trying to educate us on the implications of GMOs to our health and the environment. Through how work titled Genetically Commodified, Kirsten transforms what you would commonly view under a microscope into works of art.
Au Courant: Tell us about yourself, where you come from, and how you got your start in your art career.
Kirsten: For as long as I can remember I’ve always been interested in making things. My first strong memory is as a 5 year old, setting up an art table in front of my bedroom window, complete with paper, paints, markers, pencils, crayons, glue, string etc. I was constantly pestering my mom with “Tell me something to make!”, and then I’d immediately draw, paint or build it. I loved the solitude of being in my room by myself, surrounded by colorful art supplies and left to my own creative devices. To this day, I cherish the time and space my studio affords me. Being a visual artist can be somewhat of a solitary existence, but one that pushes me to be present and engage my creativity at the richest level.
I was raised in Massachusetts and in the 1990’s moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue my art. After a string of unsatisfying corporate jobs, I committed to become a full-time artist and secured my first gallery in 2000. After living and working in California for 19 years, I decided to return to the east coast relocating to Asheville, NC where my boyfriend and I live in the top floor of a beautiful 1920’s arts and crafts home.
Au Courant: You have a large body of work but I’m especially intrigued by the Genetically Commodified pieces. Can you tell us about where that idea came from and what you are trying to convey?
Kirsten: I first learned about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in 1996. Genetically engineering food sounded like some futuristic technology, so I didn’t give it much credence. It was only after having some of my own health issues with soy products, that I became acutely aware of the potential health risks of eating foods that contains genetically engineered ingredients. The fact that 90% of the corn, soy and canola in this country have had their genetic material altered through the insertion of bacteria, viruses, or gene splicing is overwhelmingly scary to me. And that the FDA has allowed GMOs into our food supply with limited oversight, inadequate safety testing and without labeling, is something that speaks to the larger systemic issue of the increased corporate influence that big agribusiness companies like Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta have within our government. Food is something we have to eat every day and without proper labeling, we are unable to make informed health choices for our families and ourselves. Culturally, we get our information through mass media, television, the internet and newspapers. Generally we hear short sound bites or see a compelling graph and then we move on to the next story. As a visual learner, I wanted a platform where people could spend some time looking, engage with the work, have the opportunity to ask questions, form ideas of their own or simply be drawn in aesthetically by the medium. Historically art has been a terrific medium for engagement, activism, social and personal change and I felt could create a compelling narrative through this type of work. My project Genetically Commodified explores the consequences of introducing GMOs into our food supply and local plant ecologies. Familiarity with issues affecting our industrial food chain is steadily increasing, but unfortunately awareness of GMOs throughout our country still remains low. The project works across mediums (drawing, installation, sound) to create an integrated environment where the audience can engage and reflect on the influence of GMOs. The title, Genetically Commodified, refers to commodification of nature and the manipulation of genes for profit. We live in a world where economy trumps ecology, a society where food is no longer seen as a form of nourishment, but as a product.
Au Courant: I find it fascinating that you are depicting an environmental issue with art. The transition from the poisonous stage to the organic implications is remarkable.
Kirsten: Before I embarked on this project, I read an extensive amount of information on GMOs – specifically what they are, how they operate from lab to land and present day issues associated with genetically engineering plants. My on-line research included academic papers from universities, abstracts from science-based organizations, marketing pages from chemical companies, material from USDA and FDA websites and current information from the Organic Consumer Association, Environmental Working Group and Union of Concerned Scientists. After 6 months of researching, reading, and digesting the information, I began to formulate ideas on how to represent my impressions through a visual medium. Genetically Commodified began as a drawing-based project and has evolved to encompass sound components and site-specific installation.
Au Courant: What types of materials are you using to create these pieces?
Kirsten: I primarily use drawing materials and water based media: gouache, watercolor, ink, acrylic and graphite. For my collage materials, I regularly search out used bookstores and antique shops that handle vintage books. My collage elements are culled from sources such as scientific journals, midcentury agricultural catalogs, botanical illustrations and vintage medical books.
Au Courant: Besides GMOs, does your other work also make an environmental statement?
Kirsten: My previous project, Anatomy of A Future Forest (AFF, 2010), inspired me to tackle GMO issues through a multidisciplinary project. Through a series of mixed-media paintings, AFF addressed the potential ramifications of climate change on future plant species. This was the first time my concern for the environment and my art practice merged into a strong narrative statement. It was challenging and extremely rewarding as an artist to make a compelling artistic statement that could serve as a call to action. Currently, I am working on a site-specific wallpaper installation titled Miracle Grow, commenting on the overuse of herbicides/pesticides since the introduction of genetically engineered (GE) crops. The installation will debut this fall at the San Jose Museum of Art.
Au Courant: Where can Au Courant readers see your work displayed?
Kirsten: Readers can see work at www.geneticallycommodified.com, and in San Francisco at www.dolbychadwickgallery.com. Or at a studio visit in Asheville!