By Ellen Rossetti
Walking down a trail in the bush in far western Uganda, Lesli Robertson heard a pounding noise. As she neared, she saw a man sitting on the ground, thumping a large mallet into a piece of tree bark.
With each strike, the piece grew from a small rectangle to a soft cloth the size of a small room. The experience inspired Robertson, a lecturer in the fibers program at the University of North Texas College of Visual Arts and Design, to spend years researching bark cloth made from the Ugandan mutuba tree. Her first glimpse showed her a centuries-old process that could help sustain the economies of small Ugandan villages.
"It's magic seeing the bark cloth transform in a matter of a couple of hours," she says. "I want people to find a relationship not only with the intrigue that this material holds, but to consider how materials can evolve over centuries, remaining relevant to the current trends and culture."
Robertson is among seven faculty members who have been named faculty fellows in UNT's Institute for the Advancement of the Arts since its inception in 2009. Others include Bruce Bond, a Regents Professor of English who has written a soon-to-be-published book of poetry exploring the mind-body relationship, and Dornith Doherty, a professor of photography in the College of Visual Arts and Design who has photographed seed banks around the world.
Granted one semester off from teaching to focus on their research full-time, these faculty work on projects that are capturing national attention and further raising the profile of UNT as a center for artistic excellence, research and education.
Through Robertson's faculty fellowship, she has helped others learn more about bark cloth's long cultural history — from wrapping loved ones for burials to swathing kings. Now, she is helping others understand the modern-day uses of bark cloth as an environmentally friendly material in contemporary design. No trees are killed in the making of bark cloth, she says, and the Ugandan economy is sustained when workers are employed to create it.
Robertson used the IAA fellowship to arrange an exhibition of works by international artists and designers who create items from bark cloth. She traveled to Uganda to select works to display and to implement projects to promote the preservation of bark cloth, including a mural exchange between school children in Uganda and the United States.
The exhibition, titled Material Evolution: Ugandan Bark Cloth, was on display at the UNT Art Gallery in March 2011 and featured artistic works and commonplace items, including men's shoes and a bark cloth-wrapped steering wheel. Visitors saw a video of the making of bark cloth and swung the heavy mallet used to create the fabric. At the end, each visitor walked away with a small sample.
"It was wonderful for people to walk in and see something they'd never experienced before," Robertson says. "It wasn't just about the art and design elements but all of the elements that went into this — the history and culture and the idea of renewability and sustainability."
The exhibition curated by Robertson is expected to tour through the United States from 2014 through 2017.
"It's not as if I did the fellowship and the project ended," she says. "Everywhere the exhibition goes, people are going to know there's an institute that fosters creative excellence at UNT."
During his faculty fellowship, Bond — whose work has garnered international recognition — focused on writing poetry inspired by his experience with two long-term illnesses, including one associated with nerve damage.
The fellowship allowed him time to research the psychological aspects of the mind-body relationship. In reading books on the power of mental force, he came across an author who had worked with patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder and found that they can change their physiology by redirecting their attention.
"I thought it was fascinating that the mere act of attention is a physiological act," Bond says. "A serious meditation on this mind-body problem leads to questions of metaphysics. That is what my book is about. I wanted to root the problems in immediate situations with emotional stakes."
The fellowship gave him the opportunity to immerse himself in writing the poems, which will be published by Etruscan Press in a book called Choir of the Wells in 2013. The book will be broken into four parts — "The Burning Casket," "Water Scripture," "Earth's Apprentice" and "Homage to Phosphorous."
"I went so deeply into these things on a daily basis that I sometimes felt somewhat haunted by them," says Bond, who has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Texas Commission on the Arts and more.
Students benefit in the classroom, as his scholarship deeply affects his teaching, he says.
"Students can tell if you're the real thing — if you're engaged in the hard work, the messiness and failure of the process," Bond says. "I see these activities — teaching and writing — very closely associated with each other, and likewise I'll get a lot of ideas from my students."
Doherty used her time as a faculty fellow to travel to a frozen mountainside near the North Pole to photograph the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Dubbed the "Doomsday Vault" by the media, it secures the world's seed collections from natural disaster or catastrophe and is opened only a few times a year.
The trip was a continuation of Doherty's photographic project called Archiving Eden in which she used X-ray machines to photograph seeds and cloned plants from storage vaults at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo., and the Millennium Seed Bank in Sussex, England.
For 12 hours a day for two days, Doherty photographed inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in extreme cold. She says the documentary-style photographs she took of the vault are in the tradition of 19th-century expeditionary photographers who went west to show people what the continent looked like.
"To stand in front of that vault door that was covered in frost and only open two days — and to be there with a camera — was amazing," she says.
The fellowship also allowed her to return to the England and Colorado vaults for more photographs. Archiving Eden has been on display around the country, and now Doherty is working on a book about the project with three others — Katherine Ware, curator of photography at the New Mexico Museum of Art; Jessica May, associate curator of photographs at the Amon Carter Museum; and David D. Ellis, lead scientist at the federal Plant Genetic Resources Program.
As Doherty worked on the project, she was able to share details with her students about the techniques and equipment used in the photographs and logistical issues she dealt with in her research.
"We have a really good competitive program at UNT and really good photographers coming from our program," says Doherty, whose work has been exhibited around the world and is in several permanent collections. "One of the things that sets us apart is having students who are successful and know how to pursue a fine art career."
More faculty fellow projects are in the works. Mark Ford, coordinator of the percussion program, is composing a percussion concerto that will be performed by the UNT Wind Symphony. Corey Marks, associate professor of English, is writing a manuscript of poetry exploring the theme of the modern zoo.
The projects have been experienced around the country. Former faculty fellow David Bithell created a music theater composition using interactive audio and video for New York-based new music ensemble Yarn/Wire. The piece received a premiere performance at the Unruly Music Festival in Milwaukee in April 2011 and will be performed — with revisions — at the Art Currents Institute in New York in May.
Acclaimed composer Cindy McTee, now Professor Emerita of music, wrote a composition, Tempus Fugit, played by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2010 and by the UNT Wind Symphony, the Seattle Symphony and Aspen Festival Orchestras in 2011. All orchestral performances were conducted by the renowned Leonard Slatkin.
The faculty fellows have a showcase for their works at UNT on the Square, which serves as a home for the institute and a portal to the university on Denton's historic square. Visitors view artwork, attend concerts and hear lectures from faculty members and guest artists.
The institute also brings high-profile artists to campus through an artist-in-residence program. Award-winning filmmaker Guillermo Arriaga shared his expertise with UNT students, faculty and the wider community during his residency in 2009-10.
Jake Heggie, composer of the nationally acclaimed opera Moby-Dick, coached composition and voice students and presented concerts of his works in his residency in 2010-11. Heggie's "Ahab Symphony" was commissioned and will be performed by the UNT Symphony Orchestra in a 2013 world premiere featuring music faculty member and internationally renowned tenor Richard Croft.
Visual and performance artist Nick Cave, known for his artistic Soundsuits that envelop the body, designed new horse-like Soundsuits created with the help of UNT art students and community members during his residency in 2011-12. Dance and music students prepared for an outdoor performance piece with the new Soundsuits this spring.
The fellowships will continue to give faculty members the resources and opportunity to hone their skills, share their work and enhance the learning experience of students on campus.
"Part of our expertise and authority comes from being practicing artists," Doherty says. "Life is raging and messy, and you have to demonstrate how you can be engaged in the world and still be a practicing artist. You have to show by example."
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