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From Anthotypes to Biodiversity and Extremophiles: 10 Questions with Local Artist, Mary Rusak

Mary Rusak is a Vancouver-based mixed media artist using (primarily) photography, writing and printmaking, drawing inspiration from the natural sciences to examine the relationships between humans and non-humans.

Rusak isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty – while using sustainable practices – or to explore alternative processes. The results are intimate and gorgeous to look at. But this combination of curiosity, conviction, and marriage of disciplines (science and art) resonated with us on a level beyond the surface and inspired us to sit down and get to know more about the artist…

To what – or whom – do you owe your initial scientific curiosity? Was there a singular, memorable experience you had early on and/or a person in your life who sparked it? In my immediate family, I’m surrounded by scientists and naturalists. Both my parents studied biology in university, and my father is now a research scientist who specializes in limnology [the study of inland aquatic ecosystems, such as freshwater and saline lakes, reservoirs, rivers, streams, wetlands, and groundwater], and one of my siblings currently works for a nature conservancy. Safe to say that my upbringing was a huge influence on my interest in the sciences, with the knowledge that stuck with me through the years taught on dog walks and canoe trips. From mushroom foraging with my dad to watching skinks warm themselves in the sun with my mom, these experiences fostered my deep love and respect for the natural world.

Same question as above, but regarding photography and writing…? In high school, I was able to take a photography course where I first learned how to print in a darkroom. I remember one of the projects I attempted was hands-on “Photoshop” in the darkroom inspired by the work of photographer Jerry Uelsmann. I loved being able to experiment and manipulate film images; all the trial and error — though frustrating — was something I fell in love with. As for writing, in my childhood I was passionate about writing novels, none of which ever saw the light of day. Slowly, through art, I found a style of writing where I was able to express my ideas, and have found my projects feel more complete with the addition of writing.

At what point in time did you start combining your interests/passions? What were the early results? After years of practicing art, I eventually made the realization that instead of trying to make “good” art, I just needed to explore projects I had genuine interest in. The results were inherently more fulfilling and fleshed out. The first projects were still hesitant explorations – it took time to become confident sharing my own writing, and the concepts lacked specificity. But there were a few successes as well. In 2017, I produced a project that repurposed invasive plant species in Stanley Park. It was my first time learning about natural dyes and the anthotype process; using plant dye as a photosensitive emulsion to create prints. I led a workshop and invited others to participate in the process as well. It was great creating conversation and just having fun with it!

“Artists are communicators, and I feel as though now that disciplines are so separated, the bridge between art and science is so helpful for scientific research findings to reach the general public. A lot of the education in the sciences is about research and experimentation rather than communication; having different disciplines come together, we can do more and learn from each other.”

How did the process develop over time? When did you decide that the results were something that warranted taking more seriously and developing? I once took a course at Emily Carr in which the professor, Ingrid Koenig, was involved in the project Leaning Out of Windows, which paired artists with physicists from the particle accelerator centre, TRIUMF. Learning about the work these collaborators were doing was very inspiring to me; to see that the bridge between art and science was something others were already exploring. The work I began creating around this time became more research based, especially in my work Flowers, Trees, and Other Beauties. I remember pouring over old botany books in the Special Collections at the Central Library branch, finding such romantic and poetic depictions of plants, and feeling very in my element.

Why do science and photography/art mix? How can science help art/photography and vice versa? The process of photography itself is just a mixture of physics and chemistry. When photography was first invented, science and art were not separated like they are today. They were indistinguishable, with artists who were also scientists, engineers and architects. Now, I feel that the overlap is harder to find. Artists are communicators, and I feel as though now that disciplines are so separated, the bridge between art and science is so helpful for scientific research findings to reach the general public. A lot of the education in the sciences is about research and experimentation rather than communication; having different disciplines come together, we can do more and learn from each other.

What is your current fascination with? Extremophiles! Over the past few years I have slowly been researching and illustrating extremophiles. They’re organisms that have really thwarted humans’ expectations of livable environments. From snails living in underwater thermal vents to radiation resistant bacteria, extremophiles challenge our understanding of adaptability, and they’re just really cool!

Your inclination is towards analog. Why does working in this way matter to you? I’ve always been a very tactile person, and have found it’s the best way for me to learn. I still have a hard time with digital art software and tend to avoid them. If I can create a project with my hands I will choose that route even if it’s more work. I find it easier to problem solve when physically working with materials, even if some processes I use tend to produce different results each time. When I finally get something to work, there is such a sense of satisfaction that is worth coming back to time and time again.

Natural, sustainable and analog processes and materials come up a lot in your work that I’ve seen, so far. Conversations around climate change, sustainability, and our impact on the natural environment are extremely topical. How do these issues affect you, as an artist and creator? What sort of considerations about your impact on the environment do you make and to what end purpose? I think a lot of artistic practices will always have an environmental impact and it’s hard to find ways to properly minimize the impacts. I do my best to use recycled materials or scraps from previous projects and choose print and photo processes that are less harmful. My one project, Regenerations, is an attempt to push the boundaries of sustainable art. The pieces are made from handmade flax paper and use natural dyes for the designs; the most recent rendition of the project had native BC plant seeds embedded in the paper. The work is meant to be temporary, the dyes will slowly fade and the pieces can then be planted to help promote native plant biodiversity in the area.

What sort of conversations around art, nature and technology have you had and/or do you think need to be opened up? For a long time I’ve felt the weight of the global issues of climate change, and while those are still present and more pressing than ever, I have learned to focus on small impacts close to home. By concentrating locally and working in communities we are a part of, I think it’s the best way to create meaningful conversations that people will care about and want to participate in.

What can we expect from you in the weeks and months ahead? (Got any ideas or projects in the works, and/or are you participating in any events in the near future that you would like to put on our radar?) Right now I’m taking a bit of a reset; I have been enjoying showing my work at several art fairs this summer, and working on commissions. Now, I’m going to go back and rework my artist book, Light Drawings. I made a first edition this past spring with only five copies, as the production proved to be a lot of trial and error. It’s an exploration of process, hands-on practices, and the science behind photography. Look out for the second edition this fall, I’m excited to be able to share it with more people!

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