I was developing a self-initiated project called ‘isitmagma?’, which explores different casting process with molten rock (isitmagma.com). This lead me to contact Prof. Jonathan Blundy, Professor of Petrology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. Initially, it was a conversation via a few emails and meetings at the university. This led him to generously allow me access to other people within the Earth Sciences community, leading to an Earth Art fellowship in 2016.
After a period of time of applying for project funding, I later began working with Professor of Volcanology, Professor Kathy Cashman.The first investigative research we did together was a site visit to Sand Point, in Weston-Super-Mare in April 2016, because I was interested in finding the most local point of igneous rock to Bristol. Here, we walked around looking for lava pillows that I had permission to take samples from to begin testing.
I have a very material experimental practice, so I had a good understanding of what I could do to influence the material and potential avenues to go down but I didn't have the education in the science behind what was happening. Therefore during the fellowship, when different outcomes or challenges would present themselves, Prof. Cashman was on-hand to answer why certain things were happening. As there are hundreds of different rock, before I began melting it, my first question was, “which type of rock is the best to melt?”. Prof. Cashman recommended Basalt as it is common, and has a low viscosity in comparison to other rocks so would be easier to pour into molds. We then tried to source that material locally.
Melting the basalt involved heating rock sample up to 1200 degree celsius which was possible with some of the furnaces I had access too. What I didn’t expect was the viscosity of the material - lava in its best state has a consistency of ketchup - and how vitrification causes the rock sample to become brittle and unstable. The process of cooling the rock down slowly became just as important as heating it up. Prof. Cashman and Prof. Blundy both helped by suggesting different chemicals that could enable the rock flow better. Lithium tetraborate was the most successful.
There is an Earth Sciences technician, called Jonathan Hanson who I started working closely with. He was really helpful due to the access he has the workshops at the university. We took one of the most successful rocks that I managed to cast and we cut it in half with a circular saw tool used to cut stone in the Will’s Memorial department. This became entertaining as I gave him the rock to the cut and we thought we would only have time to go and have a cup of tea. However, the cast form took two and a half hours (video)! The result of this is a polished cross-section of a rock cast. From this, he made a thin-section slide sample, used to look at through a Petrographic microscope. This opened up a new bit of work because the slide showed their were crystals growing in the rock, which is the athisasis of when a rock is a rock - when it has crystals (if it doesn't have crystals, it is a glass). So, in regards of material status, it shifted from a structurally complex old rock to ironically, a younger rock. I am sure the scientists would not use those definitions but that is how I was looking at on a narrative bases.
The process of making the work was very experimental, because all I was trying to do with my research was investigating how to use molten rock as a sculptural materials. It was very formalic; I was trying to cast a perfect sphere.
When you are casting a sphere, it has no points or extremities so you have equal cooling of the hot material, being less likely to get problems with shrinkage or fractures.
That was the first object I was trying to make. It is also aesthetically relates to planetary shapes, yet also being a shape that you do not see recurring in the natural world - you see rounded objects but you are unlikely to see perfect spheres. It was a natural form to be working on. After several tests - and several failures, more importantly for the development of this project - there were around 90% of broken sculptures and 10% of which survived and lasted. The next step was to try and cast a pattern or shape which involved casting a diamond shape. This was a piece that we later cut in half.
A lot of work happened off-site at Coles Casting in Dorset, because I needed an experimental space to be able to make this kind of work as we were unsure what it would do in regards to fumes and knowing how it was going to react with some of the moulds. We were effectively heating up rock in a crucible inside a furnace and then pouring it into a mould that was pre-made. The best discovery was making a more unique mould base than I had made before. I was experimenting with lots of different refractory materials; refractory means a material that can deal with lots of heat. I have a good understanding of foundry techniques so I was testing different techniques in sand casting and loss-wax casting.
I feel as though this project is about the process of the whole story rather than just the final outcome. I exhibited pieces still in their mould or things that had failed or things that had melted from rock in the kiln. The project wasn’t about making a final work. In conclusion, the work had four different outcomes;
It naturally happened, that I started looking at the definitions that scientists used with rocks within my practice. At the start, I was really interested in the quest of trying to melt and shape the rock from a sculptural point of view. By the end of the project, I was also interested in what the rock looks like under a microscope, how do scientists define and research volcanos or igneous rock and then how that impacts on climate or societal influences. I used these questions to look at how I could move the project forward.
After the IsItMagma project, I wanted to do some larger works so I applied for an outdoor commission at the National Trust property Biddulph Grange in Stoke-on-Trent as part of the Trust New Art contemporary art programme. They had put a bid out for an artist to work with the on-site geological gallery, it was an interesting victorian mid-19th century gallery which was the original entrance to the garden. It was made by James Bateman. Bateman had two belief systems, which were common ideas at the time in the UK. Firstly, he was an Evangelist Christian and believed in the seven days of creation but secondly, he also believed in the new discovery of geology, dinosaurs and fossils. He spent a lot of his time merging the two ideas together. This was during the time when Darwin published ‘Origin of Species’, 1859. So Bateman made a geology gallery that mapped the seven days of creation underneath a rock strata, that although was technically correct was not under the seven days of creation.
I got the bid, likely since having had so much research with geology and my connection with the University of Bristol. I developed a new work sited at Biddulph Grange. The project was a year, with six months of research and six months of fabrication.
The work resulted in two 4-metre large physical structures feldspar (feldspar are crystals found in many of the rocks from the on-site gallery), that members of the public could walk into. Inside there are polarised filters on the windows, de-fracting the light to adapt the outside view of the world. Through my previous research of looking at Petrographic microscopes with the university, I was able to now explore the science behind how light bends and creates colours and also still looking at the crystallology of rock structures.There was also another live lava-pour event attached to the commission.
Thank you Jo and congratulations on your work. Follow Jo Lathwood’s work online at: www.jolathwood.co.uk
Interviewed February 2019 by Georgia Hall