cloudspotting

Once upon a time, patches of clover dominated our lawn in the warmer months, covering the yard like urban sprawl and undulating like the canopy of a miniature forest. No matter how often dad mowed them down, those patches always regenerated, lush clusters of vivid green dotted with white buds. I spent a large portion of my childhood outside barefoot, and I loved digging my feet into the coolness between clover and earth. Better yet, I would find the largest patch and nestle, letting the coolness envelope the length of my body—a respite from the summer heat. As a bonus, I could gaze up at the sky and delight in the shapes and, on breezy days, the movement of the clouds.

The clover is much sparser these days, having ceded territory to orderly grass, but looking at the sky still brings me joy. Growing up in a predominantly flat landscape, I fell in love with uncrowded, expansive skies. It’s a humbling experience, to realize how small I am, but it never made me feel insignificant. Skygazing also gives me a sense of calm. In many ways, it’s a mindfulness practice; it’s about being present, observing the moment and the environment, and allowing my thoughts to roam without trying to corral them.

My last year in college was very overwhelming, and it was during that time that I started going for long drives. I would hit the highway, pick a direction, and head away from the city. Being alone with nothing but the road and sky for company was peaceful—it gave me time to think, or not think. I would turn off at whatever place struck my fancy and explore smaller paths through farmland and tiny towns, pulling over to take photographs from time to time. I chose to capture quiet landscapes, often bearing the marks of human activity but devoid of any figures: ramshackle barns, tractor marks baked into the dirt, and overgrown fields.

I was equally in love with book arts at the time, and photographs from that fall semester, of those rural landscapes, became a book. Photographs from the spring semester became part of my thesis project. Instead of empty landscapes, I turned my lens toward the sky, transferring the blue and the clouds to medium format film with a borrowed Hasselblad.

Those square frames became twelve by twelve inch prints, arranged into a grid of twelve by eight. I had made a version of the sky that could be brought indoors, and the squares of disparate clouds formed a giant, collective cloudbank. I could stand, or sit, in front of that skyscape and meditate, just as if I was outside with my eyes lifted up.

When I graduated, I left the piece—eight boards of mounted prints—in the care of friends as I prepared to move to Japan. Of course, they became migratory too, and the piece eventually ended up in a Rhode Island town, in the basement of the childhood home of one of those friends. That basement subsequently flooded. Along with the other things that were beyond saving, those eight boards of sky were placed by the road as rubbish.

In my mind, I imagined the prints had loosened from their bindings, edges flapping, maybe hanging on by a corner. I imagined empty squares where photographs had become dislodged completely. When my friend relayed the news to me, I found that the loss of the piece did not sadden me, especially since there was a twist to the story: in the dark of night, some individual (or individuals) had seen those squares of sky as they passed by, collected them—maybe freeing what was left on the boards—and posted the prints around town. Even in its destruction, my beloved work was bringing small moments of joy to others.

The only memento I have left is this mockup. These squares were sliced from contact sheets printed with no regard for color correction. Their sole purpose was to allow me to play with the arrangement and create a map for the final piece. Held together with masking tape and sporting dings and tears, it’s an imperfect echo of that giant cloudbank that I once stood in front of, but the memory it calls forth is just as beautiful as that experience was.

evolution

During my childhood years, the bookmobile traveled to our neighborhood once a week. At first, it parked several blocks down our street, but one day, the librarians on board decided to park the bookmobile right in front of our house—my sister and I were its most frequent patrons. I would walk out the front door, across the lawn, and up the steep steps to cross the portal that led to so many other universes.

I probably read almost every book on that bookmobile, and one of my favorite sections was the shelves of science books, especially the ones about the natural world. I loved learning about animals, and I remember I had a little pocket notebook with lined pages, into which I had painstakingly copied diagrams of insects and labeled all of their body parts (I wish I still had this!). I imagined myself exploring the world and learning about all of these things firsthand—but art was the stronger calling.

The Aurelia aurita prints originally started out as an idea for an artist’s book. In the same way that life doesn’t always lead you to where you think you’re going, art projects sometimes veer off into a different direction as well. The Aurelia aurita project helped me to reconnect with my passion for science and my love of research.

I’m a Louisiana native who moved away and then returned, a decade later. Back in the familiar landscapes of my childhood, I spent a lot of time thinking about the places and scenery that I carry in my heart, and most of them include water in some form. The water is a significant part of our culture here: the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico, wetlands, thunderstorms, and hurricanes.

I began to study the local water ecosystem and quickly realized it’s impossible to understand what’s happening locally without global context. Water connects us to the rest of the country and the world; it’s inextricably linked to life on land as well. Agricultural runoff, ocean freight, overfishing, offshore drilling, climate change—these all affect the ocean environment.

Jellyfish are bioindicators. Changes in jellyfish populations and ranges can be both the cause and symptoms of conditions in the water ecosystem, and sometimes they are symptoms that further exacerbate the situation. Studying jellyfish can give us clues to what is happening in the depths of our waters.

The Aurelia aurita prints were created as visual meditations as I continued my research. I used pochoir as my process, and each moon jelly was created with two to four stencils. Flat fields of color are common in stenciling, but to capture the translucency of the jellies, I applied gradation by hand. The paper is a translucent vellum and is printed on both sides to create a sense of depth, as if you are peering into the murkiness of the ocean. When lit in a certain way, the effect is mesmerizing.

A snap taken with my phone.

 

Pochoir print of moon jellies by Thien-Kieu Lam. Title of print: Aurelia aurita, II. Front side of print.
Scanned version of the print in the above snap.

 

I’m still learning, diving ever more deeply into a subject that fascinates me, and my goal is to eventually interpret the science through my future projects, to create not just art but also conversations about our relationship to the water.

View both sides of Aurelia aurita, I and Aurelia aurita, II in the Prints section.