Editor’s Note: While perusing the Internet for yarn shops in Salem, MA, I discovered Seed Stitch Fine Yarn’s website and accompanying blog, A Yarn Tale. Much to my delight I was introduced to the wonderful sculptural knit work of Leigh Martin in this masterful piece by Marykate Smith Despres which first appeared in A Yarn Tale in June 2013.
Leigh Martin knits fungi.
You may know her better by her handle on Ravelry, Flickr and throughout the blogosphere - Bromeleighad. Her two ongoing and sometimes overlapping series, Decomposition and 52 Forms of Fungi, in which Martin creates or recreates lifelike fungi in small gauge and fine detail knitting, have gained the Oklahoma-based fiber artist a following of creatives, knitters and nature enthusiasts alike. Martin is all three.
She had been knitting for several years and working in urban forestry before she began experimenting with sculptural knitting. "...I had a strong desire to create something more conceptual," Martin says in our email interview. "I still work on knitwear projects and have dabbled some in designing my own, but free form knitting and installations have filled a void that I never knew I had. I've always been more of a left-brained, analytical person, and this transition has been a great mental exercise for me - it's been quite liberating."
Martin is "mesmerized by various details in the environment" and has "always been very intrigued by fungi." She is attracted to to the various shapes, colors, and intricacies of the many different species, which she refers to as "otherworldly." Given her background in urban forestry, "reading up on various types of wood decay fungi is something that goes along with the territory (and becomes a personal interest by default)." Sometimes, Martin's research "leads [her] to discover other species that are fascinating" and beyond what she had intended to find. "I also have a field guide that I use, and sometimes a friend will send one to me that they were intrigued by." Martin is used to educating others about the environment, but 52 Forms of Fungi has given her the chance to become a student again. "This project been a great deal of fun, because I've learned so much about mycology and various species of fungi from around the world," she says.
Though she identifies as a fiber artist, Martin unintentionally pushes the boundaries of the medium from within it. The term fiber artist is usually applied to women making fine art while working within traditional craft forms like knitting, sewing, felting, and embroidery. Often, there is a sense of feminist reclamation of the materials and processes that subtly, and at times quite overtly, permeates fiber art. Perhaps it is the realism of the fungi or the subject matter itself, but the viewer is not distracted by the implications of fiber when looking at Martin's work.
"I mostly identify with fiber because it's a medium that I have worked with for a long time, although mostly in the traditional sense through knitwear...but more than anything I just identify as someone who utilizes their particular medium to create a thought provoking experience (not to mention for personal enjoyment)." When asked how she views the difference between fiber art and installation art, as it applies to her own work, Martin supposes, "Perhaps the fiber element does not stand out as much because my focus is not weighted on the fiber materials alone, but instead, creating a realistic setting for them is equally as important. I set out to create something believable, because I feel that it results in a much greater impact amongst my viewers. Even installations in a gallery setting incorporate real elements such as wood, plants, moss, and other natural materials."
It is in large part this element of Martin's work, the site-specificness, the interaction between knit life form and natural environment, that separates it from most fiber art and puts it somewhere in the cross hairs of installation, sculpture, and conceptual art. It says something different than an art quilt or an embroidery because the fiber itself is not the message, or even the messenger, but rather a bridge between man and nature. It is a cluster of mushrooms knit directly into a tree. At least, it starts out that way.
When asked about her decision to leave her Decompositions to to be discovered and, eventually, to actually decompose at the site of installation, Martin says, "Leaving each Decomposition installation in place has been an item of conflict, because as much as I would love to leave them where an unsuspecting person could stumble upon them, they ARE placed in natural, relatively undisturbed areas. I have not felt right leaving my artificial pieces in these unspoiled areas where they could more permanently alter an ecosystem or negatively impact another person's experience with it (what looks like art to some might be trash to others as it degrades)." A twinge of disappointment, if not a punch in the gut, is felt by those longing to glimpse a cluster of knit fungi on a hike.
But there is still hope for those eager to seek out some of Martin's sculpture, if you don't mind meeting her parents. "The more urban installations are a little different since there is so much more evidence of the human population, and I did actually leave Stacks in place where it was created - on a tree in my parents' back yard. It's still there to this day. I'm interested in working on some more permanent installations in urban areas, or possibly in natural areas using natural materials." This means that yet another layer is added to the fiber/installation/conceptual art sandwich, that of photography, and maybe even set design. "For now, the photographs are the final product in the Decomposition series. With the 52 Forms project, I have been placing the forms and then I hang on to them after photographing so I have some context of size and construction in case I want to revisit a particular form." Martin's documentation of her Decompositions and Forms is much more than proof or record keeping. The sets of long shots and close ups carry us through the trees or down the street until we see, see closer, a secret that grows in the creases.
Martin's goal of offering viewers "a greater awareness of their natural surroundings, a sense of how complex every ecosystem is and greater vision for noticing and enjoying these details in their every day life" through her fungi runs concurrent to the heart of her work in urban forestry, which "involves connecting people to the trees in their community." One can pull meaning from both the visual impact of her work and the social, political, ecological fodder from which it grows. Her fungi call forth the natural poetics of Andy Goldsworthy, the glittering science of Carl Sagan, the Thoreauian marriage of political and artistic expression. More than anything, Martin says her mission is personal.
"Urban Forestry is very much related to education, not only about how to plant, grow and care for trees, but also about what trees can do for people." Aside from the obvious environmental impact, Martin says that trees, plants and other vegetation provide "many social, mental and health benefits as well. In urban areas it's so easy to lose sight of these benefits and go around without noticing the nature around us at all," she adds. "I do not consider myself an activist by any means - I just hope that contemplating my creations can help another person to experience that well-being from nature, even if it's just one person."