Erin Latham visits Leigh Martin

Leigh Martin is an eco based, fiber artist living and working in Central Oklahoma. Her career in urban forestry drives her work by connecting people to the vegetation in their home communities. Martin is intrigued by small details in the natural world and her connection to the past through fiber arts processes and natural dying. She strives to connect people with their surroundings in order to  “…correct the deficit in our society of interaction with, and awareness of, the details in our natural environment.”

Greeted at the door by two friendly dogs and Leigh herself, the first thing I notice about Leigh Martin’s home studio is the pure outside light streaming through the large bay window. Her studio has everything neatly in place and calming and lovely, just like the artist herself.

How did you come into creating the work that you do?

I studied forestry at Oklahoma State University, I’m also a certified Arborist, I work in Municipal Forestry, and have for the past seven years, I’ve just always had a deep love for nature and specifically for trees and forest ecosystems. I’m fascinated by them and the way they work. The fact that they are so self sufficient…we don’t do anything to help them, they just exist,  the processes that continue on day after day, since the beginning of time. Trees don’t have brains, they’re not what we would consider to be intelligent life, and yet they know when to unfurl their leaves and when to put off substances or a warning system to hinder organisms that are trying to feed off them. It is intelligent.  I’ve always been interested in that and it started the inspiration of the work I’m making. I’ve been knitting for over a decade now, it started in college, my Mom has been knitting since she was a teenager, and she taught me how several times when I was growing up, but it didn’t ever stick. When I went to college I started to take up knitting, it was during finals week and I was trying to find something else to do besides studying. I started to get addicted to it, for a long time I made scarves and hats for people, and after a while I started to create more complicated pieces of clothing. It got to a point where, it was fulfilling and enjoyable but it wasn’t really meeting the needs I had as far as a creative outlet.  I wanted to communicate something, I wanted to make something that other people would enjoy but would take something away from other than just enjoyment.

My husband and I went to Costa Rica and we were on a hike in the rainforest and I looked down and there was this log covered in tiny mushrooms, hundreds of them… They looked like little white blobs from far away, but when I got up close, even though they’re tiny, you could see all the striations on them and the intense amount of detail in them. I was enamored with that and decided to start working on something that would bring that concept into light. When you’re looking at them they seem insignificant, but when you get up close it makes you want to see what else you can see in other natural objects. That’s the basis of my work…

You’re obviously connected to knitting, but are the materials used in the knitting important to conveying the message in the finished works? Is it important for everything to be natural/ nature based?

For a lot of my works, specifically my “52 forms of Fungi” project color was important, there were  many different shades in the fungi, and if I wasn’t particular about color, everything would all have looked the same. The yarn I used for that was 100% wool but it’s mainly because the yarn line has a range of 150 shades so it was easy to find the colors I needed. I have dyed my own yarn for several installations using natural materials, forSaprobia and the Momentum Tulsa installation, partly because it was focused on deriving components for each phase (of the installation)  from whatever species of tree it was representing. I used physical components of the trees, bark, leaves, thorns to dye the yarn with, and then knit the object with the dyed yarn.

The materials depend on the concept behind the work and what the imagery or aesthetic needs to be. This spring was the first time I’ve created anything that stayed outdoors for more than the installation time and the photographing time. In the past I’ve installed works, photographed and taken them down.  I don’t feel comfortable with the environmental implications of leaving installations in nature, and the way it would impact the wildlife and the ecosystem.

Does not wanting to leave objects behind have anything to do with how you feel about your work? Is your work precious to you?

I’m a sentimental person and nostalgic, you can look around (the studio) and see a lot of things I’ve made that I’ve kept. However  it’s important to me that people have the opportunity to see the works so I don’t hesitate when I’m given the opportunity to install the work in outdoor environments. It takes hours to create the works, it’s hard to see anything destroyed. Most of the work I created last spring (from Niche and Succession) is not salvageable.

What do you keep in your studio? What’s important to inspire your work when you’re creating?

 This is the first time I’ve had an actual room for a studio, at our old house I just had a corner of the living room as my space,  it was tight and was cluttered. I wanted natural light, that’s something that’s important in here, I  hate dim rooms it’s hard to focus. The room is pretty minimal as far as what’s in here, but having previous work around is important… images of previous works, an inspiration wall with photos and objects that drive the work. Collections of things, and field guides I reference them often.

Earlier you said you use this room for other things like yoga. It seems like your aesthetic is very zen does that play a part in what you’re making? Does your lifestyle/job affect the things you make?

Yeah, I’d say so. Something that’s been valuable for me as an artist, is the time to do things like yoga, and it comes through in the work with the meditative qualities of the installing and creating. It’s nice to be able to leave my (yoga) mat rolled out in here and be able to use it at any point. We also have a garden out back, this is part of our little “farm”, it’s not really a farm, we only have half an acre but we’ve got a garden, and I started beekeeping recently, and we have a lot of trees and it’s nice to have a place where I can go out and be in nature. Being able to access nature is pretty central to my art making.

 What’s it like to be an Artist in the MidWest/Oklahoma? Does that affect the way you work or the objects you’re making?

It’s nice to be able to have access to my own outdoor space, that’s one of the commodities we have here, lots of space. The ability to access nature at any point, and do things like hiking at local Wildlife Refuges, are important. All the trail systems that are being built nearby are great too. Being here as opposed to other parts of the country affect my work by affording me the opportunity to exist in nature but also get back into the studio and make.

There’s a relatively small arts community in Oklahoma, which from my experience has been supportive.  I was self conscious about getting into the scene, mostly because I’m not someone who has an art background, I’m kind of self taught, and it’s intimidating to put yourself out into a community with artists who’ve spent years studying their craft. I think if I’d been in a larger community/city it would have been more difficult for me to step into that. OVAC (Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition) has been great, they’re encouraging and I’m indebted to them in a lot of ways. They’ve helped me get connected with artists who have similar themes in their work which has led to collaboration.

 Do your natural surroundings affect what you’re making?

Yeah, in a lot of the works. Whenever I create outdoor installations, I place them in local natural environments, in that respect the surroundings do affect the work because the ecosystem is part of the piece.

What’s your studio time like? What are you doing when you’re in here, or are you elsewhere?

Since I recently got this set up, I haven’t been working in here much, but before that I had a lot of exhibitions,  I was in the studio a ton. The floor was covered in knitting, lichen and mushrooms. Currently, when I’m in here I spend time wiring knitted pieces to make the shapes of the objects, but it’s been nice the past few weeks with no deadlines looming.  I usually come in in the evenings, listen to music, sit at the desk and play. It’s work but it’s also my down time after my job.  Last year was a whirlwind, it was deadline after deadline, I’d spend about twenty hours a week working on the installations, outside of my full time job. It got a little rough towards the end of the exhibition season. I’ve been spending the current studio time working on projects I’ve been thinking about for a while, and building a body of work. Grant writing, and proposals happen in here too. It’s nice having my own official studio space.

The first time I was introduced to your work was at Momentum 2012 ( OVAC’s 30 year and younger emerging artist show in OKC) was that a pivotal moment in your art making?

Yeah, that show was a monumental moment for me.  I had the idea after Costa Rica, to create the mushroom colony and I started working on it for nine months. We went to Oregon to go to a wedding and I decided I wanted to do some installations there in the forests and on the coastline. We went to two places on the coast, and I installed the first phase of the “Decomposition series” which is knitted studies of the intricate textures of decomposed fungi,  “Colony 1” and “Colony 2” and I installed and photographed them and was elated by them. My husband has a BFA in sculpture so I’ve been on edges of the OK art community but I hadn’t been in an actual show. I had told myself that since I didn’t have an art background, I couldn’t be an artist, it was a self defeating attitude, I kept thinking “well I couldn’t do that (apply for the show) I have these ideas, but what makes good art? What gives someone the ability to be an artist?” I finally got to the point that I said “I just want to make something, because I want to make it,” so I did, and creating the installations gave me the confidence to apply for Momentum. It was my first time to have work hanging in a gallery space, I’d never had work in an art exhibition before. I had a lot of fun setting up the installation and ended up winning the Curators Award, which was a complete shock.

Yeah! Then the next year you got the Momentum Tulsa Spotlight Artist Award!

That was sort of the catalyst for me to tell myself, that yeah, maybe I can do this, maybe I am an artist. 

It’s interesting you didn’t feel like you could be an artist without an official art background, do you feel like other artists have treated you that way?

No, I haven’t caught any flack about it. I mean, who knows what people think, and don’t tell me, but for the most part I’ve just gotten positive feedback. The main reasoning behind that is because my background is in forestry, so I’m educated in the concepts behind the works I’m making. I do sometimes feel like I’m missing something in not having that background in art theory, and different techniques, but in the processes I’m interested in I’ve spent a lot of time doing.

You’ve been knitting for twelve years so you’re obviously studied in that!

Ha, yeah I guess so.

Is there anything else you specifically want readers to know about your work?

The main idea I’m trying to get across is for people to be aware of our surroundings. Living in a city, or suburbs, you can be completely surrounded by nature, it’s everywhere, but a lot of time we’re busy…that we don’t  pay attention to the natural environment. Even people that live in areas where they are immersed in nature, like rural parts of Oklahoma can still suffer from nature deficit disorder.

Wow! Is that a real thing?

Yes! I mean I see it in myself sometimes when I don’t take the time to go out and get outside away from everything, I get tense and stressed out. Being outside and looking around, taking the time to observe opens up your mind a lot and release some of the tension people are feeling. I think spending time observing and experiencing the natural world is necessary for living a fulfilling life.

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For additional information about Leigh please check out her website: http://cargocollective.com/bromeleighad

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