Podcast: Martha Glowacki’s cabinet of curiosities

The Wisconsin-based artist discusses how both science and romanticism inform her work.

Detail of “What Every Woman Ought To Know.” Photo courtesy Chazen Museum of Art.

Detail of “What Every Woman Ought To Know.” Photo courtesy Chazen Museum of Art.

Martha Glowacki is a Wisconsin- based artist who focuses mainly on the natural world and the history of science in her work. She currently has a show of installations and sculptures at the Chazen Museum of Art, Martha Glowacki’s Natural History, Observations and Reflections, which is on view until May 14. The works in this show use a few different interactive and intimate ways of viewing the world, including a camera obscura and a cabinet of curiosities, a format Glowacki has used in earlier work that’s on view permanently at the Chazen. We sat down with Glowacki to talk about her artistic influences, which range from scientific illustration, the history of science, to Victorian furniture and texts, to her collections of bones and rocks. Give the conversation a listen below, or read it in edited Q&A form, and don’t forget to subscribe to the Tone Madison podcast on iTunes.

Tone Madison: So, could you tell me about your artist practice? Let’s start off general.

Martha Glowacki: Well we started talking a minute ago, and I grew up really being close to nature, the natural world. All my life, I have really looked to nature for inspiration, for my artwork and for a lot of other things in my life. And, the exhibition that’s on view right now at the Chazen, really is widely inspired by my observations of nature and my feelings of closeness to the natural world and a desire to have people think about their relationship to nature and the wondrousness of nature.

Tone Madison: There is a sense of wonder that overtakes the viewer when you walk into your exhibition. Do you spend a lot of time in nature, or are you more interested in how others have written about nature and experienced nature?

Martha Glowacki: Really both. I do spend a lot of time walking and I live in a woods, lucky me, west of Madison. And so I spend a lot of time outside working in the woods and collecting mushrooms, doing all those good things. But, the other part of my practice really is based on my own interests in research, and for many years now I’ve been really interested in the history of science, and looking at the ways that historians and scientists, people who come from a material culture background from the arts, have observed the natural world, what they write about it, how they’ve thought about it, how their ideas have changed over time. And that really factors into what I do in my own work, and particularly this show.

Tone Madison: Viewers who go to your show will notice, for example,“The Psychology Of Plants,” with these really cool illustrations of plants, and also “Etienne Jules — Marey: The Analysis Of Movement.”Could you just talk a little bit about how you’ve been introduced to those philosophers and ideas?

Martha Glowacki: It’s been a really long process. When I was in graduate school, I started using Memorial Library’s collections regularly, and started looking at books I was really interested in. I was really interested in the history of astronomy, geography, geology, mapping. And started to, after school, audit classes periodically in the history of science and have really developed friendships, working relationships with historians of science. Oftentimes they’ll recommend that I look at something. So my interests have just kind of evolved over time as I’ve looked at different areas of historic scientific research.

Tone Madison: I noticed also in your work that you incorporate a lot of text directly from passages of natural history and philosophy. How does language function in your work?

Martha Glowacki: I have to say at the outset that’s a complicated question (which needs to be asked). With this show I really wanted to make the case that that artists can really learn something from scientific illustration. So I wanted people to be aware of that history. To be aware of the fact that University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Library Special Collections has one of the most studied, influential collections of history of science books in the world. And it’s something that people can go and study. I’ve been fortunate to go and study there quite a bit. So I wanted to make the case that scientific illustration is something that’s worth looking at, that the aesthetics of illustration oftentimes can be considered as an art form, something that’s worthy to be studied by art historians and artists. And so I had an agenda with this show.

Tone Madison: Scientific illustration has been present in a lot of your work and drawing from these natural movements. I’m not really sure what kind of art movement — it’s kind of difficult with you. The best I could come up with was more in line with the German Romantic idea of nature. How would you classify yourself and how would you classify your artistic influences?

Martha Glowacki: I think I don’t fit really easily into any category. But I have gotten much more interested in the German Romantic movement, Romanticism in art but also in literature, in people like Goethe, people who who were scientists, who made scientific observations that were noteworthy but also wrote and people who had their own art practice. So that fascinates me. But I think if you ask Russell Panczenko [Head Curator at the Chazen Museum of Art] where he would categorize me, he would say I’m a Wisconsin magical realist. And I certainly have been influenced by John Wilde or people like Joseph Cornell, who used found objects and often looked to the history of technology and science as something they care about and incorporate into their work. So, yeah. I don’t think I’m easily categorized, which is sometimes a problem.

Tone Madison: I feel like that’s where you want to be as an artist, because that means you’re doing something original. Just in terms of German Romanticism, they folded a lot of aesthetic and political concerns into one. Is that where your interest lies?

Martha Glowacki: I think it is where my interest lies. I think you’re being intuitive about what my interests are. When I was a student, we would not have looked at scientific illustration at all or at photography for that matter. The canon was much more narrow — Western art, and maybe Asian art. And so I’ve just developed [my] influences over time, because they’re something I’m fascinated in. And when I listen to you talk, I think, lucky you! I think you’re going to school at a time when there’s more integration across fields and looking at material culture studies, and women’s studies, and the history of science and art history and literature and being able to look at all of those as you develop as an artist.

Tone Madison: Let’s talk about material culture studies and object studies in particular. A lot of your work has a cabinet of curiosities. And you use a lot of found objects. Can you talk a bit about how you find those objects, are some of them fabricated, do you want people to know if they’re found or fabricated?

Martha Glowacki: You are an intuitive interviewer, I’m impressed. I have always been interested in collecting things, and as a child I was outside a lot, I had a big collection of bones and cowbones, I collected insects and butterflies, but bones and rocks were really my great interest. And my parents really encouraged that — I was a tomboy and that was fine with them. And they also took my brother and I to visit the Milwaukee Public Museum — which was in its former headquarters at that time when I was really a little kid — in this grand 19th century building which is now the Milwaukee Public Library downtown. And it was this Victorian vintage museum with skeletons hanging from the ceiling, and you could open drawers and see mineral collections, and that had a huge influence on me. So, I know where that’s the interest in storing collections in cabinets came from. As a child, my friend Kathy and I would, she had a Victorian china cabinet, and we put all the bones in that cabinet. So now as an adult, I look back and think wow, things come full circle. But I also as a grad student worked at the historical society in the collections for a couple of years, and the area I was in was mostly furniture and domestic household objects. And a lot of the stuff was Victorian 19th century vintage, because of Wisconsin’s history as a state. And I got really fascinated in Victorian material culture.

Tone Madison: Let’s talk a little bit about that, because the curiosity cabinet in this exhibition is called “What Every Woman Ought to Know” and the text says it is inspired by books on manners for young women during the Victorian era. Is that what drew you to this cabinet?

Martha Glowacki: Well this particular cabinet — I had made this cabinet called My Arcadia, which is in the Chazen’s collection, and in that cabinet I tried to pull together my influences as an artist, all my influences, and try to think about the symbolism I was using, which was drawn from nature, particularly. And incorporate that into the cabinet. But for the cabinet that’s now on view in the Martha Glowacki’s Natural History exhibitionI wanted to do something really different. And I had been looking at books written by men about how Victorian women should conduct themselves. And what kind of clothing you needed to wear, and also books about physiognomy that were written for artists, which would show you all the variants on lips that you might draw, for example, or sculpt. Which would show you all the variants on profiles and I find these things really fascinating, and I also find them really odd. And at that time too, this was in the early 2000s, I was really looking a lot at Diderot’s Encyclopedia from the 1700s. It’s an encyclopedia with many illustrations, mostly of technical processes from the time period. And a lot of ideas for tools that I thought maybe a woman could use were pulled from illustrations in Diderot’s Encyclopedia, but I made them into pieces. Some are found, like you said before, some are not. And I do try to blend that difference so you don’t know.

Tone Madison: It’s hard to tell, so I think you blend it successfully. Now you did mention your other piece My Arcadia, and I did hear a rumor about a dead cat. What’s that all about?

Martha Glowacki: It’s not a rumor! [Laughs] No, that cabinet does have the body of a desiccated cat. And one of the drawers are on one side of the cabinet except for one drawer, which is a large drawer that you pull out and then you see this cat inside. And, because people know that I sometimes use animal parts in my cabinets, and I would never kill an animal to use it in my cabinets, but if people find one they often call me and say hey, there’s a dead coyote along Highway 12, do you wanna go pick it up? Which I don’t, usually. But a friend of mine called and said that she was living next door in Prairie du Sac and had some people who were doing their porch redone, and the workers found the body of a desiccated cat under the porch, and stopped working because they didn’t want to deal with this cat. So my astute friend called me and said do you want to come get this. And I did! And that’s the cat that’s in My Arcadia.

He’s been covered with graphite, so that you can really see the details on the cat’s skin, his whiskers are still there, his claws. He was under that porch for a long time but to me, the body, what’s left of that cat is not repulsive, it’s quite beautiful, in some ways, to think about what happens to bodies after death. So I also found out the whole backstory of the cat, which I love, he had been a stray cat which wandered into the Sauk Prairie Fire Department, and they fed him and so he lived there, disappeared one night and apparently was struck by a car and went under this porch, but he was given a number, all the fire men had numbers on their hats, and so this is number sixty-one, this cat. So his label says sixty-one.

Tone Madison: That’s so beautiful!

Martha Glowacki: So odd.

Tone Madison: I think that’s one of my favorite pieces in the Chazen, especially because you can touch it, and it encourages you to open it. I don’t know if there are any other pieces that want you to touch them. So let’s talk about that — a lot of your pieces encourage the viewer’s participation. Beyond these cabinets of curiosities, there’s a camera obscura with a meticulous upside down piece that’s in front of it and the viewer can actually use a camera obscura. There’s also a peephole diorama, called “Perspective Box For Wenzel Jamnitzer.

Martha Glowacki: I’m really interested in some of the pieces I make to have a degree of audience participation. The first piece I made that invited that participation is My Arcadia. And it has been mostly out on the museum floor since it was purchased by the museum in 2000, and it is I think the only pieces in the Chazen where you can really interact with it, at least to the degree where you can open drawers. It’s withstood a lot of wear, and every once in awhile needs to have a repair. But, I realized how powerful it was for people to be able to discover, just like I did as a kid, in the museum, to be able to really explore and find things that are hidden. So I’ve tried to make other pieces that have that sort of an impact. With again, the thought that you can learn something from them, in the Chazen show it’s about optics, and the use of mirrors, and mirror illusions, and perspective illusions, and the experience is heightened by the sense of discovery and hopefully wonder interacting with those pieces.

Tone Madison: I was curious about some of your other motifs, in connecting all these pieces together. Just for example, I noticed bees on several of the pieces. And obviously there’s a visual aesthetic but also very specific motifs in a lot of these pieces. I was wondering if you could talk about a few of those?

Martha Glowacki: I’ve used bees in a number of pieces that I’ve made over the years. I’m fascinated by bees, and partly because of their complex social and cultural life. They’re very orderly, they are crucial to a healthy natural environment because they’re pollinators and right now they’re in danger. So there are all sorts of things about bees that are interesting and that are important.

They also cast beautifully. So all those bees you see in that show are cast bronze. And many insects will not cast well, so that’s just another advantage about bees. I walk a lot, along rural roads, and bees get hit by trucks and cars, and so you find dead bees along the road. And then I pick them up, and give them another life as an art piece.

Tone Madison: What do you want people to feel as they’re walking away from the show and take home with them?

Martha Glowacki: I want them to look long enough to really be engaged with the work. I think so many people go to museums and they walk past 95% of the artwork hanging on the walls. I want some of these pieces to really pull people in so they’ll look at them and think about them, try to understand what I’m doing with them, hopefully feel a sense of compassion and care for our natural world with the pieces, and to also be curious about how they’re made, what I was trying to do. So that’s a goal that I have with the work, certainly. I’ve been talking a lot to the guards at the Chazen, and one of them said to me yesterday, he said “You know, people come out of that show, they spend a lot of time there, they come out with a smile on their face. That doesn’t happen much.” And I think it’s because they’ve been looking at the camera obscura upstairs and taking photos with their cell phones, but still. That’s what I would hope.

Tone Madison: This is a significant body of work in the show. It’s meticulously put together and it seems like a lot of work, and I’m sure it was. I was wondering if you could tell us kind of what you’re working on right now, going forward in the future. What can we expect to see from you in a few years?

Martha Glowacki: Right now I’m building a studio addition, which I’m very excited about so I can keep making more work and bring most of this home and put it somewhere. But I have two projects in the hopper, one of them is another cabinet of curiosities type piece which I’m going to do with the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee, built into an inlaid hard stone cabinet from Italy that I found, which was built in the Victorian period. It’s a signed piece, it’s in very bad repair, so I’m going to rebuild it and make it into a personal cabinet for myself. Another thing I really want to do is find a scientist who is studying swarming behavior, particularly interested in how animals that swarm communicate with each other, like birds that you see flocking and trying to avoid a predator and they have these very balletic, quick, intricate movements. They fly like in a formation, how do they do that? So I would really like to work with a scientist who could help digitize that behavior for me so that I could come up with a beautiful visual image of it that would be done in video and then have a sculptural component to it. So that’s my next project.