"Liminal," by Ella Samuel ’16"Liminal," by Ella Samuel ’16

For her senior project, Ella Samuel ’16 paired laboratory research with installation art to explore diverse approaches to conservation biology.

Her year-long experimental laboratory research project, funded by the Garden Club of America and the Maine Space Grant Consortium, investigated the potential benefits of using fungi to restore metal-contaminated soils in a process referred to as mycoremediation. Complementing her laboratory research, Samuel presented an art installation in the Ethel H. Blum Gallery in early spring. Her installation sought to address philosophical issues that she encountered in conservation biology, she says.

Tools: the design template for the mural and the brushes.Tools: the design template for the mural and the brushes. Credit: Nicholas DuPont

“The title of the installation, ‘Liminal,’ is based on the concept of the threshold, the ambiguous nature of vitality and existence, and the potency of human values and actions,” Samuel said.

Liminal combined a huge wall mural, focusing on symbolic icons of the national conservation movement, with a ceremonial, destructive dance performance. The dance, starring Shir Orner ’18 and Emily Engelking-Rappeport ’17, “drew attention to the impermanence and subjectivity of anthropocentric values related to conservation,” she said. 

Shir Orner and Emily Engelking-Rappeport perform a dance to initiate the destruction of the mural.Shir Orner and Emily Engelking-Rappeport perform a dance to initiate the destruction of the mural. Credit: Nicholas DuPont

“Through my mural, I aimed to create a cohesive representation of the educational power of public art in the context of conservation,” Samuel said. “I chose species that have held significant import for my understanding of conservation, and have been controversial in the conservation sphere, both historically and contemporarily.”

“The mural drew attention to the controversial power humans hold over ascribing value to other species, and encouraged the audience to evaluate the implications of these values,” Samuel said.

Describing the context of her work and her artistic approach, Samuel said, “I chose an inescapably large context for the mural because of the scale of the issues within; the context forced the audience to interact with the uncomfortable.”

Her collaboration with other COA students allowed her to fuse different art forms in her installation piece, combining 2D and 3D space.

“The dancers embodied the human role in the natural landscape, and encapsulated themes of impermanence, transformation, and corruption, finally distorting the images on the wall into unrecognizable forms,” Samuel said.

The community helps Ella Samuel paint over her mural.The community helps Ella Samuel paint over her mural. Credit: Nicholas DuPont

Samuel’s interest in conservation biology started when she came to COA and began collaborating with her advisor, Dr. Nishi Rajakaruna. In subsequent years, classes with Dr. Ken Cline, including “History of the American Conservation Movement” and “Environmental Law and Policy,” influenced Samuel’s political and philosophical approach to conservation biology. Samuel began to hone her ability to communicate biological subjects effectively through art when she took Studio Printmaking with Dr. Catherine Clinger, who later became Samuel’s primary advisor for the production of her mural.

Samuel will continue to infuse her life with conservation biology, utilizing both scientific and artistic approaches. She will begin work for the Santa Fe Bureau of Land Management in June 2016 an excellent place to pursue her interest in botanical conservation work, she said.