It would probably be safe to say that Arts Technology Program graduate student Ashley St. Aubin is a bit of an overachiever. Having started her undergraduate study at St. Ambrose University in engineering, she later switched her major to graphic design and added philosophy and art history minors. Now, in her first year toward earning her master’s degree at Illinois State University, she is already looking at doctorate programs and has traveled to London to present her textile-meets-technology art piece, Windstorm.
Electronic Visualization and the Arts (EVA) London 2019 is an annual arts conference held in London, England. For four days in July, St. Aubin spent her time presenting Windstorm and networking with over 50 international artists at the conference. After St. Aubin expressed interest in a doctorate, Professor Kristin Carlson suggested she look into art conferences where she could share her work and connect with other artists. They found EVA London 2019 with the entry deadline that night. With just a few hours between classes, St. Aubin wrote her abstract and sent it off to be reviewed by a panel of judges for EVA.
“It was a shot in the dark,” she says. But a good shot it was. A few months later, an email came back with her ratings and acceptance to EVA. It was time for her to write a paper, which was published as part of the conference and is available on ScienceOpen.com, and put together a presentation of Windstorm.
Because the physical installation would not be set up at the conference, St. Aubin created a slide presentation showing the different parts and functions of the piece. EVA was a huge learning experience for her. She had never shown off her art in a scholarly way before and was unsure how her presentation slides should look. With the help of her supervisors at the Dean of Students Office, she prepared for public speaking.
Although textile art is not her usual medium—St. Aubin works more in painting, graphic design, and photography—it was the best fit for this project. She remembered when she first took interest in fabric and textile design in junior high school. “I realized that clothing is just shapes of fabric that people cover their body with. I would stay up way too late and seam-rip my clothes and sew them back together to make different clothes.”
She had just been gifted a sewing machine for her undergraduate degree and had tons of fabric samples lying around, so it seemed like the best way to make her concepts for Windstorm come to life. Not only was this medium the best way to represent her idea, it also reinforced it. By reusing old materials (fabric samples, buttons, melted down plastic cups), the idea of our consumption is embodied.
There are many parts to Windstorm; at first, you only see the wooden gears and the topographic tapestry. But when in action, the concept is revealed. Not only are the physical pieces part of the art, but so are those who interact with it, as is the effect from those interactions.
Windstorm shows the effects of how we interact with climate change, whether we act in a way to help reverse it or refuse the problem and move on. By choosing not to interact with Windstorm, the installation does not change and shows what happens when we choose to ignore climate change. When one person turns the gear, it will shift, but no change can be seen on the tapestry. It takes multiple people to turn the three gears which light up the LED flowers attached to the tapestry.
“It’s meant to be a discussion piece,” St. Aubin states. “Windstorm is an art experiment to see how people react to physically sustaining nature in order to gain the reward of its beauty.” (St. Aubin 2019, 54-55). One audience member at EVA London added their own narrative to the piece, noting that the nature represented in Windstorm is “man-made nature” of fields rather than the nature of forests and prairies that have planted themselves. St. Aubin said she rethought her artwork after hearing the interpretation and wondered about the different types of man-made nature that we have accepted as part of our environments. This, among other discussions started from Windstorm, proves that it is successful. By starting conversations and getting people to work together, it mirrors how we work with our own environments.
Almost a full year of work went into Windstorm, from the crocheting and sewing of the topographic map, to the circuitry of the breadboard underneath, to the wooden gears which power the flowers constructed of wire, LEDs, and melted plastic cups, to writing the abstract and finally, presenting at EVA.
After receiving her master’s, St. Aubin hopes to continue her education and become a professor so she can inspire students just like her professors have inspired her. Her goal is to make art that makes a positive impact on society and peoples’ everyday lives. Windstorm is just the start.
St. Aubin, Ashley. “Climate Change: Outcomes of Being Bystanders in a Global Windstorm.” Science Open, BCS Learning and Development Ltd., July 2019.