An artist imagines the post-Monsanto human.
by Ursula Gullow . photos by Matt Rose
Kirsten Stolle was probably a biologist in another life. These days, when she starts a new project, she gathers as much anatomical and biological imagery as she can get her hands on—from old medical books to antique doll drawings to turn-of-the-century microbial etchings. The images eventually find their way into her mixed-media work, based on natural and human forms. This month, her latest series of drawings, Genetically Commodified, will be on display at the Asheville Area Arts Council’s space, The Artery, on Depot Street in the River Arts District.
As its name implies, the exhibit is based on Stolle’s interest in (and abhorrence for) genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A GMO is one whose DNA has been artificially manipulated, usually spliced together by scientists in a laboratory. To be clear, GMOs are not hybrid plants or animals, which tend to occur in nature. GMOs have tinkered-with genes, and GMOs like weed-resistant or bug-resistant corn are useful to farmers looking for higher yields. Critics say it’s not only dangerous to alter the ecosystem in this way, but also that it’s impossible to know about GMOs’ long-term effects on the humans who eat them.
Whereas Stolle’s earlier paintings are comprised of loose gestural washes in gouache and oil, her later wax and graphite pieces are tightly-controlled, precise and pointedly political. Lately, she’s focused on the idea of what happens when GMOs are ingested, creating grotesque, beautiful paintings of biological pods, sacks and cilia. Then, she imagines what might happen if children’s DNA were spliced with doll genes, in depictions that blend familiar items like toys and petticoats with molecular patterns and nightmarish mutations. “This is a good opportunity to make people aware of the risks of GMOs in an artistic, but not overly pedantic, way,” Stolle says.
Her exhibit couldn’t be timelier. In January, an Asheville seed company, Sow True Seed, joined 82 other farming- and gardening-related entities and advocacy groups in a class-action lawsuit against Monsanto. The Missouri-based Monsanto corporation is largely responsible for the development and distribution of GMO seeds in the U.S., and now it’s facing scrutiny from organic farmers and others around the world who say their crops are being contaminated by increasingly-widespread genetically-modified crops. A government agency in India brought a lawsuit against the company last year, and Germany placed a national ban on Monsanto corn in 2009.
Stolle says she doesn’t remember when she learned about Monsanto specifically, but politics started infiltrating her art in 2009. In her series Anatomy of a Future Forest, she explored the ramifications of climate change on future plant species. “It was exciting, challenging and extremely rewarding as an artist to make a compelling artistic statement that could serve as a call to action,” she says.
Before moving to Asheville a year ago, Stolle lived in the California Bay Area for 19 years, and in San Francisco for six. She once worked in management for a toy manufacturer there before she started making art full time. Today, Stolle, who is 44 and studied at the Massachusetts College of Art, has a number of residencies and prestigious gallery showings under her belt. Her pieces hang in the collections of the Minneapolis and San Jose Museums of Art.
She found living in San Francisco to be incredibly expensive. (“The economy tanked, and so did mine,” Stolle quips.) She moved to Asheville because “it just kept coming up in conversation,” she says. So far, she’s loving her studio in the newly remodelled Hatchery in the RAD. “For me, it becomes hard to mentally compartmentalize time between art, part-time job, family, etc.,” says Stolle. “Having a studio makes it that much easier to focus and be in the moment with my art.”
Kirsten Stolle’s show runs March 2-31 at the Asheville Area Arts Council gallery The Artery in Asheville’s River Arts District. Reception on March 2 from 6-9pm, with wine by Jessica Gualano. See www.geneticallycommodified.com or www.kirstenstolle.com.