Sunday, April 5, 2020

Crust Lust | March 2020

Jim Toia first contacted me back in 2016 after hearing about Boxo from prior resident Will Lamson. Jim researches natural processes and then makes artworks that incorporate the process as a means of production. He is best known for his drawings made by allowing mushroom spores to eject across paper and also for his web captures. I was intrigued by the work and also wondered what such research would uncover in the desert region.

Jim structured a residency built around a research phase to be followed by a second phase delivering the outcomes to a local audience. He is an educator at Lafayette College in Easton, PA and was able to get a grant from the college to support his work. 

The research phase was planned for late September/Early October of 2017. I put Jim in contact with Mark Wheeler, expert botanist and tireless guide to the Park and its surrounding environments. Jim arrived and took an 8 hr hike with Mark, coming back exhausted and elated. Of everything that he had learned on the day, Jim was most enamored with cryptobiotic soil, the thin layer of crust filled with living organisms that stabilize the surface and nourish the surrounding area. So much so, that he came back in March 2018 to take a course in cryptobiotic soil given by the Desert Institute.

Cryptobiotic soil is fragile and falls victim to off road vehicle use as well as disturbance caused by the uninitiated trampling through it. Jim decided that he wanted to make work that could be used as a pedagogic tool to familiarize people with the crust, and thus get them to both appreciate it's role in the environment and proceed with more caution.


On returning to Lafayette, Jim teamed up with Joe Biondo, an accomplished architect, to conceptualize some prototype structures that would serve the purpose. The original idea was to create a set of interlocking panels that would make up a platform that people could walk out onto. The modular units featured images of the soil taken by a macro camera and enlarged 400x. Jim and Joe continued to brainstorm and designed several more ambitious possible structures from shade structures to "halls of soil".

When Jim returned at the beginning of March for the presentation part of his residency, he shipped ahead loads of interesting work he had made. Using molds made by laser cutting foam based on the enlarged images of the crust, Jim created rubber prototypes of the interlocking units. They are shaped as hexagons, imitating the natural form of honeycomb. He also produced a host of large scale prints on a film substrate and made paper prints using the same images. The studio was very quickly converted into Crust HQ.

While we planned an Artist Tea presentation in JTNP on March 15 and an Open House at Boxo on March 21, Jim made new works by manipulating the pre printed imagery and working into it with inks and paints in several ways. He also built a light table to display the rubber prototypes. One of the aims of his time here was to connect with MDLT and the Park and work toward finding a home for the idea in whatever form would suit the hosting organization. Just as the Covid-19 curtain began to fall, we were able to get some folks to see the work in person and Jim was the last artist to present at Artists Tea for this season. Discussions on applications of his work will be ongoing.

Faced with the shelter in place order, we decided to stream an open house presentation on March 21, 2020. The video can be found here. A huge thanks to Jim for all the wonderful work he has done to date and I trust we will find a supportive organization to bring the designs to bear on their heartfelt intent.

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