Collecting, sorting and classifying are among the foundational activities natural scientists use to understand the world in which we live, and the relationships between the creatures with whom we share it. Childhood collections of leaves or rocks or butterflies, after all, have often been gateways into lives of attentiveness to creation, if not full-fledged careers in science—or the arts. Thus the basic appropriateness of looking at Mary McCleary’s 2008 work “Sugaring Moths” should be apparent, as it is the artist’s translation of the classic display of specimens approach to presenting and celebrating biological diversity. But McCleary’s particular take on this familiar form helps us recognize tensions (perhaps ironies) in this and all outworkings of our human desire to make the world sensible, whether our framework for doing so is ostensibly materialist or grounded in a faith in the Creator.
There are two elements of McCleary’s work—neither immediately apparent by looking at the nearly 3-foot by 4-foot work as an image on a webpage—that help re-frame our thinking about the relationship between faith and science in particular. The first is a narrative element present in the form of a thin line of typed text that circles the central image at its edge, giving a human dimension and history to the collection that is the ostensible subject of the work:
“He had perfected his recipe for sugaring moths:
A bottle of Guinness or other good stout, the mashed flesh of a ripe banana, 4 spoons of black molasses, and a? pound of the stickiest darkest sugar he could find. After boiling, he let it simmer on the stove until thick. Then added a little Jamaican rum after it cooled. Sweet, fruity, winelike. Ready to brush on fence posts or tree stumps at dusk, especially when there was no moon and the night would be hot, humid and dark.
Returning to his spot with his flashlight he would find a company of moths tippling his cocktail, intoxicated, sucking the sweetened patch. He made it so easy for them.
The mason jar he used for trapping and killing moths was originally made for preserves. Like the old guys he used potassium cyanide. It reminded him of lump sugar.
If he’d hold the jar just a little under the moth, the creature would drop down in to it on the first rush to get away. Clap the jar lid over him! He’d flutter for just a moment.
He set them in order. Gathering against the night.”
On reading this inscription we begin to see more than a collection of insects, do more than focus on its arrangement and what it can tell us about moths (where might these have been collected, are they arranged in a coherent order, etc.?). Instead, we are led to recall both the how and the who behind the collection. While the particularly soft-hearted might find in the narrative aspect a critique of the “destructiveness” of a science that must take life in order to study it, that is not the most important or interesting issue raised by the text, if it’s raised at all. Rather, the question posed is more about human agency and purpose than about techniques, as is suggested by the last two phrases in the text.
He set them in order. Gathering against the night
The drive for understanding of the world requires our engagement with it, not least our arrangement of what we find (or collect) into orderly systems, to which we then affix names. Ideally, those categories and names correspond to what was “already there,” a matter of recognition rather than of imposition. But there is always an element of artifice in our arrangements, and not just because we are ever in the state of having not-quite-enough information to be absolutely definitive in our conclusions. We also seek to simplify and categorize and arrange as a means of control and security. We are all, in essence, “gathering against the night” of our own ignorance, uncertainty and powerlessness, hoping that by our persistence and the sheer analytic power of our rational abilities we will gain a measure of reassurance.
As broadly accurate as that line of thought is, it is also a bit discouraging. Happily, it is not the only insight “Sugaring Moths” has to give us about our relation to the material world that we so carefully collect and study. The second aspect of the work that is easily-missed by seeing it in reproduction helps point us to a rather more hopeful angle on the problem of knowing the world: the entire display of moths is a collage, made, as the artist says, “by attaching layer upon layer of materials such as paint, paper, rag board, foil, glitter, sticks, wire, mirrors, pencils, nails, glass, painted toothpicks, string, leather, lint, small plastic toys and other objects on heavy paper, much in the way a painter builds layer upon layer of paint on canvas.”
If the text that circles the boundary of the work suggests that analytic detachment provides a false defense against meaninglessness, McCleary’s process is a metaphor for the way that a celebratory engagement with the world reflects its inherent, given meaning while also bringing new meaning into existence. Rather than insisting that that the only knowledge that can be “true” is that which is reductionistic, as with observations collected and stripped down to their most basic and orderly cores, McLeary’s way of creating images parallels the way we build up all of our knowledge bit by bit, looking for slivers that seem to fit into the pattern we see and imagine, but often driven to make connections and selections by subjective determinations of beauty or other appropriateness rather than a predetermined sets of rules. This is an additive kind of knowledge, where what is external to us is recognized as meaningful on its own, but also in relation to new categories and arrangements that are personal and cultural and spiritual.
As McCleary can claim that she is “interested in the spatial complexity and visual tensions that come from the collages being illusionistic, while at the same time composed of three-dimensional objects that often retain their own identity,” we can recognize that the order and beauty we find in the world can speak to us objectively and subjectively, without our subjective intuitions and cultural associations being invalidated by the “facts” of nature, nor the “facts” of nature being somehow offended by the patterns we are enabled to see by the lenses of art and, especially, of faith. Indeed, such a dual mode of understanding the world is something Christians ought to recognize as part of our cultural mandate—as our response to God’s call upon us to cultivate the creation imaginatively as well as materially. For then such collecting, such ordering as we see in the image of McCleary’s collage need not ultimately be about control but about recognizing and re-presenting the meaning that was already there before us.
Mary McCleary is Regent's Professor of Art Emeritus at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, where she taught from 1975 to 2005. Born in Houston, she received her B.F.A., cum laude in printmaking/drawing at Texas Christian University and her M.F.A. in graphics from the University of Oklahoma. Since 1970 she has participated in over 250 one-person and group exhibits in museums and galleries in 24 states, Mexico, and Russia, her work has been regularly reviewed or featured in a wide range of publications, and she has been the recipient of a Mid-America Arts Alliance/National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship. McCleary will have solo exhibits at the Grace Museum in Abilene, Texas (Jan 21 – April 21) and at the Houston Art League (fall 2011), and “Sugaring Moths” will be among several of her collages in an exhibit at Gerald Peters Gallery in New York City (March 24-April 22, 2011). More about her and her work may be found here.