In the practice of textile conservation the intersection between chemistry and art becomes a daily occurrence; this is not to say that it becomes commonplace or less spectacular, simply that one’s appreciation evolves. I find that, when I understand the science behind a reaction, magic is not lost but gained. Knowing that each day we are surrounded by materials which, when blended in different ways, become the fireworks that left me in awe as a child (and, honestly, still do as an adult) is absolutely exalting. During the discussion another workshop participant, Simon Werrett, mentioned the sublime with regard to the Victorian audience viewing fireworks for the first time. I cannot speak for all conservators or materials scientists, but I can say that for myself having this word brought up in this context finally allowed me to find the word I have been searching for when I am asked how I feel about materials or why I have pursued my chosen field despite the required years of rigorous study across multiple disciplines.
Matthew Tosh and Lucy Lyons took a modern audience on a tour of the sublime. There is beauty in viewing fireworks, but the magic is in knowing how they are created. Materials science is almost a modern day alchemy; mixing different elements and compounds to create something new with a new set of properties, or discovering a new reaction, leaves the scientist with a feeling which can absolutely be described as sublime. During the entire workshop as demonstrations were given and the methods were explained I was in a constant sense of awe not just at the beauty of the fireworks but also, and maybe even more so, the beauty of the science behind these reactions (I would have loved to see the balanced equations Matthew kept skipping over). I would like to imagine that the audience felt as the alchemists’ apprentices must have felt.
Lucy had a fascinating approach to allowing us to map our emotions rather than simply reflecting on them. She asked that we close our eyes, hold our pencils to the paper and allow ourselves to react to the sounds. I would have liked to include a picture of mine, but the simple dots I made did not photograph clearly. I think the nature of our own personal histories were revealed in these reactions. While other participants had markings showing clear excitement or shock, my paper revealed nothing but two tiny dots: When I hear a bang I immediately raise my hand into a defensive position. Having grown up in an area of the world where earthquakes are common and gun violence is not unheard of, my instinct to protect myself overrides surprise.
Finally, I was interested to find myself feeling almost nostalgic during the presentation. Of course the fireworks themselves reminded me of watching the nightly fireworks over Sea World during the summer or of 4th of July celebrations but, more than the visual, it was smell which evoked the sense of nostalgia. One compound reminded me of the smell of the smoke machines that I associate with so many concerts, another was the exact smell of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, another caused me to recall the time I got to fire a cannon. Each individual processes emotion differently or has different inherent memory and emotion triggers; for myself smell is the greatest. In a room half a world and two-thirds of a lifetime away, when I closed my eyes I was once again a kid at Disneyland on one of her favorite rides.
Mr. Tosh and Ms. Lyons and, of course the amazing Institute of Making staff, did a fabulous job generating thoughts on materials and how we as human beings experience and interact with them. Owing to the style of presentation it was possible to consider both sides of the equation: the effects we have on materials and the effects materials can have on us.