Seacourt Print Workshop artists take inspiration from the Ulster Museum's geological collections for August Craft Month
Ross Geller would just love this exhibition. I can imagine him flouncing around the Belfast Room in the Ulster Museum, an 'I Love Rocks' t-shirt not-so-subtly hidden beneath his customary blazer, attempting to woo an attractive young lady with his in depth knowledge of the subject at hand. 'You see,' he exclaims, his voice pitched high with excitement. 'Sedimentary rock deposits can be beautiful!'
As it happens, the Belfast Room is empty when I arrive, though an irregular trickle of visitors do make their way past the museum shop, past the lecture room, and all the way to the end of the corridor that leads to the gallery space – perhaps enticed by the bust of a Belfast luminary that silently observes them as they approach, or as a detour on their way to the lift.
I can only hope that the exhibition is better sign posted when it officially opens on August 1, to mark the start of August Craft Month – Craft NI's annual nationwide celebration of artist, designer, makers and their various skills. Deep Time successfully marries the worlds of art and geology – prints and pebbles – and in so doing, is both educational and aesthetically pleasing. It really is worth a visit.
The exhibition was developed from an earlier partnership with Armagh Planetarium, which saw several SPW artists travel to Portland, Oregan in 2012 to explore the Jurassic Coast and implement a programme of educational classes and exhibits incorporating print and sculpture for the Cultural Olympiad.
Here SPW run with the theme, drafting in more of their artists to produce original prints in response to the Ulster Museum's extensive geological collection – and it is extensive. The museum currently houses a full 30,000 fossils, 11,000 minerals and 4,000 rocks in its permanent collection, most of which are stored out of sight.
Some are on display on the fourth floor of the main building, however, where today tourists, youngsters and their parents stare in awe at the various crystal and fossil specimens on show, and take in video projections exploring the Mourne Mountains and their famous granite quarries, among other things.
Deep Time, the name of both exhibits, is the concept of geologic time, as originally conceived by the 18th century Scottish geologist, James Hutton. The concept has allowed geologists to chart the billions of years of Earth's history – from the formation of our planet to the present day – breaking it down into comprehensible eons, eras, epochs, ages and so on.
You don't need to be a Ross Geller to appreciate Deep Time, though. All of the works are complemented with placards that give the artist's name, the title of the piece, and the type of print utilised – a monotype, for example, a collograph or other. Helpfully, the definition of each print type is also given in one of four panels, which provide a history of the SPW too, as well as short artist statements on each of the prints.
There is a varied response to the theme. Some pieces are traditional one-dimensional prints, such as Tracey Bradley's 'Lost Worlds', an incredibly complex and detailed dry point intaglio of a large shell fossil encrusted with many smaller shell fossils.
It would not look out of place in the study room of some dusty natural history society – overlooked by boffins in tweeds debating the benefits of geophysics and damning Creationists all to hell – as would Lyndsey McDougal's dry point intaglio of a seven-tiered cabinet housing various geological specimens.
Elsewhere, however, other artists play with perspective with three-dimensional installation pieces. Alice Burns has produced an embossed monotype using ferns and cotton paper. It is a tactile piece that begs to be seen up close – touched and smelt even – which Burns encourages the viewer to do in her artist statement.
Cynthia Neill's 'Chondrules' screen print installation, meanwhile, has four separate sheets of plastic set into a wooden frame in sequence – the sheet furthest away shows the origin of a Big Bang, the sheet closest shows splinters of rock heading our way fast.
'Many tiny grains of multi-coloured minerals come together in space to form much larger asteroids,' Neill writes. 'This "explosion" is an asteroid entering the earth's atmosphere and shattering into many meteorites. I show them as slides under a microscope.' And very beautiful slides they are too, painted in complementary pastel shades.
A personal highlight is James Robert Moore's 'Stratum' monotype triptych in black and white, which imitates the building up of layers of rock over millennia. Assuming Moore didn't produce the piece in a leaky studio, the water spots that spoil the straight lines presumably represent the pockets of moisture that have gathered between the layers, incubated there as the sun and the rain beat down on the exposed surface layer.
Aaron Muncaster's '........... Rock' print screen stencil also stands out in a gallery where many of the pieces on show were created using muted colour palettes. Muncaster, conversely, relies on stunning oranges and blues in his take on Marvel Comics' The Thing character from The Fantastic Four. It's a playful take on the theme from 'an avid comic book reader'. Ross Geller and his colleagues in tweed jackets, however – purists one and all – may not appreciate such trivial deviation.
Deep Time runs in the Belfast Room of the Ulster Museum until September 30. View the full August Craft Month programme of events.