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‘Rooted in Soil’ connects art, environmental science

DePaul Art Museum exhibition features 15 artists, debuts Jan. 29

The Burn
Photographer Jane Fulton Alt’s series “The Burn” includes this photo, “March 19, 2009, 4:29pm,” and shows destruction and new growth fueled by fire. Alt’s work will be on display and she will lead two photography workshops as part of the “Rooted in Soil” exhibition at the DePaul Art Museum. The exhibition runs from Jan. 29 to April 26, 2015. (Photo by Jane Fulton Alt)
CHICAGO — Beneath the grass and pavement that cover Chicago lies a vital, under-valued ecosystem that gives rise to a new art exhibition — “Rooted in Soil” — opening Jan. 29 at the DePaul Art Museum.

Curators Laura Fatemi, interim director of the DePaul Art Museum, and her daughter Farrah Fatemi, an environmental scientist and assistant professor at Saint Michael’s College, combined their knowledge of art and science to explore the underappreciated role of soil in human life.

“Farrah’s interest in the environment inspired me,” said Laura Fatemi. “Soil is a fundamental component to our lives and health that we often ignore, and throughout history artists have contemplated our relationship to nature. ‘Rooted in Soil’ offers viewers a unique way to engage with environmental issues through the arts.”

“We are really examining the human connection to natural cycles in this exhibit,” said Farrah Fatemi, an alumna of the College of Science and Health at DePaul University. “We saw this exhibit as a compelling way to combine artistic and scientific perspectives to raise awareness about issues of soil health and degradation.”

Upon entering the museum, visitors will encounter a hanging terrarium built by artist Vaughn Bell, whose work challenges city dwellers to reconnect with nature. Bell invites viewers to enter the biosphere of the terrarium and peer out across the surface of the soil.

Our Bodies, Our Soils
Chicago-based artist Claire Pentecost’s installation “Our Bodies, Our Soils,” will be on display as part of the “Rooted in Soil” exhibition at the DePaul Art Museum from Jan. 29 to April 26, 2015. Pentecost will also participate in a panel discussion on art and science at the museum April 8. (Image courtesy of Claire Pentecost)
An installation in the show from Chicago-based artist Claire Pentecost, “Our Bodies, Our Soils” recalls an apothecary with tinctures of soil from the city that visitors can examine and smell. Pentecost will participate in “Soil Matters: A Conversation on Art and Science” at the museum April 8.

The works of John Gerrard and Edward Burtynsky address how large-scale farming practices are altering the landscape and degrading the soil. Gerrard’s animation “Dust Storm (Manter Kansas)” uses 3-D gaming software to reimagine the Dust Bowl era. He scrutinizes this historical environmental disaster and connects it with modern times, using footage of burning oil fields to suggest another impending environmental crisis. Burtynsky’s large-scale aerial photographs of pivot irrigation reveal the vastness of the human imprint on the earth’s surface.

“Human activities such as large-scale farming and deforestation have compromised the health of soil on a global scale,” Laura Fatemi said. “DePaul is committed to addressing issues of social concern, and this is an environmental topic that affects all of us. We hope people will step back from the exhibition and have gained some insight on an important resource we depend on for our well-being.”

Other artists offer radical and innovative solutions for conserving the environment, said Laura Fatemi. “The Infinity Burial Project” from Jae Rhim Lee includes a burial suit that combines technology and design to make funeral processes more ecologically friendly.

Milkweek Dispersal Balloons
Activist and artist Jenny Kendler will bring “Milkweek Dispersal Balloons” to the DePaul Art Museum as part of the “Rooted in Soil” exhibition, which runs from Jan. 29 to April 26, 2015. On April 11, Kendler will distribute biodegradable balloons filled with milkweed seeds, inviting participants to pop the balloons in their neighborhoods. Milkweed is an essential food for monarch butterflies, a declining species. (Image courtesy of Jenny Kendler and the Natural Resources Defense Council)

Activist and artist Jenny Kendler’s “Milkweed Dispersal Balloons” performance includes biodegradable balloons filled with wildflower seeds, which visitors are invited to scatter to help feed monarch butterflies. The performance will make its Chicago debut at the museum April 11, when Kendler will bring a specially designed butterfly food cart to fill the balloons and will lecture about the project.

Artist Julia Goodman also works with organic material and makes papyrus from beets, an act that reminds viewers how scarce paper once was and how easily it is consumed now. Goodman will join farmers John Peterson and Andrew Stewart for a conversation on “Good Soil and Rooting” Feb. 18 from 6-8 p.m.

Several artists depict the cycles of nature and decomposition. Sally Mann’s photographs of decay remind viewers of our eventual return to the earth. Jane Fulton Alt photographs controlled prairie fires in Northern Illinois for her “The Burn” series, showing destruction and new growth fueled by fire. Alt will lead workshops at the DePaul Art Museum Feb. 4 and April 22.

Filmmakers Sam Taylor Johnson and Justin Rang also have works featured in the exhibit. Rang, a German artist, invites viewers to reflect on soil and transformation in his film “Light/Dark Worms.” Johnson’s film “Still Life” explores mortality and the passage of time using a bowl of fruit and “vanitas,” a theme that Dutch painters used in the 17th century.

Light/Dark Worms
German artist Justin Rang’s film “Light/Dark Worms” will be on display as part of the “Rooted in Soil” exhibition at the DePaul Art Museum from Jan. 29 to April 26, 2015. (Image courtesy of Justin Rang)

Calls of songbirds and the thrum of Lake Shore Drive are heard in the sound installation, “Rooted in Sound.” Recordings were gathered by the Chicago Wildsounds Project, a student group in DePaul’s environmental science department led by professor Liam Heneghan. The ongoing sound ecology project seeks to measure the correlation between soil health and sound. The museum will host “A Night of Chicago Wildsounds” with poetry, discussions and music on March 5 from 6-8 p.m.

A free opening reception will be held Jan. 29 from 5:30-7:30 p.m., with several of the artists attending and the curators giving a gallery talk at 6 p.m. The exhibition closes April 26. For more information on events related to “Rooted in Soil,” visit

The DePaul Art Museum at 935 W. Fullerton, just east of the CTA’s Fullerton ‘L’ stop, is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Fridays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. It is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. For more information, call 773-325-7506 or visit

Artist Vaughn Bell creates hanging terrariums including this installation, “Metropolis,” to invite viewers to reconnect with nature. Bell’s work will be on display in the “Rooted in Soil” exhibition at the DePaul Art Museum from Jan. 29 to April 26, 2015. (Image courtesy of Vaughn Bell, photo by Spike Mafford)


Laura Fatemi

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Kristin Claes Mathews