Thesis Abstract

              Chasing Sublime -Thesis Project           
              What is it about nature that evokes an intense emotional response?  How do we respond?  The feeling is difficult to explain, larger than any of us. One feels small standing against the backdrop of a mountain range or looking out at the vast sea.

                Romanticism acknowledged emotion evoked by the sublime cannot be recreated by man. Philosopher Edmund Burke said, “The great chain of causes, which links one to another, even to the throne of God himself, can never be unraveled by any industry of ours. When we go but one step beyond the immediate sensible qualities of things, we go out of our depth.”  [1]

                My interest in the idea of the sublime has its roots in my Christian upbringing which encouraged a respect for the Creator and an inherent humility in acknowledging that the spirituality and passion of the sublime is often lost through man’s efforts to control nature through order.  Our ability to create offers only a glimpse of the sublime. 

                The responses to the sublime in nature are reflected in the dichotomy of the city.  Soaring skyscrapers worship the accomplishments of man.  Cathedrals reach toward the heavens in an attempt to rekindle the sublime.  Rows of orderly trees stand in an effort to tame and organize reducing the effect of the sublime in nature.   In walking around the city there is an absurdity in the mixing of nature and manmade.  The city becomes a monument to the manmade.   

                Chasing Sublime explores the manmade city in contrast to nature.  The work is drawn by free motion stitching on a sewing machine using sheer silk layered with ethereal drawings of natural vistas, skyscrapers, and cathedrals.   The base for the piece is comprised of evenly spaced trees formed into a serpentine path unwinding into shapes that mimic architectural columns.   The trees reference both the vast scale of nature and man’s attempt at ordering nature. Small vistas drawn from specific places in nature that once evoked the experience of the sublime are repeated throughout the piece.  The vistas become hazy references dulled by repetition and deemphasized by scale.  Nature is diminished to decoration.   The emotional experience of the original place is diminished as well.

                Chasing Sublime is a call to the return of passion associated with the sublime.  A greater appreciation of the experience of nature creates a positive relationship to nature in man’s future creations.



[1] Burke, Edmund. On the Sublime and the Beautiful, Harvard Classics, Vol. 24, Part 2 . P.F. Collier & Son Company, 1909-14. 01 3 2013. .
In working on the project I realize that I what I am focusing on is the way humans arrange nature so that it becomes nothing more than ornament.   Repetition breeds familiarity which in turn makes one comfortable.  In doing away with the rough, chaotic tendencies of nature we attempt to do away with any romantic notion of the sublime.  This ordering of nature wipes out the unknown and leaves a neat, orderly grid to work and live in.  The grid is constantly being challenged of course by deterioration, the elements, and nature itself.
February 11, 2013

I found a wonderful book this weekend written by architect Sim Van der Ryn .  Van der Ryn is an architect that strives to incorporate function and design inspired by and in sync with nature into his structures.  The following is a quote from his book "Design for Life" (p. 157).  "Why is it that the silhouette of a storm-bent leafless tree against an evening sky in winter is perceived as beautiful, but the corresponding silhouette of any multi-purpose university building is not, in spite of the efforts of the architect?  Our feeling for beauty is inspired by the harmonious arrangement of order and disorder as it occurs in natural objects.”  The modernist cube inspired office building just cannot compare with the organic.

February 3, 2013

Last semester in my gridded piece I positioned the sewn trees in rows aside lamp posts to reference the repetition in the grid of the city. At times the trees in my piece became vines and began to take over the manmade in the city.  It was a reminder that ultimately man cannot control nature (decay, growth, change).   I decided early on to use the sewn trees on a much larger scale for this project to reference a sublime nature. 

This semester I am creating my own manmade space that attempts to echo both the sublime and the architectural.  As romanticism noted there is more to the sublime than just beauty.  The sublime can be unnerving and chaotic.  It is spontaneous and unpredictable.

In the manmade one sees an attempt to order nature and recreate beauty, and sometimes deny the sublime.  In doing so he uses pattern and repetition.  The pattern and repetition attempt to control the spontaneous nature of the sublime.  It attempts to put nature back in its place. There is both frustration and awe in the fact that humans cannot compete with the Divine. 

In my work I recall the sublime through scale.   The manmade is referenced in the repetition of the tree structures that become both architectural and ornamental.  They have a dual nature.   They are evenly spaced with branches meeting in arches.  The materials (silk, beads, organza, and lace) attempt beauty but unravel in a way that evokes the natural elements of a tree and vines.  The structures move back and forth from architecture and ornament to reference nature and the sublime.

The lace is both patterned and chaotic as it loses its structure.  The materials are fragile and delicate and evoke the seductive quality of beauty.  Light shining through the piece creates shadows that reference the unknown. 

I have now completed and hung several of the tree panels.  I am beginning to add the architectural elements.   My next step will be to find a way to tie all of the pieces together visually.  I am also considering adding small areas of color to the piece.  This was a suggestion from my review.  I have always liked a great deal of color in my work.  I have left it out of my last two pieces.  I would like to find a way to bring it back in without overpowering the piece.


In working on the project I realize that I what I am focusing on is the way humans arrange nature so that it becomes nothing more than ornament.   Repetition breeds familiarity which in turns makes one comfortable.  In doing away with the rough, chaotic tendencies of nature the attempt is made to do away with any romantic notion of the sublime.  This ordering of nature wipes out the unknown and leaves a neat, orderly, and ornamented grid to work and live in.  The grid is constantly being challenged of course by deterioration, the elements, and nature itself.    The ornament itself eventually becomes outdated and worn out.

I've been sewing 6 panels of trees (3 each).  The trees are very orderly.  They are arranged to mimic arches.  I started working on the trees as the base of a city I was going to create.  I had been thinking of the way the trees themselves become ornament in urban and suburban landscapes.  I decided to make the trees more ornamental adding lace, sequins, and beads. 

I spent a couple of days hanging a grid on the second floor open space of the Design Building.  Over the next couple of days I will be playing around with the arrangement of the trees.  To date I have sewn 6 panels at 10 yards each of trees.  I have also sewn up panels of architecture.   I am not sure at this point if I want to use the architecture.  I may just stick to the idea of the nature as ornament by creating an ornamental (and orderly) forest of trees, birds, plants, etc...   

More Thinking

I am still plugging away at the project.  I have abandoned the boxes (at least for now).  The idea of the city as a collection of objects from the past still appeals to me (see prior post).  I have been drawing and sewing, drawing and sewing.  I have been playing around with the organization of the panels. It is usually when I am in this rhythm of working that things begin to fall into place.  Soon I will post photos of the work in progress.
The past few days I have been working on the physical project itself.  As I was constructing boxes to frame the piece (or pieces) I remembered  a tiny curio shelf I had created a few years ago.  It was a piece that I filled with little objects and created a painting from.  The painting was a parody on a Mondrian piece.  Below on the left is a photo of the shelf itself.  The painting itself is on the right.  Looking at this little shelf now in relation to my thesis project, I realized what I am thinking of creating is a bit like a cabinet of curiosities or even a "room of wonder", Wunderkammer.
Theory of Humanity
In the 16th century the cabinet of curiosities became popular among wealthy nobility and aristocrats.  Collections of items, often from travels,  that were natural or man made and held historic, scientific, cultural, or religious meanings were housed in these cabinets.  Some of these collections were housed in entire rooms and were referred to as Kuntskammar or Wunderkammer.  I love the thought of a city being a collection of the same. It is a collection of ornamentation and ideals borrowed from around the world.  When new discoveries or ideas come to being they are added to the city through architecture and ornamentation.   I found this quote from Horst Bredenkamp, "The Kunstkammer was regarded as a microcosm or theater of the world, and a memory theater. The Kunstkammer conveyed symbolically the patron's control of the world through its indoor, microscopic reproduction."1    I think this is a great jumping off point for my piece.

The photo on the far right is the first box I have constructed.  I used velum for the mock-up but plan to use a variety of materials in the actual piece.  The ornamentation will work its way around and through the boxes rather that just being enclosed in them.   I plan to display the boxes in a way that the viewer can move around them. One does not stand in place and view the city as a picture but rather moves around in it.


First experiment
Johann Georg Hainz -
1666-Cabinet of Curiosities

1. Cabinet of Curiosities,,
Francesca Fiorani, reviewing Bredecamp 1995 in Renaissance Quarterly 51.1 (Spring 1998:268-270) p 268

This year I am still concentrating on the city.  This time around I am thinking more of ornament as it is an outward manifestation of values and beliefs, changing with trends.  My thesis proposal is posted (look to the right under thesis proposal).  Below are photos I found of the Carson Pirie Scott buiding in Chicago.  This building was designed by Louis Sullivan, an architect known for being among the first to design skyscrapers. 

(Photos from Chicago Tribune website  article July 26, 2012)

The Second Year

I am now in the process of editing my proposal for the thesis project.  Here are my beginning thoughts starting from a reflection of last semester's work:

In my second semester project I explored the gridded structure of the city.   I discussed the cube as an escape of the harsh reality of life (war, sickness, decay, etc…).  I used thread and fabric to illustrate the pattern of entropy and growth found in the city.  I discussed the constant battle in the city and in my work for balance and order.  In contrast I also discussed the tendency in the city and in nature toward disorder.   Man clears away nature to build.  Nature grows back. Buildings fall into disrepair.  Man rebuilds and repairs the city, each time adding to the framework of the city his own sociological ideas through the structure and ornamentation of the city.  This updated city creates an interesting juxtaposition of both old and new thought as well as old and new architecture.  Aging and crumbling facades sit in contrast to new modern towers in the physical city.

My proposal is to create a three dimensional piece in fabric and thread that reflects my observations of the city as a juxtaposition of physical structure, ornament and sociological ideals.  I plan to research the historical influences dictating ornament and discuss trends in art in relation to architecture and ornament. 

More to come...

Latest Reflections

Laurie Ihlenfield

My project last semester focused on a more natural setting and the transcendental experience.  It also noted a loss of more natural spaces and experiences.   This semester I have examined the environment I spend my day to day life in rather than a space I escape to.  I am deeply aware of the obvious scientific environmental concerns that exist. I am exploring the deeper philosophical implications of interactions with nature.  I am exploring the constant battle for balance and order and the constant tendency toward disorder. 

I came to the subject matter for this project as I sat in a park sketching trees.  I quickly realized that instead of reflecting on this place I escape to I should instead reflect on the space I interact with on a daily basis.  I began taking photos during my daily transit from the suburbs to the city.  I walked around the city in the area surrounding my studio making observations and taking photos.  I drew from the window of my house and photographed my neighborhood observing the patterns and nature existing in these spaces.

What I observed was a grid of concrete and glass towering over steeples and columned institutions.  Nearer my home I saw the suburbs as a constant repetition of trees, mailboxes, and flowerbeds.   I began to be very aware of the constant change taking place around me.  There was this mix of old and new, a constant cycle of growth and destruction and growth again.  The push toward order was constantly being challenged by nature and time.

In questioning the grid I looked to geometric abstraction.  The geometric form can be seen as an escape from reality.  The artist Agnes Martin spoke of the square freeing one from right and wrong. She said, “Now I’m very clear that the object is freedom”. (Stiles, p.31)  She stated her work was “anti-nature”.  I began to see this “anti-nature” as an escape from the soul.

The cube is an escape from the constant cycle of life and death.  It is an escape from the unknown. The box is the place of business where one carries out the day to day routine.  Geometry is reflected in the flat patches of land cleared away for rows of houses decorated with rows of trees and shrubs and mailboxes and lamp posts.  There is order upon order. 

While the square, and order as a whole, can be an escape, it doesn’t really free us from anything.   The artist Robert Smithson said, “Grids and plans subdivide the Earth into a global map.  Conflicts among all these orders produce disorder, which is not the absence of order but rather a disparate combination of many orders.”  (Smithson, 150)

The piece hangs from the ordered grid of rusted concrete reinforcement steel.  It is suspended from a network of yarn and thread. A vine grows from the gridded pattern and begins to break from the grid as it moves toward the bottom. In contrast to the grid, the ground is a tangled network of vine created from yarn and thread.  The middle of the piece is a layering of thread drawings composed on a delicate sheer fabric.  Rows of trees, lamp posts, and windows as well as abstracted construction barrels and signs are “drawn” with thread into sheer fabric.  The fabric has an ephemeral quality that facilitates the discussion of the fleeting nature of both the manmade and life in general. The gridded city begins to give way to meandering vines toward the bottom as nature takes over and the cycle is repeated. 

In the winter when I started this project the trees were bare and the only colors were from the bricks and stone in the surrounding architecture.  Looking out from my studio window there was no sign of the change of seasons, no green.  My view consisted of nothing but buildings and a sliver of sky.  In my project the color creeping in comes from the vines that invade the city and the grid above.  The green is both a sign of new life and a reminder that the manmade does not endure. 

In exploring the philosophy of the landscape last semester I researched Immanuel Kant.  This semester I turned more to science.  I investigated such scientists as Edward O. Wilson who talked about the importance of nature to our well-being.  Wilson coined the term “biophilia”, or love of nature.  I looked at the research of Nancy Grimm at the University of Arizona.  Grimm’s research studies the impact of the mega city on the environment.  Grimm acknowledges the negative impact of the mega city on the environment.  She holds out the hope that the city can also be a place of positive change.

I read about and had a studio visit with Dr. Nalini Nadkarni who researches the environmental impact of the loss of the rainforest canopy. Dr. Nadkarni also is a promoter of biophilia.   It is her involvement in many communities to promote awareness that interested me most.   Dr. Nadkarni has spoken to religious groups about the spirituality of trees and the effect of trees on healing.  She has set up programs that allow interaction with plant life in prisons. She continues to interact with artists, musicians, dancers, and other scientists to promote her findings.  I am interested in scientific fact but feel, as do these scientists, that interactions with nature go deeper than surface concerns of ecology. The spaces we inhabit and create for ourselves have a deep effect on our well being.  While most realize the effect of lifestyle on the environment, Dr. Nadkarni acknowledges the effect of the environment on man as well. 

This piece is not just an environmental reminder of the impact we have on our planet.  The piece speaks of man’s tendency to create change without giving thought to the outcome.   It speaks of his desire to compartmentalize everything into order and box it in.  It acknowledges the importance of the natural in one’s daily environment.

Some sense of order is necessary to survival.  Opening a dialogue that encourages people to come out of their boxes provides a hope that we may strive to find a balance between man’s need for order and nature. 


  Stiles, Kristine, Peter Selz: Theories and documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artist’s Writings. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, University of California Press, 1996

  Smithson, Robert:  Spiral Jetty. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, University of California Press, 1972