Artist weaves love of science into tapestries
Former scientist left the lab for the loom and has never looked back
By Keri Ferguson
Martina Celerin (Photo by Jim Drummond)
Martina Celerin has experienced a lot of loss in her life. When she was four, she and her parents fled their Czech homeland as political refugees, leaving loved ones and family behind. “We rolled out as Soviet tanks rolled in,” said Celerin, BSc’88, HBSc’89, PhD’95.
A year later, after they immigrated to Canada, her mother was killed by a drunk driver.
While Celerin was studying at Western, her cherished mentor and graduate supervisor, Dave Laudenbach, died right before she gave her dissertation.
But instead of lamenting what she’s lost, Celerin often embraces what is right in front of her – incorporating fond memories, found objects and lessons learned into her award-winning tapestries.
“I have this almost horrible background of adversity,” Celerin said. “But that’s what makes the art real and gives it a passion and intensity that people respond to. I think they can feel my personal experiences and my enthusiasm for life. I weave my sadness and joy into my pieces.”
The former molecular geneticist has been a professional textile artist since leaving her lab at Indiana University and returning to her loom nearly 20 years ago.
“The idea was I would try it for a year and see if it worked. That was in 2002, and I haven’t looked back.”
Celerin’s art form evolved as she became dissatisfied with the flatness of her early works in acrylics and oil pastels. “I began gluing found objects onto the canvas and then painting over them,” she said. “This was better, but still not enough.”
Her solution was to create her own canvas through weaving, incorporating reclaimed materials and textures. Combining this approach with needle felting allows her to create three-dimensional tapestries.
“Each of my pieces has an entire story behind it, with special objects helping to tell stories I carry in my heart,” Celerin said. Her work has been featured in solo, group and juried exhibitions across the United States, and she gives lectures, workshops and demonstrations on her craft.
Her love of weaving was born at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School in London, Ont., where she often won both the art and science awards. When her “forward-thinking art teacher” set up enormous looms in class, Celerin was hooked.
“That experience was so wonderful for me that subsequently I got an old window frame and a bunch of nails from the basement of my father’s veterinary clinic and I worked myself a loom. I continued weaving through the summer, but that all faded away when I threw myself heavily into university and moving forward with my life.”
Faculty at Western made a lasting impression on Celerin.
She credits biology professor emeritus Bob van Huystee for gently leading her toward an honours degree in plant sciences. “There, I finally met ‘my people,’” Celerin said.
Biology department chair Alan Day was “incredibly supportive and patient” as her advisor. When Celerin’s research took a direction beyond his expertise, he encouraged her to add Laudenbach as her co-advisor and supervisor for her doctorate in plant biology.
“Dave Laudenbach was an amazing person, and taught me more about life, focus and dedication than I can ever express,” Celerin said.
Laudenbach also had a practical influence on how Celerin organizes her home art studio in Bloomington, In.
“Dave taught me how to label everything when I was doing research in his lab. It worked for me in science, and it works for me in art. I have so many materials, and they are so well-organized, sorted and labelled thanks to him. I can put my hands on them immediately. If I didn’t, it would be chaos.”
After Western, Celerin took a postdoctoral position in the biology department at Indiana University. She had little money to decorate her new apartment, but enough for a hammer and nails, and she once more made herself a loom. Weaving discarded scraps of fabric with rattan and even ether-stained cotton plugs from another lab, she created a piece of art that still hangs in her home today.
She weaves her scientific knowledge and a sense of whimsy into almost every piece she creates.
In her work Spelling Bees, needle- felted bees made from wool dyed with spent coffee grounds hover on honeycombs made from yellowed pages of her high-school dictionary.
“The bees are absolutely anatomically correct,” Celerin said. “I’m grateful for my undergraduate and graduate education for giving me that attention to detail and those subtleties. That’s what makes a tremendous difference in my art.”
The bees’ wings are made from used dryer sheets and the ends of their antennae from one of her husband’s old guitar strings.
“That’s what I’ve done my entire life; make things out of what’s around me and what gives me joy.”