Faculty Member Madelaine Corbin Raises Climate Change Awareness Through Fiber Arts
Madelaine Corbin, Adjunct Faculty in fibers and teacher of beginning and intermediate weaving, combines fibers, installation sculpture, writing, and drawing to communicate ideas about land, climate, and human connection to the environment.
Corbin received her MFA in Fiber from Cranbrook Academy of Art and her BFA from Oregon State University. She regularly participates in artist residencies around the country, including one residency in a chemistry lab where she helped characterize a newly discovered blue. She received the Mercedes-Benz Financial Services Emerging Artist Award and was awarded a Study/Research Fulbright to Greece for 2022-2023. In addition to producing exceptional artwork, Corbin is also an accomplished writer. Her most recent key contributions are for Tatter Journal, published by the Tatter Textile Library in Brooklyn, NY. Corbin edited their last edition, titled "Blue," which examines the applications, histories, and elements of the color blue.
Corbin's focus on color has been greatly inspired by her time working in the color laboratory of Dr. Mas Subramanian at Oregon State University who discovered two new blues: YInMn Blue (also known as Mas Blue) and Hibonite Blue. Corbin describes being there when one of the two blues were discovered. "Working in his lab where this brand-new blue emerged was incredible and amazing to be around, especially while it was happening," she explains. "That experience of the origin of color stuck with me, and so did the materials - the rare earth elements that provide the inputs of what composes a color." Based on this experience, Corbin began to focus on the origins of inorganic pigments versus those of natural colors, and from there, exploring natural dyes and the material behaviors of finding - and losing - color.
Developing an Eco-Perspective and Diving Deep
Corbin describes her work as having an eco-perspective, rooted in ideas of space, land, light, and "simple things that aren't simple at all - like dust or salt or something like the color blue." She explains how simple materials are helpful in communicating complex ideas about human consumption. "When you dive into anything small," she says, "it ends up being much more complicated the deeper that you go. I like to start with simple materials that allow me to think deeply about what humans are doing to our planet and to our land; what will happen when humans are inevitably gone; and the value systems that are built into how we interact with the land, objects, and making."
Seeing the climate crisis is a crisis of color
For the last few years, Corbin has been focused on the consequences of color as they relate to the environment. She says, "I have been tying the climate crisis to a crisis of color - the loss of blue specifically, but that applies to other colors too." As a part of this work, she has looked to farming techniques and practices to understand the implications that nutrients and other environmental factors have on the colors of plants, water, and the air. "My recent research looks at how plants change their expressions when they grow and bloom," she says. "In the ways that our waters are acidifying, oceans turning from blue to green, and our skies over cities are turning from blue to grey, indicator species could also show, by their changing colors, what is happening with the soil and the water that they are grown in." (Hydrangeas, which change dramatically with the level of acidity in their soil, are a popular example of an indicator species.) Corbin hopes that her experiments and investigations into color will help people connect with the climate crisis in ways that are personal and individual. "My work helps reconnect with the climate crisis and feel it in a new way," she says. "It's not just news being blasted out, which can make us feel numb. People can connect to color in very personal ways. We can think, 'What would my life be like if I didn't see blue anywhere outside? What would that feel like?' To me, this approach has the power to effect action over apathy."
Applying Art to Science and Industry
As a fiber artist, Corbin utilizes natural fibers and natural dyeing processes to visually and tactilely communicate ideas about transience and material lifecycles, which can appear as a stark contrast to expectations of material wear and colorfastness that are set by the commercial textile industry. She looks for what are called "fugitive dyes" or unstable colors from plants like cornflowers, roses, red onions, cabbages, or beets. She will then find a matching colorfast partner. (For example, marigolds are colorfast and give a very rich yellow color, while turmeric is highly fugitive.)
She explains, "What is beautiful to me is that these materials and their colors don't last forever - they fade back into the earth. That, to me, is a power and not a limiting factor. We so often want materials to last forever or to not degrade. My work does the opposite." For example, she will interweave fugitive and colorfast naturally dyed fibers into one rug, knowing that the fugitive dyes will fade more quickly in the sun. Both fibers look the same to start, but a pattern then exposes itself over time as one of the dyes starts to fade. She explains that in doing this, the work "turns fading into something beautiful - something to be enjoyed and not to be avoided. The process of fading and revealing the pattern is a little piece of poetry."
When it comes to commercial textile production, Corbin sees that there are important applications for her material explorations as an artist. She wants to offer a broader range of dyes that aren't synthetic and to find alternative ways to color fibers on a large scale.
Teaching Data Visualization Through Weaving
After teaching handweaving virtually, Corbin is happy to be back on campus and teaching hands-on. "It's been so fun, especially getting back into the room on the floor looms. The looms are these complicated machines, and so it takes time to get to know your loom and its specific quirks and how to dress it and how to care for it. It is a really sweet relationship that weavers have with their looms, and I love seeing the students develop that in person."
Corbin's students start with tapestry projects based on specific prompts, and then move on to learn other weaving structures. They also learn how to create their own drafts, which is similar to pattern making. One of her most exciting assignments is the "Datascape Project," which is inspired by the work of Tali Weinberg, who utilizes climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and her project Woven Climate Datascapes. (source: https://www.taliweinberg.com/datascapes). In this project students translate data into a woven design. Students use a program called WeavePoint, which enables them to draft different weave structures on a computer, after learning how to create weave structures by hand. Each project also includes a key that communicates how certain design elements represent certain data sets or data points. The structure of this assignment as a research project creates an opportunity for the students to bring together research skills and drafting skills in unique ways. For example, Corbin explains, they can utilize the y axis and x axis in their work and build up the data to show how it overlaps and intersects, and can convey different sets of data or data interactions. "The students are doing really great and unique work on this project," says Corbin. "I encourage the students to use data that they are personally interested in or that they gather themselves. They are choosing to look at all types of data - not just climate data - and it is exciting to see how each of them brings that to their individual project and the class as a whole."
Building a Collaborative Learning Environment
The Datascape Project is just one highlight of the positive impact that Corbin is having on students and her emphasis on providing unique conceptual and technical challenges and building collaborative learning environment. Corbin shares, "I love the moment when something clicks for them, when really complicated things start to come together piece by piece, and it all starts to make sense for that student. It's such a beautiful moment when students get energized by whatever it is they're excited about. Seeing that energy and that passion build is special. When students bring things from their world into their work, from their life and experiences, it becomes powerful. It is not just an assignment anymore but a way for them to talk about their life or what they want to see for our world. Having that voice is exciting to see in students."
Corbin concludes that, as a teacher, this comes down to building openness into her project assignments, where students can expand definitions together as a class. "I want students to share their own knowledge, techniques, or objects and to be co-collaborators in building the experience of our class."
To see and read more of Corbin's work, visit: