Crystals and Geodes as Nature’s Art: Geologist Cailey Condit in Conversation With Artist Erika Verzutti

Apr 27, 2020 11:13 am

Many people find geodes—hollow rocks that contain mineral matter such as crystals—gorgeous and awe-inspiring. Often, they evoke reverence for natural forces. This is especially true for artist Erika Verzutti, who lives in São Paulo and has been sculpting geodes and minerals, as well as organic matter, for two decades. Verzutti casts natural entities such as vegetables and stones using materials like clay and bronze, which she then paints. She has long been fascinated by beautiful rocks and the permission they seem to grant us to experience aesthetic pleasure for its own sake. In January, Verzutti held a video conversation with Cailey Condit, a geologist based in Seattle who researches mechanical and chemical processes within the earth’s crust. The two compared their methods and interests in geodes, the role of beauty in art and science, and the effect on their work of recent political crises in their respective countries.

Erika Verzutti I want to learn more about how shapes and colors form in geodes. Can it all be explained using mathematics? 

Cailey Condit Effectively, it’s all math: different physical processes are governed by thermodynamics and physics. When I first started getting into geology, I thought of the earth as a whole bunch of different colors of silly putty tacked together, making our job, as geologists, to figure out which processes made which colors end up where.

Geodes form over thousands of years; fluid material precipitates into cavities that are formed within volcanic rocks. The beautiful colors come from trace elements—iron, sulfate—that enter into the mineral.

Verzutti So you’re investigating these processes, looking at geodes and the earth’s crust to understand how they formed. But it seems that geodes are gorgeous for no particular reason. Some species are beautiful, and that beauty serves a particular purpose: peacocks are beautiful in order to attract a mate, for example. Do you have any theories as to why geodes are beautiful?

Condit There’s nothing about the processes that produce them that requires them to be aesthetically pleasing. That makes me wonder if there’s something about us that’s identifying them as beautiful. Sometimes, I’m amazed by geologic samples that most people wouldn’t find beautiful, because I can tell when they were formed in some special way.

Verzutti For me, geodes are nature’s art, since they don’t serve any apparent function. It’s as if they’re the result of nature just doing something funny, some fine art.

I started working with geodes in response to a question: why are they beautiful? The process by which they’re created is such a black box, yet you and other geologists can look at them and read distinct traces of the processes that form them.

Condit Some geologists look at geodes as a record of the different fluid compositions and conditions that produced them. They naturally archive their own origin stories. You can think of it as the geologic equivalent of tree rings.

Verzutti I can compare that to the way I see art-making: when you look at art, you can share the artist’s experience; the work is evidence of their process.

Condit Your process involves making sculptures that look like things you’ve seen in nature. You’re representing the results of those phenomena, but through entirely different processes, like in your show “Mineral” [at the Tang Museum in 2014]. You’re re-creating geodes, sculpting them in all different materials—bronze, concrete, clay, wax. In a way, the science that I’m doing is an inversion of that: you’re making something you’ve seen in nature, and I’m looking at things in nature and trying to figure out how they were made.

Verzutti I find that I’m drawn to geodes in part because, as an artist, I empathize with the earth’s method for, say, choosing a color. The materials determine how the geodes look, almost as if the materials are making artistic decisions for themselves. I’ve fantasized about making work and cracking some code so that, somehow, the work could start making itself. Some artists are addressing this now by generating algorithms or using artificial intelligence. I’m trying to do that with clay and finger prints . . . still, I set up a lot of rules for myself. Nature is also governed by rules and systems—I find that really poetic.

Condit I’m definitely thinking about these sorts of self-perpetuating codes. . . . When I study a rock, I try to build a framework to understand how it was formed, and how multiple processes affect one another. I love finding how various processes form a system: the physics, the thermodynamics, the math. They’re the code of Earth.

More specifically, in my research, I’m thinking about transformations that happen in the crust of the earth, between its mechanical strength and its chemical evolution. I work on metamorphic rocks: rocks that started as one kind of stone but transformed into another after being exposed to extreme heat and pressure. This has big implications for plate tectonics, and things like when and where earthquakes happen.
I love that I can look at something like a rock at a small scale, but see all these large implications. And it’s precisely because of the codes and sets of processes that you mention, which are contained within one rock yet are present globally. When you figure out how one rock is formed, you can apply that process more broadly.

Verzutti I find, though, that this lack of function or purpose we’ve been discussing has felt less exciting in the current political moment. No discussion is possible today without thinking, “why does this matter?” That question has never been so strong for me as it is now.

Condit I’ve felt the same way. Science, no matter what, is going to be useful eventually. You may not know why and how it’s going to affect something, but someday it will. I really do believe that, but it’s also very abstract. I needed to see more clearly some kind of impact in my research. I felt too many steps removed. Since the last US presidential election, I’ve made a concerted effort to move toward topics like geologic hazard in my work.

Verzutti The presidential situation is bad here in Brazil too, and it leaves me feeling paralyzed and defenseless. But when the Amazon was on fire last year, for me, that was peak crisis. Now, I’m questioning everything, starting with the materials I use. I always sympathized with Picasso’s reason for not going to war: he had something bigger to do. He stayed home and kept painting. He created Guernica [1937]; he joined the Communist Party. His decision made sense to me: he was concerned with the legacy of humankind. But this focus on legacy doesn’t make as much sense now, with the end of humankind nearing.

Condit I’ve found myself thinking about your piece The Dress (2015) as I read the news.

Verzutti The Dress is a painted bronze wall piece I made after this photograph of a dress went viral online in 2015. Some people saw the dress as black and blue, while others saw it as white and gold. 

Condit When reading the news, people see the same facts differently, depending on their political leanings. Even in the
scientific community, there can be very different interpretations of the same data, depending on how you’re trained. In my own work, I combine two different subfields. When I look at a rock, I don’t think about just its chemical transformations or just its mechanical transformations, but about both together. That doesn’t mean I’m necessarily seeing the facts, but I’m at least seeing the rock from a third perspective. When I saw The Dress, it brought up this question: how is it that some people see something as this, and others as that?

Verzutti I really like your reading of the work. I was thinking about vision and sight, and how what we see is this scientific process that few people really understand. When the dress went viral, it really encapsulated the way that seeing color is relative. I wanted to make it historical in a funny way, so I sculpted two versions in metal, one using white and gold paint, another using black and blue.

—Moderated by Emily Watlington