Graphite!

Date
  • What do pencils, shiny rocks, and dead animals have to do with American art?

    SAAM's Re:Frame explores American art’s many meanings and connections with experts across the Smithsonian.

    MELISSA: I have to admit, sometimes with contemporary art, I just don’t get it. Take this piece for example: “Nocturnal (Horizon Line)” by Teresita Fernández. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but I bet there’s a great story here if we do a little digging.

    Have you ever thought about the connection between art and... well then, buckle up. Join me and your personal team of Smithsonian experts as we “Re:Frame” American art.

    It says on the wall label that Teresita Fernández created “Nocturnal (Horizon Line)” in 2010. It also says that the piece is made of graphite. Wait, aren’t pencils made of graphite? I happen to have a pencil right here, because in an art museum, you’re only allowed to have pencils in the gallery. But this doesn’t look anything like that. I wonder how the artist could make graphite look like this. It’s almost as if it was painted on. I think I need to find a graphite expert. Liz Cottrell is a geologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and an expert on all things rocks, minerals, and metals. What is graphite?

    LIZ COTTRELL: Well, I have to tell you that graphite is often dead animals, so we – humans, animals, plants – are composed of carbon. We’re carbon-dominated lifeforms, and when we die, our bodies and tissues decompose, and under heat and pressure in the earth, organic carbon turns into graphite. Diamonds and graphite are both simply carbon but formed under different conditions in the earth.

    MELISSA: So why is graphite soft when diamonds are so hard?

    LC: That’s a great question. Graphite is so soft because of the arrangement of the carbon atoms. The carbon atoms are arranged in planes, in sheets, and those sheets simply slough off when you rub it, so graphite is really commonly employed in pencils. I have a pencil right here, and if I were to scratch a piece of paper, planes of carbon would come off and leave a mark on the paper. This is how it looks right when it comes out of the ground, and you can see that if you were an artist, you might be naturally drawn to graphite. Graphite is famous for having this metallic luster. It’s very shiny and silvery and extremely beautiful straight out of the ground. One of the most famous graphite localities, historically, is in England, where they discovered this useful property where it leaves a trace, and that’s where pencils were first developed.

    MELISSA: Woah, wait a minute – graphite, landscape, I think I have an idea, and I’m hoping Carmen Ramos, SAAM’s curator of Latino art, can confirm my theory. I’m trying to wrap my head around this piece, “Nocturnal,” by Teresita Fernández, and I think I have an idea. Is this piece a landscape?

    CARMEN RAMOS: Yeah, this is absolutely a landscape on so many levels. If you look at the work, the top part is very smooth. It almost looks like it’s painted on the surface. Then there’s a layer that represents the water that is polished, and it has this very kind of shiny appearance. Then on the bottom, which represents the land, it sort of looks like graphite in the state that you find it in the earth. Teresita Fernández is not interested in depicting a specific place but is really interested in triggering our personal association, the visitor’s personal association, with the place of their own choosing. When you look at this work, it has a kind of generic feel, right?

    MELISSA: It’s almost like it’s a different place for every person who looks at it.

    CR: Absolutely.

    MELISSA: So how did the artist create “Nocturnal”?

    CR: For this project, she really had to learn about the material qualities of graphite, so she spoke to many different people, scientists, chemists to learn about the properties of graphite, how to use it in different ways. She was really intrigued with this idea of creating a picture whose material is like completely integrated with the image that she’s creating. An image of the land made from the land.

    MELISSA: Okay, I’m happy to admit there is way more to “Nocturnal (Horizon Line)” than I originally thought. Every time we use a pencil to write or draw, we’re using graphite, a substance which forms in the earth from organic carbon. Graphite has been a popular art material for centuries, but Teresita Fernández is using it in a totally unique way. Instead of drawing a landscape with a graphite pencil, she's constructed a landscape out of graphite itself. “Nocturnal (Horizon Line)” is a sculpture of the land made from the land. Pretty darn cool.

    Bye, art nerds.
    Media Series