If you were to try to describe the work of Alabama-based artist Patricia Boinest Potter, you would probably find yourself gravitating toward phrases like "three-dimensional," "mixed media," and "inspired by nature" — descriptors, in other words, that are solid, simple, understandable. Of course, these are also terms that tell you almost nothing.
That's because Potter's work is, in truth, almost impossible to describe. She calls the pieces she creates isomorphic map tables, and they are multidimensional (multidimensional because several incorporate time as well as space) works that use materials like wood, glass, and wire to interpret a 100-square-mile area of rural Alabama, close to where Potter lives.
Needless to say, these do not look like any maps anyone has ever seen. That's a bold statement, but it comes from Mark Sloan, the director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art and a photographer and curator who's made it his life's work to seek out the strange, marginal, and underappreciated members of the fine art world. "I went down to her studio and was stunned. I had never seen anything in that format, that scope," he says. "Any words you use to describe it are going to pale in comparison to the thing."
In addition to being an artist and architect — she's both practiced and taught architecture for many years — Potter is an intellectual. Her isomorphic map tables are directly inspired by cognitive science professor Douglas Hofstadter's book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (otherwise known as GEB), which discusses, among other things, links between formal systems, self-reference, logic, Zen Buddhism, and, most importantly for Potter, the way that meaning arises out of seemingly meaningless symbols.
The map tables that Potter is displaying at the Halsey originate in the similiarities between the movements of a flock of starlings and a peloton of cyclists. As Potter says in the Patterns of Place exhibit catalog created by the Halsey, "While looking for patterns of movement, I found the murmuration of starlings and a peloton of racing bikers to have similar flocking patterns. It is this pattern of energy that each table maps. The movement is from three dimensions to multidimensions."
Sloan explains the work like this: "She's exploring ways in which things that are part of our everyday world can be indexed to things that are also both particle physics — micro — but also macro, out into the cosmos. They would have some kind of corresponding ripple, both inward and outward, which opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities. It's a really difficult thing to express. She creates a kind of visual conundrum."
Despite the expansive conceptual territory they cover, Potter's map tables and the accompanying 100 small pieces, called 1:1 map insets, are also inextricably linked to the physical landscape of rural Alabama. Potter was born in Charleston, but spent her girlhood running through the woods near the Alabama town of Anniston. She left to attend college, and afterward spent time in Paris and Helsinki, as well as other locales far from home. Potter returned to Anniston in the late 1970s, after being gone for 10 years. "When I came back after being gone for such a long time, that's when I had new eyes and a new appreciation for the beauty of [the woods]. It brought back all these memories from my childhood, when I was so close to it," she says.
Potter and her husband, to whom she's now been married for 55 years, decided to stay. They built their "tree house," a four-story home that's practically woven in among the trees, on land next to Booger Hollow, Potter's favorite spot as a child.
The tree house also houses Potter's studio, where she works collaboratively with other students and artists. "I've always been a process artist," she says. "When I came back here, I had the feeling I really wanted to work like an architect does. I wanted to have a studio where I was the designer and have other people around who would be involved in the process. And I'd enjoyed so much working with [my architecture] students ... I found that students would come in and want to be involved. That totally changed what I'd thought of as my process — it turned it into a totally new thing." Her studio, or firm — for it's really both — is called ArtxArchitecture.
Potter is also an avid, though humble, student of particle physics, and her map tables explore the movement of dark matter and dark energy, as well. "I'm such an amateur," she says. "But these things just fascinate me. I feel like I don't have much previous knowledge about it, I just incorporated it in a visual way."
In doing so, she's tasked herself with creating a visual, artistic representation of one of the greatest mysteries of science. It's a mystery so great, in fact, that even the astrophysicists who study dark matter have trouble communicating exactly what it is or does. "My biggest desire is for it to be the artistic complement to the science," Potter says. "I hope scientists appreciate what I'm trying to do and will help me if I've got it all wrong."
This fearless embrace of questions with — as of yet — no answers is part of what Sloan admires so much about Potter's work. "She's looking at the big questions, the really big questions. 'What is this universe, this cosmos we live in?'" he says. "Perhaps what she's doing is providing a new model, a new way of thinking about it."
Potter is unique in her ability to find new ways of looking at things; according to Sloan, who visited Potter at her home in spring of 2014, she has a bowl of small ceramic objects that she'd made as a creative exercise. "She gave herself the assignment to make a series of objects that had no reference in reality," he says. "Things that had never been seen before. No 'Oh, that looks like an acorn' — it couldn't be like that."
This interest in visualizing and making tangible things that are, in essence, unknowable, is what makes Potter's work so indefinable. On its own, it's interesting to look at but quite difficult to read. When accompanied by the artist's own writings and explanations of what the work explores, however, the map tables and 1:1 map insets become something exciting and highly intellectually challenging. "She's a really unusual character in the history of art," Sloan says. "Any words you use to describe this project are going to pale in comparison to the real thing. But if the artist could describe it, she wouldn't feel compelled to create it."