Points South: A Conversation with Allyson Comstock

Patrick Hanson, Change for Mankind, assembage with pennies for the Responding to Antarctica collaborative exhibition

By Evan D. Williams




Allyson Comstock is an artist and retired art professor based in east central Alabama. In the austral summer of 2013, she deployed to Palmer Station in Antarctica under the auspices of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists & Writers Program, which previously enabled such disparate creative ventures as Werner Herzog’s documentary film Encounters at the End of the World and Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novel Antarctica. Comstock’s resulting suite of drawings, Antarctica: Micro, Macro, and In-between, recently debuted at the University of Northern Iowa Gallery of Art alongside a collaborative exhibition, Responding to Antarctica. See more of her words and work at allysoncomstock.com.




What first drew you to Antarctica?


The landscape was so unlike any that I had experienced. It seemed mysterious.


In your artist’s statement, you quote the French scientist Claude Bernard: “Man can learn nothing unless he proceeds from the known to the unknown.” What unknowns did you encounter in the Antarctic––and what did you come to know?


My personal discoveries came from hiking and sitting outdoors in quiet observation. I now know how a southern giant petrel looks, with its enormous feet spread wide as it lands near a nesting site. I know that an infinite number of patterns are formed on the ice by wind. I know that Antarctica is much more colorful than I had thought––Antarctic skies can be stunning displays, more subtle or intensely saturated than can be imagined.


And what remains unknowable?


The complexity of it.



You took thousands of photographs at Palmer Station, a small selection of which served as the basis for a series of meticulously detailed drawings. How did this act of re-inscription in the studio relate to the primary act of observation in the field?


The area that I was allowed to explore on my own was limited––the area around the station and a clearly marked pathway leading up Marr Glacier. At first I was disappointed, but after the third day, I realized it wasn’t limiting at all. Every time I hiked up the glacier the views were different because the weather conditions were different, and I began to pay attention to detail and nuance in the same way as when I’m drawing.



Allyson Comstock, Micro, Macro, and In-between, triptych of drawings



Did this process allow you to record aspects of the phenomenology of place that weren’t captured in the photographs?


I think I did that through the middle panel of each triptych. The middle panel is an invented scene. I was thinking about the term landscape which derives from the Dutch landschap, or a patch of ground. I positioned photographs in the middle of each grouping to include a fairly close view of the land, water, or ice, and then transposed aspects of the macro view and the micro view on either side.


For the second phase of your project, Responding to Antarctica, you invited 68 collaborators to interpret 68 different images that arose from your residency. What were some of the most unexpected results?


One was Change For Mankind by the Atlanta-based artist Patrick Hanson––it’s made using pennies. Another work that surprised me was an encaustic entitled Family Portrait by a fellow Alabaman, Erin Lalor Adrian––she incorporated images of cows into the Antarctic landscape.



Patrick Hanson, Change for Mankind, assembage with pennies for the Responding to Antarctica collaborative exhibition



Before Antarctica, you completed residencies in two other remote locations––Rabun Gap, Georgia and Ucross, Wyoming. What did you learn from those environments?


I was surprised to learn that Rabun Gap is technically rainforest. It is a lush, enveloping landscape. In contrast, Ucross, Wyoming is open and expansive and spare. I remember walking to my studio at Ucross through a pasture and looking into the distance and up at the sky and feeling the immensity of it. The expanse of that landscape allowed me to expand.


Can you explain the concept behind your Pollen Drifts series?


Every year in the South, when spring arrives, yellow pine pollen blankets every outdoor surface. It’s common to hear complaints about washing off windshields and porches. I spend time on the lake near my home watching the subtle and striking changes of the water’s surface during pollen season. Underwater currents, wind, fish, turtles, and humans disrupt the floating pollen––it’s a canvas of transient beauty. It’s given me a new perspective on what is a source of irritation for others.



Allyson Comstock, Sweep, handmade paper composition from the Pollen Drift series.



You also have a series called Lava Stories. What kinds of stories does lava tell?


Literally, that refers to the text written on the wall with mica dust––I asked two travel companions to share a few words about their experiences seeing the lava flows on Isabela Island in the Galápagos. Metaphorically, that refers to the power of nature.


You are a retired educator as well as a working artist––recently the chair of the art department at Auburn University. What’s something that you learned from your students?


I learned that every person has something to offer. I don’t think I fully appreciated this when I started teaching in my twenties. Working with students one on one and helping them realize their artistic goals allowed me to hear all their viewpoints, ideas, and stories. I was sometimes challenged, and I grew as a person.



Allyson Comstock, Lava Stories, installation view.


If you went back to Antarctica and could only pack one book, one music album, and one movie for inspiration, what would you bring?


Choosing one book would be difficult. I would probably pick Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. I’ve already read it, but it might take on new meaning while on ice. The one album I would pack is Joe Crookston’s Georgia I’m Here. His song “Fall Down as the Rain” is pure poetry and captures my feelings about life. And honestly, I wouldn’t take a movie.


What’s next?


The next project I have in mind will be called One Thing a Day. It’s the simple idea of noticing one small, simple thing outside every day for a year and recording it by sketching, photographing, or collecting.






Evan D. Williams has been a Number: contributor since 2013.