As a Fellow in the Artists in Residence in Everglades (AIRIE) program in early 2018, sculptor Robert Chambers focused on lands north of Lake Okeechobee in the headwaters of the Everglades. From this experience, he created a new body of work combining elements such as biomimicry, 3D printing and principles of evolutionary biology to express the urgency of con-serving the delicate relationships of natural phenomena and indigenous species that make up the Florida Everglades. Chambers’ work is inspired by the Serenoa repens, the tenacious plant commonly known as the Saw Palmetto, a symbol of the Everglades’ complex interplay of water flow, plant life, fire and weather.
With the support of an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), AIRIE organized a trip for Chambers to visit Archbold Biological Station (ABS) where its director and lead scientist, Dr. Hilary Swain, captivated him with descriptions of the remarkable tenacity of the Serenoa repens, which can live upwards of 5,000 years, thanks to its expansive root system that Chambers sees as both a power source and liminal subterranean presence that verges on the alien. Building upon research by Dr. Warren Abrahamson, Chambers stylized models of this root system, created with cellulose fibers and 3D printing, to look like a gigantic unraveling knot surrounded by videos, drawings and scientific graphs, which refer to other parts of the plant and its ecology.
Chambers has created a series of sculptures representing stylized insects that pollinate the Saw Palmetto made of polylactic acid (PLA), a nontoxic filament resin made of sugar derived from starches found in foods, representing the plant’s precious berries. Research by Dr. Mark Deyrup inspired Chambers to enlarge specimen scans up to 200 times using a MakerBot Z18 3D printer, where the translucent pieces appear to peel away from vertical scaffolding strands, revealing bright, futuristic creatures. These are complimented by large spherical objects referencing berries printed with Formlabs. 3D-printed topo-graphical graphs are placed on wooden tables with milled concave surfaces created with computer-aided CNC design machines. Through the conduit of contemporary art, this technically impressive process is an effort to popularize research about the saw palmet-to to create environmental awareness on many levels.
Chambers designed and produced these sculptures with the collaboration of colleagues at Florida International University’s (FIU) Robotics and Digital Fabrication Laboratory (RDF), a state-of-the-art facility with robotic arms, 3D scanners, laser cutters, program-mable objects, and 3D printers, and the CARTA Innovation Lab at FIU’s Miami Beach Urban Studios. Select specimens known to pollinate Serenoa reopens are on loan from South Florida Collections Management Center.