When most artists need materials, they go to arts and crafts stores. Philadelphia artist and professor Jennie R. Shanker, however, is looking deeper than that, literally.
She's sculpting with Marcellus Shale.
Shanker has traveled across the state, exploring sites in Cumberland and Lycoming County, where Marcellus Shale is accessible in order to scoop it up and turn it into clay.
Philadelphia artist and professor Jennie R. Shanker, top, has collected samples of Marcellus Shale from sites in Cumberland and Lycoming County to create casts of styrofoam cups.
"The first time I went to an outcropping and saw the shale, it was unlike anything I'd ever seen," Shanker said. "It was so distinctive, I thought, 'Now I know what to look for.' "
The artist said that she was quickly informed that there are a lot of shales that look like Marcellus but are not, and one may be easily fooled.
"The geologists tell me that there are a lot of non-Marcellus shales that look identical," she said. "The only way to identify it, apparently, is to measure the level of radiation it emits. A lot of rock out there is radioactive to some extent. Marcellus has higher levels than other shales that it might look like."
The fact that the shale had a higher level of radition initially spooked Shanker.
"This scared me at first, but the geologists were unconcerned," she said. "It put me at ease - somewhat. I actually borrowed a geiger counter to measure the radiation from the stone ... I compared it to what my cell phone was emitting. It was double the level of my cell, but it was equal to other rock that's common in the city - Wissahickon Schist for example. We're surrounded by things that emit low levels of radiation. It can be hard to assess what 'safe' means."
Shanker said that, for sculpting - from a ceramic perspective - the shale comes up "a little short."
"It isn't as elastic as commercial clay," she said. "There's ways to treat it to increase the elasticity, but I wanted to avoid using anything that wasn't collected at the outcropping. I found that when it was more watery, it made a good slip for casting. It doesn't need to be as elastic using this process."
The Yale University graduate is using the clay to make molds of styrofoam coffee cups.
"I wanted to use a form from an everyday object," she said. "I wanted it to raise some of the questions that fracking does but on a more immediate, personal level. Drinking out of a cup made from this material literally puts those questions in your hands, in relation to your body. Someone might think about safety and water quality. Maybe it would make people think about how little they know about anything they eat from styrofoam, ceramic, glass. What do we really know?"
Since the project is part art, part science, Shanker is working with geologists at Temple University, where she is an adjunct art professor.
"I'm teaching in the sculpture department at Temple's Tyler School of Art and have been working with the curator of their gallery, Robert Blackson," she said. "Rob connected me to two of the university's geologists. I had rock samples of the Marcellus that they needed for tests."
Shanker, who also teaches at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Moore College of Art and Design, said that she and the geologists have shared resources and information.
"I've learned so much from these guys - both specific information about the clay I'm making and more general information about geology, energy production and fracking," she said.
Fifty of the cups that Shanker is making will be used for "The Big Shale Teach-in," a symposium about Marcellus Shale that will be held at the Tyler Gallery Nov. 4.
"Another 150 (will be) for the gallery's coffee club," Shanker said. "They'll be given as awards for being a regular club visitor. I'm still waiting for information from a food-safety certification lab to insure that it's OK to drink out of the cups. The EPA only asks them to test for lead and cadmium. I'm having them do a battery of other tests, just to be sure."
Shanker is trying to use her Marcellus Shale project to educate people about what's happening in their backyards.
"In general, we need to work harder to understand the impact of things we consume," she said. "The further removed we are from the origin, from understanding how something is produced, the more we need to work to understand it. We need to care. If we don't care about how things are made, we're opening the door to abusers who only care about money."
She has set up a blog, marcellusclay.blogspot.com, through which interested persons may follow her project step-by-step.
"I'm sharing what I'm learning," she said. "Anyone can do this."