Nocturnes: Vanessa Adams in the Studio

March 17, 2017 by

There is a beautiful coincidence arising from Art-in-Ed Resident Vanessa Adam‘s papermaking project and screen prints. For an artist who weaves themes of darkness and obscurity into her work, Vanessa seems to be pulling an abundance of luminous moons from the deckle box. By the end of her residency, these abaca-cotton creations will  lose part of their lunar quality.

Vanessa is using these circular sheets of paper for the newest iteration of How to Regain Sight, a series of prints centered around night-blooming plants. This edition features a chimeric specimen: the night-blooming cactus sprouting from a human heart. The hand-drawn image sits below a nighttime rain and full moon, and when held just right, light diffuses through the moon, raindrops, and cactus blooms.

“In New Orleans, I would bike around the city all year. During different times of the year, I was swept off my feet by the smells of certain night-blooming plants, sometimes daturas or night-blooming jasmine,” Vanessa explains. “I would have to get off my bicycle and wander after them. I became enamored with the magic of those plants and what mysterious creatures pollinate them. Why do they bloom at night?”

This allure has become a subject in her work, framed within themes of cyclical metamorphosis. The original series of How to Regain Sight featured four square prints, each referencing a phase of the moon, which could be displayed in variable patterns. In WSW’s silkscreen studio, Vanessa is working with a different template: a diaphanous, circular print to be displayed in front of varying backgrounds.

Starting at the deckle box, she adds pulp to be shaped by a stencil. Once pressed and dried, she screenprints three colors—black, silver, and pink—before finally sealing them in beeswax, creating delicate shapes within the black nightscape. This translucency hinges on testing many pulp mixtures and days of experimentation.  

“I had an idea about the thinness and the strength of paper I wanted to work with and it didn’t seem to exist,” she says. Fine papers are damaged under the heat and wax, while other papers don’t hold the same luster. While Vanessa is also printing on commercial paper, she’s working to make the ideal paper herself. The final print is almost a negative image, leaving exposed paper, tinted by wax, comprising the moon, heart, and flowers seemingly composed in a weighty layer of black. When finished, it will hang in front of two more prints—a starry sky and a wreath of roots—to form an immense, black background for the ghostly scene.

For inspiration, Vanessa looks to the seminal works of seventeenth-century artist-botanist Maria Sibylla Merian. Based from meticulous notes and field research, Merian’s work compiles scientific illustrations that are nearly narrative and intimate views of a caterpillar, alligator, or spiders’ life cycles. The intertwined lives illustrated in these vignettes—home and inhabitant, predator and prey— move lyrically together through the ecosystem.

Described by Vanessa as signposts to steer viewers through darkness, her work, including this new edition, falls between the fantastical and practical, interactive and iconic—a series of symbols to decode moments of uncertainty. These signposts encourage us to see ourselves clearly, caught in the transformative convergence of the botanical and lunar cycles that may sway our path. For her, the darkness has deeply personal meaning.

“My artmaking process is like my spiritual practice; I’m always thinking about how to surrender and see clearly the direction I want to follow,” she says. “Nighttime and artmaking to me have centered on the unknown and finding myself come up against that limit.”

This leads us to final question for Vanessa: how does she find her way through the process?

“I’m most interested in how we follow our intuition, not knowing how things will unfold, and I let that guide my practice. I start with drawing, decide which symbols I want to work with, and ask myself, now where do I go from here?”


Vanessa Adams is printmaker and papermaker who arrived at WSW from New Orleans by way of Pittsburgh by way of Toronto. She taught papermaking for the Art-in-Ed program, guiding the students in making a collaborative installation that will be on view April 1st. At the end of her residency, Vanessa flew out to the Arizona desert for a cacti-fix. You can find more of her work on her website or on our Flickr page!