April 18, 2024
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Growing in expression: Individualized major charts a unique path in science and art

Cameron Wallace imagines the possibilities of environmental design and sustainability

Cameron Wallace works on his senior project: growing a coffee table out of mushrooms. Cameron Wallace works on his senior project: growing a coffee table out of mushrooms.
Cameron Wallace works on his senior project: growing a coffee table out of mushrooms. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

For his honors thesis, Cameron Wallace is growing a coffee table out of mushrooms, their dense root network threading through a substrate of coffee grounds and sawdust.

That’s right: He’s essentially making a coffee table out of coffee. We’ll just let that idea percolate for a moment.

“It was intentional, to emphasize circularity and the idea of a new age of design,” he said.

Originally from Lumberton, N.J., Wallace created his own major in environmental design and sustainability, coupled by minors in Spanish and sculpture. The individualized program allowed him to combine his interests in environmental studies and nature with his passion for the arts and creativity, interweaving the arts and sciences into a cohesive whole — a bit like the mycelium that comprises his coffee table.

When he first came to Binghamton, Wallace considered studying biochemistry on a pre-med track, but found his interest waning. His true calling, he reasoned, would make him feel alive.

He joined the First-year Research Immersion program’s environmental visualization stream, looking at algal blooms. The team worked on a predictive modeling algorithm for coastal communities and presented their findings at the European Geophysical Union conference in Vienna in the summer of 2022.

He considered a focus on landscape architecture, including an education-abroad stint with Rutgers University last summer in Vienna and Budapest. Ultimately, however, he chose the broader scope of environmental design and possibilities that include not only science and architecture but plant-based materials, interior design and fashion.

The seed of that idea was planted in the fertile soil of New York City’s High Line, an elevated rail freight line transformed into a nearly 1.5-mile trail awash in plants, trees and art installations.

“When I was there, I realized how special something like this is in a busy place like New York City that’s so disconnected from nature,” he said. “I saw that there are creative ways to reconnect humans with nature and try to find ways to reincorporate it.”

Many perspectives

Wallace has explored the possibilities in fine arts as well as scientific research. He particularly enjoys exploring the multiplicity of truths and perspectives inherent in a single subject.

Take the invasive species-themed project he created as part of a site installation and performance class with Assistant Professor of Art and Design Colin Lyons. His sculpture featured a tripod metal frame with a wooden frame inside it; covered with honeysuckle bark, the latter was on a swivel, allowing the viewer to explore different angles and perspectives. Within the wooden frame, he build a Plexiglas frame containing Japanese stiltgrass, Asian bittersweet and autumn olive, all frozen in ice.

“When we look at landscapes, whether in paintings, drawings or photography, it’s always from one person’s perspective and it’s a frozen moment in time. What I wanted to do was incorporate the viewer, with the idea that there’s a multiplicity of truths,” Wallace explained. “You and I could look at the same landscape, but we would probably describe or draw it very differently.”

A curatorial intern at the Binghamton University Art Museum, Wallace worked on a special exhibition called “Infinite Interpretations: A Multiplicity of Truths,” open to the public through the end of the spring 2023 semester. The exhibition was overseen by art director Kyungwoo Chun of Chung-Ang University, an internationally renowned photographer, with support from Associate Professor of Art and Design Hans Gindlesberger and Harpur Edge. Translations were provided by Yeojin Kim, a doctoral candidate in English; student graphic designer Mikaela Ortiz also worked on the project.

Wallace selected a sculpture from the museum’s collection — Federation Sculpture Edition E by Louise Nevelson — and sent the images to six South Korean artists: Youngho Jeong, Hyeonwoo Lee, Doyoung Kim, Junyoung Kim, Sunyoung Park and Han Hyeon. In turn, they created photographic work in response.

“It was all about this idea that all six of them could be experiencing the same sculpture, but no two images they produce will be alike,” he said.

Fungus and fashion

Wallace’s honors thesis is a culmination of the many streams of interest he has cultivated over the past four years at Binghamton. Working with art and design lecturer Francis Chang, he constructed a mold in which mycelium — a fungus’ vegetative root network — will grow; once the mold is removed, the result should be a freestanding table able to withstand weight.

Fungi also proved a fertile source of inspiration, particularly for Wallace’s other passion: fashion. Currently, much “vegan leather” is actually plastic, which is arguably worse for the environment than natural leather; plant- and mushroom-based leather is growing in popularity as an alternative. Wallace is vegan himself and avoids both natural and plastic leather.

“A lot of my inspiration comes from art, but I also want to be able to give something to the world in a larger sense — to encourage people to think differently about how they interact with the environment,” he said.

With Audrey Franza, a friend he met in calculus class during his first year, Wallace created the fashion magazine Rena, focused on the idea of the Renaissance man, expanded to include people of all genders. So-called “Renaissance people” studied and pursued a dazzling array of topics, from math and science to art and astronomy, he explained. In essence, the concept behind the magazine is to broaden today’s narrow and elitist fashion industry standards, making fashion accessible to more people.

In addition to the publication, Rena held its first fashion show in the spring of 2022 in the Binghamton University Art Museum, in connection with the exhibit The World After Us: Imaging Techno-Aesthetic Futures. Called “The Nature of Time,” the show began with technology-inspired outfits, transitioning through the show to more floral and environmentally themed looks. This spring’s fashion show, dubbed “The Fabric of Reality,” will focus on The Twilight Zone.

Museum curator Claire Kovacs was impressed with the Rena team’s creative vision and effort from their first meeting. They worked directly with Kovacs to put together an immersive event within the exhibit, while stewarding the artwork on display — no easy task, she acknowledged.

“It was some of the most successful student-driven programming during my time at the museum,” she said.

And if art projects, scientific research and fashion aren’t enough, Wallace has maximized his time at Binghamton in other ways, too. He works at the campus Food Co-op and serves on the Student Association executive board; he is also president of Students for Ethical Living, and spent two years as a residential assistant in Binghamton’s Mountainview community.

Ultimately, Wallace’s Binghamton experience rooted in his search for individuality and authentic self-expression, he said. And just like the frame provides support for the mycelium as it grows, he has also received support and encouragement during his journey from faculty and staff.

They include Kovacs and Associate Director of the Binghamton University Scholars Program Katherine Bouman. Lions, Gindlesberger, Chang and Art and Design Professor Ronald Gonzalez influenced his views and practice of art, while Environmental Studies lecturer Nirav Patel cultivated his interest in sustainable innovations and environmentally inspired products.

Post-graduation, Wallace is considering job offers in the fashion sector, working with plant leather. He has also applied for a summer program at the Biomimicry Institute in Montana, which focuses on sustainable design.

“Cameron is a truly exceptional, visionary student. He has a passion for environmentalism and sustainability and is an excellent collaborator with an eye toward interdisciplinary problem-solving,” Bouman said.

Posted in: Arts & Culture, Harpur