The Small Winged Life

Jill Powers’ insects

The beauty of insect life forms the heart of Jill Powers' recent artistic exploration of the natural world. She captivates by her use of rich texture, color, and form, and is inspired by the flora and fauna which surround her. Jill Powers’ artwork raises awareness about delicate ecosystems that make life viable for humankind. She works with natural fibers such as kozo, which is a tough inner bark that she “cooks, opens casts, paints, and stitches into abstract sculptures and installation pieces.” Jill shares with us her deep connection with these works of art and some insight into the process.

How did you first get into this field of work?  

When I was in my 20s, as an artist and a painter, I discovered alternative surfaces for painting, including making my own artist’s paper. This led me to an interest in plant materials and a master’s degree in fiber art. I then worked three dimensionally with plant paper pulp that I produced from scratch (harvesting, drying, cooking outdoors, hand beating, casting, pigmenting, and stitching).  Along the way, I developed some unique alternative ways of working sculpturally with plant and bark fibers.

Please touch about upon how you feel inspired by the natural world?

I try to immerse myself in the natural world by going to wild places and slowing down to pay close attention to the smallest details. Experiences in nature have led me to work with elemental materials, direct from their sources in the earth. The unique qualities and vital presence embedded in these unrefined materials infuses my art and the questions I ask of it.

What is your most recent exhibition? 

For several years, I raised silkworms in my studio and did a special collaboration project with them in my art. Through close observations, I developed a great curiosity about insect life.  As I began to explore this field through my artistic research, I learned about all the transformations going on in the insect world that are due to climate change. My recent installation piece, The Small Winged Life, draws attention to the delicate ecosystems that make life on Earth viable for all of us.  I made several hundred small insects out of kozo bark fiber, seedpods and gut membrane. Natural processes, such as beeswax encaustics, salt crystallization, and wood burning were all used in these pieces.  Hundreds of these insects flow in patterns across the wall. The work references historical insect collections, as well as contemporary scientific research on how the change in weather is affecting insect populations. Through extensive reading and talking with entomologists, I’ve learned about insects’ remarkable ability to communicate with each other and adapt to change. 

What materials do you typically work with?

I specialize in working with unusual natural materials, and am always investigating new substances and processes. About ten years ago I fell in love with the tough bark fiber called Kozo. The plant is grown sustainably in farming co-ops in northern Thailand for making into rice paper. Branches are harvested, steamed, and the outer bark removed. I soak the inner bark and cook it down outdoors with wood ash, and then tease it open carefully to reveal it’s internal webbed plant structure. This material is then cast, shaped, pigmented, stitched, and formed into abstract forms. It is a meditative process. I especially love how the soft flexible bark fiber returns to its tough bark-like qualities when it dries.  I feel very fortunate to work with my hands in this digital age. Working with bark fiber is grounding and inspiring.

I noticed your connection to traditional techniques and ancient craft ... Please explain this connection within your work.  

The experience of creating with bark fiber connects me with the ancient people who first discovered it’s special qualities. I love to work outdoors as they did, cooking down, preparing the woody bast fiber using traditional methods, and then experimenting in the studio with contemporary innovations. I’ve learned so much over many years from friends and colleagues who travel the world while documenting indigenous traditions of papermaking and related crafts. I carry the stories of these people who live close to the land inside me as I work. 

Jill shows her work internationally, and her work is in private, corporate, and museum collections.  Her work won Best of Show in the Millennium Show at the American Museum of Paper making in Atlanta. Her studio is currently based out of Boulder, Colorado. Jill's insect exhibition is at the International Fiber Biennial at Snyderman Gallery in Philadelphia, opening the 2nd of March 2012.

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