Jen Bervin Mixes Poetry with Cutting-Edge Medical Technology

Visual artist and writer Jen Bervin’s Creative Capital-supported project, Silk Poems, premieres this month in the exhibition Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomena of Wonder at MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA. The exhibition includes works by twenty-one international artists that solicit pure wonder, “a liminal state of being poised between knowing and not knowing, and defined by an experience of something truly new.”

Jen’s project and trajectory over the past few years offers a wonderful case study of how Creative Capital supports innovative artists. As an interdisciplinary visual artist and author of nine books, Jen applied to Creative Capital’s 2012 grant round in the Literature category. Her proposal for the Silk Poems merged poetry, textiles and science: she wanted to write a microscopic poem in the form of a silk biosensor.

Bervin was directly inspired by Fiorenzo Omenetto’s cutting-edge research with liquefied silk at Tufts University’s Bioengineering Department’s Silk Lab. Remarkably, the human immune system accepts silk on surfaces as sensitive as the brain.

Jen’s work often combines text and textiles; when she learned that the silk biosensor requires inscription on its surface in order to act as an optical sensor, she was intrigued. Jen asked, “If I were to have a silk sensor embedded under my skin, what would I want it to say?” She imagined how the writing it carried could hold a great deal of meaning for the patient anxiously monitoring her own health. She also imagined that silk, a 5,000 year-old material, might have its own language to add.

Jen’s proposal caught the attention of Creative Capital’s application evaluators and was selected as a “wild card” in the grant review process. “Wild cards” are projects that the grant evaluators find exciting, ambitious and just a little crazy. Along with 45 other funded proposals, Jen became a 2013 Creative Capital Awardee, and our journey with her began in January of that year.

Jen has used Creative Capital’s financial support (up to $50,000) to pay for international travel expenses related to the Silk Poems project research, which included visiting over thirty international textile archives, silk engineering labs, and sericulture sites. Jen also used her Creative Capital funding to offset infrastructure costs like soaring studio rent in Brooklyn. She leveraged the prestige of the Creative Capital award to secure other direct support for the project, including a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship in Italy to research silk.

When I look back on the past few years, I see the gifts your work has brought into my life everywhere. Thank you for being a catalyst for growth of all kinds. — Jen Bervin

But, our support for Bervin and other Creative Capital awardees isn’t limited to funding for specific projects. We also help our artists build successful long-term careers by arming them with the practical skills they need to sustain a career amidst the challenges of the art world. Over the course of Bervin’s three-year relationship with us, she has chosen to attend nearly ten of Creative Capital’s professional development workshops to bolster her skills in strategic planning, fundraising, public speaking and other crucial areas.

Jen also participated in several of our community-building events, including the 2013 and 2015 Creative Capital Artist Retreats, where she presented the Silk Poems to curators and presenters from across the U.S. Her presentation caught the attention of Denise Markonish, Curator at MASS MoCA, and directly led to the premiere of the Silk Poems in the Explode Every Day exhibition.

Indirectly, other things came of the Retreats too: a Montalvo Arts Center Lucas Artists Program Fellowship, a residency with the SETI Institute, a Robert Rauschenberg Residency, a USA Fellowship nomination, and solo museum shows in the years to come.

Jen Bervin, Silk Poems.

Jen Bervin, Silk Poems.

Bervin’s silk research has also inspired new work. With expansion funds from Creative Capital as seed money, the Asian Cultural Council awarded Bervin a $24,000 Mandarin Oriental Arts Fellowship to return to Suzhou, China to work with embroidery experts at the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute in order to develop Su Hui’s Reversible Poem, a new project on an innovative poem with over 7,000 possible readings, written and embroidered by a woman poet, Su Hui, in the 4th century.

Jen told us, “When I look back on the past few years, I see the gifts your work has brought into my life everywhere. Thank you for being a catalyst for growth of all kinds.”

Creative Capital took a risk to fund Jen’s ambitious, experimental project, but we supported her to ensure that she developed the skills and network to make her creative vision a reality. We have been thrilled to witness the personal and professional growth Jen has experienced over the past three years, with Creative Capital’s help, and we can’t wait to see the Silk Poems in person this summer.

Jen Bervin’s “Silk Poems” was fabricated at Tufts’ Silk Lab and premieres in “Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomena of Wonder” at MASS MoCA (opening May 28, 2016).