Robert Dash exhibit opens on San Juan Island

The agricultural industry is one of the largest contributors to many environmental issues, but it may also provide some solutions. The San Juan Islands Museum of Art’s latest exhibit examines both threats and resolutions in “Food for Thought Micro Views of Substance: Threats and Prospects,” using Robert Dash’s photomontage images.

“I like to think of it as taking a hike, walking along a microscopic leaf landscape, where no one has been before,” Orcas Island photographer Dash said.

“Food for Thought” opens Sept. 27, and runs until Dec. 9. SJIMA is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Friday-Monday. Mondays are pay what you can, all other days admission is $10 for adults and children 18 and under are free.

Dash speaks Oct. 12, from 3-4:30 p.m. at the San Juan Island Grange Hall, on how one part of nature–our food–is connected to climate change.

The talk, “Food, Planet, Future: A Photographer’s Journey,” costs $15 for adults, $12 for SJIMA and grange members, and $10 for students. Make reservations online at under “Learn” or at 360-370-5050. Tickets will be sold the door as seats are available.

The images, including a burning piece of wheat, mushroom clouds, chili pepper, even a sunflower, were all found locally.

Dash was drawn to photography at a young age, he said. During his high school years, in the ‘70s, the camera took on an even more prominent role in his world. Dash began documenting what he saw as he walked through life, capturing what he saw around cities and in neighboring forests.

During the last several years, Dash’s images have been featured in national media and shown in galleries and juried shows in the United States and abroad.

Over the last four years, Dash explained, his focus has been on projects involving studies of patterns and textures. With a fascination for science and nature, he began photographing microscopic aspects of plants. The work combines both art and science, Dash added, noting that the two areas are tightly linked.

“They feed off each other,” he said. Both require imagination and fascination for the world. Scientists have to have imagination to come up with questions, Dash continued, and artists inspired by the beauty of the world might be motivated to learn more about the technicalities of it. It’s always good for artists to know the science behind their material as well, he added.

“At its base, they both are about the fascination of life,” Dash said.

To create the images, Dash uses a scanning electron microscope. He places a tiny piece of subject matter on a carbon-coated metal stub, then coats it with a very thin layer of gold/palladium. An electron beam is generated, which can be translated by software into an image viewable on a monitor.

“It’s like magic,” Dash said of the photography process. “It allows you to see things that haven’t been seen before.”

Dash was reviewing his photos with a magazine editor, who asked him what food would look like at a microscopic level. With that idea in his mind, Dash said, the concept for “Food for Thought” began to form.

Threats to agriculture, Dash noted, include increasing storm severity, flooding and drought due to climate change. Microscopically the effects of drought are reflected in the size of a tree’s spores. Hot temperatures cause these spores to close, which can kill these trees, Dash explained, especially in the tropics.

“[As] I was making images that were artful and scientific, but when I saw this relevance to environmental threats, I saw the power of combining all three elements,” Dash said.

Loss of pollinators — including bees, butterflies and others — due to chemicals such as pesticides, and confusion caused by climate change, can heavily impact the ability of fruits and vegetables to grow. Pollinators may arrive after blooms have already passed, or plants may no longer be able to grow where they had before.

Compacted and poor soil quality is also a huge issue, Dash said. There is a region in India where farms collapsed due to poor soil and drought, he explained. People abandoned the area in droves because they didn’t have food or jobs as a result. Water catchment systems were installed which took the pressure off local rivers, Dash added. That seemingly small action restored balance to the area, and suddenly people were able to grow things again. Catchment systems are one technique used by permaculture, meaning permanent culture. The permaculture concept, however, encompasses an entire way of living, mimicking nature in designing buildings and landscapes as well as farming.

Carbon farming is a similar environmentally-friendly form of agriculture. This method aims to take excess carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil to aid plant growth. Both these techniques, Dash said, can drastically make a difference in soil quality.

Using compost, planting perennials rather than annuals and refraining from tilling also aid the soil, Dash said.

“Soil is living tissue,” Dash explained. “When you till it breaks up the tissue and destroys the microbial activity.”

Compost, on the other hand, feeds microbes and fertilizes the plants.

In regards to microbes and fungus, Dash noted that a study from Washington State University shows extracts from mushroom myceleium can dramatically strengthen the immune system of honeybees. This could help reduce hive colony collapse and preserve these indispensable pollinators, he explained.

“We are able to do phenomenal things fairly quickly by investing in some of these ideas,” Dash said.

When asked if he felt an all plant-based diet was important, Dash responded by saying yes, but that it was also more complex than that.

Dash explained that American prairies are originally maintained by massive herds of hoofed creatures making the prairies a vast carbon sink. Cattle, Dash said, if raised in the same fashion as buffalo, can be helpful.

“The question isn’t just about vegetarian over animal, but how can we eat and farm smarter,” Dash said.

“Every meal that we eat is a vote for the future,” he continued. “How are we voting? We need to be asking ourselves what are we eating, where did it come from, and what are the tracks it left before it got to our table.”