Sheep shearing gives MFA student context for work

January 24, 2013

Aimee Leon deals in layers.

"Everything I do, I find a background out of it," says the MFA student who took up sheep shearing last year as a complement to her study of wool and felting in ASU’s School of Art intermedia program, within the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Download Full Image

Leon’s study of the oldest fabric in the world – felt – has inspired her to construct 9-foot sculptures and experiment with different wool types, among other things. But when one of her wool providers encouraged her to adopt a sheep's fleece so that she could learn how to process the wool herself – and save some money in the long run – Leon’s graduate work took an unexpected turn.

"She had plenty of sheep, so I adopted one for the fleece. I put my deposit down, received a picture of my adopted sheep in my email one day, and then was invited out to the farm to pick up the fleece," Leon says.

Collecting her fleece at the farm for the first time, Leon says that she was overwhelmed by a flood of memories from her childhood – when she spent many of her summer days with her half-Swedish family on a northern Minnesota sheep farm.

“I started remembering all this stuff from my family – the animals, the smells. My grandmother had taught me to sew so I could make my own clothes.”

At that moment, Leon knew she wanted to do more than collect the fleece – she wanted to learn how to shear. The shearer told Leon to come back the next day if she was serious.

“I came back the next day and we sheared 26 alpacas.”

The physical intensity required to wrangle and then shear a sheep did not discourage Leon, who as a teenager joined the Navy and built loaded bombs on a naval aircraft carrier, and now, as an artist sees the process of procuring the wool and engaging with the animal from which it originates as essential to her art.

“It’s physically intensive to manage a huge animal. And it’s not very glamorous,” she says.

Now a certified sheep shearer, Leon has gone to shearing school and taken all the required classes so that when shearing season comes around – March through June and October – her skills will be in demand. And the money isn’t bad either – shearers can easily earn $35-50 an hour – but Leon is quick to note that’s not why she does it.

Leon is interested in the cultural history of sheep – as layered as the fabric the animal produces, she says. As part of her MFA degree, she is examining how agricultural practices surrounding sheep have shifted throughout the centuries depending on who’s in power.

“When I started working with the sheep, I started to think about the layers below – how have sheep been treated and seen throughout history. Every single culture on the planet has some sort of felt, and it’s interesting to trace how these agricultural practices behind the fabric have evolved.”

For example, Leon says, the Navajo-Churro sheep is the oldest breed of sheep in the United States and "the Navajos treated sheep as though they were part of the family.”  

As more agricultural land was taken from Navajo communities, Leon says, the majority of the sheep were killed as a result, and by the 1960s only 400 Navajo-Churros remained – leaving Navajos with very little to support their sheep industry.

Leon says stories like these make agriculture a rich field of study, and figuring out how to blend these cultural, colonial and environmental histories into her art – the very wool she has procured – currently is driving the work she is doing.

Britt Lewis

Communications Specialist, ASU Library

When science creates monsters

January 24, 2013

Jason Scott Robert presents series on moral limits of technology, discovery

"You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did,” wrote Victor Frankenstein, “and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been." Download Full Image

The notorious doctor’s warning (from the Mary Shelley novel named for him) is as ominous today as it was nearly two centuries ago; even more so, due to technology’s exponential leaps forward. Those leaps, and their consequences, are the subjects of a four-part course created by ASU professor Jason Scott Robert. “Angels, Monsters and the Moral Limits of Science” is coming up in the ASU Foundation’s series of Presidential Engagement Programs, presented from 10 a.m. to noon, Tuesdays, Feb. 5-26.

Robert is indisputably qualified to measure those technological leaps, and to consider their consequences. He is Franca Oreffice Dean's Distinguished Professor in the Life Sciences; Lincoln Associate Professor of Ethics in Biotechnology and Medicine; and director of the Bioethics, Policy and Law Program in ASU’s Center for Biology and Society School of Life Sciences. Robert’s February PEP series will include four fascinating, eye-opening sessions on the controversies, public perceptions, moral boundaries and possible futures resulting from our rapid scientific advance. Those sessions include:

• “Controversial Science” – What does it mean to describe science as "controversial,” and what should we do about it? This session offers a brief history of controversial scientific research across species boundaries, with special attention to transgenics, chimeras and cyborgs.

• “Moral Boundaries” – What ethical challenges are raised by scientific research across species boundaries, and how should we describe and grapple with them? This interactive session provides an opportunity for participants to get their hands dirty in the domain of controversial science.

• “Moral Futures” – As a complex, pluralistic and civil society, how should we govern science? Participants will put themselves in the places of scientists and citizens to engage in thoughtful debate about the future of science in society.

• “Science and Civilization” – What is the rightful place of science in society? This final session acknowledges the dramatic achievements of science, but concludes that society must constantly interrogate science, its contexts and consequences.

“Angels, Monsters and the Moral Limits of Science” will be presented on consecutive Tuesdays, Feb. 5-26, from 10 a.m.-noon at Northern Trust, 2398 E. Camelback Road, Suite 400. Cost for the series of four classes is $160, and validated parking is provided. To register, visit the Presidential Engagement Programs homepage. For information contact Sally Moore, Presidential Engagement Programs director, at 480-965-4814, or

Erik Ketcherside,
Communications Manager | Editorial Services
ASU Foundation for A New American University