Shortly before I left for my two-week residency at Brush Creek Center for the Arts, I discovered the term ecological grief. I have for many years tried to categorize my deep feelings of sadness triggered by an increasing awareness of what we humans are doing to the ecosystems that sustain us. When I first started to understand how dire the situation is, I almost shut down completely. I didn’t know how to live in a world marked by rapid ecological decline. But I knew that I couldn’t stay in the place of abject despair. I had to hold the (reasonable and appropriate) fear–acknowledge its presence, but let other feelings in to move forward.
I realized that making landscape art was my response. Spending more time in the natural world, and closely observing all of the things that are still so beautiful about it, has helped me stay in the present, while also giving me the headspace to sit with impermanence. The only constant is change, and climate change is within that continuum. I am being with the world in this transition, as well as taking steps as an individual–donating to environmental organizations, protesting and calling my lawmakers, reducing my waste and consumption–to help realize a different future. The more we acknowledge that we are experiencing ecological grief and share those feelings with each other, the more prepared we are to fully respond to the magnitude of the threat. Let it spur us to collective action. Here are two good articles about the topic.
So I went to Wyoming thinking about how ecological grief, and the impulse to be with, love and revere the natural world, were two interrelated components of what drives me to make my work. When I arrived, I was overwhelmed by the stunning beauty of the land–in all of my travels I had never seen anything like it. The space is so incredibly vast–I felt so small looking out onto rolling plains, populated only with tough, windblown trees and bushes, small streams cutting lines through the land, and herds of cattle and antelope, with the backdrop of snow-capped mountains way beyond. The term “big sky” now makes sense to me–the clouds are a world in and of themselves, filtering the light in sublime ways. I spent as much time outside as I could, hiking the many trails at the ranch, through forests of just-budding aspen trees, next to meandering brooks that became rushing creeks over the two weeks from the snow melt, across ridgelines and into valleys.
And the rocks. Some of them were formed more than three billion years ago, jutting out of the ground at dramatic diagonals, with amazing linear striations and color bands. In my spacious studio at Brush Creek I made drawings of rocks around the property, and translated them into mixed media paintings. These pieces are the inspiration some of the large-scale paintings I’m making for my upcoming show, Petrology, in July.
I also took advantage of my time at Brush Creek to do a couple of creative experiments. This was my first residency that included artists from different disciplines–so I tried out a drawing/musical improvisation with my fellow resident Ching-chu Hu. An excerpt is below:
And I created the first component of a larger, multi-disciplinary project that I am tentatively calling In Loving Memory of… This project is a series of creative interventions taking any number of forms–video, installation, community-based participatory actions, performance–centered around exploring the parallels between the dissonant relationship of humans to the environment and the fraught space that women’s bodies occupy as they move through the world. I created a site-specific installation on the banks of Brush Creek where I wove strips of cotton canvas and animal hide amongst the trees and bushes–the cotton representing the European settler women who came to Wyoming, and the hides representing the Native American women (primarily from the Arapaho, Shoshone, and Cheyenne tribes) that lived in that region before being displaced. I am looking forward to continuing to develop this project.
I was incredibly sad to leave Wyoming–I didn’t have enough time with the land there. But the takeaway was that being outside is critical for my well being and mental health. The area where I live in Eastern Pennsylvania is not Wyoming, but I do have many beautiful places to hike close by, and green space, and birds and animals. So that is the lesson I need to hang onto, as well as a continued examination of how I hold the ecological grief and my love of nature at the same time, and use it to drive my creative work, with the hope that making work within this tension will inspire others to balance that grief and love as well.