Last week I went to south Florida to spend time with my former intern, Jesse Etelson. He came to Fort Collins last summer to help me sort my archive, learning about my process in the process. Before he came he sent me some questions I thought would be good to share with a wider audience of young artists who might be interested in eco-art.
I know that I want to make sculpture for animals. I know that the process of making that happen and documenting it is exciting. I want to feel that my art has helped the world. How do you balance your need to be a unique artist with the challenge of functionality when working with science?
OK: I started out as a potter, and to some extent I feel I am still making containers, but for life instead of food (and when gardening, for food too!). I was taught to take a functional form, say a teapot, and then make it unique to myself. Here’s my “Wyoming teaset” for example.
Now, for wildlife habitat sculptures, I always start with the perimeters of the science, generated by the species, then figure out where there is room for art. Think about all those books on habitat gardens, telling you what size birdhouse you should build for the kind of bird you want to attract. For example, if a hawk needs a nesting platform 36 inches by 40 inches, what goes around the outside of that shape can be artistic, as long as it does no harm. The structure that holds it in place can be sculptural as long as the animal is attracted to it. My excuse for still holding to an aesthetic object is dual: it has to be “attractive” to the species, and if it is also attractive to humans it shows how much honor I give to my value of helping biodiversity. Occasionally I have to make something not so attractive or even invisible to supply the needs of the species, but if you learn more about contemporary art you’ll learn about artists who are now all about relationships, not objects.
Birdhouses, for example, can look like anything, but they need to have the exact measurements in the floor size, hole size, and height of hole above the floor to attract specific species, or even to get used.
Is unique art best suited for people and inspiring them?
Another reason I make art is I believe that to get people to support an idea and make change to accommodate it, they need to be impacted by it emotionally as well as intellectually. Science is really good at intellectual ideas (well, with reservations about their skill in communicating). But science data doesn’t connect emotionally as art can. Obviously you and I and even a hundred other artists can’t generate enough artworks to save all the endangered species. Can our work reach enough people to get their attention? I maintain hope. I am amazed by the number of people who have viewed my work and seem to respond to it.
I find myself thinking about the point of what I am trying to do, over and over. Other eco-artists address water, food and waste problems but those areas lack spirit to me and I find myself drifting back to animals and nature, the subjects and issues that I feel passion for. If I have ever known god, it is in nature and the magic of animals. We are animals too and that wild spirit is inside us, however deeply buried and confused, and the social issues represented in our relationships with each other and nature are very compelling to me.
I agree totally with your spirituality. I had the chance to ask Christa Tippets, the host of NPR’s “Speaking of Faith” (it now has another name) about this type of non-traditional spirituality and she said it is the fastest growing “religious” segment of society. Interesting!
I’m thinking I might need to go to graduate school, but where are the programs in environmental art?
It would probably be a great idea for you to go to grad school if you can do it. Two new programs (Finally!) on environmental art have reached my attention: U. New Mexico has expanded their land arts program to include environmental art (check it out closely) and University of Falmouth in England has just transferred a program from Dartington Hall to their Art Department. Neither is clearly eco-art or even environmental art, but until the Harrisons get their program up and running at UC Santa Cruz these are the ones I know of. Years ago I had the chance to ask John Beardsley about where I might go to grad school. He thought about it for several days, and finally suggested going to an “ecologically oriented Landscape Architecture program”. Most of the eco-artists I know have art degrees and often a graduate degree in a related field.