Mobilities Rocky Mountain West Slow Food


The Environmental Unsustainability of the American Food Machine

Oil refinery in Commerce City, painting by Lee Lee
Oil refinery in Commerce City, Colorado | oil on canvas

What does it look like to have a tree scream out in desperation? This body of work is driven by concerns about our nourishment, as well as a fear for the resulting degradation of the environment.

Oil makes up the foundation of the American food machine. Our reliance on fossil fuels in food production is immense. Not only are they used extensively in farming and transportation, they are also the catalyst which fixes ammonium nitrate to make chemical fertilizers. Dominating this installation are paintings depicting an oil refinery in the rain. The size emphasizes our reliance on oil, while the execution questions the effects of fossil fuels on the cleanliness of our natural resources through paint stains dripping into the water.

Oil painting of midwestern crop circles by Lee LEe
Crop Circles | oil on canvas

Flying above Midwestern plains, the crop circles and grids of industrial farms are an imposition on ancient grasslands. The only remaining natural elements are the occasional rivers whose fingers branch up into the geometric landscape. The Crop series consists of dormant fields under a light dusting of snow to reflect how our process of conventional farming is leaching nutrients from the earth while filling our waterways with poisons, which will ultimately cause infertility in our land. Pairing the Crop landscapes with interiors of an abandoned Intercontinental Ballistic Missile silo illustrates a direct link between our systematic food production and war. After WWII, the US Agriculture department encouraged farmers to spread ammonium nitrate, leftover from bomb construction, onto their fields as fertilizer. Today we are deeply entrenched in a war in an attempt to feed our oil habit, which in turn sustains the industrial food machine. It is disturbing that our “nourishment” is born out of war and continues to manifest such destruction to this day.

Abandoned slaughterhouse, watercolor painting by Lee Lee
Abandoned slaughterhouse | watercolor, pencil & tar on shotgunned paper collage

Continuing down the path of food production, a series of watercolors manifests the haunted spaces of an abandoned slaughterhouse. The energy it takes to raise meat takes up the bulk of grain that we produce. In his book, Anger, Thich Nhat Hanh describes how traces of energy are absorbed through consumption. For example, if an animal leads a miserable life, then we absorb that misery when we take their meat into our bodies. This series is complimented by a set of roadkill drawings which serve as a poignant reflection of our attitude towards animal life; these wild animals lay as part of our refuse, disregarded as we speed along the highways of our own lives.

'bleeding' aspen photograph by Lee Lee
Unaltered photograph
‘bleeding’ Aspen
Lazy Shamrock Ranch, Colorado

Both nitrate and carbon emissions from America’s conventional food machine make a huge contribution to climate change. One of the most visually striking symptoms is emerging as a new virus found in aspen trees. The red gashes in the thin skin-like bark of the trees appear as flesh wounds. More than a literal illustration of a shifting environment, the corporeal appearance of the trees make a connection to our own bodies. As our health is intricately connected to the health of the environment, the violence conveyed through the process of using a shotgun in this series reflects the violence we are wreaking on ourselves.

Pinting of a Titan missile silo by Lee Lee
Titan Missile Silo Eastern Colorado Acryllic on Canvas

The built structures portrayed here are in various states of decay; a return to nature. This represents the beginning of a shift in attitude of many Americans who are concerned about the adverse effects of the way we produce and consume food. Despite the prevailing theme of environmental demise in this body of work, we can hardly destroy the environment. Ultimately the world will survive; the question is whether or not humans will be around to enjoy it. The survival of humanity will be determined by the attitudes and approaches we take towards interacting with the environment now.