2019 brought with it an award for best landscape design from Maine Homes by Downeast Magazine. They awarded first place for reader landscaping for my third year garden at the SEED Barn. They say that it takes three years to establish a garden from seed in Maine, so I was happy to have initiated this process with this bit of recognition. Every year, we grow out an assortment of new native varieties to plant as pollinator pathways and native foodways. As the plants grow into maturity, I look into what particular wildlife the plants support and gather open source photographs, from which I create drawings as studies. Observational drawing is one of the best ways to gain understanding of form, and through exploring the relationships of forms, to become familiar with the functions that are the basis of systems. While these open source images are quickly becoming essential to my own work, I have also begun gathering collections of the images to distribute to educational programs so that students may begin forming their own knowledge of the systems at work.
With eleven month old Thatcher Gray on my back, we meander our way though Chichicastenango’s Saturday market, awash in vibrant Mayan color and patterning. Starting with stone lithograph prints of rain forest inspired drawings, tracked with fresh tar then torn into squares, the process represents the fragmentation of Mayan land and culture. Atop this foundation, cultural persistence is demonstrated by Mayan traditional practices maintained despite Guatemala’s history of atrocity.
When I first returned to Colorado from living in Hawai’i, I had a bad case of island fever and felt compelled to drive through the wide open landscape of the southwest over the course of a couple of weeks. I wanted to see contemporary art in Marfa and visit Big Bend while in bloom. So I set my sights on western Texas through an area that is still not considered ‘settled’ as defined by era of western expansion. From other road trips through the area, I remembered that they do not pick up roadkill, but instead let them slowly desiccate in the dry climate. My project en route was to photograph these cadavers as a poignant reflection on the impacts of mobilities. Later in Denver, I created a foundational texture by driving over large pieces of strathmore paper with my truck to print the treads with fresh tar they had recently laid in my back alley. Incorporating this unconventional printmaking technique allowed for a literal representation of circumstance. Woven into the tracks, I created pencil drawings as portraits of the life lost on the road. It was difficult emotionally for me because I love animals. But I felt that the it was important to convey this loss and put a lot of love into the lines as they were laid. I finished this series for an exhibition on extinction for the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Before I knew I was pregnant, I went on an adventure with a group of sound artists into an abandoned slaughterhouse in Commerce City just north of Denver. My colleagues were inspired to create work in the space after hearing about out creative sessions in the blast tunnels of the Titan missile silo. They wanted to make music while channeling the charged energy that filled the space. While they produced music through practicing a style of Tuvan throat singing alongside drums and a didgeridoo, I wandered the haunted spaces convening with the ghosts of the animals who met their demise to meet the insatiable demands of a national diet centered on industrial meat. I photographed a series of interiors that I later used as source material for this set of mixed media paintings created in the first years of Thatcher Gray’s life, when I was exploring the industrial food machine. Integrating paper that I had shot with a shotgun and run over with my truck to print tire patterns with fresh tar, I painted the equipment with with watercolor and colored pencils to pay homage to the life lost here.
The landscape conveyed in Crop covers a widespread smattering of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Silos, the largest of which are the now defunct Titan missile silos. One Titan was built east of Denver. The federal government acquisition of farmland to build this massive structure that was put in operation for only a few years. Then they took away the bombs and gave the land back to the farmer. Dismayed, he dug out an access hole through which we would enter and explore this monument to destruction. It breaks my heart to think of the immense amount of resources that went into the construction of this under ground complex which now lay in ruin. In 2007 a group of artists convened in the blast tunnels to create and record music in the unique acoustics of the spaces. Their works were imbued with the energy of the space which made for haunting explorations of sound. Some of these were turned into a sound installation that I included in the curation of a duo of exhibitions on genocide for the Mizel Museum and as a site specific installation for the International Society of Genocide Scholars in Sarajevo, Bosnia. I brought with me a set of high powered spotlights and photographed the spaces. When I started creating work about the industrial food complex, these seemed a good fit because the chemicals that are used in industrial agriculture were actually born out of war. The fixed nitrogen developed in making bombs in the world wars was re-appropriated to make fertilizer after the wars’ end. It was fitting to add these to the overall series exploring the complexities in the way we grow and consume food today. Painted with acrylic on canvas when Thatcher Gray was very young. I had shifted to using acrylic to reduce fumes from oil paint while he was a baby. I’m not wild about the medium so it was not a lasting conversion.
Flying over eastern Colorado in the late winter, fields that had been dusted with snow offered a poignant landscape which I photographed out of my airplane window. For me the palette evoked a sparse, infertile landscape. It made me think of reports of industrial agriculture impacting the land by causing topsoil runoff and nutrient depletion. The huge layer of loam found through the Midwest has allowed for rich cultivation for generations of farmers. It cushions the blow of chemical intense industrial practices, even as the soil is steadily eroded. When we look to areas that have been farmed for millennia, we find that this approach cannot be replicated because the delicate balance of soil building through traditional means is taken away. As demonstrated by the thousands of farmer suicides through India because of their ‘green’ revolution, the impacts of switching to an industrial approach can be devastating. As farmers there return to crop rotation and soil building, we can think about the direction we are heading and how to alleviate the potential demise of what had been one of the richest cultivation grounds. The photographs were not great quality, but they offered enough visual information to create a set of three landscapes painted with acrylic. It fits into the bigger series on industrial food production I explored in tandem with growing our own garden with a very young Thatcher Gray.
Motherhood changes us. For me, the arrival of Thatcher Gray caused a shift from explorations of the long term impacts of war to an internalization of how we nourish ourselves. Internally, I was growing a child, nourishing him within then using my body to feed him, so I became acutely aware of what I was putting in my body. As he started eating solid food, I became obsessed with where that food came from, how it was grown and the load of chemicals that could potentially add to our body burdens. We started growing our own food. Before creating artworks that emphasized solution oriented practices, I explored how to represent the impacts of petrochemicals. This series of mixed media works on paper integrated a base texture made from a silkscreen print of collaged plastic that I had singed with a blowtorch. I transferred photographs of the oil refinery in Commerce City, just north of Denver. These photographs were taken during a rainstorm while Thatcher was safely cuddled at home with grandma. They are abstracted by the movement of my car as I was driving by. Generally I like to compose landscapes with slow consideration, but this particular afternoon I was confronted by hefty plain clothed security guards within 3 minutes of stepping out of my car, even though I was on a public avenue. The angles of the drive by photographs coupled with the often blurred motion recorded by the camera added a dynamic quality to the compositions that are similar to the textures wrought by a shotgun blast, both processes being slightly out of control. Into this foundation, I painted out aspects of the industrial landscape with oils to highlight the skewed angles and add atmospheric depth.
I was only able to compose two images of the Commerce City Oil Refinery in the rain before being asked to leave by plain clothed security guards. I felt compelled to create these landscapes of the industry which drives our mobilities-centered culture as the start to an exploration of how petro chemicals dominate our era. They are painted with thin veils of oil paint interspersed with drawings made with conte crayon on unstretched canvas.