One of the most dangerous unspoken threats we are facing is the insect-apocalypse currently underway. As the foundation of ecological webs as well as an essential part of our food production, the disappearance of pollinators presents a grave situation, yet few speak of it. While creating studies of pollinators native to Maine, I sometimes feel inclined to cut them out to collage on various backgrounds. With the voids, I build collages that integrate reproductions of the DOW Chemical Plant landscape that I painted in 2009. Filling the voids of these bumble bee forms with the saturated textures of the original landscape speaks to the impacts of chemicals that fill our spheres. Even the word ‘pesticide’ reduces our perception of value by blanketing judgement across the whole insect world without recognition of the role that beneficial insects play in a balanced approach to agriculture.
The Environmental Unsustainability of the American Food Machine
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Inle Lake, Burma
These watermedia works on paper were created in Taos in the first year or so of Thatcher Gray’s life. They depict a meandering through the Intha market on Inle lake in Burma I took a decade earlier, when the country was considered to be on the cusp of genocide. Dominating the atmosphere is the official verbiage of Myanmar’s Military government, oppressing the space with the dingy palette of the newspaper. By 2010, I was hearing news of flat out genocidal acts being performed around the perimeter of the country by friends who were volunteering there as health workers. Their stories inspired me to reflect on the tensions felt by those who come from communities targeted; how it must feel to navigate this brutal society while maintaining an identity interwoven with traditional tribal practices. The expressions portrayed in the Intha Market series often seem tense, but as is the nature of markets, cultures may thrive in the face of oppression through the exchange and practice of culinary traditions. The ‘ghost’ paintings invoke a certain amount of freedom for me, and I consider them to be as important to the work as a whole, together with the sides I actively produced. The lack of newspaper and colors that drift unconfined by additional lines through the handmade paper acquired in the market. Some drawings contain the first scribblings of Thatcher Gray, who was just starting to learn how to hold markers in ways that he could imitate mom.
Time spent in Honolulu in the first years of the new millennium was split between our home, way up in the top of the valley above Palolo, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, where I studied stone lithography with James Koga, and the studio, perched above a woodshop that built Ukeleles in the industrial zone of Kalihi. This was an area where I needed to be accompanied by a local as it was rare to see a white face there. It was in Kalihi that I found and painted these fish markets. The street scenes reflected in shop windows were painted in Chinatown, from photographs I had taken on family dim sum Sundays.