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.
Initiated by Rian Kerrane, a native of Ireland, Hybrid asks fourteen artists to “cross over”. The artists’ work examines the experience of crossing the Atlantic in the current political climate while acknowledging historic influences from each artist’s perspective; identifying experiences of (dis)placement and immersion in cultural and social surroundings from either side of the Atlantic. RedLine provides the first venue for a pair of exhibitions, the second of which will take place in Ireland, allowing each artist to engage both with “local” proximity and “foreign” distance in turn.
The wide range of included media and the diverse origins of the participants are intended to incite a stimulating translation and critical examination of ongoing cultural conversations and personal experiences of the hybridization of our lives, expectations, ancestral backgrounds, geology, perceptions, identities, of immigration, and of both the geographic distance and human commonality of the artists.
Shaped by Kerrane’s personal ties with the included artists, Hybrid emerges from a reflective process of curatorial matchmaking. Working in sculpture, painting, drawing, photography, film and installation, the works of these two groups of artists both mirror and confront one another. Hybrid acknowledges and pays tribute to complex local experiences in a common global culture, reflecting Kerrane’s eighteen years of continually (re)crossing the Atlantic.
The Irish arrived in the west as hard rock miners, and planted the seeds of industrialization that changed the face of our landscape and established the foundation of culture in our mountain towns. Even today, the old saloons carry an Irish flavor. This series looks at the long term, chemical impacts of a set of mines perched around the town of Leadville, at the headwaters of the Arkansas river. I was awarded a Terraphilia residency through the Colorado Art Ranch, where I had the opportunity to get to know the ecologist, Susan Tweit. She offered great insight into the nature of the river, and the transformation of the ecology after the grouping of mines upstream became a federal ‘Superfund’ site, wherein the pollution from the mines was mitigated. The mines had no outflow, so when the snow melts, all the passages fill up with water, which then overflows into the Arkansas River, killing all the insects and larvae in a flood of red-colored heavy metals from the mines. The drawings here were paired with a series of waterflies native to the region & drawn with red-tinged ink in a way that make them look like they were exploding.
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.
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.
Weave: Silk Spinning in China
The loud clang of industrial mass production is frequent in China these days. Well-known for its sweat shop style of labor, it’s an ominous forecast for the future. In 2005 I photographed a silk mill outside of Shanghai. Under fluorescent lights, the colors of steel and cement are cold, edges sharp. The women working the mill have their backs turned or their faces obscured. The fast and chaotic movement of the mass production is echoed through high energy brushstrokes.
My great grandmother was a spinner in South Carolina for most of her life. She took me there before she died, and I recorded the burnt out and collapsed structures as a perfect reflection of how manufacturing has continued to leave our borders over the years. The elegant brick structures have been abandoned for cheap labor and lower environmental standards found elsewhere in the world.
Offering an intimate portrayal of life in a ‘mill village’, where inhabitants were often referred to as ‘lintheads’, I appropriated excerpts from my grandmother’s letters into burnt drawings of the mill. They reflect the difficulties of life during the industrial era and remind us that we are not so different from people elsewhere.