Engaging with the Environment through “Homegrown Stories”

Last week, the Schuylkill Center, as well as more than 1 billion people from almost 200 countries, united for Earth Day in the name of improving our planet. As this week of honor and appreciation closes, we are left to reflect how our actions, both large and small, individually and collectively, have an impact on the Earth and our common future. The art project Homegrown Stories explores our natural environment through the lenses of video and film that the Environmental Art Team is excited to share in light of Earth Day. Already in 2020, the Schuylkill Center visually explored the meaning of Earth Day at 50 in the exhibition Ecotactical, which considered what new insights Earth Day’s 50th anniversary in the middle of a pandemic provided us. The Homegrown Stories project considers similar questions and finds that while the world around changes, so, too, do the artistic responses to climate change, environmental injustice, and humanity’s exploitation of nature. 

 

In art, environment is everything. Whether it’s the nebulous political or social sphere that influences the artist’s style, subject matter, or intent, or the physical surroundings that contextualize the viewer’s perception of the piece—the shared nature of space is what connects us so deeply through art. In a time when the planet itself is in crisis, as climate change not only threatens humanity but the very foundation of “nature” as we know it, the environment of art has focused itself on The Environment. How we experience it, how we influence it, and how we must work together to save it.

These are the concepts currently being explored by the online video project Homegrown Stories. As outlined on the website, this project began in 2013 as a way for founders LeAnn Erickson and Sandra Louise Dyas to employ a one-shot aesthetic to create videos that delve into the “questions of personal space, the act of storytelling and the primacy of place in shaping one’s world view,” the collaborators explain.

Initially, they focused on their own experiences within the website’s noted theme of “place and space,” integrating both still and moving images from their daily lives. However, Erickson and Dyas quickly realized that regardless of where they traveled or what they focused on, they were only two perspectives on a theme that had a farther reaching effect.

Thus, in 2015, Homegrown Stories began inviting other artists to join in the conversation. Borrowing from creative writing techniques, Erickson and Dyas chose prompts that would serve as inspiration for original videos. With their varied and differing perspectives, each artist added something unique that would enhance the overall experience of the collaborative project.

In an effort to draw attention to the issues that threaten the planet, the year 2020 focused on the elements of the natural environment. Under the prompts of “Water,” “Earth,” “Air,” and “Fire,” Homegrown Stories collaborated with various filmmakers to document and witness, investigate and interpret the effects of climate change as it influences the physical, social, and political world. Often utilizing the pocket technology of smart phones, these videos provide an intimate perspective that not only draws the viewer in, but also creates a unique environment in which they might understand and interact with the art.

“Water”—arguably the most important element to human life, and perhaps the most pressing matter in terms of climate change’s effect on the planet—opened the prompts. Many filmmakers were drawn to focus on the increasing frequency and severity of storms due to flooding events that happened in their local environments. Philip Hopper’s “Flood Stage,” portrays the overflowing Cedar River in Iowa, while “Mississippi River, St Louis Waterfront,” a 360-degree interactive still image by Karla Berry and Don Barth, looks upon the Mississippi as it laps at the St. Louis Arch. As the waters submerge walkways, rush under bridges, and jostle path signs, the artists highlight the struggle of humanity as it tries to protect its structures and infrastructure from the raging waters that its own actions have caused. Hopper, Berry, and Barth aim to raise the alarm for change as they create a visceral experience of the sheer power of this man-influenced, but ultimately natural, element.

Terrarium still #1, LeAnn Erickson and Jake Rasmussen

The next prompt was “Earth”—one that led the artists in many different directions, though all pointing toward the planet’s cry for help. Memo Salazar’s video “Earth by Memo,” features a squishy earth ball that continually attempts to rebound as a human hand smashes and bangs it to a cacophonous soundtrack. “Terrarium,” by Erickson and Jake Rasmussen, takes a much more experimental approach, pairing 1930s voiceover from Encyclopedia Britannica with video images that bubble, mesh, and layer to create a kaleidoscopic perspective. Though the latter focuses more on a representation of the value in the beauty of nature, both videos note the fragility of the earth (whether as a malleable ball or a fracturing terrarium) and ask the viewer to question what it means to interact emotionally, experientially, and physically with the planet and how they might change these interactions for the better.

“Sightseeing” by Mary Slaughter

The year concluded with “Air” and “Fire,” two elements that go hand in hand. The former consisted of videos exploring the notion of breath in a world dealing with police brutality, an airborne pandemic, and the pollution that is destroying our atmosphere. “Fire,” instead, looked at the necessity of a resource that defines civilization, while also illuminating how this same civilization has utilized it as a destructive force. Mary Slaughter’s iPhone video, “Sightseeing,” looks at a traditional Kurama Fire Festival in Japan, meant to honor spirits with torches paraded through the streets. Instead of a reverent, religious event, however, it turns into a tourist spectacle which is marked by an immense police presence. “In the Streets” by Kristine Heykants, looks more closely at fire’s role in industrialization and how it affects our cities and towns. The piece explores the issues of the poverty divide, the building and decaying of urban structures, and the pollution of smoke as it billows out of factory chimneys. Both videos portray the miracle of fire and how it has allowed our society to grow and flourish, but also the negative consequences of such progress.

 

“In the Streets” by Kristine Heykants

The goal of Homegrown Stories is that of all artists—to evoke emotion and reaction and to engage in a conversation about what we hold as progress, truth, and beauty. However, this collaborative project also invites the viewer to find answers through science and political action by providing links in each prompt to resources such as The Thirst Project, Green America, and The Southern Poverty Law Center. Erickson and Dyas are asking for more than passive viewing, they are asking for participation in redirecting our planet’s future. When change is the necessity, then art is the catalyst, information is the momentum, and collective action is the answer.

 

Molly Stankoski, Freelance Writer and Researcher

 

Reflections on Earth Day: One year after its 50 anniversary

Postponed for a year, we’re excited to celebrate Earth Day 50+1 years in 2021. But as we start into new creative endeavors, we want to take a moment to look back at last year’s exhibition Ecotactical: Earth Day at 50. On display from September through December 2020, Ecotactical explored how the celebration of Earth Day has changed over time, and asked what the significance of the holiday means five decades after its conception. The exhibition featured works from various artists installed onsite in our gallery and along our trails. Each artist responded in a unique way, giving new perspectives into what Earth Day means to them personally, and to the world. But creating and presenting an exhibition in the midst of a pandemic came with challenges, as well as with new possibilities. We adapted to new timelines, new restrictions and new technologies, but in the end, the message is still clear: Earth Day remains an integral part of the ongoing fight for ecological change and environment justice. We look forward to carrying with us the energy and strength into 2021 that our artists and our team showed in making Ecotactical possible.

With a new year comes new energy behind this movement. We asked the Exhibition Coordinator and the artists to reflect on a series of questions, prompting them to consider the meaning of Earth Day and its relation to the things that have been happening in the world since the inception of the show. Below we share some of their responses and thoughts on this show. 

 

Asking our Exhibition Coordinator, Liz Jelsomine: While working with the artists and for the Schuylkill Center’s staff, how has your view on the world and Earth Day specifically has changed with the pandemic?

Winter 2019/20 was an exciting time at the Schuylkill Center. The 50th anniversary of Earth Day was approaching, and the possibilities of what that meant to our organization and for the future of our world was inspiring. To commemorate, we were gearing up for our annual Earth Day celebration, Naturepalooza, and the Environmental Art Department was planning the final details for our Earth Day themed show, Ecotactical: Earth Day at 50, due to open just before Earth Day on April 16.

Then, suddenly, the world erupted with news of a dangerous and very contagious disease, so devastating that society as we knew it would be put to a halt for the unforeseeable future. We know the disease all too well now as Covid-19. Business closures, job insecurity, isolation from others, and personal loss, were just a few of the hardships society was faced with. The Schuylkill Center made the difficult decision to cancel Naturepalooza. Ultimately, our center, along with many other businesses, had to temporarily close our doors. This left the Art Department with our own questions to ask: Would Ecotactical still be able to come to fruition? How would the context of the show develop during a pandemic? What would a virtual show look like for us?  While the Art Department was grappling with these questions, both our staff and the artists were navigating the new reality in their personal lives. Artists’ access to their studios was altered, and some as parents now had the added responsibility of child care during work time. Those as professors at universities were adapting to online teaching. Some were forced to relocate, making site visits impossible. Meetings about the outdoor installations on our trails became difficult to plan.

With determination and perseverance from our staff and the artists, we were thrilled to finally present Ecotactical on September 21, almost six months after its originally scheduled debut. Armed with plenty of hand sanitizer and capacity guidelines we were able to open our gallery doors and celebrate our reopening in our first virtual reception. Having a way to safely reconnect after much time apart and to process the impact of the pandemic together provided a moment of needed healing. As we look towards Earth Day 2021, we embrace one of the lessons the pandemic has taught us: the importance of spending time together and the value of the natural world around us. 

Installation view of Ecotactical by Liz Jelsomine

 

At this milestone in Earth Day’s legacy, what are your thoughts on engaging communities in Earth Day activism and in your artistic process specifically?

I am still struggling with how to make community activism tangible to kids, and how to have students see the results of their hard work. In the original version of our musical, the villains, “Businessman 1” and “Businessman 2,” come around and realize that green jobs are the way to go. But that ending never sat well with me. It felt too Pollyanna. So we rewrote the ending to reflect what actually happens in real life: The Businessmen decide that the oil refinery expansion project (which the child protagonists are fighting against throughout the play) is not right for them after all and they chalk it up to various other reasons, none of which is the kids’ activism: they wanted to spend more time with their families; they realized it was not financially viable at this time; etc. This is what children are up against in our world right now: the biggest culprits of environmental pollution will never admit when activism was successful. And it can be a slow process on top of that. I want to prepare young people for that, and also give them tools to fight back and ways to see what success looks like. The new song is called, ‘Totally Unrelated” and it hasn’t yet been recorded.   

I had an Art History teacher in college who used to say, “All art is propaganda” and that always stuck with me. As a musician, an artist, and an art appreciator, I now see that anything you are planning to show in public becomes a statement. In my band, we are paying more attention to the messages in the songs we choose to play, because when you make art, a message will be conveyed whether you want that or not. So it’s important to think carefully about what you want that message to be. The same goes for teaching: whatever we decide to teach, we are making a statement about what we want future generations to know and how we want them to view the world. It is no small decision.  

 

By Anya Rose (Ants on a Log), co-presented the installation Curious: Think Outside the Pipeline!, 2020

Family Concert with Ants on a Log at the Schuylkill Center (2020).

 

What is a new question about the environment that has arisen for you after making your artwork?

I’m watching and wondering, what will we do as individuals and communities, if our government won’t prioritize the Earth, and our systems are designed to fail our most vulnerable populations? I’ve been reading Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. She continuously reminds us that the relational is the most important, and that nature already has the answers. If we as humans could only mimic what nature shows us, in its rhythms, cycles, and interdependence, we could start thriving. I am grateful for this kernel of hope right now. 

 

By Anya Rose (Ants on a Log), co-presented the installation Curious: Think Outside the Pipeline!, 2020:

Installation view of Curious:Think Outside the Pipeline! in Ecotactical by Liz Jelsomine

 

As we were struck both personally and professionally with COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, the initial timeline of the exhibition Ecotactical: Earth Day at 50 had to change as well. How has the pandemic shifted your perspective on the environmental art world at large and your art practice specifically?

My project For The Future centers on community activism related to Earth Day throughout the history of the environmental movement. The content of the messages on the flags is meant to raise awareness of the activist actions of so many dedicated people: anonymous protesters at Earth Day and Climate marches, Greta Thunberg and the youth movement of Climate Strikers, Indigenous peoples defending some of the last remaining natural resources from extraction and pollution, and climate justice workers in urban environments fighting for the basic human right of healthy air, water and food access. The activism related to the environment is a crucial issue at the heart of our community’s health and prospects for the future.

The pandemic has crystalized my perspective on the environment. Rather than calling for attention at the periphery of social concern, environmental issues are now at the forefront. Looking at how our pandemic slowdown has allowed Earth to heal and how motivated the youth movement is on this issue, I am hopeful that the new administration sees how crucial listening to the science regarding climate change will be. Environmentally minded science fiction writers such as Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood have envisioned what we are living through as a direct result of climate change. The key now is envisioning ways to live with mutual aid as a core value. Mutual aid between humans and between humans and the environment. I believe it will prove to be key to our survival.

 

By Julia Way Rix, presented the installation For The Future, 2020:

Installation view of For the Future on the Schuylkill Center’s trails by Liz Jelsomine

 

The Lands We Cultivate

“The beauty of working with plants is their unpredictability.” Rob Carter

The process of urbanization and our evolving understanding of plants are the main topics that shape the new exhibition Rob Carter: Cultured Lands at the Schuylkill Center. The exhibition features work by environmental artist Rob Carter, who uses historical, scientific, and experiential research to explore the relationship between humanity and nature. 

The exhibition features a selection of Carter’s creative experiments that challenge us to envision a future for our lands in which humanity and nature can sustainably coexist. Developed in partnership with the West Collection at SEI, a major contemporary art collection in our region, Carter’s solo exhibition will open this Thursday, April 15 with a virtual opening reception and artist talk. During the reception, Carter will share his fascination for botany, urban development, and how they shape our shared environment. He will discuss his current research into the history and future of landscapes with Tina Plokarz, the Schuylkill Center’s Director of Environmental Art, and Lee Stoetzel, manager of the West Collection.

“The way humans relate to plant life is fascinating,” says Carter in a recent interview. “I am interested in how we perceive and use it, and how plants, in turn, use us. Our relationship to the natural world, and plants specifically, is an environmental conundrum in terms of climate change and our complicated history.” Plants have recently become his “favorite characters,” he admits, explaining, “the beauty of working with plants is their unpredictability, making them seem almost human in their unique movement and grace.”

Rob Carter: Soy Drawing 4 (GMO), 2020 pencil, watercolour and soy plant ink on paper, Courtesy of the Artist

Cultured Lands features Carter’s work Plant Writing (2020), an artistic experiment with highly processed soy beans, the most valuable US agricultural export. With ink drawings and a time-lapse video, the artist documents the growth and movement of organic and genetically modified soybean plants over the course of several days. He captures both the action of the artist/scientist and the motion of the plants. A process that is quite methodical, but also “as free and instinctual as possible,” as Carter describes his art-making. 

Presented side-by-side with traces of Philadelphia’s colonization history in the gallery, the exhibition is a reminder of the transformation of soil into profitable farmland. The aim of growing ever more productive crops to meet the needs and wants of humanity continues to shape agriculture today. But if humanity is dependent on crops, the artist speculates, how can humans nurture an insightful and empathetic relationship to the natural environment?

Rob Carter: Metropolis (2008), courtesy of the artist and the West Collection

Cultured Lands is also an invitation for dialogue about the transformation of undeveloped land into concreted, industrial metropolises. It features the paper-based stop-motion animation Metropolis (2008), an abridged narrative history of the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, spanning the time period from 1755 to the present, and from a Native American trading path through farming and the discovery of gold to today’s modern city. Part American history lesson, part utopian avant-garde à la Fritz Lang, Metropolis builds a bridge from the urban development dreams of the past to today’s recognition of irreversible human-made influences in the era of the Anthropocene. 

Equally characters and props in our social drama plants and architecture are the lenses through which Carter unravels humanity’s responsibility as a global, Earth-changing force. Carter points to the uncertainties in our knowledge of the natural world and considers how our understanding and relationship to nature might evolve into the future.

The Schuylkill Center looks forward to seeing you in the art gallery. The exhibition is open from April 15 to June 5, 2021 with a virtual reception on Thursday, April 15, 2021 at 7pm. Please register for the opening here.

The Schuylkill Center’s Visitor Center is open, as is the art gallery, but please remember that masks and 6-feet social distancing are required. We also welcome your comments and thoughts in our digital guestbook at www.schuylkillcenter.org/art.

See you online or in the gallery.

 

Tina Plokarz, Director of Environmental Art

N.D.E. – Near Death Experience

The photographs in the exhibition Citizen’s Eye were captured by a community of individuals each with their own perspective on the world. Yet, this special collection of images reveals it is profoundly and visually evident we’re all on the same journey. We’re just taking different paths and leaving our own unique footprints behind along the way.

Where there is light there is always shadow. This is the nature of life, seen and unseen. A handful of the submissions for Citizen’s Eye seemed to illuminate this existential truth revealing a tension of duality in both black and white and color photographs. Many of these photos displayed a bold mirroring effect through reflections and silhouettes recalling ideas of “as above, so below”. I was drawn to the photos with sharp contrasts and vivid juxtapositions of energy. I feel they speak to the truth of the soul, the light and shadow in us all. If there is one thing no human will escape before we emerge from this triple pandemic it is self-reflection—the act of facing one’s inner truth: the good and the bad, the ugly and the sublimely beautiful.

Snowy River by Gary Reed

Probably the hardest thing we’ve had to deal with in the past year during the pandemic is the untimely loss of our loved ones. Countless families have had to endure the unimaginable inability to say goodbye. We’ve been robbed of rituals to gather in grief and celebration of our beloveds’ homegoings. I’ve never thought about it much until now. But, when it comes to the language around one’s passing, I always preferred how the death of a living soul was spoken in terms of one’s “sunset.” This exhibition contained many sunsets imbued with both luminous serenity and dark mystique. Photos as a visual medium are not typically works we “hear”. But, there was something about the sunsets of the Citizen’s Eye that are loud with a silent stillness and that demands the respect of the dead and the living.

Hudson Valley by Conezy

This word, alone—sunset—conjures the poetic, bittersweet beauty beheld in the ritual farewell of our life-giving star at the end of each day. The metaphorical sunrise and sunset that book end every individual’s journey speak to mythic elements of the human experience. I think another reason I prefer to compare one’s death to the setting of the sun is because, while no one knows for sure what waits for us beyond our last breath, we would bet our lives that the sun will most certainly rise with each new day. Our human being echoes the eternal rhythm of birth:death:rebirth and our primordial connections to the cycles of nature and time. To think that a loved one’s life may come to an end in this world, but will rise again in the next is a comfort to me worth 1000 suns.

Sunset in December by Elisabeth Torg

For those of us who survived 2020 and its triple pandemic, for those who may have come so close to death but fought hard and were somehow blessed to keep it at bay, we are still here. For me, this past year felt like one long N.D.E. – Near Death Experience. Extensive research documents accounts of survivors who lived through an N.D.E. Individuals report seeing similar visions and voices, crossing thresholds and traversing tunnels of light. They often encounter family with meaningful messages that offer forgiveness and peace. In considering the perspective of the photographers of this series, whose age and demographics were unknown to me, it felt like they were all looking through the lens of the N.D.E that was a year like no other in human history. I couldn’t help but think about the visions I’d want to see at the end of my life. What images would soothe my soul and call me home in such a way I would welcome what comes next? Who would I want to greet me on my solitary path to the afterlife? While my spirit guides and ancestors are a personal matter, one of the images I’ll share that always comes to mind is the ocean. 

While writing this post I had the opportunity to travel to Cape May New Jersey for a weekend getaway. It was my first escape outside of state lines since the global pandemic was declared almost a year ago. I oddly felt like a fugitive and the freedom was intoxicating and admittedly, a bit scary. It was my birthday. The beach holds a special place in my heart and seemed the perfect place to release and honor all that was lost. It also seemed a fitting place to celebrate life and the hope of that next horizon, that inevitable sunrise. In thinking about this essay and all the amazing photos from Citizen’s Eye, I knew I had to end by sharing a photo of my own. This is what I captured:

Ocean view in Cape May by Li Sumpter

 

By Li Sumpter

Li Sumpter, Ph.D. is an independent scholar and multidisciplinary artist who applies strategies of D.I.Y. media and mythic design toward building better, more resilient communities of the future. Her artistic practice—the “art of survival”—addresses threats to mind, body and spirit with a focus on the readiness and resilience of black, brown and indigenous peoples. Li’s academic research explores apocalypse myths and afrofuturist narratives driven by feminine archetypes.

 

Citizen’s Eye is a community art exhibition featuring more than 400 photographs of surprising encounters with nature throughout the pandemic. The exhibition is on view in our gallery and online through March 21, 2021.

 

A Reflection on Making Space for Us

In my role as the Environmental Art Intern, I had the great opportunity to go through each and every one of the photos that were submitted to the amazing kaleidoscope of nature in the exhibition “Citizen’s Eye.” In the process of sorting through them, I had time to reflect on these snapshots, and on my own experiences in the outdoors throughout the pandemic. While there are many beautiful and eye-catching images, the ones that stood out to me most were those that documented time spent with other people. When I reflect on the time I spent outside over the last year, I am reminded of the close friends and family that I share these memories with. In a time of being hyper-aware of the spaces around us, nature provided a refuge and became the setting for all kinds of gathering. A place where we could still spend time with each other while also maintaining the distance we needed apart from each other to be safe and respectful.

Nature Preschool at the Schuylkill Center by Rose Hammerman

What I see when I look through these images is a process of placemaking. Each photograph documents a way in which we are embedding emotional significance and new meaning into our natural environments. When we give these spaces new life, making them significant locations for living, gathering and communicating, we have transformed them into a place. While indoor spaces closed their doors to gathering, we turned to the outdoors to create new places to create memories. Celebration, exploration, connection, learning, mourning and many more rituals all took place in natural environments. Restaurants looked at parking lots and sidewalks and imagined new places for dining. This process was important in 2020. Natural placemaking reflected our needs to adjust to the circumstances, and it also reconnected us to a natural world that we are often at odds with. Whether or not you spent much time in the outdoors before the pandemic, your view of natural space definitely changed during the pandemic.

My hope is that post-pandemic, however that future looks, we will continue this process and continue to embed meaning into our natural spaces, whether it be the patch of grass on the sidewalk or the forest you went hiking through. Many were already doing this long before Covid-19 took ahold of our attention, but for others, time in quarantine allowed us to be more reflective and more presently focused on processes like this. We found a need to create new places, not by building or defining a space, but by being intentionally aware of what a space means to us and the memories that are connected to it.

Photo by CJ Walsh

 I am glad to look through this collection of images and view the many ways in which we think about nature, both big and small, as important to our lives during a time of crisis and turmoil. As we imagine what futures await us, it is important to uphold these processes presently, and to imagine how natural space and its significance to us fits into these imagined futures.

 

By CJ Walsh, Environmental Designer and former Art Intern at the Schuylkill Center.

 

A New Lens on Nature: Community photos in “Citizen’s Eye”

It almost could be another tree, except for the ears. Look a little closer and you realize it’s a deer, stock-still and staring at you through the morning mist. As autumn leaves rustle, its silent appraisal reminds you: you are not alone. These woods are a shared space.

This encounter is captured in a photo by Peter DeStefano, one he submitted to the upcoming community show, “Citizen’s Eye — A Kaleidoscope of Nature.” More than 400 photos taken by over 200 people—Schuylkill Center staff, members, volunteers, neighbors, friends—document surprising encounters with nature from the past 10 months. Every photo is included in the exhibition, making for a truly kaleidoscopic display.

Photo by Peter DeStefano, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

Director of Environmental Art Tina Plokarz and her team have been sorting through these images, arranging them in our gallery, while looking for patterns. Some photos show structures of bridges and buildings; many are close-ups of animals or plants. They all come from a heightened sense of awareness to our natural surroundings and a willingness to stop and focus on smaller things. Taking such a photograph of nature requires that you not just move through the world but slow down enough to notice it. That you become a reciprocal part of it and live in it.

While each image reflects its photographer’s interest, collectively they begin to tell a story, one that begins with people going out to find nature—whether for peace, solitude, or recreation—and discovering that it’s always right beside them. Nature with a capital ‘N’ may conjure up romantic notions of sublime landscapes in National Parks, grand mountains, and expansive deserts. But nature with a lowercase ‘n’ encompasses everything around us. It’s “the small things we’re experiencing every day,” Tina says. “It’s not only about blooming flowers, it is also about the little weed on the sidewalk.” 

A number of photos feature kids and adults outside—playing, building, exploring, living. Some are posed; some are candid; one is a silhouette. “When we really think about ‘nature’ and where this term comes from,” Tina says, “we quickly see that it’s not only the ‘natural world’—it’s also our world context, it’s also our body, it’s our human interaction with the environment. And I think that’s what I was really interested in seeing through other people’s eyes.”

Photo by Walther Vera, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

Nature is also around us, inevitably, in death. One particularly striking photo is of a funeral with masked mourners holding big red umbrellas and carrying a casket down the street. At first, it may seem like it doesn’t belong in a show of nature photography. But it made Tina consider how other nature photos capture death and decay. Several images, for instance, show mushrooms sprouting from dying trees. The rotting wood provides the nutrients necessary to grow a network of fungi that spreads throughout the forest—itself an offering to trees and a vital connection between them. “It’s this circle of life,” she says, “and death is part of our lives.” 

Photo by Peter Handler, submitted to “Citizen’s Eye”

That topic of death is “hard to grapple with as it relates to the pandemic,” Tina says. But that’s why offering a place for people to share their experiences with nature is so powerful. “I think it allows us a space for grief, and for thinking how, when a tree is dying, it is not dying, it is just transforming into something else.”

Ultimately everything in nature is interconnected, everything shared. “Citizen’s Eye” reflects this in its community display, ready to welcome you in and transform your own encounters with nature.

 

“Citizen’s Eye —A Kaleidoscope of Nature” will be available to view in person in our gallery and online from January 21– March 21, 2021. Join us for a virtual opening reception on Thursday, Jan. 21 at 7 pm for a conversation with mythologist and social practice artist Li Sumpter Ph.D., John Heinz National Wildlife refuge manager Lamar Gore, and designer CJ Walsh, moderated by Tina Plokarz. For more information and to register, visit: https://www.schuylkillcenter.org/blog/event/citizens-eye-a-kaleidoscope-of-nature/

 

—By Emily Sorensen

 

LandLab Dream Journal

LandLab Dream Journal 

Guest post by LandLab Artist Kate Farquhar

 

Editor’s Note: LandLab is the Schuylkill Center’s environmental art residency program. Kate Farquhar was named a resident artist in 2017 and recently wrapped up her project, titled Synestates. She installed a series of three sculptures on the Schuylkill Center’s trails – come visit us to see them. This blog post is Kate’s reflection on time at the Schuylkill Center and a peek into her creative process.

 

I’m currently wrapping up my LandLab residency at the Schuylkill Center: a chapter in my relationship to a place that I will always treasure. Ten years ago I visited the Schuylkill Center when I was deciding whether or not to move to Philadelphia. Six years ago I helped with the Schuylkill Center master planning design effort led by Salt Design Studio. I’m excited to begin my next chapter and explore the woods, meadows, water bodies and trails with fresh eyes. Looking for … medicinal plants, bird calls, old friends? Time will tell. 

 

Reflecting on my LandLab residency, there remains a small corner that I’d like to share with you. To guide my work throughout the residency, I’ve filled a watercolor journal with notes and ideas. In my pursuit of habitat, infrastructure and myth, most of the mythical connections seem to live in those pages. The sculptures I built include vine trellis sculptures by the Pine Grove, floating forms in Wind Dance Pond, and pollinator habitat at the River Connector trail. While I built in solitude, I often imagined fictional rituals that could connect people to the sculptures, accessories to environmental play and novel ways to spend the day at the Schuylkill Center. Take a peek at a few pages recording the associations and fantasies that came to me throughout the process, and persist in the dream-lives of these sculptures. 

 

 

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About LandLab
LandLab is a unique artist residency program that operates on multiple platforms: artistic creation, ecological restoration and education. A joint project of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education and the Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA), LandLab offers resources and space on our 340-acre wooded property for visual artists to engage audiences in the processes of ecological stewardship through scientific investigation and artistic creation.

Kate Farquhar’s Synestates: Art, Nature, and Humans

by Communications Intern Charlotte Roach 
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As you wander the trails of the Schuylkill Center, you may notice some objects that look a little out-of-place. What are those chains doing hanging from those tree branches? What are those white geometric shapes on the surface of Wind Dance Pond? Those objects are art installations, part of our LandLab environmental art residency, created by resident artist Kate Farquhar. Kate is a Philadelphia-based environmental artist and landscape architect with a passion for green design. Her series is called Synestates, and its purpose it to explore how human-made building materials can interact with nature.

pvines, located on Pine Grove Loop, is the first of two works Kate has installed so far. The piece is made out of steel chains, intertwined with capillary fabric and sunbursts of plastic straws, draped over the branches of an Amur cork tree. The purpose of pvines is to encourage a native vine, Virginia creeper, to climb up the chains. Capillary fabric has the special property of being able to wick water upwards against gravity. Thus, the fabric provides the vines with a source of water. 

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In landscape design, rain chains are often used as alternatives to downspouts. Capillary fabric can be used in the building of a plant-covered green wall, which can help insulate a building. Green walls and rain chains are functional, decorative, and artistic, and Kate has brought these materials unexpectedly into nature to help create new habitat. The plastic straws in pvines are arranged in an aesthetically appealing way, and have even become homes for various types of insects like spiders and earwigs. 

The second of Kate’s installations is called dolmbale, located on Wind Dance Pond. It is comprised of dense white foam cut into geometric cubes and pyramids. These shapes parallel the molecular structure of nitrogen, phosphorus, and salt. These three substances cause some of the most significant water pollution issues that Pennsylvania faces. An excess of nutrients in the water causes a huge spike in growth for bacteria and algae in a phenomenon known as an algal bloom. The bacteria and algae consume a lot of oxygen, leading to the water becoming depleted of oxygen for other organisms to use. This is known as hypoxia, and it’s lethal for aquatic life. dolmbale’s goal is to raise awareness of nutrient pollution in waterways. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and salt molecules are far, far too tiny to see, but their effects are massive, and clearly visible to the naked eye. Kate’s work imagines if we could see nutrient molecules themselves in a size that’s proportionate to their impact: huge. 

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To accompany the Styrofoam shapes, Kate collected water quality data on Smith Run (one of two streams on the Schuylkill Center property) as part of a larger citizen science initiative to gather information about water pollution in Pennsylvania. Under smaller versions of her floating cubes, Kate installed leaf packs, which gathered a community of aquatic macroinvertebrates over time. (Aquatic macroinvertebrates = little critters living in the water that you can see unaided, without a microscope). Then, Kate observed, counted, and identified the organisms she caught in the leaf packs. The basis of the method is that some little bugs are more pollution-tolerant than others. For example, leeches can handle just about anything. You may find leeches in filthy, heavily-polluted water, but also in clean water, so the presence of leeches doesn’t definitively indicate clean or dirty water. On the other side of the spectrum, mayflies are delicate little guys, and they need pure, clean water to survive. If you find mayfly larvae in your water, that’s a sure sign the water is relatively free of pollutants. This method is practically universal and can be used to compare pollution levels across regions. It’s not precise, but it’s far more accessible to citizen scientists than expensive machinery. All you need is a body of water, a net, and a key to identify critters. 

The data Kate gathered at the Schuylkill Center can be seen here if you zoom into Philadelphia on the interactive map: https://leafpacknetwork.org/data/ Happily, Smith Run received Good or Excellent scores at all three of her sample sites. Check out Stroud Water Research Center’s Leaf Pack Network to learn more about how you can set up your own leaf pack experiment.

Kate’s third Synestates piece, called urlog, will be installed in late summer 2019. urlog will be “a heap of undead wood manipulated to host new seedlings and native pollinators side-by-side”, in Kate’s words. Look forward to seeing urlog in a few weeks, and in the meantime, come observe pvines on Pine Grove Loop and dolmbale on Wind Dance Pond! Ponder the significance of humans and our by-products in the natural world as you enjoy lovely art and scenery. Also, check out this post for some concept art and behind-the-scenes of Synestates as well as some of Kate’s past work, including a spectacular green roof for Urban Outfitters’ Philly HQ! 

Community: Behind-the-Scenes

by Sam Bromberg, Environmental Art and Communications Intern

In the gray winter months, Community has brought a refreshing splash of vibrancy to the Schuylkill Center. Our gallery bursts with color and texture, from chunky knits to intricate wood carvings to sleek photography.

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The diversity of the show is the product of a collaborative community effort,  speaking to the impressive creativity and talent of our Schuylkill Center members, neighbors, staff, volunteers, and friends. The start-to-finish creation of this exhibition was a fruitful process. So, how did we go from bare white walls to the captivating display that’s transformed the gallery? Here’s the inside scoop.

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Clockwise from top left: Shannon Cronin, Maura Matthews, Paul S. Stetzer, Jr., Andrew Cherashore, Laura Eyring, Stephanie Weinger

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Artwork by Linnie Greenberg

This rendition of Community is its second presentation at the Schuylkill Center, the first being in 2017. Once again, local artists were invited to submit one to three pieces of all shapes, sizes, and mediums, with works related to nature and the environment or depicting the Schuylkill Center itself of special interest. The enormous outpouring of participants came as a welcomed, celebrated shock, but one that required some rearrangingmanaging over 90 artists is a tall task. The artist participation almost tripled from our first Community show! In an effort to conform to spatial restraints, artists were asked to choose just a single piece to display.

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Clockwise from top left: Jennifer Brady, Elisa Sarantschin, Peter Salera, Barbara Dirnbach

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Artwork by Jess Levine

Once the pieces to be exhibited were finalized, the daunting but rewarding task of installation was upon us. Fitting color and pattern together with material and tone and subject took thoughtful consideration. Though the show was wholly uncurated, the distinctive works compliment each other in perhaps surprising coordination largely thanks to the skillful visions of Exhibitions Coordinator Liz Jelsomine and Director of Art Christina Catanese. They deliberately, perceptively placed each piece on the walls, in Plexiglas displays, on carefully mounted shelves.     

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Artwork by Jamie Coyle

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Artwork by Sarah “Wolfie” Strub

We compiled short biographies, artists’ statements, lists of materials describing mediums, and desired price tags. In the chaos inherent to exhibition preparations, the show slowly began taking form, emerging as a unique display of our community’s capabilities and passions. After finishing touchesthe unglamorous work of sweeping and last-minute wall spacklingwe were ready for the big reveal. Abuzz with excitement, the gallery’s opening reception was a night to celebrate the artists with friends, family, and a potluck-style meal.

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Community will be on display in the gallery until April 27, with many of the artworks for sale and a portion of the proceeds going to the Schuylkill Center. Don’t miss out on an opportunity to show your support and experience our community’s talent!

Nature & Art Exhibitions in the Region: Field Trips with Schuylkill Center Art Staff

Collaboratively written by Lauren Bobyock (former Art + Communications Intern,) Liz Jelsomine (Exhibitions Coordinator), and Christina Catanese (Director of Environmental Art)

Though artists have always been inspired by nature, with the growing awareness of climate change and other ecological crises, an increasing number engage with themes of nature, landscape, and how people and culture connect to them. Over the past few seasons, several exhibitions in our region explored these ideas and the Schuylkill Center environmental art staff took a few field trips to enrich our thinking.

Natural Wonders at the Brandywine River Museum

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The relationship between beauty and the sublime is complex. Last fall, the Brandywine River Museum of Art examined this relationship in Natural Wonders: The Sublime in Contemporary Art. During our visit, Schuylkill Center staff pondered how the Brandywine produced this exhibition, which speaks to the state of nature in the world.

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The show was a flowing, engaging experience throughout. Thirteen artists participated in the show and work ranged from miniatures to 3D printing.

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I recognized one of the artist’s miniature work from a larger installation (located in Center City, Philadelphia at 16th & Chancellor Streets). The piece has since closed, but once covered an entire building side (pictured below.) The artist, Patrick Jacobs, had a mural of a dandelion field painted on the side of a building, and upon closer inspection, viewers came across a tiny peep hole, revealing what looked to be a vast landscape of dandelions in the countryside.

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Photo from West Collection

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Photo from patrickjacobs.info

While the work in this show was undoubtedly beautiful, even peaceful, the museum’s write-up of said that a closer look revealed “a menace can be found lurking within most of the work in Natural Wonders, and this danger often stems from human intervention.”

Issues ranged from species extinction and cultivation of wilderness to designer breeding. Some pieces demanded your attention, like the large videos playing in the gallery, or artificial flowers up to your waist. Other works pulled you in, requiring more detailed inspection, such as the little forests and flowing water barely peeking through old suitcase trunks.

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blog8Maya Lin’s Pin River challenged traditional ways of mapping. Instead of highlighting land with water being a part of the landscape, Lin mapped and highlighted the Hudson River as the main focus. Lin mapped only the water bodies themselves, removing other geographic reference points and letting the water’s shape and path stand on its own. In the case of the Hudson, the choice of nails was especially significant given the legacy of heavy metal pollution in the river.

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The Pennsylvania Landscape in Impressionism and Contemporary Art at the Woodmere Art Museum

What interests me most is the ability for human relationships with nature to be visible through art, whether intended or not. The Pennsylvania Landscape in Impressionism and Contemporary Art at the Woodmere Art Museum that was on view September 2018January 2019. The Woodmere Museum said, “juxtapositions of paintings and works in other media reveal how artistic practice has evolved and social context has become urgent in ways that could not have been imagined in the past.”

This exhibition included pieces from over a hundred years ago, as well as work made in recent years. Pieces began as traditional works. Artistic views regarding nature and the social landscape at the time could be seen. Over time, a shift to contemporary happened, where the views of artists remained present, yet were specific to challenges and outlooks we have with the environment today. Work also specifically focused on the Pennsylvania landscape. As a result, shifts in relationships towards the land were made especially clear.

We were delighted to see work in the show by artists we’ve had the pleasure of working with at the Schuylkill Center, including 3D videos by Pete Rose. Layering multiple views of populated areas in the city, such as a skatepark, Rose placed viewers in the space and provided them with a closer look at the people and activities happening there. Sandy Sorlien is no stranger to the Schuylkill Center and also displayed images from her INLAND project in our gallery. Sorlien photo documented the 200-year-old abandoned Schuylkill Navigation system that once literally fueled the Industrial Revolution.

Natural Wonders at the Brandywine River Museum and The Pennsylvania Landscape in Impressionism and Contemporary Art at the Woodmere Art Museum both exhibited art that depicts people relating to the environment, displaying the change in those relationships over time. While it may not always be intended or overt, art shows perspectives that individuals have towards our natural world, society, politics, and beyond.