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.

 

Braiding Phragmites: Richard L. James Lecture

This summer environmental artist Sarah Kavage and designer Yaroub Al-Obaidi will construct a traditional Iraqi guesthouse, a mudhif, at the Schuylkill Center, one of the first such structures in America. It will be built entirely out of phragmites, an invasive wetland grass that threatens ecosystems worldwide and is one of the most abundant plants in the Delaware River watershed. At this event, the artists will speak about traditional reed practices, methods of eco-friendly harvesting and eradication, and the creation of their thatched sculpture, Al-Mudhif. The lecture explores not only displaced plants but ecology, migration, and healing. Learn how you can volunteer to create it while hearing about Kavage’s work with phragmites at many other centers as part of a watershed-wide art initiative, Lenapehoking~Watershed.

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

 

Thursday Night L!VE (online): Environmental Artist Party

Are you an artist working with environmental themes? For several years, the Schuylkill Center has been holding twice-annual casual gatherings that give environmental artists the opportunity to connect with one another and share ideas. For this June’s event, we are moving the party online! The evening will include lightning talks by artists in attendance (let us know if you want to give one by RSVPing), and breakouts for smaller group conversation. BYO refreshments!

Please RSVP to attend, give a two-minute talk, and/or share an image of your work here:

Registered participants will receive a link to attend the virtual party, which will be held on the Zoom platform. Lightning talks will be limited to the first 15 artists who RSVP, and we’ll have a waitlist as needed.

POSTPONED – Earth Day at 50: Opening Reception

Often credited with launching the modern environmental movement, the first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970, in a political climate thick with protests against the Vietnam War and the major American civil rights movement. On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020, it feels like a very different time. Yet, the turmoil of our own moment and the increasing urgency of the climate crisis give the historical roots of the first Earth Day new relevance.

Artists have played an important role in Earth Day from the beginning, regularly contributing graphic posters and iconography to buoy the movement, participating in Earth Day exhibitions, and offering dramatic, performative actions. Recognizing this rich legacy, this exhibition of works responds to the question of what Earth Day means (or should mean) fifty years after it was first celebrated.

The opening reception will offer a first look at the exhibition, along with refreshments and remarks from the artists and curators.

 

20 Years of Environmental Art at the Schuylkill Center: Opening Reception

Founded in 2000 as an opportunity for artists and audiences to explore and interpret the natural world and current ecological issues, our environmental art program has brought hundreds of artists to the Schuylkill Center to present contemporary art work in the gallery and on our trails. This exhibition celebrates the art program’s history by inviting previous exhibiting artists to reflect on the work they did at the Schuylkill Center, and looks to the future of environmental art with newer, related work. The opening reception will include refreshments and remarks from the artists and curator.

 

More details about the exhibition can be found at: http://www.schuylkillcenter.org/art/?ha_exhibit=assemblage

The Tempestry Project Philadelphia Collection: Opening Reception

In 2019, the Schuylkill Center coordinated 37 volunteer knitters and crocheters to create a collection of Tempestries (or temperature tapestries) for Philadelphia from 1875 to 2018. Each Tempestry shows the daily high temperatures for a given year, with January at the bottom and December at the top. The Philadelphia Tempestry collection will be on long-term display at the Schuylkill Center to educate about how climate change is impacting our region. Join us to see the full collection on view for the first time and celebrate this intersection of craft and activism.

The Tempestry Project is a global climate data visualization project through fiber arts. All Tempestries use the same yarn colors and temperature ranges, creating a recognizable and globally comparable mosaic of shifting temperatures over time. The Tempestry Project was founded by Justin Connelly, Marissa Connelly, and Emily McNeil in Anacortes, WA. To date, hundreds of Tempestries have been made by crafters around the world.  

Environmental Artist Party

Are you an artist working with environmental themes? The Schuylkill Center is building a network of artists through casual gatherings, giving artists the opportunity to connect with each other and with potential collaborators in other disciplines. The evening will include light refreshments, lightning talks from artists (let us know if you want to give one!), opportunities to view our fall gallery show, and informal networking.

Please RSVP so we know how many people to expect!

You can RSVP, sign up to give a 2-minute lightning talk (if you like), and share an image of your work here.

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.

NATURAL SELECTIONS: Art in the Open: Selections from 2018 at the Schuylkill Center

By Christina Catanese

A mysterious, vine-woven figure recently appeared behind the Schuylkill Center’s Visitor Center building. Though lacking facial features or limbs per se, it feels human-ish and appears to gaze over the hill into the forest.

This sculpture, created by Brooklyn-based artist Anki King, was the first piece from our fall exhibition to be installed this summer. King harvested vines from the Schuylkill Center property while they were still growing strong in the height of the August growing season for maximum benefit to the ecosystem as well as pliability.

Over the next few weeks, nine more artists will install their work in our environmental art gallery before the show officially opens on Sept. 13. Their work spans a diverse range of practices and materials – along with this vine sculpture, there will be on display wet plate collodion photography, weavings from discarded textiles, ceramic tiles with embroidery details, drawings, polaroids, cyanotypes, printed monotypes and more.

What these works have in common is that all of the artists were 2018 participants in Art in the Open, a public art program in which selected artists create their work on Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Banks for three days. We are pleased to be offering these artists the opportunity to adapt their work to our spaces, continuing our partnership with this citywide program for the third time.

Akin to King, Sivan Ilan utilized unconventional materials in her work, challenging their typical perception as waste or undesirable materials. A master’s student in textile design at Philadelphia University, she created large woven panels made exclusively from scrap fabric found in the university’s studios.

Mia Rosenthal and Christopher Wood present different kinds of drawings which shed light on how a place participates in the drawings themselves.

Rosenthal created detailed ink drawings of items that she found on the ground on the River Trail, as well as in her neighborhood playground. These meticulous portraits of local detritus reveal something about the character of their place.

Wood, in addition to continuing his Daydrawing series (in which he has completed a new powdered graphite drawing each day since Jan. 1, 2016), experimented with ways that the environment could participate in the drawings. He left paper with graphite in various locations on the trail, sometimes weighted with different objects, and allowed the weather and place to shape the material.

Looming large in the room will be a place-specific sculpture transplanted into the gallery by Matt Greco and Chris Esposito. This team participated in Art in the Open for the third time together this year and created an aggrandized form of a bollard – those posts used to secure a ship to a dock with ropes, a ubiquitous element from the Schuylkill River’s shipping history. Blowing this often overlooked object up to a size that cannot be ignored forces reflection on how this industrial legacy may still be felt today.

These works and more draw inspiration from place in a variety of ways, and the particular location of Art in the Open, between the Schuylkill River and the deeply urban built environment of Center City Philadelphia, offers an opportunity for artists to comment on and complicate the relationship between people and nature. Transplanting these works to the Schuylkill Center site, which also borders the River Trail about 10 miles north of the Art in the Open site, gives us a chance to consider these relationships from yet another angle.

Please join us to meet the artists at the opening reception of Art in the Open: Selections from 2018 on Sept. 13 at 6 p.m. Enjoy artist talks, light refreshments in the gallery and a short walk to the outdoor installation. Art in the Open: Selections from 2018 will be on view through Oct. 27.

Christina Catanese directs the Schuylkill Center’s environmental art program, tweets @SchuylkillArt. This blog was originally published in the Montgomery News August 29.