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

 

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.

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

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.

Bodies of Water: Dance at the Schuylkill Center

By Christina Catanese

 

This weekend, the Schuylkill Center will be presenting Remembering Water’s Way by Dance Exchange, the first site-specific dance event that the Center has commissioned in over a decade.

Dance Exchange is a DC-area arts organization that has been one of the Schuylkill Center’s LandLab artists in residence over the past year.  The goal of the LandLab residency is for artists to engage audiences in the processes of ecological stewardship through scientific investigation and artistic creation. So we tasked these performers to also create art-based installations that prevent or remediate environmental damage, and it’s exciting to see how they have responded to the challenge.

Dance Exchange’s work engaging individuals and communities in dancemaking and creative practices is driven by these four questions:

Who gets to dance? Where is the dance happening? What is the dancing about? Why does it matter?

When Dance Exchange was selected for this residency, I was excited to discover what the answers to these questions might be in the context of our work connecting people with nature.

The culmination of Dance Exchange’s research and artmaking will take place on October 13th and 14th with animated hikes through our grounds that follow the story of water. Exploring ponds, streams, erosion-prevention efforts, and impacts from recent storm events, these hour-long experiences will weave together performance, installation, science engagements, and more. Think guided nature walk punctuated by performed dance in the landscape, with led opportunities to interpret information (both scientific and sensory) into your own body and in collaboration with others.

One of Dance Exchange’s core beliefs is that anybody can and should dance, which is why the dancers not only perform for the audience, but get everyone moving. (Even those who claim to have two left feet.) The artists guide us through ways to embody the scientific concepts that we’re learning about. They also value intergenerational exchangeso all ages are welcome! This walk will give people across generations the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding ofand connection totheir local environment and community. Through this immersive experience, participants will activate their senses and observation skills through an artistic and ecological approach to discovery. Activities are designed to move participants along a path of recognition, appreciation, and stewardship of the environment. There will even be ways in which the performers will contribute to our land restoration work through the performance.

The title, Remembering Water’s Way, comes from a recognition that the land has a memory of how water has flowed through it, and an acknowledgement of how we can reconsider our relationship to the land to be guided by water rather than trying to fight it. Over the course of the walk, many stories of water will be explored (locally on the Schuylkill Center’s grounds as well as in the context of our regional watershed), including the impact of recent rains and ever-more intense storms that our region has experienced this summer.

As a dancer and choreographer myself, I’m excited by how we can use our bodies in nature to reframe and activate a site. By positioning human bodies in the landscape and experiencing it with all senses, perhaps we can start to see and feel ourselves as slightly more connected to nature, rather than separate.

So, my answers to the Dance Exchange questions so far are 1) everyone; 2) anywhere; 3) information from many realms outside of dance; and 4) because it helps bring us closer to that content, and to each other. But you may have your own answers (and more questions) after experiencing their work.

Please join us for Remembering Water’s Way this weekend. The walk will be offered four times over the course of the weekend, at 11am and 2pm on both Saturday, October 13 and Sunday, October 14. The guided walk will descend some elevation; good walking shoes are recommended. Keep an eye on the Schuylkill Center’s website and social media for any weather-related changes.

The Art of Wood Bending

By Carolyn Hesse

Carolyn Hesse is a resident artist part of our summer gallery, Wet Lab, a space for artists and Schuylkill Center visitors to explore and reflect on water in a dynamic environment.

 

For most artists, success is predicated on having enough time to work creatively.

This is true for me as well. Having time to make mistakes—and grow from them—is what drives every endeavor and can be what makes or breaks the spirit. So, to be given the gift of time at the Schuylkill Center was like a jewel that emits light at every angle; a non-objective based chunk of creative time immersed in a woodland setting. Wet Lab was consciously, and generously, set up as an open-ended concept. As result, it became a breath of fresh air in my artistic practice.

I used the time to make pieces for a current body of work that deals with wave and water imagery, titled: (i kept your sea ( i kept it safe)).  Springhouse Pond is down the hill behind the Discovery Center and I used it to soak strips of cedar of different lengths and widths for different amounts of time. I then brought the wood up to the gallery to bend and clamp them around forms where they would dry into the curves of those forms. Or break.

 

Either way, the experience was useful. These are some images of my process.

 

 

If you enjoy them, feel free to check on my website (carolynhessestudio.com) in the near future to see what they become after they’ve been cleaned up, sanded down, and incorporated into new sculptural pieces. My gratitude and appreciation for everyone I came into contact with at SCEE couldn’t be more heartfelt, thank you!

About the Author

Carolyn Hesse is one of our Wet Lab artists whose work is influenced by her time spent working for a wooden boat builder for 11 years. Her work is influenced by traditional wooden boat building techniques and she likes to engage in the idea of suspension, in the literal spatial, chemical sense, and the ephemeral sense related to time. Her pieces explore these concepts through visual repetition as well as reference to the straight line and the horizon. More recently she has been creating pieces that are less formal and more narrative.

 

Wet Lab is the current project in the Schuylkill Center’s gallery, on view until August 18, and is a space for artists and Schuylkill Center visitors to explore and reflect on water in a dynamic environment.  Over the course of the summer, twenty artists are responding to water in a variety of media, and presenting their work and process in our gallery for two to three week periods. Artists display completed works along with works in progress, at times using the gallery as their studio to work through a new idea or test creative hypotheses. Artist Carolyn Hesse participated in Wet Lab for three weeks in June and July, and reflects on her experience in this post.

Fifteen Years of Environmental Art at the Schuylkill Center

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

In 2000, Mary Salvante had an idea that the Schuylkill Center could be the perfect place to showcase environmental art. Nearly 15 years later, I’ve been reflecting on the past decade-and-a-half of environmental art at the Schuylkill Center: 20 outdoor exhibitions, 11 artist residencies, and dozens of shows in our gallery. Over the years, artists have grappled with issues and wonders in our ecosystem and shared their responses in diverse media. This post shows just a smattering of highlights of the art program going back to our very first gallery show and first artist-in-residence.

This January, we are kicking off the Schuylkill Center’s 50th anniversary celebration and celebrating fifteen years of environmental art at the Schuylkill Center with our fourth Annual Richard L. James Lecture by artist Mary Mattingly. Along with an interdisciplinary panel, Mattingly will reflect on the role of environmental art in a changing environment. With ecological challenges growing in complexity and scope, 2015 presents the perfect opportunity to consider the relationship of art and environment, and what it might look like in the next 15 years, 50 years, and beyond.

LandLab Residency (2014-2015), Artists: Jake Beckman; Leslie Birch; WE THE WEEDS (a collaboration of artist Kaitlin Pomerantz and botanist Zya Levy); Marguerita Hagan, B.H. Mills, and Maggie Mills

LandLab is a unique artist residency program that integrates art, ecological restoration, and education. A joint project of the Schuylkill Center and the Center for Emerging Visual Artists (CFEVA), LandLab residencies will make innovative installations that prevent or remediate environmental damage while raising public awareness about ecology. LandLab artist Jake Beckman created this mind-map to depict his early conceptualizing of his work on the cycles of soil formation and decay in the forest. Continue reading

#StormSnakes Update – Wriggling Through Change

By LandLab Resident Artist Leslie Birch

Water flowRight now I’ve been experiencing some interesting emotional connection to my LandLab project. This may seem odd, as my project is probably the most tech oriented of the bunch! I can only describe it as this feeling of letting go of attached ideas and really just observing and listening, both to nature and the people that know it well. That is different for me, because most of the time my projects are conceived ahead of time so they can be “pitched” to the people that may green-light them. The process for LandLab is very different because the Schuylkill Center is trusting from past work that I have the ability to produce something interesting. They are looking for ideas, but they are not holding you to them. In fact if anything, they are excited by process and evolution, and the show in the gallery really speaks to that idea. The staff at the Center has been really great in encouraging my work, and allowing it to unfold. It is no different from allowing seasons to change, and I’m really experiencing that in my whole body. That’s it for the fuzzy stuff — let’s get back to the science!

You may remember that I wanted to get a glimpse of Port Royale Ave. and the Center’s property in the rain. It has been difficult to do this because this fall the rain storms have been coming at night, which would not be the best time for video. However, there was a morning when it was raining, and I rushed out of the house to record. Check out the video.

Steve in the woodsAlthough this was not a heavy storm, at least I saw the puddling on Port Royal Ave., and I can imagine in a larger storm what the situation might be. In fact, seeing how difficult it is to actually record a storm makes the idea of a stream monitor even more valuable. So, I made a visit to Stroud to check out their monitoring equipment, as well as Steve’s workspace.  The property has nets for insects, buckets for leaves and other organic matter, and monitors for the stream — it’s a Disney World for scientists.

Steve's officeThe tech space is full of controllers, sensors, cables, cases, batteries and canisters of water. It was encouraging that I was able to identify some of the parts in the bins, and Steve and I probably could have spent even more hours than we did just talking shop.

 

After seeing what was needed, Steve helped me to order some parts. So, now I have a datalogger and an ultrasonic rangefinder at my house. The datalogger is the main board in the circuit which will give instructions and allow for data to be collected. The ultrasonic sensor will measure the water depth throughout the day. So far this is a cost-effective set-up and there may be some room for another sensor. Right now I’m favoring conductivity, which looks at metals in the water. However, the sensor has to be able to withstand freezing temperatures, and Steve is currently testing a new one to see if it will be accurate. So, we will see which sensor wins. Steve has been testing equipment like this for years and is an expert on sensors and conditions.

One of the frustrating things about the field is that a good part may be discontinued, which leads to more testing of new products. Also, just because the paperwork says a part will operate in a certain way under certain conditions does not always mean this is true. So, the process is never-ending.

Leslie and Brenna sewing StormSnakeThe next step in the process was to work on building a snake from burlap, and luckily I found someone interested in assisting me — Brenna Leary. Brenna recently graduated with a degree in environmental education and also has a love of plants. So, we’ve been having a lot of fun bouncing ideas back and forth. We spent an afternoon at the Center stuffing a casing of burlap with stones, wood chips, and coir. Then, we stitched the fabric shut and created the features of a tail, head and tongue with some tucks and scraps. It was a lot of fun and the resulting piece reminds me of the corn husk dolls I used to make as a child in Girl Scouts. They were featureless, but they had a beauty none-the-less, and so it is the same with the snake.Leslie making StormSnake

I started this post with this idea of change, and it may be apparent with electrical parts, but it is even more so with art. I first imagined my burlap StormSnakes to be painted with environmentally safe paint. However, someone reminded me that even natural things can react badly when put in touch with chemicals in stormwater run-off. So, you never know what kind of brew you are going to get running into the stream. I know there are all sorts of compromises we make daily, however, I didn’t want any risk in this, no matter how small. So, one day I was having lunch with another artist friend and we got into talking about the cool plant holders made of felt and other natural ways people deal with urban plantings. I suddenly remembered those crazy Chia Pets with the bad commercials. They were ceramic objects with a seed goop smeared onto them which would eventually sprout into odd topiaries. What an interesting idea to make snakes that had growing material on them. So, I talked to Melissa at the Center about the possibility of incorporating seeds or plugs onto my stuffed burlap snacks. She definitely had some recommendations and was excited since plants are her expertise. So, I hope to now perform a test in the greenhouse to see what emerges. Can I do stripes? Would I work with different plants and textures? I don’t know and I like that answer.

What’s the bbuzzz?

By LandLab Resident Artists Maggie Mills, B.H. Mills, and Marguerita Hagan

Colony Collapse Disorder
The LandLab installation by Marguerita Hagan, B.H. Mills, and Maggie Mills addresses colony collapse disorder and the devastating global loss of honeybees.  At present in the United States alone, 1/3 of the honeybee population has been lost to this disorder. These mini, mighty pollinators make every third bite of food we take possible.  Ironically, it is human behavior that is responsible for the honeybees’ catastrophic disappearance. Our installation provides a chemical free, native pollinator garden for the bee population on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center. We will be spreading the word about ways that we all can contribute to positive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial outcomes through education and community partnering in the coming months. Continue reading