I'm very interested in the application of Reconciliation Ecology concepts to Fine Art. Through sculpture and installation, it's possible to restore habitat, enhance ecosystem function, and break down the implied wall between spaces that are 'human' and spaces that are 'wild'.
For some background on the whole theory of 'Reconciliation Ecology', see this review.
There are many artists who engage in this type of work. One of my personal heroes is Jackie Brookner- an artist who has worked extensively in bio-remediation. Her community-based project 'Laughing Brook'
is located in Cincinnati, Ohio, and utilized a special concrete blend to filter water within an urban, degraded stream system.
Other sculptures, also constructed from concrete, have filtered water in public swimming facilities (The Gift of Water
), and polluted wetlands (Veden Taika
Concrete, unfortunately, has practical and ecological downsides (plus it's not a material that I'm familiar or skilled with.
One potential alternative for constructing biosculpture is ‘Coffee-Clay’. In Australia, materials scientist Tony Flynn has constructed water filters from a 1:1 mixture of coffee grounds and clay. When fired to maturity, these filters can provide safe drinking water in impoverished regions.
Coffee-clay sculptures are both porous and heavily textured. As such, they can remediate polluted water both through direct passage and filtration of water, and through matrix colonization by bacteria, algae, and other biota.
These objects are also beautiful. When carefully surfaced, they resemble granite... but remain strong and porous.
There area lot of interesting questions associated with using these objects in a field setting.
- Will they serve as effective physical filters? Will this capacity change across time?
- Will they become 'biologically active' (colonized by bacteria, algae, other organisms) and will this facilitate the breakdown of nitrates or other contaminants?
- What 'recipes' for making these objects will optimize their functionality?
I'm currently working with an undergraduate student to explore these questions, and we plan installations in several sites, starting with the Arboretum in the heart of Moscow, Idaho.
MFA work is awesome, because you get to dabble in total out-of-the-box stuff (for me at least) like printmaking.
I'm taking the basic class, where we're currently doing a basic collograph... slapping masking tape onto a flat surface and then printing it in relief or intaglio. Seems rather kindergarten... but the results are actually quite intriguing.
Another entry in my ongoing 'Faces of Lontra' series. This one was a lot of fun, in that I got to integrate welded metal, Raku-fired clay, and found components.
The piece is a riff off the fact that some in the Catholic Church reputedly used to consider otters to be fish (and thus a valid target for holy day dining). Here's a quote from a old book called 'The Otter's Story, Jacob’s Story'.
Falstaff, when he says an otter is neither fish nor flesh, was evidently puzzled; but so were not the monks of Dijon, who ruled that whatever he is besides, he is certainly a fish, and so roasted him in their old Carthusian Convent kitchen, in full faith that they were going to have fish for dinner...
This guy is draped in a clerical stole, and carrying a faux wafer of the host on his tongue.
I have an MFA critique this Friday, so I've nailed my current project to the wall.
As I discussed previously, I'm using a series of otter (Lutra canadensis) heads to reflect on themes related to 'otherness' and the sublime.
Each of these heads was kiln-fired with a different treatment. There's also a distinct array of visual language in each treatment. I won't elaborate much right now. Overall, intent is for each piece to be a little unsettling. I find a lot of typical wildlife art to be disappointing. I want to challenge the fashion in which a lot of wildlife art (and other depictions of wild animals) serves as a projection of our assumptions in the face of the unknowable.
One of these pieces utilizes saggar firing. I've never tried this before- basically involves wrapping your work in tin-foil like a wrestler on match night. You toss in some root killer and a little ferric chloride, then you roast the whole toxic tamale in a barrel full of scrap metal. A portable hair dryer helps. Thanks to the talented Kassie Smith for the process mentoring.
I debated a bit about display. A couple of the art faculty wanted me to put these works on the floor (more organic, fluid). They were a bit concerned that the implied reference to taxidermy might be overwhelming. However, I didn't like the assumed power dynamic between a viewer and the heads in a floor position. The wall won out.
Anyhow, here's the gallery.
One of the entertaining things about doing an MFA is the continual series of prompts you get from your coursework. Class assignments give you parameters, boundaries, corners. Some people find it constraining, but I find the challenge stimulating.
I'm currently taking a grad level Aesthetics course. We're currently working our way from Plato down through Nietzsche and Heidegger. I feel like I've reverted to my sophomore year, where I briefly flirted with a philosophy major.
As part of the course, we're expected to choose a key concept and develop a project. I'm tackling wildlife art... with particular reference to the Kantian concept of the sublime, and ideas of 'otherness' as developed by everyone from C.S. Lewis to David Brin.
I'm frustrated by a lot of 'wildlife' art. The field is rife with anthropomorphizing and romanticizing.
Take the example from Wyland (on the left). They guy is arguably one of the most successful wildlife artists in the world, and there's no questioning his technical prowess.
The fact remains that most of his work reminds me of something Bob Ross might have done. There's certainly none of the sense of prickly 'otherness' that you get in a marine setting when massive, intelligent creatures that out-muscle you by a logarithmic factor start checking you out. Contrast this with work by the great Richard Ellis (below).
Otters- of course- are among the easiest creatures to 'overwrite' with our projections and assumptions. They're outrageously cute and playful. They lend themselves to bushels of 'precious moments' style maundering... just check out this link
if you need an example or two.
Anyone who's ever been in the wild and looked an otter in the eye knows that they're as unknowable as any wild creature, however. This is reflected in mythology. To the Tlingit, otters were '
Kushtaka', fearsome, soul-stealing presences. There are dreadful Japanese legends about 'Kawauso'- shapeshifting otters that would- in some cases- seduce men and devour them.
Anyhow, my goal for the current project is to experiment sculptural with otter imagery, and the many memes, myths, and misconceptions we've saddled the beast with.
I have a plaster mold of a basic otter head. Using this as a starting point, I'm going to experiment with surface treatments and material. For example, the head on the right was formed using a mixture of coffee grounds and clay. It should yield a peaty-looking, porous surface when fired. I plan to foster colonies of moss and other plants in the crevices.
The head below is drawn from the Kushtaka myth.
Some treatments may approach photo-realism. Some may be playful. I plan to utilize welded metal and other base materials as well.
Overall, I hope that the array will at least encourage the viewer to see past the surfaces to the wild, unknowable creature that exists outside the lens of our perception.
Just a quick note about an exhibition at the Denver Theological Seminary that's displaying one of my works.
This exhibition, titled 'Creation Care, Water'
encompasses multiple takes on the complicated human-water relationship.
It makes me very, very happy to see an explicitly Christian institution taking the link between faith and environmental stewardship seriously.
My first shot at a 'Broadside'
style collaboration. My MFA program linked several of us with poets in the University of Idaho's creative writing program. My assigned poem runs thus...
The Long Road Out (by Jordan Dunham)
The long road out
is filled with snakeskins
thrown to the side
of a cornfield piling next to a boy
who decided to sit and count his toes
around the fallen husks, drier
than winter’s air. It is filled
with stark air crisping
through abandoned tires, a broken
couch that fell behind
a moving truck for someone
who gets tired. No mailboxes
for letters to move in
or out. It is a journey
that will not end well. There
are shoestrings tangled
but pointed onward, and more
potholes filled with rocks.
Hitchhikers wander with mouths
staying open but not making
a sound with their thumbs
in the air. They are women without
shoes and babies carried on
their backs whining through hunger
for both of them. The road out reveals
itself step after step
when puddles brim
with rain. It is filled with questions
like what do men insist on when alone
with their wives? When freshly dropped
cigarette ends smolder and traces
of the last person brush weeds over, dusk
settles on the boy rising, kicking his way
home through the field, domed in by the white
winter sky, because no one came looking.
Flames stir in the husks and skins; smoke fills
each breath and rises sending no sign back to him.
I'd originally planned to build a more complex mural, drawing from multiple elements in the poem. I found myself draw in to the imagery of the snakeskin the bookends the poem, however. A snake that sloughs its skin is a symbol of transformation, renewal, rebirth, and escape... but what does it signify if you're left amidst the detritus of the process?
For me, this links strongly to archetypal 'road' imagery... the promise of horizons and flight... but so many people finding only a mirage.
Bruce Springsteen's song 'The Ghost of Tom Joad' kept running through my head as I was crafting this piece.
(God bless you Pete Seeger- rest in peace).
I'd originally planned to work a calligraphic drawing into the composition. After playing around with options, I decided to keep things simple.
This post will serve as formal recruitment for an art internship at the University of Idaho.
I'm looking for a University of Idaho undergraduate student in art who can help with a project at the McCall Outdoor Science School (MOSS). This position will be set up to offer internship credit (Art 497/498).
The student in this position will get training in Raku firing and other ceramic techniques, as well as the opportunity to teach in an interdisciplinary setting.
You can download the application form here.
You can also email me if you have questions.
This project is based around the Douglas Fir Bark Beetle
), an insect that's been chewing a swathe of destruction across the Inland Northwest.
These bark beetles are tiny little buggers... but they proliferate like sea monkeys. For nourishment, they adore the juicy inner cambium of healthy trees... which is not a pleasant arrangement from the standpoint of the trees.
The results are visible below.
Like most insects, bark beetles inhabit a world of chemical signals- lives shaped and driven by pheromones and funk (kind of like a freshman cohort in a frat house).
In particular, D. pseudotsugae can emit a chemical called an 'aggregation pheromone' when they've successfully colonized a tree- effectively like yowling 'the keg's been tapped'. Other beetles flood in and begin to gnosh.
When the tree dies, however, its food value declines, and the beetles emit a second 'disaggregation' pheromone.
Researchers have discovered that this chemical can be applied to healthy trees, and that the trees will effectively be protected. They do this via a pheromone-soaked patch.
In my work for the University of Idaho, I've built a connection with the McCall Outdoor Science School
(MOSS). MOSS is located in the middle of bark beetle central... and the researchers on site are interested in doing some environmental education related to bark beetles and their impact.
The pheromone patches are pretty nondescript... not something that's particularly visible or interesting to locals.
We're proposing crafting ceramic bark beetles through a series of workshops at MOSS. These beetles will be slip-cast (a process that allows for making exact, repeated objects out of clay). Students at MOSS will be able to individually carve and glaze their beetles, and fire them using the Raku process. I've posted a couple examples below.
We'll link these workshops to informational displays at trailheads, and other outreach. Hopefully, the majority of people who sees these objects will be curious and- eventually- better informed. I also assume that a few will be 'liberated' by hikers with sticky fingers... hopefully this won't lead to mass disaggregation events in local households.
Anyhow- again, if you're a University of Idaho student with some interest in art...
You can download the application form here
Or you can also email me
if you have questions.
I have a ton of new projects to write about... but before I get into my whole eco-schvingey, concept based Odyssey, let me talk about mugs.
I've had several mug orders for the holiday... and what is a mug but an excuse to fool with some new techniques?
I've been intrigued for some time by the work of Steven Hill, a well known cone six potter who echoes Hi-fire reduction effects in his electric kiln. He does this through intensive spray-based glaze application, as well as the use of finger-trailed slip. Stunning work.
Here's a link to his website.
I'm the recent and proud owner of a Paasche model LSC spray system. (And... thanks to my MFA program, I actually have the use of compressors, a spray booth, and other odds and ends that I'd really rather not buy).
If I were really cool, I'd undoubtedly be using this geegaw to feather the bustline on sketchy hot-rod detailing. Instead, I'm experimenting with multi-glaze application on mugs.
Here are some of the early results. All of these are grayling designs, fire to cone six. The lighting was poor when I took these images... the colors are actually quite a bit more vivid.
Anyhow, Bob Roon and Steven Bardolph get first cull- for services rendered and for general awesomeness.
As mentioned in my last post
, I'm currently riffing artistically on the evils of bottled water.
I'd like for the works in this series to challenge the viewer is several ways. What does it mean when water is commodified? It's a rather absurd scenario... and it's easy to imagine the implications if free, ecologically vital water was replaced with Dasani bottles.
I have a number of concepts that relate to this... including the one diagrammed above. My fascination with harbor seals is not a secret... neither is my horror at the plastic rain swamping out our oceans.
One of my installations is going to feature a harbor seal's head poking out of a raft of bottles... as if the water itself had been replaced.
So- I've been cranking away on making reams of ceramic bottles (see below). I'm intrigued by the parallels between the ecological permanence of ceramic and the persistence of plastic. Also... why is plastic so freely consigned to the 'rubbish' category? There's nothing inherently un-lovely or useless about the objects...
My initial sculpt for the seal head had a couple of minor flaws (nose looked like a postcard heart, eyes were too wide, too bas-relief).
Adding a little contour to the eye-lid and shaping/altering the nose made a big difference.
It's a life-sized piece... which means SLOOOWWW on the drying cycle. It needs to be done by the 5th of December, though (when I present this work for critique). So... I'll need to fire it sometime over the next week. Should be an adventure.