Sunday, February 15, 2015

Climate Change Art.

"Melting Men" by Nele Azevedo

It's been ten years now since author and activist Bill McKibben decried the fact that there was no outpouring of art helping us truly understand climate change. Without art, he wrote, we don't feel it in our gut; it isn't part of our culture.

It took awhile for art to enter the realm of climate change, I'm guessing because it plays out on such a large scale, through incremental and slow changes, and with such unimaginable long term effects that, well, it was just too much, at first, to handle. I remember the first essay I wrote about it--I used a mosaic form, a form that in itself creates a sense of imbalance, of fractured thoughts and insights. It was the only way I could approach the subject of climate change at the time, though even now trying to get my words around such an overwhelming subject, and what it means on a personal level, is challenging. 

Much has changed since McKibben's plea--at least in the art world. Politically, that's another story. I think this artistic response bears notice, for the ways in which art can speak to more than just our intellect; the ways in which it reaches the gut and the beating heart of things.

The blog Artists and Climate Change has made it their mission to track and share all forms of climate change art, from theatre to sculpture to music to literature. It's a great place to find out what's going on, to network with other like-minded artists, and to just get a sense of how we can approach climate change, not just with our intellects, but with our imaginations.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Stanley Kunitz: A Representative Human Being.

"As an artist, you are a representative human being--you have to believe that in order to give your life over to that effort to create something of value. You're not doing it only to satisfy your own impulses or needs; there is a social imperative. If you solve your problems and speak of them truly, you are of help to others, that's all. And it becomes a moral obligation."

~ Stanley Kunitz, in The Wild Braid


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Translucent Treasures: A Guest Post by Rob Snyder.

Welcome to guest blogger Rob Snyder, whose transformative glass work gives us a new perspective on things we might otherwise entirely overlook - the intricacies of the small tree branches that surround us, overhead and underfoot.

Anum Cara detail.
I have spent years gathering the branches near my studio on Vashon Island, Washington in order to create luminous sculptures made of glass branches, cast from real trees.
Each one-of-a-kind casting is made from an actual tree branch, and then the translucent treasures are used to begin the meditative process of stacking the glass branches into form.
It takes over a month to complete a single piece of art.
Bamboo Dance detail.
Unless dramatically disrupted, nature regenerates itself through the life, death, rebirth cycle. Jungian scholar James Hollis speaks of nature in this way:"if we do not see nature as somehow carrying the divinity, we will continue to abuse it.”
Shiva's Earring.
My work, I hope, expresses the light-filled, translucent and impermanent sacredness of all that is natural.
Through the process I am called to look at the natural forms more closely. I see perfection and imperfection, strength, fragility and the call to preserve that which is so precious. 
As an artist I have come to honor these insights.
Autumn Spun detail.

Read more about Snyder's work in this review in Inhabitat.

Rob Snyder, a Northwest native, is an accomplished glass artist living and operating his studio on Vashon Island, Washington. Rob’s unique work from kiln cast glass has been nationally recognized in solo exhibitions, museums, private and corporate collections, group shows, and various publications. Creating art for nearly thirty years, Rob was an early pioneer in the glass fusing movement. Over the years he has made important contributions as an artist, designer and builder of glass equipment, assistant to notable fine artists, glass technician, and teacher. Currently, Rob is working on a large commission for a private collector and on several other pieces to be included in shows around the country. Rob is represented by Freisen Gallery in Sun Valley Idaho, Abmeyer and Wood Gallery in Seattle Washington, Echt Gallery in Chicago Illinois, and Austin Arts Projects in Palm Desert California. In addition, Rob is expanding his gallery representation both nationally and internationally. To meet the growing demands for his art, he is undertaking the creation of Steppingstone, an artist residency program on his property on Vashon Island. Learn more at his website at and his Facebook page


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Kandinsky and the Crazy Piano Guy.

Detail of Wassily Kandinsky's Quartet
It was our second day in New York City. We awoke to a drenching rain, bought two umbrellas from a vendor just outside the hotel door, and walked to the Museum of Modern Art. But the rain had driven everyone to the museum, and we had to wait in a long line, outside, in the rain. Finally, our wet umbrellas tucked into museum-provided plastic bags, we entered.
There I spent at least an hour in just one room, with four Kandinsky paintings, while scores of people streamed by. The wash of color, texture, patterns across the canvases looked to me like music, so I wasn’t surprised to then read this quote by Kandinsky: “Color is a means of exerting direct influence upon the soul. Color is a keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano, with its many strings.”

The skies cleared by late afternoon, so we hopped a subway to Greenwich Village and wandered its streets, finding ourselves at Washington Square, where throngs enjoyed the rain-cleansed evening light. Near the center fountain, a man clothed entirely in silver, like the tin man but wearing a suit and top hat instead, held perfectly still. A little girl in yellow rubber boots walked up and put money in his bucket, and the mime began to move. We sat watching his flowing dance, and listening to a young woman singing jazz accompanied by a stand-up bass off to our left.

Then we walked through the park to where a man played a baby grand in the middle of the sidewalk. My first thought: how on Earth did he get this piano here? My second thought: what beautiful music. Tattoed and dressed punk, this man played song after song of some of the most vibrant classical music ever composed.

It was late; we were hungry; but we couldn’t pull ourselves away.  A strong wind came through, playing chorus in the trees. It was one of those moments.

Even in New York City, where the natural world is so contained and replaced that it seems irrelevant, even here, in this moment, I could see the interplay between human creativity and the creativity of the natural world. The way we can be in harmony. Literally.

I turned my smartphone up to the trees and the wind, and made this brief video:


Later, I learned the piano player, Colin Huggins, had been the music director for the Joffrey Ballet Company, but decided he wanted to do something more interactive with people, and so began this life of busking. He actually pushes the piano from a nearby storage building to the park, dodging traffic, to the sidewalk, all by himself.

It’s crazy, but it’s that kind of crazy creativity and devotion to doing what one loves that makes New York the amazing city it is—and that makes me feel hopeful for the future of humanity and the natural world.

All of human creativity originates in the natural world, music from the sound of wind through trees. And it can be reciprocal: we can use our incredible gifts of creativity to expand our knowledge, awareness, and harmonious existence with the rest of this living, breathing, creating world.


Monday, September 15, 2014

"It Thrills Me When Art Can Do This."

OK, here's some happy news:  U.S. Department of the Interior Museum (yes, the DOI actually has a museum) acquired a piece of art that Rika Mouw made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of establishing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "The Gift of the Arctic Refuge" is now on display in Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel’s conference room for the rest of 2014, and then will be displayed in the public museum starting January 2015.

"I am thrilled to think my work is now ‘working’," says Rika, "’speaking’ to a broader audience outside the state of Alaska.This is the intent of my work: to speak out, to have a voice to a broad audience. It thrills me when art can do this."
Here's a vimeo showing the artwork in action:



And here's the text of the video: 
The Gift of the Arctic Refuge
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most visionary and far reaching gifts this country has given itself, and the world.
This piece was made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of formally giving ourselves and future generations this remarkable gift. Through bird migrations alone, the Arctic Refuge connects people and places all over the world. The Gift of the Arctic Refuge is a hand fabricated box that unfolds and contains a necklace of hand-made paper birds, with each bird carrying a different quote in its wings from those who campaigned tirelessly for the establishment of the Arctic Refuge. The birds are strung on sinew and are clasped with a piece of carved caribou bone. The gift box is lined inside with the text of the Land Order that established the Arctic Refuge in 1960.



Friday, August 15, 2014

Doris Lessing: Do It Now.

“Whatever you're meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” 

~ Doris Lessing

Friday, July 25, 2014

Happy 50th to The Wilderness Act.

                                 Barry Glacier, Nellie Juan-College Fjord Wilderness Study Area,
                                                      Chugach National Forest, Alaska.

Fresh out of college, I visited my older sister, a ceramic artist teaching in West Virginia. She beckoned me to her yard to see her latest creation—a six-foot oblong curved shape, slightly hollow in the center. It was unlike anything I’d seen, and yet also strangely familiar. “It’s beautiful,” I said. She beamed, and walked over to another shelf, picking up a piece of wood, weathered and shined by time. “It was inspired by this,” she said, “that you gave me.” I didn’t remember this remnant tree limb, but she said I’d found it on a hike in the Smokies near Asheville, NC, where we grew up. That I’d given it to her, and it had inspired her art.

This was when I first realized that most, if not all, art has at its root inspiration the natural world. A few years later, becoming disillusioned with my work in renewable energy policy for the state of North Carolina, I began thinking of trying my hand at writing. I wanted to get at deeper truths, I wanted to reach people at a gut level. At root. The way Edward Abbey’s Monkeywrench Gang and Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea had reached me when I was navigating college.

I’d also come to realize that powerful works of writing had inspired policy makers as well; I’d listened to historian Donald Worster explain how The Wilderness Act -- signed into law 50 years ago -- resulted in part from a national attitude towards nature and wildness that was defined and nurtured by the words of Thoreau, Emerson, Carson, Muir – all the great early American nature writers.

Growing up in the Appalachians, I figured out early on that the natural world was my bedrock. Over time I learned that this bedrock is the most solid, clear, and unyielding in wilderness—in those places that remain the most unmediated by human activity or development.

By mediation, I mean a kind of buffer, like when we’re in a car or behind the glass of a visitor’s center, looking out—any human construct that comes between us and the actual physical world.

When a place is unmediated, I have that sense of being there, fully immersed. This is not easy, it’s often not comfortable, but it is where I feel most alive. All my senses are heightened by being where bears live, by being where I can’t control the tides, where I am put in proper scale with the rest of the living, breathing world.

So it makes perfect sense that, when I came to Alaska for a summer job nearly 30 years ago to sell tickets on the train between Portage and Whittier, I never left. Alaska is replete with places where I can feel in proper scale.

I still recall with crystal clarity some life-changing moments of my first summer in Alaska. That first afternoon in a kayak, paddling Passage Canal, drifting by the kittiwake rookery (the tides were with me) and hearing the sounds of waterfalls, of birds, appearing and disappearing, appearing and disappearing. And then that fall, the long daylit nights at Denali National Park, getting off work at the gift shop and taking a late night hike up into the hills. Driving out the road after the first snowfall, during the two weeks cars were then allowed in the park, and stopping, getting out of the truck, looking back--at a line of wolves, all black, trotting up a hillside, in perfect formation, perfectly fitting their world, and me, there, too, at least in that moment, in proper scale.

The power of Alaska’s wild to invoke this in me has not diminished with time and familiarity. A few years ago, on an artist residency in the Tongass National Forest’s Tracy Arm Ford’s Terror Wilderness, I felt that sense of proper scale once again, sitting on a swirl of ancient rock recently released from ice, taking in the vast view: a tidewater glacier rumbling to the sea, a seal diving in the cerulean waters at the base of a waterfall, a massive iceberg floating by our camp, big as an island I could live on the rest of my life.
                            Shining Rock Wilderness, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina.

I am lucky. I know this to be true. I grew up on family hikes to Devil’s Courtyard and Craggy Gardens and Wayah Bald, on wild rides down Sliding Rock—a 60' natural rock slide that ends in a deep pool—on rock climbing in one of the country’s first designated wilderness areas—the Shining Rock Wilderness. These places are as much a part of my childhood as my little brother laying down on the floor, poufing out his stomach, and yelling, “Hey, look, here’s Mount Mitchell!” Mount Mitchell being, well, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. And my brother, well, having a special talent. These places—Craggy Gardens, Devil’s Courtyard, Shining Rock—they are family.

And then I moved to Alaska, where I’ve been surrounded by wilderness—some designated and thus protected to varying degrees of success, some not designated but de facto wilderness because of how few people live here. We Alaskans have been lucky that way for a long, long time. But that’s changing, has been, my whole life here, and more and more I see how tenuous even those places designated wilderness hang on to the essential characteristics that make them what I, as a human and as a writer, need.

Two places in Alaska that are touchstones for me—family for me—have shown me this tenuousness: northwestern Prince William Sound, which has been a wilderness study area for decades but has not, it turns out, been managed as wilderness; and Denali National Park, where the iconic top predator, wolves, are decimated along the NE boundary on state lands. We draw lines, but for wolves those lands are part of their territory, the natural topography of their continuous territory. And then, of course, overlaid on all the other pressures human society puts on wild places is climate change.
As a writer, I owe it all to natural places, the birth of all my best ideas, images, stories. And Alaska’s wild places fuel my writing endlessly. In the wild, I enter into a conversation that’s always going on but is usually drowned out by my busy, noisy, human-centered life. I enter that wild conversation and am ignited, and new insights and images appear, and everything makes sense.

Making sense – my senses, all alert and awake—in that I find what’s real. And there are rare moments when I feel, as Mary Austin wrote about her experiences in the desert southwest, a “flash of mutual awareness,” when there is some apparent reciprocity between me and an oystercatcher, a wind-sculpted hemlock, a rock outcropping.

When I do my job right, I’m able to capture some small part of that conversation, that reciprocity, in words. That’s why, in The Heart of the Sound, I wrote short prose pieces in between the main chapters. In one, I’m boating back in pouring rain and heavy seas, wanting only to get home, when a Steller's sea lion pops up in front of our Zodiak, tosses a salmon into the air, catches it in its pink mouth, gives me a look, then arcs beneath the seas, home. These are moments of insight, reciprocity, shared conversation—and they are my attempts to give voice to the more-than-human world.


                                       Polychrome Pass, Denali National Park, Alaska.

You know what they say about visiting wilderness: Take only pictures, leave only footprints. But I always take with me so much more. Not just my scribbles in my write-in-the-rain pad, but a host of experiential knowledge that carries on in my work, a subterranean river of knowing, that conversation reverberating in every experience I have after.

I’ll end with a quote from the late, great, Peter Matthiessen, from The Snow Leopard, which speaks to reciprocity: “The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share.”