An egret stalks through the dark water of a marsh in Karen Klinedinst’s iPhoneography print “The Scout.” With its painterly touches and eerie glow, it’s strange and dreamlike, and it gets immediately under your skin. As environmental artists and the curators of this year’s annual “The Art of Stewardship” show at RiverArts, Howard and I chose the theme “Listening to the Earth” to encourage artwork and poetry that, like Klinedinst’s, is inspired by paying close attention to the world around us. What we were looking for is the kind of honed awareness that germinates an open, honest understanding of our situation and responsibilities as part of the community of this earth.
Does art have the power to effect change? It’s hard to forget an image like “The Scout.” It’s achingly beautiful, yet there’s death everywhere. Rotting vegetation and the skeletons of trees are part and parcel of this intricate and delicate environment. A marsh is a fertile place where fish and crabs spawn and egrets find abundant food, yet stay on high alert lest they, in turn, become dinner for an eagle or raccoon. The strength of Klinedinst’s image is that it takes in and reveals the wholeness of this place. The making of a powerful painting or a poem requires a journey into attentive awareness. It’s a fascinating and nourishing process not only for the artist but for viewers as well, if they, too, approach it with similar open, inquisitive mindfulness
Kate McGraw’s poem, “A Boy and his Dandelion,” may seem at first to be chiefly about a child’s sense of wonder at seeing the flower’s seeds fly into the air, but it’s much more. McGraw summons the thrust of the wind and the scents radiating from the boy’s warm body, skillfully pulling us into the physicality of the moment. She uses words to paint the gossamer, glinting fragility of the tufted seeds and the mystery of where they are going, complete with a hint of their procreative objective. The boy himself imagines them as paratroopers, bravely adventuring into unknown places, and with this, a tingle arises in the back of the mind. This is a primitive urge—to ascribe intention to inanimate objects, to think of them as having aspirations and emotions, in short, as having consciousness.
What leaps to mind is the beliefs of indigenous people in tree spirits, water spirits and the like. These are people who live intimately with the land, aware of its every mood and cycle and the intricacy of the relationships of its plants and animals. Like Klinedinst’s egret, they are wholly dependent on their environment. Far from being quaint and naïve, might their superstitions have a certain wisdom? If we think of animals and plants as having consciousness, however different from our own, we might pay more attention to the ways they live and how their interactions and well-being affect our own survival. Such an approach would develop empathy for species besides our own and encourage a developing understanding of the interdependence of all life on earth.
There’s a prickly sensation of taut vitality emanating from the antler forms in William Willis’s large painting. They feel alive and
sentient. Behind them are half-hidden forms, perhaps an animal hide stretched to dry, a bowl, a doorway, an abstracted tree—layers of activity and history giving witness to Willis’s search to find vital force in his subject matter. There’s something almost scary about this painting which Willis acknowledges with the title “Who’s Afraid of the Dark.”
It’s actually quite unnerving to think that nature is alive and aware of us and that humans are by no means in control. Gary Irby succinctly calls up the creepy feeling of an animal watching from the shadows with the piercing eyes and bristling sticks of his sculpture “Nature’s Watching.” But even more powerfully, this work mischievously prods at the sense of guilt and looming doom that lurks in all of us in these days of runaway fossil fuel extraction, snowballing pollution and escalating climate change.
You might think that art and poetry about earth stewardship would tend to scold our profligate ways—or weep over them, but few of the works in this show could be classified as “protest art.” The closest are Irby’s “Nature’s Watching” and his ceramic pot with two talking heads conspicuously facing in opposite directions with the title “Discussing Selling our Environment.” Also in the running is Rebecca Clark’s “Oblivion” with its beach-goer blandly cocooned behind sunglasses and earbuds, oblivious to the devastations of storm and fire raging behind her.
Most of the show’s works are focused on exploring and celebrating the breadth of the subject: earth and its ecology. There are whales, domestic birds, wild birds, wild animals (deer, lions, elephants), insects, Eastern Shore waterscapes, and Antarctic ice. There is the vastness of huge clouded skies and the intimacy of a ladybug stalking aphids on a fragile flower.
Curiously, with the exception of Anita Kusick’s lush fields of flowers in “Gathering (Pike Farms – Conserved by Peconic Land Trust),” none of the works are about farming. Farmers are the principle stewards of land on the Eastern Shore, and it’s heartening to see more and more of them transitioning their land to organic from “conventional” farming (that is, planting Roundup-ready GMO crops managed with glyphosate and other chemicals). Likewise, it’s cheering to witness the widespread use of cover crops and forested shorelines to keep farm runoff out of waterways and to note the reintroduction of diverse crops and animal husbandry. Supported by a host of government programs, farmers are making a difference, as are hunters and organizations such as Ducks Unlimited that work to reestablish healthy habitats for wildlife.
In the call for submissions, we said “Art should bristle with energy and keep tugging at your thoughts.” It’s only when art has this kind of power to stimulate thought and encourage further investigation that it can trigger change for the better. The sense of childlike wonder that so many of these poems and artworks evoke is crucial in reshaping of our attitudes, and the edgy sense of danger in several of them acts as a much-needed spur to work for sustainable ways to live harmoniously with our earth.
If we fail in this, it’s serious. Life on earth will likely continue, though predications are that numerous species, including humans, will have disappeared and insects will be dominant. Quilter Christine Kamon chose to accompany her graceful “Dragonflies” with a quote from writer and artist Clive Barker that posits an idyllic future time when all traces of humans and our activities will be long gone and dragonflies and hummingbirds will flit in a golden afternoon. It’s a beautiful scene but one we’d like to postpone as long as possible.
Mary McCoy is an artist and writer who has the good fortune to live beside an old steamboat wharf on the Chester River. She is a former art critic for the Washington Post and several art publications. She enjoys kayaking the river and walking her family farm where she collects ideas and materials for the environmental art she creates, often in collaboration with her husband Howard. They have exhibited their work in the U.S., Ireland, Wales and New Zealand.
David Abram’s Becoming Animal
David Hinton’s Hunger Mountain
Andy Goldsworthy’s Time
Exhibition Dates: April 4 – 25
315 High Street, Suite 106
Chestertown, MD 21620 United States