The Art of Reciprocity: Connecting to Landscapes by Creating with Natural Materials
I start with observation. How does this place breathe? I want to feel it. How do the shadows move when the sun is harsh and low on the horizon? I want to follow them. What colors jump out and shake me when the clouds are full and the bright afternoon light is diffused and soft? I want to know them. How do the different parts of my body respond when I press them into this rock (my back, the soles of my feet, my cheek)? I want to make a muscle memory.
What happens to the creative spirit when you know a place? When you’ve witnessed its cycles over and again? When you explore its contours not as a voyeur, but as an old friend? I have set out on a personal path to collaborate artistically with the Earth. This might look like harvesting my own art materials, or building a sculpture outside and waiting to see how it weathers. Creating with natural resources requires one to build a relationship with the land. Knowing where to find what you’re looking for, when to look for it, and how to use it comes with time spent in a place and the humbling ability to listen. I am letting go of expectations and following the most patient teacher I know: Mother Nature. Here is what I am learning.
Try sitting still and quiet long enough to isolate a natural rhythm. Crickets chattering, wind swelling, water lapping onto a rocky shore. Pace your breathing to it. What sensations in your body call your attention? What detail of your surroundings draws your curiosity? Follow it. Record your questions.
Observation is where it all begins and begins again. And when I don’t know where to begin, I begin here. It is learning to pay attention. But of course, you can’t pay attention to everything all the time. Observation is a skill and an ability to filter through the chaos for patterns. This is how I have learned where the season’s first salmonberries ripen, or what beaches along the Puget Sound always have the particular type of rock I am looking for.
Time is cyclical and deep
Imagine how you might move in the space of a year if you lived for 3,000 of them—or 3 million. Witnessing other beings’ interactions with time has vastly deepened my own personal understanding of it. When I am working with a material—wood, beeswax, a stone—I am acknowledging the time embedded in its existence. I, too, am a being of time, and when I create from processes hundreds or thousands of years old, I am connecting myself to everyone who has engaged this work before me. For example, when I wash a raw wool fleece freshly shorn from a sheep and prepare its fibers for spinning into yarn, I feel in my bones the energy of every woman who has performed this task before me. Another name for this feeling is intuition. The more I work with materials from the earth, the more I realize how much I already know how to do.
I am also learning that time recurs. Nature’s seasons frame our activities when we live in close connection to the land. There is a time to grow, a time to harvest and a time to preserve. This takes patience and trust in the cycle.
Letting the land lead
In nature, form follows function. The artist in nature learns to follow form. Making art with natural materials involves a certain flexibility. Nature is not a machine that can produce and reproduce to a certain standard. Rather, it is an ecosystem where every part affects the whole. I am learning to value an attentiveness to nuance, detail and intricacy, in place of efficiency or expectation. If a material i am using breaks, I ask what did it look like while it was breaking and what can I do with it now? Exploring my materials this way and following their lead often uncovers something more alluring than my original intention. And I get a certain feeling when I’ve arrived at a work or a process that I couldn’t have found on my own. It is consuming.
What resources do you have available to you and how can you use them? Creativity turns limitation into abundance. Allow your surroundings to spark your explorations. Is there a large population of a particular plant in your area? Experiment with what you can make from it. Turn your attention to the soil, can you find natural clays? What relationships can you form with other animals? Try collecting what they shed, like fur, wool or feathers.
Familiarity and gratitude form a relationship
What draws my curiosity and creativity out of my skin and into the dirt? And what makes me think the earth wants anything to do with any of that? In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, writer, botanist, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about the ways we can show our love for the earth and, intriguingly, the possibility that the earth could love us back. “That would mean that the earth had agency and that I was not an anonymous little blip on the landscape, that I was known by my home place,” Kimmerer ponders.
This spills over into my artistic practice as I build a familiarity with and a responsibility to the land around me. Much of the work I am doing with natural materials is extremely time consuming and tedious, from processing wool fiber by hand, or hollowing out a piece of fallen alder for a sculpture, or drilling holes into 500 quartz pebbles to build an interactive installation. I could certainly save a lot of time and energy by buying my materials at a store instead of preparing them myself. However, I have come to think of my personal labor as an act of gratitude and honor for the land. Over time, I am getting to know this land like a deep friend—and the land is getting to know me.
“The earth loves us back in beans and corn and strawberries,” writes Kimmerer. Art making is facilitating my relationship to the land. Perhaps art can be a tool for you to create your own connection. Or maybe that tool is gardening or rock climbing. When we each develop such personal relationships to the earth, it becomes intuitive to recognize the interaction of nature’s complex systems, and accordingly, our need for the earth and the earth’s need for us.