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Local environmental artists produce works with a message

Of all of the art movements begun in the latter part of the 20th century, from abstract expressionism through the many -isms leading to late postmodernism, the most significant may very well turn out to be eco-art. Eco-art encompasses many types of output and ways of working, but generally speaking, environmental or eco-artists share an approach to the conjunction of nature and culture that emphasizes the systemic and the cyclical, rather than the isolated and static, in both life and in art. As eco-artist Kathryn Miller has said, "While 'environmental art' strives to put a beautiful object in the landscape, 'eco-art' goes beyond that and works with ecological systems."

This deep artistic interest in ecological systems, with its attendant concern with global and local environmental issues, has resulted in a range of new art forms. An eco-artist may also work in a more traditional format like drawing, painting or photography. But often, the desire to understand and explicate natural processes and the human role in them--and the human interruption of them--leads these artists to do (dig giant holes in the ground; fill rooms with dirt; wrap entire islands in pink cloth) and use unexpected things (garbage, growing grass, blocks of beeswax). Whether their palettes are filled with paints, or the great forces of wind, water and lightning, all of these artists want us to re-envision our relationship with the natural world, and perhaps change the way we live. Along with wanting to share their aesthetic, they often wish to teach through their art. The best of this work emanates from an awe-filled reverence for nature, and a longing for human life to move in rhythm with the tremendous natural systems and cycles. Its underlying theme is a desire for wholeness and harmony in the world.

Some of the best known eco-artists include--besides the ubiquitous Christo (and you could argue that he is anti-eco)--Andy Goldsworthy, Mierle Ukeles, and the team of Helen and Newton Harrison.

Goldsworthy produces mystical, ephemeral outdoor sculptures made of natural materials. Even the photographic documents of these works are very moving, revealing as they do some of the underlying patterns in nature's seeming chaos.

Ukeles, who is artist-in-residence with the New York City sanitation department, focuses on trash and our attitudes about it. One of her most famous projects entailed mirroring the sides of freshly cleaned garbage trucks and arranging for the workers to drive them in parade formation through the streets of Manhattan, so that when people looked at the trucks for hauling garbage, what they saw were their own images reflected back at them. This project had an extraordinary effect on the way sanitation workers were perceived, and on the workers' own morale.

The Harrisons, using both scientific and aesthetic approaches, create very large-scale projects and designs aimed at bringing the needs of nature and the urban world into accord. They work with washes, rivers, whole drainage basins, lagoons, cloud forests--places where complex natural and human forces have long interacted to their mutual detriment. The Harrisons rehabilitate damaged environments, not with the goal of returning them to some imagined pristine condition, but with the idea that human use can be harmonious with the rest of the systems, if only we use good sense.

While none of them are working on the scale of the internationally known artists named above, we do have many artists in the state, and the Triangle in particular, whose concern with environmental and ecological issues informs their art. Robert Johnson, who lives in the Yancey County community of Celo, is widely appreciated for his drawings and paintings illustrating interlaced life forms in various environments. Down in the eastern part of the state, East Carolina University M.F.A. candidate Vicky Smith has made a work called "Direct Action"--in conjunction with the Greene [County] Citizens for Responsible Growth--aimed at halting construction of a regional solid waste landfill there. And in the Triangle, Bryant Holsenbeck and Joe Liles have both recently completed very interesting projects.

Liles has taught art at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) in Durham ever since the public boarding school for some of the state's most gifted students opened. At the same time, he has pursued his own art, concentrating on printmaking and photography depicting plants and natural areas, often drawing inspiration from the New Hope Creek and its wooded surroundings. Liles' photographs are truly beautiful, and could only have been made by someone intimately familiar with this terrain and its subtle secrets. His prints are crisp and luminous, but also delicate, circumspect. He discreetly reveals the body of the land; his loving presentation seems to exhort us not to do it any harm.

For many years, Liles has also taken his students to the creek to draw, paint, photograph and write about what they saw and felt there as they learned about the physical and spiritual qualities of the place. Earlier this month, Liles mounted an exhibition of his and the students' work at the school. Although it was a show of individual pieces, it took on the air of a single installation about the creek. Augmenting the two-dimensional works were video, sound loops and maps tracing the creek and showing its source just south of the ridge separating the Haw and Eno watersheds. It was clear the students and their teacher felt strongly about their subject matter and its preservation, and that their artworks honored this lovely ribbon of water running through our home territory.

As it happens, Holsenbeck also teaches part time at NCSSM, working with students outside of regular classroom hours. Her most recent project was done not with those students, however, but with the aid of students from Duke University, where she installed a double "Bottle Cap Mandala" in March. Holsenbeck has been concerned with trash for a long time, and spends a goodly amount of her time collecting things that others throw away. She thinks of herself as a hunter-gatherer, an "urban aborigine," and she makes all her art from consumer castaways.

Holsenbeck's mandalas are some of her most successful pieces to date. Last year she made a huge one in the central atrium of Founders Hall, at the Bank of America corporate center in downtown Charlotte. That piece was on a raised platform, and could be viewed from the balconies above, but the new double mandala is on the floor, in the viewer's space. They fill the small gallery rooms, so that you have to edge around them. Made entirely of round, colorful bottle caps and jar lids, the large circular designs with their internal geometric patterns are visually seductive. Once drawn in, your eye circulates throughout the design and settles into a swirling, meditative rhythm. Eventually, however, your brain makes the leap from the thousands of bottle caps to imagining the bottles and jars they came from, and the amount of space they took up ... and then you wonder where they all went, all those handy, convenient packages of glass, plastic and metal. That, of course, is the point: There is no "away" to throw things. The things are edging us out of our space. All of our trash is part of our ecological system, and this art requests, in the nicest possible way, that we remember that and act on the knowledge. EndBlock

A brief history of eco-art and links to several online galleries are available at


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