I’ve been here now in the Boundary Waters for a week asking myself this question: what can a costume designer offer the wilderness? And, more broadly, what is the role of the artist in environmentalism and wilderness preservation?
I find myself thinking deeply about these questions; in just a week the deep abiding beauty of this place, with its subtlety of color as witnessed in one patch of lichen on a patch of exposed glacial bedrock or in quiet expanses of cool water, in the eloquent curving surface of a shelf fungus, is seeping in slowly and persistently in a most welcome way.
We came back from our first trip in the wilderness area on Sunday. We ventured out with Jack Greenlee, Plant Ecologist here in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, BWCAW and Becca Orf, Biological Plant Technician, and Troy Nickle (http://troynickle.blogspot.com/), fellow artist in residence. We were out 4 nights and 5 days into Lakes 1,2,3,4 and then into North Wilder Lake, Horseshoe Lake, back into Lake 3 & back to our base camp, site 4 on Lake 4. Our last day we looped back down into Lakes 3, 2, 1 and then through Lake Confusion Lake (aptly named) eventually back to the to the put-in point. I portaged my first canoe and learned that portages are measured in “rods” (about 16ft or the length of one canoe). There are 320 rods in a mile.
The weather was everything, from sunny and crisp to dramatic thunder and lightning storms. We were pulling Canada Thistle at sight 9 on Lake 4 (not far from our base camp) when warning of severe weather came through on the forest service radio. The sky opened up as we were going back to camp, trying to get off the lake before the lightning came. Water came out of the sky like a rain shower on full blast. We were soaked through, paddling hard, watching the rain dance on the lake. I was smiling so hard my cheeks were hurting…what a wild and beautiful moment.
Back at camp, we were joined by two wilderness rangers Chris Kenny and Terry, and I had my best rain day ever, perched under our tarp, watching a lively game of cribbage on Terry’s handcrafted cribbage board, aptly sized twigs for markers, Jack remembering how to play cribbage, me sewing “plant sheets,” stitching natives and invasives to my sketch paper, peppering Jack with questions about names and plant types. My plant sheets seem to be a way for me to get grounded into this place, a way of meeting my new plant neighbors, building context. I’m struck by the heart-warming presence and honesty of this land and the people I find myself with and by their relationships to each other: plants, people, place. What a treat and an honor to be here.
So I circle back to my internal questions. What can I as a costume designer offer this wilderness? What is the role of the artist in environmentalism and wilderness preservation? …I’ve been reading and researching a bit…rediscovering old loves: Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, and delving into new reads: Sigurd Olson’s The Listening Point, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitude, and selected writings by Ansel Adams. This morning, I was struck by a couple passages I read in an essay, Ansel Adams: The Role of the Artist in the Environmental Movement written by Robert Turnage in 1980, (Reprinted courtesy of the Wilderness Society from The Living Wilderness, March 1980).
Ansel Adams writing to Will Colby in 1952:
“Everyone has a right to visit Yosemite. But no one has the privilege of usurping it, distorting it, and making it less attractive to those who seek its experience in its simpler, unmanipulated state…. The preservation of the primeval qualities does not relate to the mere protection of material objects. The significance of the objects of nature; the significance which concerns poets, dreamers, conservationists and citizens-at-large, relates to the ‘presence of nature.’ This is mood, the magic of personal experience, the awareness of a certain purity of condition.”
And true to my heart…
From Ansel Adam’s address entitled “The Role of the Artist in Conservation:”
“I believe the approach of the artist and the approach of the environmentalist are fairly close in that both are, to a rather impressive degree, concerned with the ‘affirmation of life’…. Response to natural beauty is one of the foundations of the environmental movement.”
If you’d like to read the whole article you can do so here:
I’m aiming to create work here that is an affirmation of life and of the spirit and specific beauty of this wild place.