A Wilderness Science and Art Collaboration

Aldo & Leonardo, a partnership between Colorado Art Ranch and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, is a project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The project is inspired by the scientific wisdom of Aldo Leopold and the artistic genius of Leonardo da Vinci. Our endeavor is an interdisciplinary collaboration of artists and scientists designed to celebrate the lands, resources and opportunities protected by the Wilderness Act. In 2013, we are hosting one-month residencies in six diverse wilderness areas. Artists will work alongside wildland research scientists and gain firsthand knowledge of the wonders, complexities and challenges of our nation's wildest places. The result will be a body of work that creatively illustrates the value of wild areas and honors the scientific efforts to preserve wilderness for the next fifty years.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Interview with Elisabeth Nickles from Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.Marine/Coastal June 17-July13, 2013

Elisabeth Nickles is a mixed media sculptor living in Philadelphia. She has produced bodies of work in bronze, glass and paper. She attended the Boston Museum School and The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and in 2007 received an MFA from Alfred University.

Elisabeth's website ~~~ http://elisabethnickles.com/

Q: Why were you interested in participating at the Monomoy National Wildlife residency?

E.N. Because I’ve always been interested in wilderness and places were the environment and landscape is not dominated by the industrial era.
Q: Why is the intersection of Art and Science so important to you and your work?

E.N. I don’t think it’s really specific to me. I think it’s the history of science that’s dominated by people. These people knew how to draw and needed artists to document their studies. These were the people who influenced actual anatomy, and somebody like Leonardo Da Vinci was very influential. He was doing dissections and discovering things with human body that no one else was doing. For me I have always been amazed with the natural world; which I don’t even like putting into those terms because we are the natural world. I especially enjoy studying artistic anatomy and discovering the comparative anatomy between myself and other species. This led me to more investigation of the anatomy of the animal world.
I really see this art science intersection as tempered, and most art is out of the landscape and born out of the landscape. It’s only recently that it isn’t, and modernism and minimalism is more based on human structures than natural structures. But before then most art was based on naturalistic ideas where artists painted landscapes, human form, animal form, and things people ate. So I guess I have always been drawn to art and the environment that surrounds us.
 I think it’s really important to not ignore what’s going on in our environment, and the damage we are doing as a species. If I can enlighten or at least educate people through my work, I think that becomes important to at least have them respond to something that there not being fed through a television or computer or in social media/pop culture.

 I think that artist have gotten way to egotistical; I mean I love C├ęzanne but he always thought the artists job is to improve on nature and I think that’s a ridiculous statement. I think that is just another arrogant statement and it’s just not really accurate, it should be – to become more like nature, become like the rhythms you perceive.
The orangish, yellowish, brownish water contrasted with the blues and light greens had me floating inside of a
color field painting

Q: What were some of your first reactions to the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge?

E.N. Because of its location off of the coast of Cape Cod, Monomoy has been impacted by human settlement and development for hundreds of years. It is amazing how much is still present and to see the recovery in the seal populations. The exposure and harsh conditions of Monomoy kept it free of development, except for a brief time, and it has kept it wild. 
There is a lot of human interference in the way the birds are studied, but I think that is necessary in the preservation of species. With that said I think the study of birds and the importance of their migratory habitats is very important for the overall diversity in the area.
There is no way anything can be totally 100% natural anymore. And by natural I mean, as it was before human population inhabited the area, especially before European settlement and commercial development.
Monomoy in itself is very stark. The colors, elements, currents, and how constant the water and wind are is pretty unique to Monomoy. I have noticed these things in various ocean environments, where you notice that the wind is shaping everything around you. Monomoy is a very exposed environment; there’s no canopy of trees for shelter and it’s all out in the open so the light is very intense. The diversity and the marine environment seem to go on forever. It becomes interesting to think about how many life forms existed before you.

Q: Did you experience any change in your perception or experience any form of enlightenment at Monomoy?

E.N. I think I did when we spent more extended periods of time on the southern end of the island.  Honestly I would have stayed in a tent on a more remote part of the island, because in isolation from modern convenience, you get in a different rhythm and the simplicity is refreshing and exhilarating. Each moment in the landscape changes with weather and the course of the sun. I loved being there in the rain, seeing the storms come across the island, the colors change and the complete experience of staying  in one place:  looking up, down and across into each aspect of the place surrounding your body.

I think there is an important thing that happens when you’re not able to communicate with words. When there is no ability to talk and you just get into your own head space. I spent a lot of time on the ground, like lying down on the ground and by the bogs. I took videos and pictures of cranberries, bugs, and carnivorous plants.
sun dew carnivorous
I went out with a camera and my intention was to capture something. I felt I could take photographs and harm nothing, so it really was like a hunting experience for photographs. One notable experience occurred when I was hiking up the side of a sand dune and the vista suddenly opened up.  A moment later,   A hawk flew a few feet away from my head:  it returned and swerved right over my head, I noticed it was being chased by several common terns. This chase went on for an hour. I got out my zoom lens and shot many photos. It was  an amazing experience as the hawk kept on coming closer to me, checking out what the hell I was. It was great to see another species that is not completely afraid because you’re a human.   That day stood out to me as a complete Monomoy experience: I explored, I observed, I read, worked on drawings, and went to sleep with the sun, perfect.

Q: As an artist do you feel like you influenced the scientist that you worked with?

E.N. I think that seeing the beauty and talking about it reminded the scientists who are involved in completing a specific task. Of course they see the beauty but I think it is a different way of perceiving or what we pay attention to and what we omit when we have a goal. How specialization can limit our ability to perceive the total, at least for a moment. I suppose this is the difference between a specialized biologist and an ecologist and the difference between approaching the landscape with an agenda to follow rather than a purely perceptual experience.  

Regarding predator control, I have a point of view which I stated.  I agree it has to be done but philosophically I had to question the practice in terms of how we prioritize our lives and the lives of other animals. What we perceive as damaging in other animal, like a coyote and a black-back gull, humans are guilty in magnitudes. Because of human development, these species thrive. They are survivors, they are cunning and resourceful.  As humans, we admire this competitive edge; it is what has made our species thrive. Our adaptability and opportunism is the same, but judged quite differently. I only ask that we turn the mirror on ourselves and ask about our own impact on the world. 

Q: Did you experience any absurd situations at the Monomoy Refuge?

E.N.     Powder Hole is a migratory bird’s stop, and while I was there these willets would squawk at me constantly, and fly away from me.  I got tired of everything being scared of me.
Another moment was when Megan, Jeremy and I kayaked out to an area between Monomoy and the North beach,  called The Break. We kayaked against the current which was really hard because the wind was so strong. It became a really special moment when suddenly seals were swimming alongside our boats. Then a seal tour boat comes along and scares the seals away. People came along with their party boats fitted with what seemed to be a bunch of chairs from their lawn. So I thought I was going to be in this isolated place but I ended up realizing how close we were to civilization.
 Also there is the motorized vs. non-motorized thing; you begin to really realize how physically lazy we have become as a species. I think people should try to use their own physical power to appreciate the motorization vs. their own physical abilities. It definitely changes your perception of scale, distance, and physical effort. It also sets us apart from the other species. Think of the Terns and the other birds flying so far with only the strength of their little bodies. It is truly amazing.

Q: What were some of the beneficial outcomes of the experience?

E.N. The relationship between artist and scientists was so enriching.  Earlier in the year, I took a course through the Wagner Science Museum in Philadelphia in invertebrate anatomy and the evolutionary aspects of vertebrate development. I think the experience at Monomoy rounded my other investigations in science and sparked even more interest for me.

Also, when I came back from the residency I took my neighbors grandson to the Wissihickon park, an area of thousands of acres of protected land, within Philadelphia.  The young man doesn’t get to the woods often,  he is African American and the Trayvon Martin case had just been decided. Here was this young boy of eight so innocent, eager for life and knowledge . We went to the forest and walked through the creek. While we were playing in the water,  a bald eagle landed above us on a branch and watched us. I thought, “how perfect, here we are- two humans in the landscape sharing the beauty, no labels and no lines,  a part of nature”   I believe you need to look for wilderness and the wild places where ever you are, find it and share it, it is vital, what could be more important?
Philadelphia's Wissahickon Valley is one of the popular areas of Fairmount Park. (Photo courtesy of Friends of the Wissahickon)


Photo Credit: Elisabeth Nickles 

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