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.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Interview with artist Tory Tepp: John Muir Wilderness (July 10-August 7, 2013)


Tory Tepp, a native of Wisconsin, received his undergraduate BFA in painting from Parson’s, the New School for Design in New York City with a minor in non-traditional art histories. While at Parson’s, Tory studied painting under Joan Snyder. The following 15 years saw his work expand into printmaking, metalworking and furniture making. In 2009, Tory earned his MFA in public practice as part of the inaugural class of Suzanne Lacy’s community engaged art practice program at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. These years saw the emergence of art projects sited within specific communities that drew upon urban agriculture, the reclamation of derelict public spaces and the use of earthworks as a means of shaping space. After a temporary relocation to New Orleans, Tory assumed the role of the driver of a vintage armored car for Mel Chin’s Fundred Dollar Bill Project and proceeded on a 19,000 mile journey around the country as the public face for the nationwide public art project devoted to remediating lead contaminated soil in New Orleans. This, in turn, led to the development of an itinerant art practice that has kept him on the road for the past three years, working from project to project in New Orleans, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Death Valley, until the wheels finally came off in Florida. Now, after completing the inaugural community arts residency for the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Tory continues to develop the two projects started within the New Smyrna Beach community.

Q: Why were you interested in participating at the John Muir Wilderness residency?

T.T. I had been doing projects in Los Angeles and New Orleans that were about the different neighborhoods in relation to the corresponding waterways. I started doing earthworks, so wanting to do an environmental residency has always been a part of the agenda.
It seemed like out of all the residencies that Colorado Art Ranch offered, this one was one I may have been somewhat familiar with. It seemed to really offer some interesting connections between what is going on in the world and my art work. It was interesting because we thought it was going to be in Montana and I know they had to switch partners which ended up in John Muir, CA. So for me I ended up making alternative plans because I didn't think the residency was going to come through. Those plans actually included driving to California just days before the residency started. It was this strange synchronicity between when Grant called and said- well now the residency is in California, so I thought great I am going to be there anyway.  At that point I knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Q: Why is the intersection of Art and Science so important to you and your work?

T.T.  I’m not a doomsayer but I feel like the human race is putting a great deal of stress on the planet, its resources, and each other.  I think it’s blatantly obvious everywhere you look whether it’s over population, food shortage, or water shortage.  It seems to be mounting based on quite simply the pressure we put on the planet. Quite honestly it’s our inability to see down the road and find solutions that are a little more sustainable. The fact that we have not been thinking about these things for a long time and it has obviously caught up with us can be hard to deal with. 
 The idea of sitting in a studio making art work was just part of the same commercial system that has lead us down this path and doesn't seem like any viable solution. For me and my art making, it became a search to find a mode of art making that made me feel like I was  part of the solution. Finding ways that could engage with these kinds of issues and social environmental issues that seemed to be emerging became important. Los Angeles was a great spot for that because there are so many problems and it became a petri dish to get involved. That was what really led me into wanting to combine the environmental issues with art making, because in the end, I’m still an artist. So I ended up thinking - well how many ways can I use my art to help in whatever capacity I can? This is when I started thinking about straddling that gap of socio-environmental geographic issues. 
I think one of things that art is really great at and why it’s so important is, it can present information in a different light and recontextualizes information. Art makes issues more digestible or apparent. If you can produce art in a creative and interesting way it draws people in and gets them really thinking about pressing issues. To me that’s why it’s so important to start working in both areas of Science and Art.
There is so much information out there but when it’s in the language of science it can be a bit uncomprehendable. You present it in a way that is irrelevant to many groups of people; by changing the language  from a science base to a culture based platform can result in beneficial outcomes.

Q: What are some of your first reactions to the John Muir Wilderness?

T.T. It was interesting because I got caught on the road- by the road I mean that 30 mile stretch that takes three hours. I happened to catch it at night which was actually better in terms of not looking over the edge. 
It was really wonderful how remote it was, and there were still people up there (Campers, Hikers, Fishermen ect.).  You knew that you were as far as you could go with a vehicle. There was a real sense of - alright this is as far as civilization goes to some extent. The deeper you went on foot was like; you’re really going into fairly unknown territory. That’s what I was surprised on, and that was how many people are actually out in the remote wilderness.
 Being inserted that deep into the wilderness the first few days was awesome. Both Duane and I had some trepidation because we realized we were generating our own mystic about the Rangers that were going be taking us on the trek.  Once we started to assemble our packs and get our bear cans together we started to realize how heavy our packs were. There was a little element of terror involved as we prepared for the big eight day trek.
 I wrote about it in the blog that I had been coming from personally a little bit of a dark place and I really needed this for my soul and my psyche. Duane was a great companion on the trail and he really helped lighten the load for me. Not only was it about his humor, he also is a college professor and brought that to the table out there. He really made the trip educational for me- so that was just another wonderful thing about the residency.

Q: What do you believe to be a highlight to your time spent in the John Muir Wilderness?

T.T.  We were at a place called Lake Marie and it was our last camp before we had to turn back in towards the trail. The hike, the work that we were doing and the exploration was finally coming into the soup. It was that day up there at this perfect camping spot and lake to match where the project just gelled. I remember I took the whole afternoon to just sit up there to contemplate.  It was just this moment that I felt like I was in perfect harmony with the project, my creativity and the surrounding environment. I didn't really do anything but sit, write and sketch that whole afternoon alone.   I thought to myself, this is it…
 It’s amazing how the creativity came forth without it having to be cold out. Sometimes you’re working on a project and your just struggling to find these answers and these ideas and everything was so open in terms of my perception, my ability to receive what I was looking at, and how I was feeling within this environment was all pouring out.

Q: Did the residency make any impact on the way you view the natural world, or facilitate ideas for future work?

T.T. It definitely had some impact on the way I view the natural world. I was surprised how many hikers were up there doing the Pacific crest trail. It’s such an arduous and amazing thing to accomplish, then you realize that every single day you pass 15-20 people that hiking this trail. There are tons or people up there yet it doesn't diminish the awesome nature of the feat.
In essence the whole thing seemed in no way detracting to the natural landscape, and its beauty was still incalculable. In terms of how the Rangers and we interacted, was like a big theme park for outdoor wilderness people. What the rangers do is they maintain the areas of the theme park that allow people to actually access it. It changed how I thought about this wilderness area. It seemed incredibly remote then you realize that it really isn't.  At first I was thinking of the Rangers as druids. I thought of them as these people that have all this knowledge of the wilderness. In reality it wasn't as much about knowledge of the woods as it was about just loving and living the wilderness lifestyle; that to me was what I really thought about the rangers. They’re campers and they’re hikers and explorers. So it wasn't so much about knowledge of the trees, wildflowers and taming this place as it was about having a job that allowed them to exist within this place. 
In terms of my art work, it had some impact because this was one of the most personal projects that I have been able to work with ever. It was a small group of people and they really invested their energy into providing me with the poems and the stories. It was a really nice opportunity for it to be extremely personal for a change.
I just got finished with some very large projects, with them it’s hard to gauge how you feel about the final product. You may be working with 200 kids and you don’t know if they really care about it or not. Half the people you’re trying to get involved end up not giving a shit.
So it’s relieving when you get this beautiful little cocoon of a working group. Working with people on a very personal level made me realize that I don’t need to do these gigantic gestures to make it meaningful. The Aldo and Leonardo initiative was really nice backing off from some of the projects that lead me into it. It was great all the way around for me.

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

T.T.  I think it was having Duane and I there. Living in that kind of super intense encapsulated moment was most likely influential. They were rubbing off on us and I’m sure we were rubbing off on them. I say this because here are two completely different groups with different views and expressions on the experience. We were sharing our different paradigm’s which is really great. I think if I had any effect, it was when we completed our project and we interacted with the Rangers. Watching the Rangers go through and take turns reading all of these poems-Several of them came to me and said they never have been able to actually be involved in a piece of art like this.  In terms of both the making it but also they kind of became the tenders or the care takers of this body of art after I left.

As far as influencing them, I think it helped them get an idea that art is more expansive then just someone working alone in their studio making an object. Here is an art that included their whole group and it is something that was very personal to them.  The piece was made public and so I think that had some effect on them. Everyone was giving me these extraordinarily personal poems about their experiences in the wilderness. I think having this communal shared little space that we set up, helped develop new ideas and thought for the future.This project may help others think about how to better express their experiences out there in a different way.  I can’t really speak how it may or may not have influenced them. I do think that the rangers were very into the project. They responded immediately which is surprising. I’m not used to my constituents being so into it. It was a perfect incident because as Rangers they have this really intense relationship with nature. This was a chance for them to express that. Maybe it will spur them to express more now that they have been goaded into producing something of that nature.

Q: Did you experience any absurd situations in the John Muir Wilderness?

T.T.   You mean besides Duane?!  Especially once he got his project rolling, I actually tried to catch up with him the day after he left but it was like trying to find a needle in a hay stack and I never found him. I wouldn't say that I encountered anything too absurd.
The main thing that seemed off about the residency was the whole final two weeks of the residency, it was like a nuclear winter. Literally you couldn't see the mountains through the smoke, ash was falling like snow. I still went out and hiked but it definitely screwed with my lungs. This happened it changed the entire feel; we really weren't in the mountains anymore because you couldn't see the views, you couldn't see the vistas and it was hard to hike. It changed the whole relationship to the landscape by having that strange smoke cover. That actually was pretty out of the ordinary but for me it changed everything. The whole hike was extraordinary.

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

  The experience brought  to me a bolder life and a newer life. It really gave me the time to actually work through this project and through all of this strenuous physical activity. So that was one benefit to me.

The project itself was very meaningful to me, not only in terms of process but also I feel like it really helped me become more aware of my own process as an art maker. It helped me realize that it’s okay to be really personal. It’s okay to be emotionally charged. Coming out of academia, sometimes there’s a big push for things to be verifiable and anything that has to do with spirituality is almost looked upon as being nonintellectual. This whole projects foundation seemed to be roots raw and full of mysticism.  It was nice to be able to let that flourish through the project without feeling any constraints.  This was totally different than the art world in LA, where everything is just so cynical and everything is just so cold hard and crisp. It was nice to immerse myself in a project that was a little warm and fuzzy. It was just great to experience that environment before it’s not there anymore.We experienced even on our hikes trying to get to glaciers that were on the map and who knows I don’t think these maps could have been more than 20 yrs. old. When we got to the location that they should have been at they were melted. We thought – how cool is it going to be when we get up there – and to see at the top of these ridges, but most of these glaciers are gone now. You could definitely see the effects of climate change up there. 

1 comment:

  1. I really like your work, you did a great job incorporating you writing in with the materials and the site. Great interview!