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.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Benjamin Ceramix: Clay From The Mountains (Canyons of the Ancients National Monument)

While working as an Artist in Residence at the Canyons of the Ancients, I often make trips to the McPhee Reservoir, a beautiful winding road that unveils clearings of snowy mountain ranges, several giant snakes of water, and green fields spotted with shadows of passing clouds. The site is characterized as the largest and most funded archaeological excavation site in the country's history. Hundreds of artifacts such as patterned pottery, yucca sandals, and effigies made by the Anasazi were found there and catalogued for the cultural preservation of our ancestors. One day I decided to venture into the shallow valleys of the reservoir a day after rain. I came across the remains of a stream, which sat like a silent mud road assembled with geometric, tightly-fit earth blocks. The tessellation of mud formations seemed to resemble the keyboard of a computer and sank with gravity as the trodden path of my feet created a sculptural novel. I lifted a dried panel the size of a laptop of mud to reveal a bottomless cauldron of clay—dark grey with tan fine grain grog, sticky, malleable, and cold. After shoveling a mass of substance from the ground with my hands into a large Ziploc bag, I walked back to my truck with the bag of clay on my head. I combined this clay with dry elements from other areas of the land (dried mud, sandstone, fine gravel, some bugs), collected near areas of sacred views and holy ancestral places. From this unique mix manifested several small, intuitive sculptural beings. The photos are below, and the pieces will be getting fired in a local artist's kiln this weekend (updates to come). The large piece is named RainChild until it emerges from the kiln, and will then maybe be given a new name. It is about 60 lbs, 2', and is made with a Cassius Basaltic clay that will fire to a dark brown or black. I made it during the first week of my residency after absorbing the ancient architectural beauty of Mesa Verde. It resembles the cultural spirit of the pueblo community long ago—the head and face reminiscent of a sandstone tower built into the cliffs. I plan to make several more pieces from the clay found in this area while I am here. At the moment, I am also creating an animation of my sculptures that features a digital technology project that was made via collaboration with Vince MacMillan, an excellent archaeologist of the Anasazi Heritage Center and BLM. I expect it to be done soon and am excited to share it with you all!! Cheers, Ben

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Installation: Contemporary Land Surveying and Scientific Research in the Wilderness

At the end of my Aldo and Leonardo Residency in the Boundary Waters Wilderness, I collaborated with scientists from the Minnesota Biological Survey Lawson Gerdes, Jeff Lee,Dan Wovcha and field assistant Jenna Pollard, to make an installation that rendered a scene of what 21st century land surveying entails — and what one variety of scientific research in the Boundary Waters wilderness looks like: the relevé method. The installation contains scientific tools, information, camp gear and idiosyncratic objects that illustrate the character of the four of us that went to the Boundary Waters to survey the biodiversity of the area using the "relevé" method. Using aerial infrared maps, we canoed and bushwacked to specific sections of the Boundary Waters to mark off 20x20 meter plots and assess all the plant species living in each plot. We surveyed each relevé plot at multiple levels, from the canopy to the ground cover, assessing density and maturity. We would also dig a hole in the ground to inspect the soil layers (if charcoal was present that would indicate there had been a fire) and test the PH of the soil. By performing the relevé method, we were able to generate a scientific rendering of the native plant community and fill in the map of biodiversity for the state of Minnesota that the Minnesota Biological Survey has been charting over the last two decades. The installation was created at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, MN.

The five of us have discussed exhibiting this installation again some day at a larger public institution. We have ideas for a series of public programs that could go along with it, including relevé school curriculum, the launch of a relevé society (these societies/clubs are prevalent in Europe), relevé events/performances, and workshops (for example: where participants can learn how to press plants, make a plant pressing book, and a solar plant dryer). We have plans to make a proposal to the Minnesota Science Museum and the Bell Museum of Natural History or during the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Wilderness Act in Albuquerque. If you have any suggestions for any institutions to contact about hosting the exhibit, please email kb@katherineball.com.

Photos courtesy of Jenna Pollard, Dan Wovcha, and Katherine Ball.

Much gratitude to Wolf Ridge for hosting the installation, Lawson Gerdes for bottomlining the science end of the collaboration, Jeff Lee for leading the Boundary Waters Trip, Dan Wovcha and Jenna Pollard for their filming/photography, zest for life, insatiable curiosity, deep wonder and reverence for the flora and fauna with which we share this planet.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument 2013 Artist in Residence: Ben McCarthy//Benjamin Ceramix

Hello all!
I have been enjoying all of your updates and glimpses into the different biomes/residencies that Aldo & Leonardo have organized and what has come of it—looking forward to how it evolves. What a phenomenal opportunity!! I am truly thankful and honored to be a part of this project. My artist residency ended the final day of September, and I am still happily living and working in the area to where I was transferred. I plan to continue my creative study of this beautiful, hidden area that is home to the largest and most abundant archaeological site in the country. The experience of shadowing and camping with the other artists, biologists and archaeologists of the Anasazi Heritage Center and the Bureau of Land Management was unique, informative, inspiring, and motivating. It is as if to have been let in on an ancient secret that I will ponder for the rest of my life—given the gift of an eternal creative fuel, which I have continuously found within nature, the lives and artwork of ancient people, and modern-day habitation of the planet. The project's emphasis on working with the organizations that maintain the land today sparked ideas of the history of humans in wilderness, our mark, the current state of how nature is governed, and an urgency for conserving its ecosystem, culture, art, and resources.
Days of hiking through vibrant olfactory foliage (especially green due to monsoon season) of sage and juniper, standing next to sandstone and mud-masoned giant towers constructed by ancient human beings known as The Ancient Ones (or Anasazi), approaching a clearing to find a massive faceted triangle of carved stone with archaic doodles melted through the purple desert rock varnish to reveal glowing orange petroglyph stick figure gatherings amidst floating spiral symbols (that may actually resemble ancient semiotics for water). Migrating black and orange tarantulas crossing the road, each traversing its own journey to somewhere, silent geological patterns stacked to create a castle disguised as a cliff, from where points of erosion within the wind-sculpted stone walls emerge natural statues of heads and faces that speak with the skies and think for centuries. Then there are places where one can see where, long ago, Mother Earth opened her arms to the Ancestral Puebloans and gave them cathedral-like caves in the mountain canyons on either side of the valleys of Mesa Verde. The ancient people cooperated with the earth, survived off of its growth, and built small cities inside the cliffs. To see such natural, complex, ancient structures is simply phenomenal, and the view provides an Escher-style visual puzzle majestically camouflaged into Nature. I sat across from it for hours, deep in thought and admiration, while carving a chunk of red and orange sandstone into a 3-dimensional hieroglyph with a piece of obsidian I found near Yellowstone.
The artistic process of analyzing, distilling, and creatively articulating the substance absorbed from the Canyons of the Ancients takes time and an open mind, and I am only beginning to translate the miles of geological formations, ghostly cliff dwellings, and ancient geometric pottery patterns into pieces of my own artwork—sculptures, pictures, and poems that resemble my intuitive, cognitive response. I found myself particularly inspired by the surreal scenes and creatures within rock art, and the "T shaped" doorways/windows found often in Ancestral Puebloan architecture.
In addition to creating a number of sculptures from clay that I dug from the mountains (which are currently drying and will be fired soon! {updates to come}), I began to decode the things I was seeing each day through the countless digital photographs I took during our exploration of Wilderness. One thousand, high definition photos of a landscape still cannot begin to explain the sense one gets when entering the labyrinth of Nature. In an effort to encapsulate the time, spirit, and language of the Canyons of the Ancients, I developed many new techniques: one called geokaleidoscopics, with which I transform my photography into fractal mosaics that unfold into intricate meta-textured beings of nature and ancient architecture. Colorful visual patterns form from simple pieces of sky, plants, or rocks. The sculptural images provide a snapshot of an interactive story (enhanced by the "zoom" feature) with an intergalactic quality, while still giving the viewer a perspective of the terrain, colors, sites, and artifacts of the place. I have also included a photo of the completed Anubynx sculpture that I made before the residency, which I posted a photo of pre-fire a while ago. The Anubynx and several other of my handmade, large-scale clay sculptures experienced a material metamorphosis and teleported into a tour of the digital landscapes depicted within my pictures you'll see below. They had a blast and will definitely visit again!
A big, glowing "THANK YOU" to Grant and Peggy at the Colorado Art Ranch for all of your kindness and support, to everyone at the Anasazi Heritage Center and BLM for your welcoming hospitality, interest and great conversation, and to everyone involved with the Aldo & Leonardo Art + Science Collaboration who is contributing to make this something great!!