Category Archives: environmental art

Flowerchild: Then and Now

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I walk daily on a path through a virgin prairie near where I live.  The blooms change week by week, and I photographed some of them, to preserve their image before they withered and stepped aside for the next wave of blossoms.

I was listening to the sound track of “Forrest Gump”, which has songs from the late 60’s and early 70’s, the music of my childhood and teen years.  “Volunteers” by Jefferson Airplane was playing:

“Come on now we’re marching to the sea
got a revolution got to revolution… ”

I thought about the flower children of the 60’s, calling for revolution, and the  reference to “marching to the sea”, which calls up Sherman’s march to the sea, from the Civil War.  I am currently reading Sick From Freedom:  African American Illness and Suffering During The Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs.  Mr. Downs revises the glossy view of the emancipation of the African slaves in the United States, and documents the catastrophic wave of privation and disease which met the newly emancipated bondsmen and women, because of medical ignorance and administrative incapacity.  Thousands upon thousands of former slaves died of exposure, starvation and disease following emancipation.  Which is obviously not to say that they were better off in slavery; in fact, the fear of that argument kept the grim facts from coming to light for generations.  It is important that this story is finally being told.

It may seem odd to make a jump from beautiful wildflowers to catastrophic demographic displacement, while in the midst of a gorgeous meadow on a summer day, but that’s how my mind runs.  Tearing down, I thought,  is quick and easy; building up is slow and torturous.  As I listened to the song calling for political change, I felt glad that the cultural revolution of my youth did not escalate to a violent overthrow of the U.S. government.  This sounds simplistic; but as I watch social/political upheavals around the world, and see our country use “shock and awe” as a “defense” policy, I worry.  Change is essential; people are suffering under cruel dictatorships, but as with the prairie, the return of life following a scorched-earth policy takes generations; the cost is terrible and the results are always mixed.

My little photographic record (which led to this line of thought) began with seeing a flower I’d never seen before, a few days earlier.  Since I didn’t have my cellphone/camera that day, I took a mental photo and did a little sketch in watercolor while I was at my teaching job at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Fay, an avid gardener in my class, didn’t recognize it, either, and suggested that I take it to Plant Information, where they were able to identify it for me:    Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea Purpurea).  The description in the book said it requires a “rich, well-developed environment.”  In other words, it only grows where generations of untouched prairie plants have been able to flourish and propogate and create the right conditions; it’s not just going to pop up on a foreclosed subdivision where people stopped mowing the grass for a year or two.  Which explains why I’ve never seen it before; it doesn’t grow just anywhere.
The custodians of Gallery Park, the beautiful jewel which contains patches of untouched prairie, utilize controlled burns to maintain the natural cycle of destruction and rebirth that allows the prairie to flourish.  How do we replicate a “controlled” burn in the world of politics and nation building?  Now, there’s the challenge.
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The Bonds of Bonsai

The bonsai trees are back out in their courtyard at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  I went there today to teach my class on Calligraphy and Floral Decoration, and it was hard to walk through the garden to my classroom without “stopping to smell the roses”.

After three hours of demonstrating how to twist and turn the brush to evoke the vitality of living things in sumi ink, I walked outside to see the real thing.  I came upon this ostentatiously robust  bonsai azalea tree.

I’ve felt some ambivalence about bonsai, ever since Ted and I followed the signs to an artist’s ceramic studio while visiting wine country in Sonoma County, Callifornia.  The signs said “Pottery and Bonsai”, and sure enough, the studio had pots and little trees.  I’ll never forget overhearing a guy say, “I hate bonsai– they torture the trees, man!”  Which may be true, inasmuch as one can torture a vegetative life form.  But, we human beings also submit ourselves to torture for the sake of art and beauty– bonsais are the ballerinas of the plant world.  They’re trees in tiny toe shoes.

Even calligraphers can be tortured for their art.  During months of physical therapy to untie the knots I created in my neck by spending hours hunched over my drafting board, my physical therapist told me that I’d been in training like an athelete, only I had trained my body to be deformed.  After so many three-hour painting and calligraphy shifts, I actually felt I was turning to stone, like a gargoyle.  I contemplate my output,  what must be miles of border designs and lines of lettering that would stretch from here to Milwaukee, and sometimes I wonder just how much a person must paint.

And I answer myself, until she drops.  But, at least she can stop to smell the azaleas.

“Knittivists” Repairing The World

There is a wonderful project called “Tikkun Tree”, which is organizing fiber artists to contribute knitted, crocheted, embroidered and sewn leaves and doves to a fiber olive tree.  The tree will be a symbol of peace and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.  It is inspired by  “the courageous and remarkable efforts of Jewish and Palestinian citizens and activists in Israel and Diaspora who have been working toward peaceful coexistence” and also by “the many recent knittivist community needlework projects, including the pink tank, knitnotwar 1,0o0 Project , Knit a River, and the Red Sweater Project“.

I can embroider and sew, I think it will be fun to foliate!  If you want to participate, send your leaves to:

The TikkunTree Project
P.O. Box 2088
Philadelphia, PA 19103

I love to paint olive trees.  Here are some works which include olive trees from my portfolio:

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Openlands Preserves Nature and Presents Art

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When Fort Sheridan was developed as a residential community, a grant enabled the creation of the Openlands Nature Preserve.  This project is a restoration and preservation of one of the last remaining ravine and bluff ecosystems in the metropolitan region.  There are beautiful walkways, complemented by original, site-specific works of art.

Interpretive signs illuminate the environment and the art with poetry by Lisa Roberts, who curated the art selections.  The works are by Kate Friedman (Reading The Landscape), Vivian Visser (a driftwood installation called Erode), Ginny Sykes (a mixed-media mural on an underpass called Arc of Nature), Sharon Bladholm (cast bronze/resign plaques on a stone wall called Soil:  Alive With Life) and Olivia Petrides (painted obelisks called Leaf and Earthbark Prisms).

The ravine walk is wonderful, a gentle incline down to a beautiful beach.  The art is a perfect complement to the environment.  It serves an educational function while enhancing our experience of the beauty and complexity of nature, and our place in it.

Petrides’ striped prisms reminded me of the work of artist Kerry Hirth.  She is a synasthetic artist, which means that she interprets sound as color.  She created a work called Birds Lost from a Giant Sequoia Forest During Fifty Years (pastel on canvas, 12″ X 48″).  She explains that “This painting begins at the deep roots of a sequoia forest and moves up the trees toward the treetops and then further up the mountainside to a pine forest and ultimately to the sky. Between the roots and the sky, there are seven distinct sections. Each section represents a species of bird that once lived in the forest but no longer does as a result of habitat destruction. The sections are defined by the way they reflect the distinct plumage of each bird.”

"Birds Lost", by Kerry Hirth

Sometimes art as “earthworks” is a destruction or disruption of the natural environment in which it is placed.  Not in this case.  I look forward to returning to the Openlands Preserve and spending more time with the art, particularly the poetry that accompanies each visual art piece on a trail marker.

Creative Collaboration As It Should Be

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The current exhibit at Fill In The Blank Gallery, entitled “Habitual Growth”, is an example of a fully integrated, successful collaboration by three talented artists:  Alexis Ortiz, Julia Gootzeit and Katie Schofield.  Together, they created an environment that is so symbiotic, all the objects seem to just have grown in the gallery.  This is no small feat, considering the materials used:  ceramic vessels, nest-like shapes crocheted from plastic grocery bags, cascades of keys, little dyed, felted balls, stripes of soil and ristras of red ceramic carroty thingies.

The artists recycle, re-use, re-purpose.  All of the recycled objects bring their own stories to the table, and the artists cast them in a new context, layering different perspectives.  The result is a rich, fresh, intriguing mix that comes together incredibly well.  The exhibit will be up at 5038 N. Lincoln Avenue until Aug. 20.  It’s well worth a visit– check the gallery website for hours.

I am preparing for a two-person show next spring with artist Harriet Kohn, at PerficalSense Studio.  We discussed the idea of whether  to collaborate on work together, or just show our independent, though complementary, work.  Seeing the seamless collaboration created by Alexis, Julia and Katie raised the bar for us.  Now we have to decide:  pas de deux,  or ensemble?  This is where my inner elementary school teacher is saying, ” Judy, you’re not a team player.”  We’ll see what happens!

Re-Purposing Hubcaps for Art

"Birth of Earth", re-purposed hubcap art by Judith Joseph for Landfill Art Project

Back in December of 2008, artist and gallery owner Ken Marquis contacted me and asked me to participate in the “Landfill Project”.  At the time, he had over 100 international artists on board; by now, the project has grown to over 800 artists!

The idea was to salvage hubcaps, clean them up and give them to artists to have their creative way with them.  I’ll never forget the day my hubcap arrived in the mail.  There was much laughter in my house, as I pulled it from the box and tried to explain to my family that it was going to be an art piece.

I pulled together a scrap of silk I had hand-painted as an experiment, brass foil and wire, and went to work.  The silk looked, to me, like the roiling soup of primordial creation, at the beginning of the universe.  So, I thought about Earth being born, like a baby, gasping for its first breath, emerging from the amniotic caul.  I thought of my mother, who emerged from birth wearing her birth caul “like an undershirt”, which her father proclaimed to be a sign of good luck.  (He was right; so far, at age 84, she’s had a very lucky, happy life.  I can only wish good luck to our Mother Earth, who could use some!)

Ken Marquis’ idea sounded kind of crazy at first, but if you peruse the gallery of his hupcap art, you will be amazed at the inventiveness of artists from around the world, in re-imagining these metal disks.  The take-away message for me is, why don’t we approach all of our environmental problems with this kind of creative energy?

Landfill Art was just profiled in an AP article:  Hubcaps As Canvas:  Artists Turn Junk Into Jewels (where you can see my hubcap in slide #4).   Ken needs 150 more professional artists for the project– see application and the complete “Gallery of Metal Canvases” at the Landfill Art website.