This Spring in Corvallis, there were a number of events in which the unseen, the unheard, and the very, very tiny were observed and commented upon in especially poetic ways. There were a few art events and lectures revolving around microbiomes. I will quickly introduce you to two artists and a writer who are exploring our natural world which includes among its multitudes; microbiomes, animals, trees and us.

There is growing interest in connecting science and art, artists and scientists. In part, this is what our program at EAH is trying to accomplish. How do writers and artists and other creative types communicate issues of environmentalism? How do the humanities address non-human animals and other species of life? How can scientists work with artists to benefit both and strengthen the messages that people need to hear? What can we offer to each other and to the conversation? How is the very nature of the conversation changed by interdisciplinary voices?

The world is complicated. Life is busy. We tend to put blinders on just to get through the day. We rarely stop to consider the fact that our own bodies are made up of more microbiome DNA than human DNA. We rarely wonder at the masses of microscopic life that surround us, teeming in mud, saturating the form of every living thing. We tend to consider our frame of reference as Reality. But there are millions of different perspectives and perceptions. Some move very slow and experience time in a different way from the fast flitting creature. Some see the world from the sky, some see it from the ground. Some stay in one place always, some move constantly. Some do not see red, some do not see infrared, some see with sonar. Some navigate by smell, some by magnetic fields. There are as many different ways of being as there are beings.

  

Lisa Temple-Cox explores biology and the matter that is the meat, gut and bone of the animal, whether it be human or non-human. Her work peels away the skin, she examines the feather and the human skull with equal interest. Temple-Cox has done long term residencies at museums. While there, she explores and draws their collections. I was able to attend all four of her lectures at the University, including a private one for the school’s bird watching society. The names of many species were called out as we observed slides showing a plethora of silent birds in glass boxes.

Temple-Cox is a perfect example of an artist who is bridging disciplines. Her bio states, “ Her history as a mixed-race, post-colonial child informs a practice exploring interstices: between science and religion, the normal and the pathological, the familiar and the uncanny. Her visual research interrogates the aesthetics and histories of the anatomical museum, using its objects, collections, and taxonomies as metaphors for a contemporary subjective experience of the self and the body.”

One of the lectures had the intriguing title, My Head in a Jar. She had an entire body of work for each lecture. Some were documentation of the archives and their glorious decay, fatal malformations, disturbing implications of colonization, and excessive bounty. Her work is led and inspired by her research. One of these lines of research is through the preservation of specimens in jars. It was part historical and part medical, part archivist and part artist. For this lecture (archived here) she showed slides of many kinds of animals and humans, in whole and in part, preserved in glass jars. Through this exploration, she came to the idea of casting her own head and placing it in jars with different types of liquid matter. One jar is filled with kombucha, one jar is filled with milk, one is filled with oil. Over time the milk and kombucha transform as they are both teeming with the microscopic life mentioned previously. Interesting that she uses these two liquids in her experiment, the content of which is life and its companion, death.

  

Karin Bolender is a local artist who integrates the lives of her companion donkeys into her work. She did a long walking trip with her first donkey, a spotted ass, and that was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration. Bolender is a PHD candidate at the University of New South Wales but is located near Corvallis on a farm with the donkeys in question, and a horse. She is involed with a group of artists and environmental humanities researchers called The Multi-Species Salon. Her long term project is the Rural Alchemy Workshop. She also listens to her animals, not just to their vocalizations but to the rumbling in their guts, and has done work on this subject as well. Learn more about her brilliant line of thought in this concise (4 minute) video.

This Winter, she did a performative piece with her daughter at Optic Gallery in which a kombucha  mother was passed around and questions from a Pink Floyd song were asked aloud. These mothers were also a part of her latest work which recently manifested as a workshop.  She is investigating the invisible communities of life inhabiting the donkeys and the donkey’s milk. She has made soap from the milk of her donkeys mixed with her own. Interesting parallel between the artists Bolender and Temple-Cox, who have both used living and life-giving kombucha and milk to manifest their work.

I attended the workshop at her farm called Welcome to the Secretome, which was led by Bolender. A small group of us were led through a series of explorations around the animals and the land. We sat together on top of a manure pile and ate cheese and bread. We walked through a muddy field and a grassy field and made maps of what we found there. We touched the donkeys’ noses and the dirt and the barn and the kombucha mothers. I emerged clean and unscathed. (OK I didn’t go in the mud but everyone else did. I lingered in the barn with the donkeys.)

One more event in which the unseen/unheard was deeply, scientifically, and poetically discussed was the lecture by David George Haskell at the Art Center. He is currently touring with his new book, The Songs of Trees. He spoke about trees, individual trees. He traveled the world to visit a dozen individual trees. Each tree was carefully listened to and observed within the context of its location. One tree was in an Amazon forest, another in the middle of New York City. We don’t think of trees as making sound or having voices. Haskell records the vibrations that come up through the tree’s roots and the birds and other creatures who inhabit them, as well as the interaction with wind.

He spoke eloquently about understanding nature as that which is what we are. He points to the disconnect that humans feel with nature which is generally spoken of (in our society) as something outside  ourselves; a bird, a tree, a place we go to when we go camping. We set the city and nature as two sides of a dichotomy, when in fact the city is actually just a human nesting place and encompasses nature, not just in the plants growing through the cracks in the sidewalk but in our own manifestations.

Haskell’s previous book is titled  The Forest Unseen. For this book, he chose a one-square-meter spot of land in Tennessee and observed it meticulously for a year. Even within this very small circle of forest floor, he found a universe of life. I intend to read both books and can only report my impressions of the one hour I heard him speak. He spoke strongly against the standard dualistic thinking that separates humans and nature, a false dichotomy, as we are very much a part of nature. Our technology and industry are destroying nature. That doesn’t make us separate or better or worse. It just makes us powerful. We need to reconsider this power and our motivations and systems. They are not innate or inevitable

These artists and writers are asking you to open your eyes and ears and minds, to observe the life around you.  In doing so, you will see both the kinship we share with life on earth and the consequences of our collective actions against it. Paying attention with all of our senses is a first step.

Footnote: For many years, I observed one small area of the Willamette River and shared it, almost daily on the social medias. I reported on the weather and what animals were passing through or living there and the ships that came into port. I called it The River Report. I have since moved away from that spot but it is archived on Twitter.

Women, art, activism, protest, event.
By Melody Owen

I’m going to guide us back through the unexpected networks of art paths I walked this winter; through a deluge of rain and what seemed like books exploding in the air overhead, showering me with pages of text. This is a guided tour through some of the art I wandered through over these past few eventful months.

We started the term during a period of shocking transition in our government. A new faction is coming into power, an administration working to kill every government agency that protects the environment and supports the arts, humanities, libraries, public broadcasting, women’s health, threatened species, clean water, clean air, forests, press freedom, climate change research and on and on… the constant barrage of news reports have been interwoven with the dark, cold, grey of winter.

Pulsing through this cloud of gloom are bursts of light, moments of coming together with other people in solidarity and consolation. Yes, we are going through our daily routines; working or going to classes and meeting deadlines, always behind, but once in awhile an essential event will take place, whether it be through a performance, visiting a collection of objects, or listening to a person talk about their own path. In our time of screen living, half in and half out of the screen, when we meet together in a physical place for an event, a tangible moment of hope may be manifested.

About ten years ago, I lived in Quebec for a couple of months in a tiny cabin with no hot water all by itself in the middle of a giant field on the edge of the Saint Lawrence River. A short walk brought me to the rocky shore. The rock there was smooth in shades of yellow, red and copper. I hosted a small party one night on the shore for my comrades at the residency program, a handful of artists. We lay on smooth rock, watching the stars shoot through the sky and talked in French and English and joked. There might have been a campfire. And then, across the river, northern lights started shimmering in magnetic but very subtle blues and yellow.

The northern lights and meteor showers, the sparks of light in the darkness of my first winter in Corvallis were embodied mainly by creative women. I started the term by suddenly deciding to curate a show of some of the women artists who are on the faculty at OSU and U of O. I called the gallery Optic and the show Nasty Woman because galleries across the country and world were holding Nasty Woman events in response to the misogynist comments made by the incoming President and in an act of solidarity with the women’s marches. I wanted to contribute to this movement because I had both space and knowledge of a number of extremely talented women, all of whom teach in the area. It just made sense to bring the elements together. It took place at my studio on the night before the inauguration. (Meanwhile in the EAH program, we are reading ecofeminism. I discover Donna Haraway.)

Nasty Woman

We are coming together to protest against the misogyny of the incoming administration. We are coming together in solidarity with the women’s marches occurring around the United States. This show is meant to display the strength, innovation, talent, fortitude, unity, and excellence of women in our community.

Event photo: University of Oregon women’s basketball team taken in the 1910s. University of Oregon Libraries – Special Collections and University Archives

Corvallis Advocate preview by Johnny Beaver

Exhibiting Artists:

Amanda Tasse

Amanda Wojick

Anna Fidler

Anya Kivarkis

Jessie Rose Vala

Julia Bradshaw

Julie Green

Shelley Jordon

Tannaz Farsi

Terri Warpinski

In addition, we held an event on Not-My-President Day, which was also linked up with events around the world. There were many kinds of meetings and interventions, large and small, that simply made a gesture of solidarity or protest, even if that gesture was very quiet, just a whisper. Mother was just such an event. The artist’s 6 year old daughter, came dressed as Alice in Wonderland, prepared to recite from the Disney movie. We read the Pink Floyd lyrics which she handed out on scraps of paper. When one of us asked, while holding in our hands the cake of bacteria and yeast, “Mother, will they drop the bomb?” she delightfully shrugged her shoulders. The feel of the mother was cool and smooth and reminded me of the time I touched a whale.

Mother

Following is the event announcement, written by artist: Karin Bolender

In honor of Not-My-President’s Day, this intimate, improvisational ceremony, led by K-Haw Hart and hosted by Optic Gallery in Corvallis, Oregon, will bring some worried, wondering humans together to artfully question/resist the opacity and absurdity of present political regimes. As we gently pass around a Mother (the thick, fleshy, semi-translucent body of symbiotically cultured bacteria and yeast that brews an ancient drink called kombucha), we will ask the Mother questions sourced from the lyrics of the Pink Floyd song by that same name. Other questions and gestures are also welcome.

Jessie Rose Vala, mentioned previously, hosted an event on a full moon and an eclipse. This event occurred in the distant lands of Springfield, an hour away. I could see the lightning from where I was watching through the virtual world of social media. A woman sang while sitting on a horse in the center of Jessie’s marvelous installation of sculptures. I did stand for a moment in the room with those sculptures at Ditch Gallery, but the horse was not there. It was another day.

Ahab’s Mother

The next event at the Optic Gallery will also be themed around women and the environment. Julia Oldham will be showing her amazing drawing from the series Ahab’s Mother. This event will take place on March 25th, 2017. Please come.

Ahab’s Mother, a series of ink drawings by Eugene-based artist Julia Oldham, follows a woman through the depths of the ocean as she drifts among schools of sardines and shivers of mermaids and alongside a giant white whale. Borrowing from both the visual language of graphic novels and the classic illustrations of Moby Dick by Rockwell Kent, Oldham creates dreamy images about longing for impossible companionship with animals and seeking the darkest and most mysterious places.

I visited Julia at an event that she hosted at the gallery Bison Bison. She was playing the entire audio book of Moby Dick as she drew and invited others to come and draw with her.  At another event she hosted yet another amazing woman artist, Mandy Hampton, who spoke about her recent work with portals.

Continuing down the street and around the corner, Bruce Burris is an artist who draws acres and acres of ink pathways, and also curates an art space in the storefront window of a huge old apartment building called the Benton Plaza. He sometimes features artists who live in the hotel itself. It is something of a small Oregon town version of New York’s Chelsea Hotel, with all kinds of quietly sparkling residents, self taught artists and craftspeople, writers and tinkerers making maps and scrolls, detailed plans for ships and volumes of comic books. Treasures be here.

Other Corvallis event makers and artists I met on the paths this season were Lainie Turner, Co-Founder/Owner at Darkside Cinema; Hester Coucke of the Art Center and Corvallis Art Walk; and Helen Wilhelm who is crafting an elegant and hidden gallery in a science building on campus. It is called the Little Gallery and is currently hosting a show organized by our very own Samm Newton on the subject of the microbiome.

Ava Mendoza hosted by Michael Gamble

Another unexpected fork in my path led me to, the incredible Ava Mendoza. She played a surprise concert organized by fellow musician, Michael Gamble, a teacher at OSU. They played together with a small group including Dana Reason, who reached right into the piano strings to play it. This amazing, spontaneous group assembled together on the top floor of the hundred year old music building to play for us, sending twisting metallic, discords lilting ribbons of electronica, and little bursts of fireflies up into the high ceilings and the wooden rafters.

Carson Ellis

This is where the path gives a sudden shake and I am at a lecture by Carson Ellis hosted by the Fine Arts Department. I sit at edge of a giant classroom filled with students. Carson stands at the front and tells the story of her life via a slide lecture prepared for a group in Romania… I think it was Romania, in my mind are Russian spires of buildings in inky backdrops to bundled children having snowball fights. Carson’s career is amazing and I won’t recount it here. You can follow her website (below) into that rabbit hole. She and her husband are both profoundly talented and accomplished. From time to time, in the midst of children’s book illustrations and album covers, she will create and share (via social media) a spontaneous image of protest or solidarity, like the paintings she did for the Black Lives Matter and the Queer Pride movements. She has done so much beautiful work, My very favorite is the collaboration she did with her brilliant son Hank, in which she illustrates some of his extensive creative research into alien life forms, as shown below.

Then, the path twists back on itself and time shifts. I am sitting in this same giant classroom, actually in the very same seat. Only now there is a different person sitting next to me. It is a young man. Wasn’t it a woman sitting next to me at Carson’s talk? Or is it the same person who has now simply shifted gender like le Guin’s Gethen in Left Hand of Darkness.

Ryan Pierce

The readings from school leak into reality and back and forth until I am so confused it almost seems as if I myself am standing in front of a slide screen with an image of my virtual avatar projected behind me and I fumble with my notes as she speaks or I put words into her mouth, words like gender and illusion and identity. Anyway, I am here again, in the chair in the classroom, with a girl or a boy sitting next to me, either one of them secretly checking his or her cell phone. But now, before  of the slide projector stands Ryan Pierce, another longtime Portland artist and colleague. He shares his story too, in fragments, talking about leading groups of artists camping  in the mountains and the desert in the summer, and about painting in his studio all winter. He shows slides of his paintings, many of ecological degradation, human impact on nature, paintings which in real life are almost as big as the projections. My favorites are his collections of treasures and delights, a little like the collection I offer you here. Who knew you could walk a path through a wood and find all these tiny treasures. (Well, the child knows this but shhhhh… puts finger up to lips) A Cabinet of Curiosities. Who knew you could walk a path through a small town in winter and scoop up all these shining stars.

Ka’ila Farrell-Smith

Ka’ila Farrell-Smith shows slides with Ryan. She is a painter too. My favorite piece was the drum material she stretched over canvas. It is visceral, referential and reverential to a profoundly painful and simultaneously beautiful heritage as well as reflecting a contemporary presence of mind and place. Her work evokes the story, the moment the story is told, the retelling of the story. They both tell stories about Signal Fire. Ka’ila started on the trips as a resident artist and became one of the trip leaders. She shares a moment of revelation in which she met a small animal, I think it was a turtle, and she followed it around and studied it for hours, which makes perfect sense to me. We see so little of those creatures really.  They are in the wild, keeping their magic to themselves, unless we are lucky enough to come upon them, while walking those paths.

Ryan started Signal  Fire with his partner, Amy Harwood. Amy is one of the most hard working and innovative environmental activists I have ever met. She is full time protecting the wilderness and ancient forests with organizations like BARK in Portland. Signal Fire hosts artists in tents in the mountains and in deserts. They take groups of students on long hikes while making art and reading about environmental issues along the way. They take artists on canoe trips and on adventures along the borders between countries. I really admire the way Ryan and Amy have manifested this residency and have been watching it grow year by year. Talk about bright lights in the darkness… these two humans have added a warm campfire glow, complete with spreading sparks, to help us light the gloom we are currently navigating.


Freda by Anna Fiddler

Now we come to the end of winter term’s winding path. In the last few days, on every plant and tree in town, tiny  buds and flowers have started bursting from branches, all soft and fuzzy like microscopic lambs, like fallen stars.. I’ll see you when Spring explodes and future events mark our way.

The EAH group at OSU has, as part of its mission, organized to cover local environmental lectures and events. Last night, I attended my first event in Corvallis at the Grass Roots Bookstore. The visiting author was Hob Osterlund and her book is titled Holy Mōlī and published by OSU Press. She lives in Hawaii, working to protect the albatross and their habitat.

wisdom

Albatross are beautiful birds. I’ve known that for some time. They mate for life. I knew that too. Of course, like many birds, they face multiple dangers: plastic pollution, fishing hooks, introduced predators; dogs, cats, mongoose, human development, climate change…

But little did I know how little I knew about these amazing creatures. Here are some things I learned.

1. Some species have wingspans that are 10 feet wide. Their wings have 4 folds.
2. They coo gently to their eggs before settling down and will not leave them for anything, including predators and fire.
3. Though pairs mate for life, they only see each other for 2 weeks out of the year. During that time, they are super affectionate and linger when it is time to go.
4. They return often to feed squid oil to their young but only for 15 or 20 minutes. The rest of the time, the chicks are alone and teach themselves how to fly (by jumping off a cliff) and find food at sea.
5. There are 20 plus species of albatross remaining and most in Southern Hemisphere.
6. At the turn of the last century, many thousands were slaughtered for their feathers which were used to make hats for ladies in Europe.
7. After flying off a cliff for the first time, a chick’s feet will not touch ground for 4 years!!!
8. This just discovered – they attract their main food source (squid) to the surface of the ocean by swimming in tight circles and madly kicking their feet to stir up the bioluminescence!!!
9. They can desalinate water with their beaks!!!
10. They also have a speedometer in their beaks which allows them to sort of surf the air currents off of ocean waves and in this way they can fly for hours (maybe days) without flapping their wings at all!!!

Cornell Bird Lab has an albatross cam set up. Not sure if it is still live but there are videos there.

“Conservationists warn that 17 of the 24 albatross species are facing extinction.”
National Geographic