Category Archives: Walks in the woods

Paper Words for Nebraska City’s Arbor Day

Seven years ago I arrived in Nebraska City in August for an artist residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. I wanted to be in Nebraska City because it is THE city in which Arbor Day began, in 1872 by J. Sterling Morton. Over a million trees were planted that first year, and because of its success, the day was celebrated the next year and the next and spread to other states and territories. It’s not a federal holiday, but every state now observes it. The actual date varies depending on the state and its planting zone. Many states, including Nebraska honor it on the last Friday of April.

I am now in Nebraska City at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts (KHN) as a resident again, fulfilling a dream that began during that first residency to install my Paper Word project for Nebraska City’s Arbor Day celebration. In honor of that, fellow resident Erin Malone and KHN Program Director Amanda Smith (Thank you!) helped me install paper words at the Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure. The words will also be on trees in front of the county courthouse and city hall.

At the Arbor Day Farm Tree Adventure, we hung a haiku written by Holly Wren Spaulding that is part of our collaboration Here, Stands, a variation of my paper word project down in the valley along the wood chip trail.

Other words, the “empowering words” as I call them, are along the upper trails. Here are some pics of us installing the work.

Here’s a summary of the inspiration for this: Here, Stands is a collaboration between poet Holly Wren Spaulding and artist Melanie Mowinski that brings brief, image-driven poems to public spaces. Mowinski takes Wren’s words and her own and makes them into handmade paper words that are tied around trees. The spare, haiku-inspired texts bring attention to the many functions of the forest (utilitarian, emotional, spiritual, aesthetic). The project serves to engage passers-by with reflections having to do with humans’ relationship to the environment. Inspiration includes the forest monks of Southeast Asia who “ordain” trees by wrapping them in sacred monk’s robes in an ongoing effort to save endangered forests from industrial logging. Our project enrobes the trees in poems, another way of bringing awareness to their virtues, both sacred & mundane.

The project comments on and invites conversation about some of the challenges faced by society, including our growing disassociation from our natural world and lack of awareness about the role it plays in sustaining life. The poems and words chosen and created for this project point to, and ennoble the trees and other features of our landscape that clean the air, filter our water, hold our soil in place and provide safe-haven from the elements.

Artists Books: Made in Venice

My time in Venice was ridiculously generative. I embodied the cliche inspiration flowing through me like a turned-on faucet towards the end of my stay. A faucet that has continued to stream ideas and projects faster than I can keep up. My ideas often found themselves in the form of a book structure. My intentions for Venice included copious amounts of letterpress printing, but for some reason my practice continued to steer clear of that medium. Instead I played with the materials that I love: painted papers, gesso, collage-like practices, text and the transformation of prints/papers discarded by others.

Wayfinding 3 webWayfinding Star: This book is the inspiration for my solo exhibition Wayfinding at MCLA’s Gallery 51 opening this summer on July 28th. Wayfinding Star documents departure from latitude 42.562 / longitude -73.1629 (Cheshire, MA where I live) to latitude 45.4343 / longitude 12.3388 (Venice, Italy where I spent winter 2016). Each line in the middle layer represents latitude and longitude lines, Wayfinding 1 webdemonstrating the closeness in latitude but distance in longitude. The text on the front layer recounts experiences navigating in Venice as I lost and found my way, always listening for the toll of church bells, the back layer of the book. The eight-point star references the compass rose and the many geometrical patterns centered on the number eight encountered throughout Venice.

Parallel Pathways reveals my discovery that there was often more than one way to get somewhere, if you were willing to be present to being lost and unattached to time. Parallel to this discovery, I noticed that somewhere in the past centuries, the Madonna has become unnoticed, a piece of art history for many and a point of prayer for few. This juxtaposition between time, journey, art history and prayer captivated my attention through the form of this storage book holding elements of the journey of Venice.

 

We Are Not Ephemeral webIn We Are Not Ephemeral I continued my need to follow the weather while in Venice by watching the tide charts. During my first ten days I experienced acqua alta a couple of times—nothing too impressive, but enough to warrant rubber boots in a few places. This books considers the ebb and flow of relationships and the desire for them to not be ephemeral. It’s a simple accordion book made from pressure printing, dry point, handset type and a hand-stitched pathway.

Egress Web 1An Appetite for Egress was the first book I made in Venice. The structure uses Hedi Kyle’s storage book but with thin binder’s board instead of cardstock. This material creates solid pages that clatter as you page through the book in a way reminiscent of foot-falls. The text evolved from reflections on Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark related to time, water and how so much of walking in Venice is about leaving the past behind.

I am continually grateful to the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica for inviting me to come to Venice, as well as to the Massachusetts Cultural Council whose Northern Berkshire County branch honored me with this year’s Individual Artist Grant which helped fund the trip. I am also grateful to MCLA for awarding me my sabbatical as well as a small professional development that also contributed to the funding of the trip.

Carnevale, or how Venice and Alaska are alike

Carnevale12When you arrive in Venice or Denali National Park in Alaska, it’s a “Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore,” kind of a moment. Everything you know about being in the world shifts slightly. Granted, some of the dangers one encounters in Denali National Park are unlikely in Venice (i.e. being eaten by a grizzly bear) what is true to both though, especially during Carnevale, is how humans love to look at the “other.” Whether the other consists of caribou, grizzlies and wolves, or men and women in lavishly designed costumes, the impulse for the observer to photograph, stare, document and savor exists in both.

Mellie in the mirrorIn Denali National Park, the people transporting busses stop for significant animal sightings and all the humans snap pictures, comment, and go ooh and ahh.

In Venice, photographers of all levels cluster and shoot when costumed people appear. Early morning sunrise in San Marco brings out the more serious shooters, with their tripods, flood lights, flash umbrellas, and the like. These pictures are a mix of some that I took and some that my sister took. (She and my nieces where here during the first weekend of Carnevale. Look for the pictures of us making our own masks!)

The other similarity between Venice and Alaska is the relationship to wilderness. The more I think about Thoreau and his study of wilderness, and especially his phrase “In Wilderness is the preservation of the world”, the more I believe it is about cultivating a state of mind versus an experience in a particular place. When I was in Denali, Doug and I talked extensively about this, and decided that wilderness is about being present to the unpredictability of life, the knowledge that while we think we are in control, a grizzly bear could appear out of nowhere, just like a person decked out in 17th century finery in Venice emerges from around a corner. This ability to remain alert, to maintain a wilderness mindset, cultivating a welcome acceptance of the unexpected, good and bad, this is one of many “Lessons of Venice.”

Tomorrow is Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent begins, which means Carnevale has been happening here in Venice for the past ten days, with all kinds of revelry and costumed people. I must admit, I will be grateful for Thursday when the crowds will have gone and the quiet of the Venice winter returns. But grateful for having had this experience of seeing the city transformed by revelry and little moments like what just happened–moments that are impossible to photography, but will remain with me long after I leave here. In both instances, the photographs don’t even begin to capture the magic of each moment. Hopefully my drawings tomorrow will…

  • …a groups of five LED lit white-clothed people just walked through my campo. They were like little snowballs of white light. Perfect. Glorious.
  • And another moment, today on my way to yoga there were three people, I think men, in lovely period costumes with elements of nature. A moss and flower covered staff and massive amounts of peacock feathers coming out of their masks. It was so pretty and they were moving gracefully through the crowd at the base of the Rialto while some string instruments serenade them.

Truly a magical moment. 

Taking the Plunge

One of my favorite quotes from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is

“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. “

This year I’ve done many seemingly impossible, unfathomable things. And because of this, I know I am going to be able to do many more. This past Friday, 20 of us trooped through our woods to an old reservoir. For me and Doug, this is a sacred space. We come here to honor difficult moments in our lives and to celebrate joyous ones. And the day after Thanksgiving? We come to immerse ourselves into the fresh mountain water. I had never done it before. Last year there was at least 12 inches of snow and a layer of ice on the water. The previous year, well, let’s just say my relationship with cold water is worse than my relationship with time. The Plunge

But this year I believed I could do this impossible thing of getting into the cold reservoir water. I had two pretty major surgeries in the past six months (the impossible and unfathomable things) and as a result of making it through them, I often feel pretty powerful. AND, that I can do anything, including getting into cold water. I demonstrated it many times, getting into our unheated pool all the way through the beginning of October. But this is late-November water, with a mucky, icky bottom. (Which is why I am wearing socks.)

We arrive to the edge of the water. All the under 30s, ran in and went under pretty quickly. I tried to go in, but just couldn’t dunk under. (For it to really count, you have to immerse yourself completely.) So I ran out. I tried again, but all the young guys were splashing around, so I ran out again. This time, Doug’s sister said to me, “Melanie, you have come too far. You have to do this. Get back in there and do it.” She was totally right. I had to do this. So back in I went. I joined Doug, his brother-in-law and one of the young men. We joined hands and we said the incantation, “Lord, your seas are so large, and our boats are so small.” They immediately immersed themselves. I needed another, my own private incantation, one I have uttered many times in the past six months. My courage welled inside me and down I went. The Incantation

Truly, I can do seemingly impossible things. Success

Taking the plunge can mean many things, from this literal description, to embarking on those things that seem impossible, but with practice become possible. I write this today, on the first Sunday of Advent, as I begin to prepare for my Advent Collage Calendar practice. Any kind of committed daily practice requires us to plunge into the unknown and to commit. For Advent, every day from December 1-25 I will make a small 5×5 inch collage and post it to my Instagram account and to this blog. You can subscribe to my blog and read the entries that way, or just come by when you feel like it. (Links to Instagram and to subscribe are on the left sidebar.)

Regardless, I hope and challenge you to find something impossible to do today, tomorrow, this week, this year. And the more you do it, you will find that impossible things don’t feel so impossible anymore.photo

Is the past a predictor of the future?

In 2008, I was honored to be chosen to be an artist-in-residence in Denali National Park in Alaska. Denali transformed my understanding of wildness and wilderness. Imagine the state of Massachusetts with only one road, 80 miles in length. (I would love to see Thoreau experience that!) Along that road there are about a dozen official stops: 3-4 visitor centers, 3-4 established campsites and 3-4 park ranger like things, including the cabin where the artist-in-residence stays. That cabin is at the intersection of the East Fork river and the park road, mile 42. This braided river crisscrosses the landscape freely, similar to the grizzly crossing it in the picture below.Alaska_Rock_AGinspired2

The rocks on the riverbed range in color from dull grays to ochres, a spectrum of earth tones calling to be brought together in some kind of Andy Goldsworthy-like construction. I spent one morning gathering a range of colors into a circle. Alaska_Rock_AGinspired1 Alaska_Rock_AGinspired3

The next day, after returning from a day-hike, I was greeted with this letter:

Dear Artist-in-Residence,

Our communication center received a complaint about a large white colored rock ring above the bridge at the East Fork river. In an attempt to preserve the wilderness experience for our visitors we strive to avoid human impacts off the road corridor (i.e. the backcountry). I located the rock ring today and based on its detail and intricate design I thought it might have been created by yourself. As wonderful as it is, it cannot stay. I wanted to give you notice, if in fact it is yours, that it will be removed tomorrow morning. Sorry if this does not pertain to yourself. I hope your stay is wonderful. Please feel free to contact myself or any ranger.

Sincerely, Park Ranger for the Toklat Section

I was impressed with how kind he was. I completely respected the sentiment from where he was coming. So I spent the afternoon hurling rocks back into the wild.

I write about this today, because did this prime me for my reaction to the paper words being removed from the trail last week? My first reaction when I discovered the words missing was that someone removed them because it was disrupting their wilderness experience. My collaborator Holly Wren Spaulding’s reaction was maybe the person who took them down wanted them for their own backyard/woods.

How do our past experiences predict how we will react in the future? Do they prime us? Can we rewire ourselves to not respond a certain way? The first step is recognition, to see the pattern and the link, to acknowledge it and pause before acting. Is it possible to do? What do you think?

Everything is impermanence

CobbleWhat a glorious fall we’ve been having here in the Berkshires. I can’t remember the last time it was this colorful. In honor of this glory, I decided to hang the first installment of the “Here Stands” collaboration that I have been doing with poet Holly Wren Spaulding. 

As I contemplated where to hang the words, I considered a trail near me that leads to the Cheshire Cobbles. This incredible trail leads to an outcropping of rocks from which one can see the entire Greylock Range. I also thought about trails in my own backyard, the only problem with that, is that only I would see it.

So off I set to hang the words on the trail up to the Cobble. My friend Diane came with me, (thank you Diane!) and as we were hanging them I voiced a number of concerns–this is public land, and someone else might think this is trash, or takes away the “wild” experience of the forest, would someone take them down, and how fast? I pushed those thoughts aside and instead thought of this as an experiment, how would it go? How long would they remain? Would they remain?PaperWords_Haiku_1PaperWords_Haiku_AT2PaperWords_Haiku_AT3PaperWords_Haiku_AT4PaperWords_Haiku_AT5PaperWords_Haiku_AT6

I wasn’t able to check on them for 36 hours or so…and when I went back, they were gone. I sighed. I knew this was possible, but I wasn’t prepared for the heartbreak I experienced. Who took them down? What did they think? Did they just throw them in the trash? Why did they take down the words but fail to pick-up the 100 or more tossed bottles and cans at the base of the Cobbles? 

Everything is impermanence.

The spirit of the work is ephemeral. And when this has happened in the past, the same questions and sadness arose. Thankfully, I can make the words again, and I will.

 

What I am working on now…collaboration with Holly Wren Spaulding

This is a reblog of Holly Wren’s post. Read the original here.

More and more I want to move poetry off the page and into public space, especially if it can interrupt the visual environment for a moment of reflection, beauty, or reaction. I’ve been studying examples of what I’ve come to call “visual poems” as I think about how I can merge my poetry with a lifelong interest in visual art and the environment. Lately, I’m working on a project with a new friend that we hope to complete and install in July or August 2015.

‘Here Stands’ is a text-based installation for a public place with trees; a collaboration between printmaker and letterpress artist Melanie Mowinskiand myself, acting as poet and creative director.

About the project:

stand is a contiguous area that contains a number of trees. ‘Here Stands’ is an outdoor poem and a poetic declaration: trees that stand for something.

Poem fragment by Lorine Niedecker

In this large scale public work, my brief, haiku inspired texts will bring attention to the many functions of trees (emotional, spiritual, aesthetic,utilitarian), while Melanie’s handmade paper letters, assembled into chains of words, will encircle the tree trunks creating a ephemeral poemin situ.

Inspiration for this project includes the forest monks of Southeast Asia who “ordain” trees by wrapping them in orange monk’s robes and pronouncing them sacred as they endeavor to save their forests from industrial logging.

Buddhist monks ordaining trees in Thailand to awaken moral conscience of loggers

In her essay “The Ordination of a Tree: The Buddhist Ecology Movement in Thailand,” Susan M. Darlington writes  “A major aim of Buddhism is to relieve suffering, the root causes of which are greed, ignorance, and hatred. The monks see the destruction of the forests, pollution of the air and water, and other environmental problems as ultimately caused by people acting through these evils, motivated by economic gain and the material benefits of development, industrialization, and consumerism. As monks, they believe it is their duty to take action against these evils.‚”

We’re also inspired by the poetic‚”billboards‚” of Scottish artist Robert Montgomery which indict consumer capitalism and inspire new perspectives on urban space.

Robert Montgomery, from the Recycled Sunlight series.

As artists, we use our skills and materials to invite conversation and comment on some of the challenges faced by our society and our environment, including our growing disassociation from the natural world, lack of sympathy for the role Nature plays in sustaining our quality of life, even as we lose it, and of course the increasing impacts of resource extraction on the health of the whole ecosystem.

By presenting this work, we hope to encourage reflection and conversation about the presence of trees in our landscape, as well as a greater appreciation for how they clean our air, filter our water, hold our soil in place and provide respite from the impervious surfaces and ugliness of urbanization.

Art by Melanie Mowinski

Paper words in Knoxville by Melanie Mowinski

We’re seeking funding to support this project. Join us forE.A.T.:Crowdfunding for Creatives on May 14th at Flywheel Arts Collective in Easthampton as we pitch the project to a live audience of potential funders. There will be food by award winning Galaxy Restaurant, beverages from Fort Hill Brewery, and the fine company of some of the most creative people currently working in the Pioneer Valley. Get in touch if you would like more information: hollywren (at) gmail (dot) com.

You may also send donations of any size to us at:

Holly Wren Spaulding

P.O. Box 187

Williamsburg, MA 01096

Memo: “Here Stands”

We are so grateful for your support!

Excerpt from a poem by Holly Wren Spaulding, from the collection 'Pilgrim,' (Alice Greene & Co., 2014).

Paper words in Tazmania, by Melanie Mowinski.

 

Paper words in Knoxville

 

Isaac Wood and Denis Sinclair help me press the water out of the paper pulp.

Isaac Wood and Denis Sinclair help me press the water out of the paper pulp.

Prints in Peculiar Places was a series of special “printstallations” that took place during the 2015 “Sphere” Southern Graphics Council International conference. Working with the City of Knoxville, the KCDC Public Building Authority, the L&N STEM Academy and various private business owners, the “Sphere” organizing committee have identified a series of locations where printworks were installed during the week of the conference.

My paper words project was chosen to be part of this special installation project and as part of it, I made eight new words with the help of three of my students from MCLA. Here are some pictures of the installation. I will be hanging the words again in two weeks as part of Art Along the River, a project of the Hoosic River Watershed Association in Williamstown, the weekend of April 18-19.

PaperwordsKnoxville1 PaperwordsKnoxville2 PaperwordsKnoxville3 PaperwordsKnoxville4 PaperwordsKnoxville5 PaperwordsKnoxville6 PaperwordsKnoxville7

 

Getting ready for SGCI in Knoxville

SGCI: Southern Graphics Council International’s annual conference will be meeting beginning tomorrow, March 18th in Knoxville, Tennessee. I’m thrilled to be participating as one of the Prints in Peculiar Places artists, as well as in two of the Inkubator conversations. I challenge you to take a look at the Inkubator conversations and the first person to correctly choose and name in the comments the two conversations in which I am participating will get a “word” of their choice. (See below for the words.)

For my Prints in Peculiar Places installation I have made some new paper words and will be installing them in a copse of trees at the L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville. I’ll be hanging them between 2-5 pm on Wednesday, tomorrow, provided my flights are on time! If you are in Knoxville, please stop by and say hello. Here are the words ready to go. DSC_0107

Some of you might remember when I first did this installation in Rittenhouse Square in 2005. At that point I only had five words. I made nine new words, eight that were chosen by the L&N students: hope, joy, wish, laugh, live, share, smile, hope and the ninth, heal, that I chose. Many of the words were made by MCLA students’ Isaac Wood, Denis Sinclair and Angela Digennaro. Big collaboration and help!

I am extremely grateful for the MCLA students and only wish they could also attend the conference. I look forward to posting pictures from the install. Stay tuned!

 

Beach Combing

Assuming the squat position over a pile of stones and shells instantly takes me back to memories of rocky Atlantic beaches in the Caribbean.
I could spend hours in that position hunting for shells of a particular size and shape. But right now I am near Crescent Beach in Portland, Maine atop fibrous rocks that splinter like wood and seem closer to giant petrified logs than coastal shale.
My low-position has me eyeing for splinter stones, worn smooth but still more spike-like than I’ve ever seen in New England–reminding me of another Caribbean memory–choosing a beach by the kind of shell or stone gathering I wanted to do.
The challenge I set for myself now is how to transform these forms into drawings, little abstractions of memory and moment.

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