Since 2010, I’ve been writing a novel that has revealed itself over the years to be an uncanny love letter to the far north. In 2013, I was invited to participate in an expeditionary residency to Svalbard – which is where my novel takes place. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my blog and to many in person, this trip via sailing ship up the west coast of Spitsbergen (the Svalbard archipelago’s largest island), was a life-changing event in many ways. Foremost was the chance to reconcile the imaginative Svalbard of my novel with the real place, and to glean new threads of the story to incorporate into the framework I’d already created. To engage in this process on board a ship full of equally awestruck artists and makers and an intrepid crew of sailors and wilderness guides, gave me an unprecedented chance to leap forward in my vision and craft.
Once I returned home to my normal life, I had trouble processing all I’d seen and felt. Everything in Svalbard had been over the top, from the ship and camaraderie to the ice/tundra/crags/continuous sunlight equation of Svalbard; an inevitable funk arose upon reentry to my life at home. I have been writing novels since I was twenty years old, so I have no problem working in isolation for long periods, but The Arctic Circle residency was an experience that pulled a group of artists together in a unique way, in a rugged and remote place, and that bond had so much meaning for me that for the first time in my artistic life I felt…lonely.
One evening shortly after my return, I went on The Arctic Circle’s website and looked through the names of program alumni. Clicking through the artists’ websites, I really got a sense of the body of work that is emerging from the residency – arctic landscapes and connections with climate change, the poetics of glaciers, and lone figures standing sentinel in the backgrounds of paintings and drawings – invocations of our wilderness guides during the trip, who watched for polar bears while we doodled and journaled on shore. I was just starting to feel the camaraderie again when I clicked on Cedra Wood’s name and found a video of her exquisite arctic journal (Svalbard begins at 04:40)
Even though I couldn’t actually read the writing, Cedra’s eloquent expressions of her Arctic Circle residency, paired with the soothing cadence of the page-turning itself (maybe it’s a writer thing) were a balm for the loneliness I felt post-arctic, and I began following her work via social media. I soon discovered that beyond the arctic connection, Cedra’s work inspired me on many levels. It is concerned with wild nature within and without, and her interest includes species commonly referred to as ‘invasive’ and she puts them in close relationship with humankind. Her work is vividly mythological and timeless, and leaves room for the viewer to distill different meanings. And perhaps the element that is most provocative and inspiring to me personally: many of her works are concerned with the creative process itself. She sews garments to be worn by models in her paintings; she uses video for performance art that also serves as painting fodder; her journals are cohesive artworks that express a creative journey. Above all, Cedra embodies artistic integrity and focus – two qualities I admire and to which I aspire.
Last month, I took the train from Emeryville, CA to Reno, NV to visit Cedra and her partner, comics artist/painter Christopher Baldwin, and to see Cedra’s solo exhibit, A Residency on Earth, at the Nevada Museum of Art where she is a fellow at the Center for Art and the Environment. Each of the gallery walls of her exhibit show work from places Cedra has traveled: Australia, Svalbard, and the American Southwest. Cedra gave an artist’s talk while I was there, and graciously gave me permission to reprint some of what she discussed. Excerpts from Cedra’s notes are italicized.
My parents are not storytellers, but once they told me about the invention of my name. In their courtship, they were riding my dad’s motorcycle, brainstorming the names of their potential future children (as one does). My dad being a forest ranger at the time and very interested in trees, his surname being Wood, and both of them evidently feeling whimsical, they settled on the name of their firstborn girl child as a pun: Cedra (Cedar) Wood. (My dad joked, “It could have been worse. we almost named you Sandal.”) I loved this story because this conceiving of my name (1) links me with the natural world. (2) The very idea of me was born in motion, going down the highway. And (3) it’s playful. I can’t think of three characteristics that I’d rather embody.
The series below was created in southern Utah, where Cedra considered the fleeting yet extreme ecosystem of ephemeral pools. These pools are naturally occurring sandstone basins that collect rainwater and windblown sediments and organisms. Cedra focused her process on one such organism, the tadpole shrimp (!). In an attempt to emulate the shrimp’s lifestyle and make art along the way, Cedra buried herself in the dry pool, leaving only her carapace and caudal rami exposed.
I find that the right odd moments,–juxtaposed–complete and compliment and complicate each other, begin to harmonize into a composition, like a bunch of dissonant sounds suddenly resolving into a chord.
Cedra’s painting is on the left in the photo above, and the three photographs on the right were taken by the artist Lauren Greenwald.
Transplants, 2014. For this work, Cedra made two costumes out of burlap, linen, cotton, yucca fiber, cottonwood fluff, juniper berries, velvet grass, sunflower leaves, and leafy spurge. You can see from the images behind the costume that models wore the clothing in sketches for eventual paintings. The costumes were made in Ucross, Wyoming, and the landscape that appears in the backdrop of the draft drawing is Mount Edith Cavell, in Jasper NP (Alberta).
The ranch [at Ucross] supports efforts that are agricultural and economical, narrative and aesthetic, observational and analytical; but one seemingly central element was the abundant plant life…fodder for conversation as well as cattle.With this in mind, I referenced clothing patterns from the late 1800s to create homesteading-era costumes, covering the garments with hand-gathered plant materials.
These pants are made out of sunflower leaves!
Not long after I got my MFA, I went with a small band of Land Arts alumni to Australia. I was a sort of bashful ambassador in an exchange of ideas with the field studies program at the Australian National University. I had never been out of the country before.
As before, found myself in completely alien surroundings. To find my bearings, I found myself thinking of the field expeditions as a game. A game that there are hundreds of ways to win…all you have to do is learn something…and the only way to lose is to have a really, irredeemably bad time.
The trick was to land in the middle of things and not to panic. I gave myself permission not to try to leap to solutions or goals or conclusions, or worry whether I could immediately produce a work of genius–but to trust that over time, the things that stood out would prove their significance later. The idea of invasive species was something that kept coming up over and over in AU—that some introduced plant or bird or animal would thrive at the expense of biodiversity by outcompeting or exterminating its fellow species. Even dingos weren’t free from this controversy, despite having been there for several thousand years.
These are prickly paddy melons [photo below, on right], which were growing in abundance near Calperum Research Station in South Australia. As further articulated, the objective of the fieldwork game is to absorb an experience of a place fully by any means available to me, and later articulate the significance of that experience. So my first move was to blindly follow impulses toward things I wanted to understand better. Like what it meant to feel overwhelmed or oppressed by an excess of something. Or, the flip side of that coin, what it could mean to have a really personal, maybe significant, interaction with a bounty of something that has value on its own merits.
Once, when I was a kid helping my mom clear the garden, I asked my mom what the difference between a flower and a weed was. She said, ‘a weed is a flower that grows where it’s not wanted.’ The large and global story of invasiveness, migration, and the subjectiveness of being wanted or unwanted, hit home for me personally too in Australia, as I was in a strange place, an invader whose amplified social anxieties led me to place myself firmly in the invasive category.
My immediate goal was just to keep track of everything that surprised me. Seek out the tensions. Keep an eye out for symbols. Listen to the themes that emerge in conversation.
During her residency onboard the tall ship Antigua, Cedra Wood and the artist Christy Georg braided Cedra’s hair into the rigging. Another example of what could be called performance art that later became fodder for a breathtaking painting (not done justice in the photo below).
[While onboard] I had decided I wanted to make myself a part of the ship. It was quickly evident how much we depended on the ship for survival (food, warmth, companionship, etc). Wanting to be as useful to it as it was to me. Fruitless of course. I just finished—last night, truly—the painting that’s the culmination of this performance.
This photo shows the painting being hung up for the exhibit. I had the good fortune to be hanging around with Cedra while she finished it the night before in her small hotel room in Reno.
As I hone in on finishing my novel-in-progress, Cedra’s work has provided a deep level not only of inspiration, but also insight into another artist’s process, interests, and vision.
Oh, and while I was in Nevada, Cedra and Christopher took me to Pyramid Lake at sunset. Sadly, we didn’t see any Cui uis, but the land- and lake-scape were sublime.
Llisten to the patterns of tree rings and birds on a wire – translated to music.
From Livescience.com: Artist Bartholomäus Traubeck has custom-built a record player that is able to “play” cross-sectional slices of tree trunks. The result is his artpiece “Years,” an audio recording of tree rings being read by a computer and turned into music, much like a record player’s needle reads the grooves on an LP. The custom record player takes in data using a PlayStation Eye Camera and a stepper motor attached to its control arm, and relays the data to a computer. A program called Ableton Live then uses it to generate an eerie piano track.
And here’s what Jarbas Agnelli says about his musical work, Birds on the Wire:
“Reading a newspaper, I saw a picture of birds on the electric wires. I cut out the photo and decided to make a song, using the exact location of the birds as notes (no Photoshop edit). I knew it wasn’t the most original idea in the universe. I was just curious to hear what melody the birds were creating.”
This place mirrors the sea in stone. When a storm surges on its windward side, it’s as if the island leans into each swell and just watching it I pitch and stumble from these massive forces straining against the boundaries of their physical form.
Salt water, basalt, seaweed, wind, and windblown grasses layer into a home so rich and intricate that nudibranchs – those tidepool naiads – preside here. Spruces grow at each end of this hourglass and tidewater cinches its waist.
A true ornithopolis, each summer the island is home to half a million nesting birds and can be divided into numerous avian boroughs. Most familiarly, the branches support crow, raven, eagle, sparrow, and hummingbird nests. In the duff there are storm petrel burrows. On the island’s rocky periphery live cormorants, murres, pigeon guillemots, and in grass huts there are puffins. Fox and song sparrows conduct busywork in the salmon berry brush and oystercatchers referee. Rhinoceros auklets live in smooth soil caves and by the light of the moon carry sparkling silver fish home to their young. The basalt ridges running the length of the place are the gulls’ domain. In each neighborhood there are disputes and spies, loudmouths, children playing, and weather-worn elders sitting alone. Walking from one end of the island to another, I feel a hundred discerning eyes tracking me.
Especially when it involves blubber pots. After years of excavation and research, scientists have been able to identify the sunken remains of a nineteenth-century whaling ship located about 600 miles northwest of Hawaii as the Two Brothers, the second vessel to sink under the command of Captain George Pollard Jr., Herman Melville’s inspiration for Captain Ahab. After he survived his first shipwreck (caused by a giant sperm whale ramming his ship), Captain Pollard thought that lightning wouldn’t strike twice. It did. After he watched the Two Brothers sink, he never went to sea again. Apparently he became a night watchman.
For more details about this fantastic tale (including cannibalism!) check out this article published by NOAA.
Here’s one from National Geographic with photos of some recovered whaling artifacts.
Illustration is “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee,” by Tom Neely.