I recently attended Susan Quateman and Les Bartlett's exhibit of silk paintings and photographs in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Deeply rooted in the Boston North Shore’s landscapes (albeit Susan is from London and Les is from Epsom, New Hampshire,) these artists collaborate and combine their skills of silk painting and photography, creating a unique art form. Together, they seek to raise awareness and elicit emotion around climate change and resilience. I asked them about the role of artists in nature conservation and sustainability.
Pascal: Les, how do you choose your motifs?
Les: I grew up in a New England landscape that had been farmed by my family for over 200 years. My childhood was spent in a time and place where the farm life had been vanquished and 11 majestic American Elms were preparing to die. Haying fields, horse-marked paths and huge vegetable plots were steadily being overtaken by weeds of time.
I choose motifs which steer me off the regular path of traffic—but routinely venture only a few feet off the beaten path. I am fascinated by landscapes that are lying so close at hand yet often ignored or by passersby. I especially focus on granite. And I return to the same rock landscape over weeks, months and years, offering me a glimpse at landscapes changing over an extended time period. A contemplation which yields conversation with the elements themselves.
Ultimately, I choose local motifs which offer me a particular place, a sign of human activity and an opportunity for representational art. These three aspects permit me to proceed to realize an image in print.
Pascal: Susan, what is silk painting and why combine it with Les' photos?
Susan: Silk is ancient fabric—it’s actually the actually the strongest natural fiber, created by the bombyx mori moth. Silk paintings are created on white silk. The dyes are painted onto the stretched surface of the silk using a soft paintbrush.
I started working with Les’ photographs of granite quarries about six years ago. After walking through the Rockport quarries with Les, paying careful attention to the textures, light and colors of the granite rocks, I would take his printed images into the studio. There I created my own rock silk images, painted in vibrantly colored dyes. However, it was only in the past two years that we have seen the potency of actually collaging the silk and photo images, so that they create a new artwork that really appeals to people.
Pascal: What do you see as the role of artists in nature conservation or thinking about resiliency?
Susan: Artists can play a very important role in nature conservation by using their craft to appeal to people’s emotions, intuition and response to beauty. There are many environmental artists currently filling this need in the USA, Europe, Australia. In my opinion, one of the most interesting artists is Mary Edna Fraser, a batik artist who lives and works in Charleston, South Carolina. She uses art as a vehicle to make the highlight the fragility of the Southern barrier islands, coastlines, rivers and streams.
Inspired by Mary Edna and my background as an urban and environmental planner in the UK and USA, I have taken the issues of coastal climate change, storm surge and landscape resilience and woven them into a narrative of silk and photography. I am so happy that Les is a collaborator in this effort, bringing his photographic skills, graphic design and Photoshop expertise to our montaged silk and photo images. This enables us to tell the stories of climate change in a unique, artistic way that really appeals to the public.
Pascal: Can you talk more about these specific motifs?
Les: Walking the open spaces of Marblehead, we look to find a doorway that offers a deeper perspective into the spaces themselves. In every preserved open space that we walked, I took a photograph of the entrance to the open space. The entrance to Wyman Woods offered the best viewpoint of a combined path, shadow and overhanging trees. It was a portal with the promise of more landscape behind it. The high contrast black and white photograph intrigued Susan. Her silk painting of Wyman Woods and the photograph were blended and printed onto fabric by me. We wished to suggest multiple walks, multiple viewings and multiple climates sustained in this landscape. Viewers of the Wyman Woods montage were offered an intriguing landscape – a motif landscape.
Pascal: You've done a project with TNC on climate change resilience and the Cape Ann quarry landscape. How did that collaboration go? What were the outcomes?
Susan: In 2016 we worked with Jessica Dyson, a GIS specialist at the Boston office of The Nature Conservancy. We were intrigued about TNC’s approach to climate change resilience and the quarry landscape of Cape Ann, MA. While walking through the quarries of Rockport, MA, it seemed to me that the varied landforms we were walking through—the rocky coastlands, the deserted water-covered quarries and lichen-covered granite boulders, the forested wetlands of sumac and swamp white oaks—created a diversity of micro-climates. In turn these micro-climates could buffer the wildlife from the effects of climate change. The undeveloped lands would serve as a stronghold for the natural habitats in the quarry landscape. I wondered if this quarry landscape could also be an area of climate change resilience.
Mark Robinson of TNC, an expert in climate change resilience, confirmed that my thesis was valid, and Jessica helped us put together two scientific charts on climate change resilience and the Cape Ann quarry landscape for a silk/photography exhibit. The science of climate change resilience was interwoven into the exhibit of silk banners.
About 500 people visited the exhibit. They were intrigued; some understood the connections immediately, while others were somewhat puzzled. Climate change resilience is a hard concept to get across artistically, if the viewer has little environmental or land conservation background. More recently, we have shown an exhibit titled “Landscape Resilience in Marblehead and Cape Ann: Viewed Through the Prism of Ecology and Stories,” which included some additional artwork since the first exhibit. We learned from a few viewers that possibly some simple text explaining the science might have clarified the concepts of ‘resilience’ beyond the charts and artworks.
Pascal: TNC is traditionally a very fact-based and science driven organization. What is your perspective as artist on our mission of protecting the land and water? Why is it important that conservationists combine forces with artists?
Susan: Time and time again it has been shown that the general public finds it hard to focus on facts and science in understanding the importance of environmental protection and climate change. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TV can produce a mind-numbing diet of sound-bites and instantaneous reactions to events without a backwards glance at history or truthfulness. Understanding science and facts requires intellectual effort and time to read and absorb.
The Nature Conservancy and other conservation organizations appeal to a constituency willing and able to take this time and effort. There are, however, many who could better understand these efforts if only the stories were told in a less scientific and wordy fashion. Art has a critical role here. Through artistic interpretations, environmental narrative has an immediate and emotional impact. This is why it is so important for environmentalists to continue to combine forces with artists.
Pascal: what could some future collaborations look like?
Les and Susan: We would love to collaborate more with conservation groups. I (Susan) am especially drawn to looking at ways we could portray—with silk painting, photography and possibly another collaborating sculptor—the use of natural solutions to combat climate change. I am interested in using art to demonstrate approaches to improving the resilience of ecosystems; to make cooler cities by creating urban forests; conserving lands, such as marshlands in urban areas, to reduce possible devastation created by sea-level rise, and in the creation of artificial reefs to mitigate against storm surge.
Les: And I am interested in art collaborations which yield stories, which engage the attention of the viewer. Stories which ask to be told again and again.
I am also interested in science that is presented via anecdotal display, and critical arguments and conclusions that are framed graphically and artistically in a multi-language simultaneous display.
I am interested in continuing art collaborations with Susan and others which reflect the resilience (or threats to resilience) of the immediate locale of the artists and the viewers; expanding peripheral vision one glance to the left, one glance to the right. Right outside the immediate door of dailiness. I want hesitation, uncertainty in the gait of the viewer, a willing stumble off the path of “it doesn’t apply to me.” And I want the stories of each current art installation to be repeated.