US-based artist Kate MacDowell creates luminous sculptures out of porcelain, startling juxtapositions of human body parts with finely detailed plants, birds and other nonhuman animals.
MacDowell is deeply concerned about the current environmental crisis. In her artist statement, she explains the thinking behind her intricate work:
In each case the union between man and nature is shown to be one of friction and discomfort with the disturbing implication that we too are vulnerable to being victimized by our destructive practices.
The piece at the top of this post is a response to the word ‘solastalgia’. Coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht, solastalgia refers to a form of ‘psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change’. It’s like being homesick – but when you’re still at home. I wrote about it in more detail in my last post.
In a TED talk, Albrecht uses MacDowell’s work to illustrate what he sees as an ancient drama playing out in the minds of humans. It’s the conflict between the urge to create and the urge to destroy, and in his opinion it’s reaching a crisis point as humans impact the planet in ways they never have before.
MacDowell’s sculpture shows a koala and a variety of native Australian plants inside a human brain. Albrecht says it represents ‘this idea that there may be a koala sitting inside of our heads asking questions of us about urban growth, urban development, pushing into a koala habitat’.
Albrecht is Australian and it’s fair to assume that for him the koala may have a particular emotional resonance grounded in its ‘Australianness’. He made me wonder about the equivalent of a koala for a British person.
What has enough emotional and cultural resonance to sit inside our heads and ask awkward questions about what we’re doing to the more-than-human world?
I found an answer on holiday in Scotland a fortnight ago. We spent a day at the Taynish Nature Reserve in Knapdale, an area of steep valleys and sea lochs in Argyll and Bute.
About 75 per cent of the reserve is wooded, and the signs of woodland spring were all around us: more primroses than I have ever seen in my life, along with violets, wood anemones, sorrel and even the odd early bluebell. The scale-descending song of willow warblers repeated over and over; there was the sawing call of great tits, and occasionally a woodpecker drummed.
Pollen analysis shows that there has been woodland on this peninsula for at least 7,000 years, and the tree that dominates is oak.
Part of the reserve runs alongside Loch Sween, and wandering towards the shore I turned a corner and was startled to discover a ‘poet’s seat’, not marked on my tourist map.
Beside the seat was a little box with the Alice-in-Wonderland-like instruction: ‘Lift Me’.
Of course I did. Inside the box was an anthology of tree poems, Into the Forest, edited by Mandy Haddith. The section on oaks starts with a short, powerful piece by the Gaelic writer Aonghas MacNeacail.
These lines brilliantly capture the unique place that oak trees hold in the British imagination. MacNeacail’s is a gloriously Scottish angle, but the oak is also deeply significant in the rest of the UK, a symbol of strength and courage, worshipped by our ancient forbears, star of many a story about our history, and popular today on pub signs, coins and company logos.
I left Loch Sween and the ancient woodland wondering whether a British version of MacDowell’s sculpture might feature an oak tree, something that could stand in the imagination for all the myriad parts of the more-than-human world that are threatened by our drive to growth and expansion, a drive that can destroy even those things we love most.
In particular, I thought of my 150-year-old friend Vernon Oak, one of 17,500 street trees earmarked for felling Sheffield City Council in a bid to save money on road maintenance. I wrote about Vernon here and Vernon kindly gave me an interview here.
If any good can be said to have come of the killing of healthy street trees in Sheffield, it’s that many of us have become more aware of the trees we may formerly have taken for granted.
I notice trees everywhere now in a way I didn’t before. I’m learning to identify them from bark and bud, as well as leaf, reading about their biology, grieving when I hear of other felling projects, such as Network Rail’s destruction of thousands of trees in a bid to stop leaves falling on train tracks.
After I got back from Scotland, I went to visit Vernon. Spring is so late this year and Vernon was only just beginning to put on leaves, a lovely, gauzy promise of the full foliage to come.
I remembered a recent conversation with some of Vernon’s neighbours, women who live within sight of this magnificent tree and have been campaigning against the felling plans for more than two years now.
They spoke of Vernon as of a friend, commenting on how late the leaves were emerging this year compared to last, worrying about the tawny owls that used to call between Vernon and some mature lime trees in the next road. Six of those limes were felled a few weeks ago.
Kate MacDowell has also created a sculpture called ‘Soliphilia’.
Soliphilia is another term coined by Glenn Albrecht and he defines it as
the love of the totality of our place relationships and a willingness to accept, in solidarity and affiliation with others, the political responsibility for the health of our earth, our home.
In MacDowell’s sculpture, the juxtaposition of the human hand and the leaves is not jarring or shocking as many of her other pieces are. Instead, there’s a sense of flowing and unity. It reminds me of these women, and of others who have responded to the Sheffield tree crisis with love and creativity, as well as with anger and tears.
And now, a wonderful, new creative project is bubbling up in Sheffield, something that has come from listening to the oak tree in our heads. Full details in my next post!
Many thanks to Kate MacDowell for help with the post and for permission to use the photographs of her sculptures. More examples of Kate’s work can be seen on her website: www.katemacdowell.com