The art of awareness

acuff artwork
Assistant Professor of Art Michelle Acuff recently was invited to an artist residency at Playa in southern Oregon. She took this image of a piece she completed at Playa. She said her work “is related thematically to my larger investigations in which I’m trying to ‘visualize’ pernicious environmental damage that is mostly invisible (global warming, pesticides, other toxins, etc.). I’m recurring to highly aestheticized means (the bright colors, forms, contrasts), because it’s really hard to understand issues without having a visual reference for it, like oil covered pelicans, for example. And they are related to my previous work, too, in that they try to pronounce my alienation from the landscape/natural world. Not to celebrate it, but to more honestly assess where we are at as a culture.”
Photo courtesy of Michelle Acuff

Oftentimes, words just won’t do. Assistant Professor of Art Michelle Acuff’s work embodies and provokes a dialogue between art and environment.

Michelle Acuff

Whitman Magazine: How does your art speak about environmentalism, environmental concerns or sense of place?

Michelle Acuff: In my work I try to articulate a sense of how confusing our environmental predicament is, how complex, and quite honestly, how overwhelming and somewhat unable to grasp it truly is. I think this is useful to the extent that it acknowledges complicities and difficult emotions, and the ways in which rationality isn’t always a sufficient tool for navigating every aspect of this cultural moment. In my work I offer up visual/material scenarios that offer viewers an opportunity to engage both sides of their brain in the matter.

What are you working on now?

I’m continuing my work with deer imagery, specifically a piece in which I create individual porcelain copies of all of the bones of a deer skeleton I collected from Mill Creek Road. But I always use my sabbatical to open to new ideas and paths. I did a lot of video and photographically based works during my recent residencies. And this summer I am working with a student, Paul Cathcart ’14, on a Perry Grant that will put us in Portland, Ore., and its surrounding area collaborating on and rethinking another deer video piece I started last summer.

How does art make people aware of environmental concerns and sustainability? Can you give me some specific examples?

Oh so many artists are directing their attention to these issues. One of my favorite examples is Marc Dion’s piece “Neukum Vivarium” at the Seattle Sculpture Park. It consists of the trunk of a large fallen fir tree that is kept in a greenhouse-like structure under strictly regulated water and light conditions so that it may continue to foster new life as it goes through its many decades-long process of decomposition. In fact, the piece itself looks much more like science than art, and many people don’t even know it’s actually a sculpture. It creates a dialogue between the two cultural paradigms and that leads in really interesting directions.

You were invited to two artist residencies, Playa in southern Oregon and Brush Creek Ranch in eastern Wyoming. Tell us a little about what you learned there.

Both places were simultaneously extravagant and remote; unrestrained in the comforts and amenities they offered (individual cabins and work studios, delicious food, situated in the heart of vast and iconic Western landscapes) and remote in the sense that they were very distant from the non-natural world. So I spent a lot of face-time with rocks and rivers and wind and amazing vistas. It was pretty nourishing and definitely affected my work. The landscapes were hard not to respond to.

Walla Walla is a unique place. How does Whitman’s location feed your artistic vision and the visions of students?

I think Walla Walla and Whitman are both places where one can gain some perspective. There’s a lot of space here and a lot of light. The landscape itself is visually stunning and diverse. On closer inspection, there are many intricacies worth attending to. For example: the stunning emerald green of the wheat mono crop all around – it’s a sight to behold and much is made of its obvious beauty – yet, chemically, environmentally, it’s also emblematic of a much larger and dangerous situation.

Do you bring this interplay between environment and artist into the classroom?

I do. Next semester my Intermediate/Advanced Sculpture class will take many cues from a book/catalog of an exhibition titled “Badlands,” curated by the Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art. It showcases many ways artists are dealing with and understanding landscape and our ecological impacts newly. Student projects will take their thematic and physical shape in response to these ideas. In addition to this course I’ll also be team-teaching a course with Aaron Bobrow-Strain in politics. The course is titled Raw Geographies and deals with the intersection of critical social theory and art practice. Its subject is the relentless making and remaking of diverse spaces – from the built environments of cities, to the geographies of “natural” landscape, to the often invisible, but still highly material, routes in which migrants, information, money and ideas flow. Its focus is on artists, activists and academics who illuminate, contest or resist these spatial processes through performance, site specific installations and other means that might be called “art.” There has been a ton of interest in the class and we have a long waitlist.

Are students exploring this dialogue between nature and art?

Yes, I have found the dovetailing between these two spheres to be of great conceptual interest to students. It’s thematically as old as it gets – think of Stonehenge or even depictions of the Garden of Eden – and yet also has a very contemporary resonance. There’s a lot of interest on this campus in how to create change in the world, how to embolden our relationship with nature, so much so that it has filtered into my own work and now my curriculum. It’s interestingly and wonderfully symbiotic.

David Brauhn