Sunday, March 27, 2016

It Takes One: A feature by The Cultural Landscape Foundation

I've had the honor to be featured on The Cultural Landscape Foundation's website. I recently went to Houston to attend a TCLF conference called "Leading with Landscape: The Transformation of Houston." In getting to know a few of the TCLF members there I shared a little about my work and what's going on in Milwaukee. They were interested enough to interview me for their feature, "It Takes One." I'm reprinting it below. If you want to read the original on their website, click here.

It Takes One: Eddee Daniel

I am a photographer and writer specializing in urban ecologies and cultural landscapes. My practice is multidimensional. I tell stories about particular places. I also examine how we perceive and construct understandings of nature in the contexts of culture and the built environment. I have long characterized my work with the paradoxical term ‘Urban Wilderness,’ which symbolizes the complexity of my subject matter as well as its inherent tensions.

I have degrees in art education with an emphasis on photography. After more than 30 years of teaching art, photography, and architecture in secondary- and higher-educational settings, for the past six years I have pursued my current practice full time. I also have a long record of environmental advocacy, having served on the boards of several local non-profit organizations. I love all of the arts. Currently, I am collaborating with two choreographers, who are incorporating my imagery into environmental-themed dance programs. My interest in cultural landscapes is less a conscious choice than a thoroughly ingrained personal temperament.

Menomonee River reconstruction, Milwaukee, WI
How do you define a cultural landscape?
A cultural landscape is a place, whether natural, built, or otherwise designed, that has felt the impact of the human imprint. These places may be interpreted broadly or very particularly. Today, at the beginning of what some are calling the Anthropocene Epoch—when human influence has begun to affect ecology on a planetary scale—an argument can be made that all landscapes have a cultural aspect. For the purposes of my artistic practice, I generally choose to examine landscapes where the human and natural elements are inextricably interconnected: Either there has been a deliberate effort to modify a place or the features of a place have motivated humans to adapt to it. To me, cultural landscapes are places that live in the imagination as well as exist as earthy terrain: They have stories worth telling.

What is the Urban Wilderness Project?
The Urban Wilderness Project began as a voyage of discovery as well as a means to advocate for conservation and restoration of natural habitats within my local urban and suburban setting. It was also about how to perceive a watershed while living in a city. I set out to explore and document the existing conditions within the Menomonee River watershed, which begins in an exurban area of farms and encroaching suburbs and runs through the heart of industrial Milwaukee. I spent six years exploring the physical features of the region and, in particular, its rivers and riparian parks. The project dealt with issues of land use, flood management, economic development, recreational opportunities, pollution, wildlife diversity, and habitat restoration. The outcome was a book entitled Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed, published by the Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago.

Beyond that specific project, I have used the term ‘Urban Wilderness’ more generally to symbolize the complexity of my experiences as well as my creative responses to the tensions and themes symbolized by this idea. The term, which for me is rich with hope as well as contradiction, has provided the conceptual underpinning for various bodies of work I have undertaken in the past 20 years. Although these bodies of work are loosely unified by the overarching ‘Urban Wilderness’ concept, they vary in focus and style from documentary realism to abstract formalism. Throughout, I try to emphasize an experience of the world that is relational and conditional rather than singular and fixed.

St. Louis Art Museum, Forest Park, St. Louis
How do you choose your projects?
In a world that seems to have become an endless series of ecological catastrophes, I have made a determined effort to choose projects that tell a more hopeful story. I admire the efforts of others to raise awareness about a wide variety of important and pressing environmental concerns; that is essential. However, I seek places where I see positive transformation either underway or being planned. In 2014, I served as the inaugural artist-in-residence in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, a blighted post-industrial landscape that is in the midst of economic and environmental revitalization. In 2015, I worked with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District to document its Kinnickinnic River Project, which will eventually remove several miles of concrete channel and recreate a more naturalized river.

Is your work primarily documentary, or does it strive to do something else?
My work can be difficult to categorize. Much of what I do is documentary. My writing can be described as creative non-fiction. My photography veers between straightforward documentary and the fine art formalism that was the basis of my artistic education. I am unquestionably an advocate for many things: the creation and enjoyment of urban parklands, sustainable development, river revitalization, instilling a love of nature in children, just and equitable access to nature, etc. My artistic work often reflects this. Sometimes it is more abstract or symbolic, like the long-running personal project I call Synecdoche: the fragment that represents the whole. Uncharacteristically, but importantly, that project is not devoted to a specific place. Instead, it suggests a more universal experience of nature as fragmentary and that what remains must stand in for what has been lost.

I would like to think that I observe the world with a childlike sense of wonder. Occasionally I believe I achieve that valuable goal. But in truth, there is nearly always a defining conceptual basis to the work I do, whether symbolic, as in Synecdoche, or pragmatic, as in the restoration of a damaged river.

Curtain Wall, from Synecdoche: the fragment that represents the whole
What are the advantages and disadvantages of the medium of photography in capturing the essence of a place?
Photography has nearly universal appeal due to its accessibility and democratic character. People generally believe what they see and photography can lend credence to the subject it represents. That can be an asset for a documentary project. It enables viewers to visualize a place and helps drive a narrative. However, to turn the old saw on its head, a photograph often requires a thousand words to put it into context. Without contextual support, a single image can easily be misunderstood. To remedy this potential pitfall, I rarely depend upon a single image and I include written narratives to support my theses.

Alienation from nature is a frequent theme in your work. Are parks and maintained natural areas a true remedy to such alienation?
While I am sensitive to the issue of alienation from nature, I don’t consider that a starting point. It is my fundamental belief that the human/nature divide is a false one. If I have a starting point for my practice it is the idea of the interdependency of all life and the interconnection between nature and the built environment symbolized by the theme of 'Urban Wilderness.' Having said that, in an increasingly urbanized world we do have to deal with alienation from traditional experiences of nature. I believe that urban parks and natural areas are indeed a vital component in combatting what author Richard Louv refers to as “nature deficit disorder.” In my experience, the well-documented health and spiritual benefits of exposure to the natural world accrue to time spent in urban natural areas as readily as elsewhere.

Urban Wilderness, from the Urban Wilderness Project
What message would you like to give our readers that may inspire them to make a difference?
Like most people who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, a huge percentage of my youth was spent outdoors and unsupervised. That kind of upbringing is so rare today that children fortunate enough (from my perspective) to have that experience are dubbed “free-range kids.” If children are not provided with daily opportunities to run free in nature, the consequences will not only affect their own development, potentially leading to an increase in physical disabilities, decreased mental acuity and spiritual poverty, it will also create a society that no longer values nature enough to protect what remains.

As more and more of the global population lives in urban settings, sensitively designed public parks and natural areas become increasingly vital to everyone’s future. We cannot reset the clock to 1955, but we can create a future that enables people of all ages to see and touch nature within their own communities.

Forest Park, St. Louis, MO
Stay tuned for a blog post about Houston and my experiences there.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Forest Park, St. Louis: more urban than wilderness, but lovely

I stopped in St. Louis on my way to a conference in Houston. Spent the afternoon in Forest Park. Weighing in at over 1300 acres, it's larger than New York's Central Park, with which it has more than a passing resemblance. Like Central Park, it contains a zoo and the city's premier art museum. Also two golf courses--currently rather worse for wear due to dry conditions. I'm guessing they don't water much. First time I've seen golfers on brown fairways.

I did manage to find a couple wildish areas to wander about in. A photo essay:

Cypress "knees"
Birch grove reflected in St. Louis Art Museum windows
Trailhead, JFK Memorial Forest (seriously)

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Nature in the New World: the 'American Vision' at Milwaukee Art Museum

An edited version of this review first appeared at Milwaukee Magazine on March 3, 2016.

Imagine wilderness that stretches out before you in every direction, apparently endlessly. Imagine a new nation, boldly wrenched from the tired conventions of its European origins—a nation of pioneers, adventurers and visionaries. What kind of art works would these circumstances inspire? The answer is currently on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum in the newly opened exhibit, Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School.

View from the Highlands of West Point, John Ferguson Weir, 1862
Yes! Go first to Nature and learn to paint landscape, and when you have learnt to imitate her, you may then study the pictures of great artists with benefit. Why should not the American landscape painter, in accordance with the principle of self-government, boldly originate a high and independent style, based on his native resources?” ~ Asher B. Durand

This quote, by one of the founders of the Hudson River School, is among many that greet viewers on the walls of the museum gallery. Make no mistake: Nature is not merely the subject of the artists of this period but also muse and often-deified raison d'ĂȘtre.

For the American Romantic artist of the early nineteenth century, Nature was abundant, exuberant and unfathomable. They not only painted it, they reveled in it. The artists of this time and place went to unprecedented lengths to document the landscape, becoming adventurers themselves as well as visionaries.

In some respects the ideals of the Romantics, which included writers and philosophers as well as artists, can seem quaint in contemporary circumstances. In 2016, a time of climate change, dwindling habitats and the extinction of species, when science and popular culture alike are as prone to question the nature of nature as to extoll its virtues, when it seems that no landscape remains unsullied, what shall we make of the artists of the Hudson River School? Are these paintings of a vanishing American landscape mere historical curiosity or do they still have something to say to us today?

Milwaukee Art Museum curator Brandon Ruud
with Donner Lake from the Summit by Albert Bierstadt, 1873

The paintings of this period, from the 1820s through much of the century, are indisputably of historical importance. In the words of curator Brandon Ruud, who led a tour of the exhibit, this was the first homegrown artist movement in the still-young republic—no small achievement from artists who up to that time invariably and literally went to Europe for inspiration as well as training. But more than that, the artists helped create a national identity based on their vision. It was the subject itself—a wild landscape of seemingly boundless abundance that distinguished the New World from its European roots—that leant the movement its originality, along with a true-believer’s faith in its importance.

Study from Nature, Stratton Notch, Vermont, Asher B. Durand, 1853
The idea of “imitating” nature, encouraged by Durand, one of the founders of the movement, is anathema to many contemporary artists. And yet nature, in all its ambiguity and challenge, and even the notion of landscape, which bears its own cultural baggage, has acquired new potency today. We are all faced with exigencies of nature—now more often referred to as “the environment”—that civilization has long sought to control if not ignore.

It also should be noted that, despite Durand’s advice, painters didn’t so much imitate nature as use it as a platform from which to leap. Great liberties often were taken with the physical places in the landscape that inspired them. This is seldom evident when viewing the actual paintings, which, for all the imbued drama, are executed in a convincingly naturalistic style and with an eye to intimately rendered detail.

I recently picked up a volume of essays by Paul Shepard on this very topic. Shepard, a twentieth century philosopher and ecologist, did more than write extensively about the Hudson River School. He went to great lengths to demonstrate how different are the paintings from the very specific places they purportedly depict, making a series of photographs from the precise vantage points of particular paintings. The artists freely interposed imagined foreground elements on recognizable scenes and the topography itself is often exaggerated in terms of contour and scale.

Niagara Falls, Louisa Davis Minot, 1818
In an example from the exhibit, Louisa Davis Minot dramatized the pristine power of Niagara Falls in part by omitting the burgeoning commercial establishments that even then threatened to diminish the purity of the experience.

The artists did this because the landscape was more than a subject. It was a symbol that represented ideals embodied in the new republic—a land of irrepressible freedom and limitless opportunity. It was also a land of unimaginable natural wonders, which dazzled audiences who flocked to see the canvases.

Even today the relevance of the Hudson River School goes beyond historical importance. In a very real sense our lasting perception of nature and especially of wilderness was a creation of the Romantic idealists. Before that time the landscape was set decoration and wilderness a place to be feared and conquered. Emerson, Thoreau and Muir were among the first to recognize the interdependence of humans and the natural world (not counting indigenous cultures that never lost sight of it.) But it was the artists like Durand, Cole and Bierstadt who made of their ideas a palpable, visible reality. And while Modernism has come and gone, their vision of nature lingers in the popular imagination.

Durand inquired, with grand rhetoric characteristic of the period, “Why should not the American landscape painter, in accordance with the principle of self-government, boldly originate a high and independent style, based on his native resources?” He was echoing the temper of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s own exhortation in his transcendentalist masterpiece, Nature, to “enjoy an original relation to the universe.”

Both are saying that people—artists in Durand’s case—ought to get outdoors and experience nature for themselves, in all its visceral power and glory. This idea stood in revolutionary opposition to common practice wherein a “grand tour” of Europe and the work of Classical and neo-Classical predecessors dictated the tenor and style of painting.

Castle of Ostia Seen from the Pine Forest of Castel Fusano William Stanley Hazeltine, 1881

The exhibit wisely includes a section of paintings clearly derivative of European antecedents in order to drive home this point. The neo-Classical elements—Greek or Roman ruins in the landscape, for example—and contemplative moods contrast with the wilder character of more typical Hudson River School compositions.

By the end of the Romantic period, Impressionism and subsequent Modernist movements began to assert dominance within the artistic establishment. The world—and the increasingly exploited and despoiled landscape—had changed sufficiently that continued efforts by painters of the Romantic style might be criticized as wishful thinking. However, along with contemporaries like Thoreau and Muir, they expressed a real need to protect dwindling wild places that prefigured an embryonic conservation movement.

View of the Yosemite Valley, in California, Thomas Hill, 1865
It is in this impulse, to protect and save nature as well as to marvel at it, that the Hudson River School retains its cogency today. We are in a similar age, when the 50-year-old environmental movement has expanded and matured, when there is growing global realization that for too long the Modernist ideals of progress and technology have obscured our interdependency with the natural world.

The Consummation of Empire, from The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole, 1836
The exhibit reaches a crescendo in the final gallery, which is devoted entirely to the suite of five paintings by Thomas Cole entitled “The Course of Empire.” Although I’d seen them before, they lose none of their emotional or intellectual power with repeated viewing. The sequence depicts the rise and fall of a civilization supposed to be mythical, but clearly recognizable in its Classical architectural and stylistic detail. The scenes proceed from an untamed wilderness through imperialistic excess and on to destruction and desolation.

According to Ruud, the paintings (from the 1830s) were Cole’s deliberate attempt to warn and admonish the leaders of the new nation not to succumb to historical precedent, to protect the extraordinary landscape that made America exceptional. There was no lack of hubris in Andrew Jackson’s land of manifest destiny. The substance may have shifted but a similar tone can be heard today on the presidential campaign trail.

Destruction, from The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole, 1836
A visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum to see Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School may be just the antidote. I recommend it. It runs through May 8, 2016.