It has ceased to surprise me (and I take that as a bad sign) that most of our daily routine is divorced from the natural world. We mindlessly follow one designed construction after another, office to sidewalk to highway. Our globalized, digitized lifestyle tends to desensitize us to even our cultural loci, emptying them of the social histories that ought to give them character.
How, then, to guide and re sensitize young artists–who will go on to design these very environments–in discovering meaningful and magic connections within their own spaces?
I recall a university search committee’s grueling review of a flood of applications for a visiting artist position, and our happy discovery of Michele Brody’s portfolio. Her pieces were beautifully documented, long-term events. Developing from verdant growth to lush decay, each was carefully installed where culture had to wait out nature’s time cycle for its full completion as a work of art. The work was well crafted and engineered, a happy marriage of brains and beauty–substantial concept and visual knockout.
In the semester Brody spent at Marywood University, she germinated grain in a fabric installation that referred to traditional women’s garments, a fitting theme for an institution founded to provide higher education to laborers’ daughters. Her lasting contribution, though, was a concrete and earthen walkway at the corner of a raw, new studio art center. She chose a spot recently stripped of indigenous hemlocks and rhododendrons, turned muddy shortcut leading from pavement to pavement. When one looks closely now, her abstracted motifs reiterate campus landmarks; but the first revelation to student shortcutters is that this forgotten corner has been gently shaped into a contingent transitional zone, both designed and growing. More important yet was Brody’s interaction with my undergraduate and graduate students. Extending beyond the usual lecture hall and studio critique, she involved them in each stage of her process, concept to construction.
It is no accident that Brody’s pathways are half laid concrete and half rooted vegetation. Each interlocks with the other, their overall schema referring to the historic natural and human presence on that site, made the more specific by the labor investment of young hands in their making. As she clearly articulates to her student partners, she uses art and nature to speak a cultural language that points to the niche our species paves and wears and shapes over time in the larger, biotic sphere. If, as Michele Brody asserts, she seeks to bring liminal spaces into sharper focus, she also leads visitors at those spaces toward a clearer understanding of the inexorable process of nature that constantly intersect with our human, temporal rhythms–the artificial habits and habitats with which we frame and enclose our lives.
Of course, it is the job of a good artist to make us see; but it is the gift of a very good artist to then surprise us with our own vision.
Linda Dugan Partridge