Ruth Marie Tomlinson
The Nature of Change
The Nature of Change
I moved to Kent in the summer of 1980 and Herbert Bayer’s Mill Creek Canyon Earthwork became part of my peripheral vision. The sculpted green valley invited my sons to roll down its grassy hills and skateboard along its winding paths. We didn’t know of the park’s international acclaim or its significance to environmental art and the geo-stability of the Kent valley. We didn’t even realize it was art. It was just a good place to go.
While living in Kent, I made my way through art school. Along the way I discovered the artists of the 1960’s and 70’s who were moving away from the confines of white gallery walls and embracing the earth as a working material. The earthworks of Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt and Walter de Maria fascinated me, but I was still unaware that I sometimes wandered through a major artwork in my own town.
Concurrently my growing concern for environmental issues had me thinking about the relationship between the natural world and the urban environment. I discovered the writer Rebecca Solnit who in her essay “Elements of a New Landscape,” suggests that the natural and the urban cannot be separated from each other. She proposes that we ARE nature. This shift from reverence for what is outside and separate, to an acknowledgement of our role within the system began to shift my view of the world around me. I speculated that perhaps nature is not as exotic as it is everyday. Could nature be the grass pushing through my sidewalk AND the sidewalk, and even the person who put the sidewalk there? I began to suspect that nature might also be the goods I buy and the politics I set into motion, as well as the sun rising over the Cascades and setting in the Olympics.
I discovered many artists who viewed nature as all the spaces and systems we inhabit. Some of these artists were influenced by the first contemporary earthworks, but they were expanding beyond the use of “nature” as a blank canvas. They were investigating the interactive system of nature and were working within it. Herbert Bayer was one of the first artists to do this. When I finally recognized his work in Kent for what it is: both an aesthetic solution to an environmental problem and a constructed community place, I understood even better the potential of art making. I’ve developed a deep and ongoing interest in artwork that exists in our daily environment and relates to the people who live in that environment. This kind of work has the potential to expand everyone’s views and experiences.
Investigating the nature/culture relationship as part of my own art process has inspired many questions and I have to admit few answers, but the process continues to expand my vision and my questioning. I approach questions with a passion for systems, cataloging and restructuring. When posed with a new interest, I like to break it down into lists and components then piece them back together with a new logic. As the process unfolds it can reveal new questions within even the most familiar systems. Understory is an example of my work that explores nature as an all-inclusive system and asks questions of our role in that system.
Understory originated in Prichard Park on Bainbridge Island. The site was once a small town supporting creosote manufacturing. As creosote fell out of favor because of its environmental hazards, the plant became an EPA superfund cleanup site and the town’s residences were left to decay. When asked to create work on this site, I became interested in the remnants of its once-tended yards. Laurel hedges had overgrown into dense canopies and ivy deserts crept under the evergreens. The landscape was rich with evidence of how much we are part of nature and yet deny our role within a symbiotic system. After researching the abandoned domestic plants and collecting specimens, I discovered that many of these species are invasive. Understory is a collection of the specimen samples and field notes from the site and was originally installed under one of the laurel hedges on site as part of the exhibition, Collocation. The specimens tell a story of desire and conquest. Each plant introduced was evidence of a desire for beauty and at the same time potentially ruinous to the native environment. As ever, I was left with more questions than answers: Does our desire for beauty place us in conflict with the beauty we desire? Can we conquer what we have set in motion? What should be conquered? What is our role in changing nature and in the nature of change?
I don’t live in Kent any longer, but I still come back to see Herbert Bayer’s Earthwork. Not only is it a great place to be, but it also reminds me that Bayer clearly understood how everything is in the process of change and we are part of that change by design or by inattention. Bayer’s approach was clearly to be proactive and willing to engage with that which is difficult. His example will continue to inspire me.
Whether reconfiguring the form of a truck tire inner tube or re-contextualizing hand gestures found in newspaper photographs, Ruth Marie Tomlinson utilizes repetitive processes to exercise her passion for systems, for cataloging and for restructuring. Tomlinson shows her work in a variety of settings in the Northwest, including G. Gibson Gallery. A graduate of the Evergreen State College with an MFA from the UW, Tomlinson is currently a professor at Cornish College of the Arts.
Solnit, Rebecca. “Elements of a New Landscape.” Visions of America: Landscape as Metaphor in the Late Twentieth Century. Denver Art Museum and The Columbus Museum of Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994.
1, 2. Understory 2005, book of field notes and sleeves with plant specimens & text.