It’s been a while since I’ve featured a children’s story on Ekostories, but after this month’s spotlight on environmental artists and last week’s look at the need for hopeful tales in uncertain times, I thought it would be good to cover a story that employs both art and words to convey wonder to the next generation. Written by Elin Kelsey and featuring artwork by Soyeon Kim, You are Stardust from Owlkids Books is a picture book filled with tiny tales about the fascinating and unexpected ways that humans are part of nature.
It wasn’t my intention to continue with the art theme. But as the rule of three calls and I learn more about writing and blogging, I found myself more inclined to follow intuition than push through to produce work that doesn’t feel right. Perhaps it was just easier to showcase other people’s incredible work instead of doing research for a long piece. Given the choice between being attuned and growing lazy, I’m sticking with the former interpretation.
I’ve been a fan of Albertus Gorman’s work over at The Artist at Exit 0 Riverblog ever since I began blogging in 2012. For the better part of the last decade, Gorman has used materials washed up at Ohio State Park to create sculptures and craft stories that explore the impacts we have on the places we inhabit. Some of his work from Ohio Falls is now featured in The Potential in Everything, an exhibition at the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany, Indiana.
In a recent post exploring the evolution of nature writing, we chatted about what makes for great art. Gorman shared an illuminating comment as it relates to his journey:
“One person’s kitsch is another person’s masterpiece. I tread this path myself with my river art. I want my work to have a popular feel similar to the way folk art functions because I want what I am trying to communicate through it to reach a target audience that often doesn’t think about how creativity or conceptual art can be used to positively affect the environment. My own work has evolved over time to include objects, images, and now stories working in tandem with one another. There is some risk taking here and sometimes it works better times than others.”
Mulling this over, I decided to revisit his blog to find examples of how he uses art and writing to promote awareness around the environment. The following is a list of five of my favourite pieces he’s published over the past year:
Last week’s art by Greg Mort connected the intimate with the infinite. This week, I thought it would be interesting to explore art that delves into a world hidden from plain sight. With the use of x-ray radiography, medical physicist and artist Arie van’t Riet creates stunning glimpses into the inner workings of the natural world.
For me, van’t Riet’s photographs work on multiple levels. I enjoy the story of his path towards becoming an artist. In his work, I find a keen aesthetic judgement that balances an artist’s intention with the intrinsic beauty of the subject matter. Most importantly of all, I connect with his desire to showcase the vibrancy of life in his more complex pieces.
I first came across Greg Mort’s artwork while writing a piece on Carl Sagan’s The Pale Blue Dot. The image immediately drew my eye: Two apples situated against a black backdrop, one golden and freshly unwrapped; the other painted as the Earth. Attached to the stem of the pole, a blank price tag. Stewardship, the piece was called.
The image and title struck me. It forced me to contemplate, not for the first or last time, what stewardship truly entails, what value I place on the well-being of the world that sustains all. It both broadened and deepened my innate desire to care, as art can sometimes do.
With his work prominently displayed in museums, art galleries, and even the White House, I am honoured to have permission from Mort’s studio curator to feature and explore a few of my favourite works. As with other art-oriented Ekostories, I hope to let the visuals speak for themselves and allow you, the reader, the space and time to discover the stories they have to tell. So enjoy. If you are interested in my musings and questions, I’ve provided them as well.
I don’t recall where I first came across the work of Edward Burtynsky; it could have been at the library, the bookstore, or one of those coffee shops with actual coffee table books. All I remember was being drawn to the front cover image of his collection of photographs, to the intense fluorescent shock of orange lava snaking through charred lands: A beautiful and awesome volcanic landscape. Only when I read the title, half immersed in the river’s glow, did I realize something was amiss.
Manufactured Landscapes. As I flipped through the book, the beauty that I saw and the awe that I held for the landscape fell away, replaced by a swell of alarm and disbelief. The river wasn’t lava, the setting wasn’t volcanic, and nature had nothing to do with the creation of this particular landscape.
One of the most powerful things art can do is challenge us to examine the assumptions we hold about the world. Burtynsky’s photographic forays into industrial shadows pushed me to confront my own notions on beauty and ugliness, the value judgments I held on the natural and the artificial, as well as modern civilization’s role (and by extension, my own) in the construction of these landscapes.
There’s an art to writing for kids. Good children’s books aren’t simply dumbed down stories, written with smaller words and fitted with happy sappy endings. In reality, kids are quite discerning: Their faculties haven’t yet been dulled by the insecurities and neuroses accumulated during the process of growing up. They like what they like and are completely honest about it. It’s true that they happily consume works filled with tired clichés and moralistic messages, but lacking cynicism and regard for convention, they generally emerge none the worse for wear.
The stories that stay with kids are ones that feel authentic and true, even if they can’t articulate why. These are stories that speak through the language of wonder, a native tongue we are all born knowing but can easily be forgotten through neglect and disuse.
I think The Curious Garden by Peter Brown is a great children’s book. Inspired by the revitalization of the Highline railway on the west side of Manhattan, Brown fuses charming visuals with a narrative that is full of discovery and hope. The messages found within its pages are subtle, always secondary to the atmosphere of playfulness and wonder. It is an excellent read for both kids and adults, and makes for an inspiring little Ekostory that speaks of the importance of play in forging a healthy relationship with the living world.