Want to learn more about the 2017 Featured Artist, Tracie Noles-Ross? We’re asking her about her tools, her symbiotic relationship with nature, and how it has manifested in her artwork. Check out our interview with her below.
How has art fostered your relationship with nature, and vice versa?
Taking the time to photograph or draw from nature has helped me slow down and see things I might not have seen otherwise. Those practices help me to slow down and observe and really get to know the land I live on and that connection has opened up an awareness in me that has really changed my life and work. The observations I make and the images I collect spill over into my creative space and my visual vocabulary is definitely influenced by the natural world. Everything from the content to materials I choose reflects my relationship with nature and hopefully shows in my work. I think they are inextricably linked at the point in my life.
How do you view the relationship between humans and nature?
I do not believe humans are separate from nature. I believe we are very much a part of it—but sadly we are a very destructive force. Our evolution and technology have complicated our relationship with the planet and that disconnect is wreaking havoc on the earth and our well being. I hope that by sharing my observations and drawing attention to the beauty and fragility of the wild places around us, even if it’s just a little bird nest or a butterfly in the back garden, that my works will encourage others to slow down and step outside for a while and reconnect.
It seems like you are sitting on a little natural oasis in Roebuck. How does your daily interaction and observation of nature on your land inspire the storylines and imagery in your art?
First, I have to say that my place looks like this from the outside because I am taking the time to explore and share my findings daily on social media. When people ask to come to my place to see “my wonderland”, I always laugh. It’s not Disneyland! The foxes and crows aren’t going to come out and wave when you stop by! I want to encourage other folks to go out into their back yards or gardens and take the time to look under a rock or leaf or lay in the grass and watch the clouds like I do. You gotta be patient to find the beauty, sometimes! A lot of the creatures I see are probably in their back garden too! They just need to slow down and look—and maybe plant a native plant or two to start attracting wildlife to their homes too. My IG feed is a story I am telling to spark interest—and remind people what’s just beyond the threshold of their air conditioned homes and offices.
Having said that, I am lucky that I am able to live on a piece of land where I can observe as much interesting wildlife as I do. We let things get a little wild around here, encouraging grasses to go to seed, building brush piles and frog ponds for the wildlife etc. I want my home to be integrated into the woods that surround my house. We are part of the wildlife habitat that is the woods and meadows and creek around us! We work hard to maintain a balance that works for us and the wildlife that live all around us. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. We are a work in progress but this experiment is home and something I am happy to share through social media or the art I hang in galleries. It is all connected. It’s conversational story telling!
Home is powerful concept for me and drives everything I do from raising my children to tending a garden to making my art. My home life and creative work are so heavily influenced by this place now that I can barely remember how I lived before I lived in these woods with my kids. The weather patterns, the flora and fauna, the creek behind my house, the fruit we pick and eat in the summer—these things all direct and guide me through my days. Raising my children here has really shaped the person that I am and the sort of parent that I have become—and I hope the sort of adults my daughters will become. The way I have chosen to educate my children — with an awareness of the natural world has been so important to me. I have done all I can to encourage appreciation and responsibility for the people and nature around us. Slowing down to watch a mama bird feed her babies or standing still so we can watch a fox or coyote in the field behind the house has reconnected me to a part of myself that I thought had fallen away in childhood. I can spend an entire morning watching tadpoles in my pond or checking all of the places I know the spiders around here like to build their webs and waiting for the sun to rise to just the right place so the webs are illuminated enough to photograph. I come home with pockets full of seed pods and insect exoskeletons and feathers and bones, rocks, sticks and leaves… This is the stuff my life and art are made of now—sometimes literally and sometimes they are visceral experiences that spark the imagination and inform my visual language. This way of living and making also keeps me sane at a time when there is a lot to worry about in the world! The making is my way of connecting and giving back in the healthiest way I know how.
The composition of your paintings and the relationships between its subjects can be complex at times. How do you arrive at the visual narrative roadmap or message for a particular piece?
I don’t see my work as containing specific narratives or messages. The act of photographing, drawing, and painting animals and plants and humans all tangled together in a piece is just my attempt at telling a sensuous story that reminds people of those wild places I’ve been talking about. I see what I do—the storytelling and the depictions of local flora and fauna—as a sort of stewardship. I hope the images are evocative and romantic and mystical and can encourage a remembrance or begin to cultivate a new connection to nature for others.
What creative techniques or tools do you use to harness nature as a medium with which to create your art?
I don’t think I have ever perceived it as harnessing so much as collaborating. I use plants from my land for dying, printing and paper making but only plants that are abundant or invasive or already dead and have fallen to the ground (like plants we cut back at the end of summer or walnuts that have fallen from my trees). I also use rainwater I collect for these projects. I use beeswax from my apiary for collage or encaustic work. I stain fabric and ceramic pieces with clay and walnut dye from my land. I also find rusty objects and polished glass down by the water that I use in the studio. I have created an entire body of work on heavy tempered glass shards that I found down by the water. People don’t take care to keep our waterways clean and I find some pretty awful stuff down by the creek behind my house after a big rain. I take what I can to repurpose and turn that trash back into something useful–into art and to make the creek bed safer for animals —and my kids.
I have jars of all sorts of treasures that I have gathered here at this place I live. Things like snake skins and cicada husks, snail shells, wasp nests, dried flowers, and seed pods fill those jars. I also have a case my mother recently gave me, filled with old birds nests and egg shells that have fallen from trees that she and my kids and my neice have found over the years and saved. I also have several nests of my own, like phoebe an wren’s nests that have been knocked down by animals or storms. I keep a cabinet, my cabinet of curiosities, where I keep treasures like that as well as an insect collection, old spider egg sacks, a petrified brown bat, bits of animal skeletons I have found on my walks in the woods, fossils, dried flowers—you name it. That cabinet contains my inspiration. I see each and every one of those items a gift —a reward for my attentiveness and patience.
Your Instagram account is quite prolific. Does photography play a role in informing and guiding your artistic process and execution? Do you paint en plain air ever, or do you build your image in other more organic or fantastical ways?
Photography plays a huge part in my work even though I have never shown my photography anywhere but the Internet. It has a dual purpose for me. Initially I started photographing things around my home so I could create my own library of images to work from when creating my drawings and paintings but then gardening and social media expanded it’s purpose and I started using it as a way to share my work and ideas about nature and art I also use it as a phenological tool. Phenology is the study of seasonal biological phenomena and the observation and recognition of patterns. This is really important, especially now that we know that current climate conditions are changing things. By using social media, in my case Instagram, I can keep track of the dates of first sightings each season of leaves and flowers, the first sighting of migratory birds, the first time I see butterflies or moths, mating or fledging birds, fruits and nuts on trees, first leaf fall or snow etc. compare them to the dates of the same event in previous years. This collection of images and data has expanded my awareness of the place I live and changed the way I perceive my relationship with the land and society and time. It was inevitable that it would also affect my creative process, I guess. I do not paint outdoors, though I may sketch now and then and I work outdoors a lot when I am dying fabrics or leaf hammering for my quilts. My studio tumbled out into the back garden years ago. I tend to spend as much time as I can outdoors observing, collecting materials and information and then bringing it all back to the studio where I sort it out and figure out how to weave it all together in my work. I tend to listen to audiobooks and podcasts these days in the studio and I am very particular about the stories I let loose in my work space because those narratives are woven into the work now too.
Your work has an element of dreamlike mysticism. Are you a fan of fairy tales?
I love fairy tales. I do not attempt to tell linear or literal narratives and I don’t reference familiar fairy tales often even though I do love a good fox or crow story now and then and Red Riding Hood has always been a favorite. Because Grimm’s Fairy tales are so woven into the public consciousness, I am sure those tales are woven into the work on some level. I love a good witch in the woods story! My hope, when making my work, is to create an experience that conjures a feeling, unearths a memory or forgotten sensation (maybe it’s one of those fairy tales!!!!)—encourage a connection to nature that will send the viewer outdoors to find their own stories and magic. I think, more than anything else, I am trying to rejuvenate the art of observance and rekindle imaginations. I was listening to someone talk about how Grimm’s fairy tales are told and retold in various ways with different aspects highlighted and deleted in different times and cultures—but the essence remains and the ideas are carried forth and made richer in the retelling. I hope my version helps carry those tales forward and helps plant seeds in other imaginations!