Connection & Curiosity, Not Fear

After the Holiday Farm Fire – Telephone Pole, Leah Wilson

Sometimes subtle connection is more effective than an explicit message.

My art does not speak directly to environmental crises, environmentalism, or even ecology. There is a lot of art that does and I’m not convinced of the efficacy of much of it to change minds or to offer a new perspective, let alone to initiate action. There is also so much crisis one can take. I know this from experience. Currently I have a day job that wouldn’t exist if it were not for one pressing crisis after another. I have a limited capacity for empathy after being exposed to relentless crises. I want to think of anything other than the crises of the job and I do not act.

I choose a different approach with my work. Ecological threats and concerns cast a shadow across all my work, but I feel the foundation of addressing these concerns is to provide an invitation for connection. Connect with a place outside, any place. Be curious and develop a relationship with it and see how that affects your thinking, the decisions you make, and what you decide to speak up about. Cultivate empathy and gather others with you in your embrace.

Empathy and connection seem to be an afterthought, if thought about at all. Is it assumed that everyone inherently has the empathy needed to sustain efforts to change the culture that will reverse the course of ecological degradation and decline?

Stories Told by Water - Lookout Creek  - Leah Wilson

Stories Told by Water: Lookout Creek, charcoal, walnut ink, pastel pencil and mica on paper, 30 x 22 in., 2021

Empathy and connection seem so often to be an afterthought, if thought about at all. Is it assumed that everyone inherently has the empathy needed to sustain efforts to change the culture that will reverse the course of ecological degradation and decline?

Love, empathy, wonder, and curiosity for places I have developed relationships with have been the biggest influences on the way that I live and the art that I make. Love and empathy sustain me when I feel defeated and I want to quit. Shaming or scaring me into action would not have the same enduring effect. It would not have me showing up day after day, year after year for decades. I know this from my day job. There, I feel drained. The horrors of the very real stories make me want to find solace elsewhere to escape them, they do not drive me to action. Knowing more facts does not change this.

Metanoia Catalyst and Burn/Lush - Leah Wilson

Metanoia Catalyst (in progress – nitrogen fixing nodules made of beeswax & bio based resin) & Burn/Lush, Clark Fire Edge (oil on wood panel), Leah Wilson – (This is a happy accident in the studio. Fire meets fire. Burn/Lush was hanging on the wall in my studio when I started to hang Metanoia Nodules I was making. The colors of Burn/Lush are taken from a transition area from an untouched area in a stand of old-growth trees and an area burned by the Clark Fire. Nitrogen fixing nodules from on roots of some plants such as ceaonothus velutinus. Ceanothus seeds begin to germinate after the hot temperature of fires crack the shell of the little hard seeds. They establish quickly on fire affected soil, helping to stabilize the land. The nodules help to introduce nitrogen which creates more hospitable soil conditions for other plants to begin to grow.

I do not gravitate toward horror and disaster, although I do not deny they exist within horror’s opposite which often appears as beauty. My art inevitably appears beautiful. It is hard to not have it become so when working with the intricate patterns and rhythms of nature. Beauty in nature is one doorway leading into empathy. Beauty is compelling and attractive. It is a gift. But beauty alone is not enough. There needs to be more and I find another piece to the puzzle within curiosity. I bring my curiosity into my art. Can my curiosity ignite yours? Cultivating my curiosity is more compelling than drilling facts into my head. It gives me a path to follow, one that promises delight, discovery, wonder, and awe because I don’t know where the path will eventually lead or what I will find along the way. I have ventured to improbably difficult places while following my curiosity.

Perhaps, therein lies a flaw in my philosophy. Is everyone as thrilled as I am about curiosity? If the rewards of curiosity are delight, wonder, and awe, they don’t come without a cost. To be curious, one needs to be at home with not knowing. Ignorance, even the kind that drives creativity and empathy, are not encouraged in our fact-based culture supported by our school system and perpetuated by the media. To not know is to feel vulnerable. But vulnerability is an essential ingredient for empathy. The pain needs to be let in. Again, I know this from my day job. I am not curious about the stories of crisis. Curiosity about them makes me feel vulnerable, and without the vulnerability, I do not feel empathy and I do not let the pain in.

Yet, even if my philosophy is flawed, it brings me back to the essential qualities needed for sustained action: empathy, wonder, curiosity, and love. Without them I find other ways to occupy my mind. I do not think of the crises before me, even though I have seen shockingly compelling images and read horrific facts. These are not enough to compel me to act, much less to even dwell on them for long. I push them from my mind.

Holiday Farm Fire Telephone Pole 2 - Leah Wilson

After the Holiday Farm Fire – Telephone Pole & Ferns, Leah Wilson

When I have love, empathy and connection, curiosity and wonder, I can let the pain in. When it enters through empathy, the pain can become transformative. I feel a subtle approach, one that invites connection, vulnerability, and curiosity, may even be a more radical approach to facing our dire environmental problems. If you love someone, how devastating is it to see them harmed? How much will it take for you to protect the beloved? This is true for our places and land too. I am curious: What could we do if we start from a place of love, empathy and curiosity rather than a place of fear and shame?

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