Freedoms, Expansion & Intuition

Listening to the Forest, Detail, Leah Wilson

I have felt inhibited by associations with scientists and I shied away from using words like magic, intuition, and most recently, alchemy. I felt that if I were to be an artist working in a place of science, I should speak and act in a way that would be acceptable to science. These words are not. I needed to grant myself permission to use them. What point is there to mimic the limitations of science? Art grants me certain liberties such as magic. Now, I relish sprinkling words like magic here and intuition in my writing and talks. Perhaps art offers scientists freedom and expansion to contemplate words like this.

Panama, Leah Wilson

Panama, Leah WIlson

Expansions flow in both directions. I have gained freedoms and expansions from working with scientists. Staying in one place is one. This may sound like a restriction, but I see it as an expansion. Travel is an area where my experiences with the art and kayaking communities converge. In the fall, at the end of the commercial whitewater season, talk among guides and instructors revolved around where everyone was heading for winter and the more exotic, remote, and unexplored, the better. In the winter I usually hunkered down in the small town of Nevada City, California to get back into my studio and to revive my creative work. Traveling inhibited making art. But I would have no stories of adventure to report in the spring. Similarly, it seems expected for artists to travel far to participate in residencies. If I allow myself, I can work up a healthy inferiority complex about how I am not hard core enough or accomplished enough because I have not pursued them.

The expectations to travel are a burden. It’s not that I haven’t traveled – I have, and I enjoy it. But my CV isn’t bursting with my exploits abroad or at residencies. My association with scientists at the Andrews Forest gave me permission to see the significance in the undervalued choice to stay in one place and to get to know it well. Now I feel proud of my commitment to concentrate on staying local, to go deep into a place instead of spreading out wide. So many artists go wide. It sets me apart to do something different and unexpected. This is liberating.

Ambient, oil on 6 wood panels, Leah Wilson

Ambient: October 11 Between 10:55 AM and 3:42 PM, oil on 6 wood panels, Leah Wilson

Systems and methods based on field research methods have given me a liberating structure. Again, this sounds contradictory. How can systems liberate an artist?.It would appear that systems are formulaic and they would take away any sense of wonder or creativity. This is not true, at least not for the systems I devise for my work in the forest. Nature doesn’t allow for ordinary for long before it throws an unexpected curve. Systems have freed me from my habitual thinking and comfortable resolutions. They force me to trust my collaborating partner – the forest. Systems have allowed me the freedom to develop a complex relationship with the place by breaking down the barriers enforced by expectations and they ensure I stay open to accept what the environment gives. The gift I receive from this freedom is more nuance, complexity, rhythm and harmon than I would be able to bring to the art on my own.

Tim at Watershed 2, Leah Wilson

Tim at Watershed 2 during Solstices & Equinoxes, Leah Wilson

Time is another expansion. Both artists and scientists are pressured into short term projects and research by funding, institutional restrictions, and other factors. Often with art proposals and applications, ten images from only the past 2 years are accepted for consideration. I feel pressure to produce artwork faster just to satisfy these external requirements. Restrictions like this do not complement or support my process.

But at the Andrews Forest, long term environmental research is valued and the need is understood. I feel more freedom to initiate a project potentially taking a decade or more to resolve. Research scientists must continue to publish even if they are engaged in long-term research. Both long term and short cycle obligations can be accomplished simultaneously. I can work on a project for years, but I can also weave stories and create images about the journey to satisfy short cycles. This is not only an expansion of thinking about how to approach a project and to allow all the time it requires to complete it, but it also provides expansion to the scope of the projects. Creating shorter stories along the journey has produced such rich supplemental material. The resulting depth and scope has been one of the biggest gifts of expansion I have received.

My associations with scientists have allowed much expansion. This is not a bad return for offering a space to contemplate words and concepts like magic and intuition.

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