Genius Loci: Learning from Nature’s Muse

Genius Loci opening, Friends of Ryerson Woods

The art and design exhibition Genius Loci: Learning from Nature’s Muse opened Sunday, July 8 at Brushwood, the historic home at Ryerson Woods.  We had a great turn-out: over 130 people viewed works by 12 artists, designers, and architects.

Each work selected for the show captures the spirit of a particular natural environment.  The concept was to find artists and designers whose work is not only inspired by these places—prairie, woods, and lakefront—but seems to be born of these landscapes.

Topo House by the Milwaukee architecture firm Johnsen Schmaling is a great example.  This private residence blurs the line between what is landscape and what is architecture.  Located in the “driftless region” of Wisconsin, it’s green roofs seem to spring up from the earth’s natural topography. The building is represented in the exhibition through scale models, architectural renderings, and photographs of the (nearly) completed structure.

Another architect, Jessica Calek, presented designs for a Studio in the Woods.  The branch-like framework of the building’s structural system pays homage to its wooded surroundings, but also recalls the “primitive hut” of Vitruvius and Laugier, a metaphor for architecture’s roots in the natural world.

Cynthia Winter (also an architect) displayed a series of watercolors titled Roadtrip: The Seasons at Ryerson Woods. Seen together, these near-abstract, small-scale images—painted on postcard-sized paper—read as stills from a film, capturing a sense of movement through time and through the landscape.

Jennifer Hines displayed a very different series of works.  The simplicity of her individual ink drawings, Untitled Abstractions, is deceptive.  But viewed collectively, her images capture an entire ecosystem: seemingly separate organisms which together create a holistic environment.  Another series, displayed with the mini-dioramas in the Library, takes a more psychological approach. Forest Photos are imaginary arboreal landscapes where trees serve as metaphors for human existence. Here, Hines’ depicts states of being, rather than actual physical places.

Also in the Library is a conceptual work by artist Rachel Kauff.  Her series Field Books documents three distinct ecosystems: prairie, woods, and wetlands.  By leaving the hand-bound wordless books for 20 days in each landscape—open to the elements—Kauff allowed Nature to record her own stories in her own language.

Also charting conceptual territory is Doug DeWitt.  The long horizontal lines of his constructions, made from found materials, recall the flat Illinois prairie.  These psychological landscapes capture the essence of the rural Rustbelt: its faded wooden architecture, rusted steel equipment, and overgrown vegetation—nature reclaiming the land.

Also working in a hoGenius Loci opening, Friends of Ryerson Woodsrizontal format is photographer Michael McGuire. His images reflect a kind of surreal or dreamlike remembrance of Lake Michigan. By reproducing one section of the lakefront over and over, he captures an illusion of the lake’s vastness. The particular location represented in each photo might remain ambiguous, but the subject matter—and spirit of the place—is unmistakable.

Another photographer, Barry Phipps, photographs trees in different seasons while subtlely addressing the relationships between humans and nature.  In his photo Cahokia (Winter) the long shadows of giant trees reach toward earthen mounds made by humans nearly 1,000 years ago.  The scene captures the mystery and monumentality of this ancient site, as well as the quality of light on a typical Midwestern winter’s day.

Anne Kauff (Rachel Kauff’s mother) captures light and color in her masterful oil paintings of northern Illinois prairies and woods. She paints outdoors which brings an immediacy to the images—a freshness and vitality that is difficult to achieve within the confines of the artist’s studio. Her approach is perhaps the most traditional of the group, but allows her to effectively capture the spirit of prairie, woods, and sky.

Meaghan Burritt, Genius Loci opening, Friends of Ryerson WoodsLooking to the Des Plaines River for inspiration, conceptual artist Meaghan Burritt created a site specific installation for the show.  Project In Situ: Des Plaines River Specimen 1 (PI:DPS1) reconstructs a fragment of the landscape inside of Brushwood, shifting its context and challenging us to reconsider an overlooked part of the natural environment: a “debris pocket” on the river.  The installation—including found objects collected from the river banks—is a meditation on time, movement, and the interconnectedness between humans and nature.

Finally, furniture designer Jacob Wener of Modern Industry displays three of his designs in the Great Room: a coffee table, a console, and several benches.  Horizontal lines reflect the city’s flat terrain. Reclaimed wood recalls Chicago’s motto Urbs in Horto—a city of parks and tree-lined boulevards. The recycled steel framework references Chicago’s legacy of architectural innovation and structural engineering feats.  The final synthesis of form and materials captures the spirit of the City of Broad Shoulders.

When organizing the show, I purposely chose this diversity of artists and range of approaches to the shows themes.  Each individual artist, in his or her own way, is listening to the genius loci and creating pieces that are in harmony with the natural environments that inspired them.

—Franck Mercurio, Curator

Franck Mercurio is an independent arts consultant, curator, and writer based in Chicago.  Before starting his own consultancy business, Franck served for eight years as an exhibition developer for the Field Museum.  Last year he curated the Art of Green (10 July 2011 – 31 August 2011) for Friends of Ryerson Woods, an exhibition that featured the work of twelve regional artists and designers who are creating art and designing objects in sustainable ways. 

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Genius Loci: Listening to Nature’s Muse is on exhibition in the Brushwood Gallery at Ryerson Woods in Deerfield, Illinois until August 31, 2012.  Brushwood is open to the public:  Tuesday – Friday, 10am-2pm; Sunday 1-3pm;  or by appointment. For more information, contact Friends of Ryerson Woods at 847.968.3343 or visit www.ryersonwoods.org/Programs/Art/ArtExhibitions.html.

WHAT TO READ by Marion Cartwright

As we are about to launch our 2012 programming wrapped around the theme Lessons from the Prairie, we’ve decided to offer a new aspect to our blog.  Several times a year, we will invite individuals from the conservation community to share their list of recommended reads with our readers.  Here read about the books that have influenced our good friend Marion Cartwright.  With vast experience in organic gardening, ecological restoration and environmental education, we are so pleased to share Marion’s list of must-read books.  Enjoy!

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The Garden at Elawa Farm in Lake Forest, a recent project of Marion Cartwright’s.

The current 5-year Farm Bill is set to expire this September 30 and the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are working on recommendations.  Now is the time to write your members of Congress.  What do you want to tell them? What will you recommend be kept, dropped, changed in this next farm bill?  How much can any of us be expected to know about how our food is raised, transported, processed, made safe for consumption?  How much say do we have about soil and water health in our country? What is a healthy American diet anyway, given the way recommendations keep changing over the years?  How many U.S. citizens don’t have access to the healthy foods?  How are other countries dealing with agricultural policy and practices?  Big picture questions.

Then there are the personal, in my backyard questions.  If you want to grow more of your own food and flowers following organic practices, how do you go about that, in the place you live?  What if you want to raise chickens for eggs or goats for milk and cheese?  What if you want to take out the Scotch pines and Norway maples and plant native trees?  Do you know what pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers your neighbors and local government agencies are using? Is your soil and water healthy?

These questions have been front and center for me both personally and professionally for 35 years.  I have read a lot, attended lectures and conferences and town meetings, started gardens at schools, grown gardens for my own family, and created 1-2 acre organic market gardens in more than one place.  I have also spent over 10 years working to restore degraded native woodlands, prairies and wetlands and delivering environmental education focused on keeping native ecosystems healthy.  The need to read has been intense.   Here are a few of my go-to sources, the ones that provided either inspiration or factual information to guide me.

Older, but also wise, and still relevant and inspirational today:

A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold, Ballantine Books, 1966

If you haven’t read it yet, it’s time.  If you have, this in one book to read again (and again) ‘nough said.

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The Albrecht Papers: Soil Fertility and Animal Health, by William Albrecht, Acres, 1975.  A soil consultant recently summarized the life and career of soil scientist Albrecht by saying, “Everything this man ever wrote is 100% correct.”   The health of plants and animals on a farm (and ultimately human health) are dependent upon the soil health.  We hope to breed plants to tolerate diseases, but if plant nutrition is deficient that will remain a vain hope.  Why didn’t more farmers and university professors and U.S.D.A. and extension service staff study read this book?

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Forest Farming: Towards a Solution to Problems of World Hunger and Conservation, by J.Sholto Douglas & Robert A de J. Hart, with  a foreword by E.F. Schumacher, Rodale Press, 1978. Agriculture in mountainous, rocky or dry regions is a disaster and is happening more and more with the pressure of overpopulation, but trees are salvation, providing food, clothing, fuel, shelter, soil retention, water cycle balancing. This book will lead you to read more about Permaculture.

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The Unsettling of America, by Wendell Berry, Sierra Club Books, 1996. Wendell Berry is an articulate and knowledgeable advocate for family farms, local economy, the value of human work, and the cultural and spiritual life of farming.   A distillation of years of Berry’s thought can be found (on-line) in his April 2012 address for the National Endowment for the Humanities.  He was selected this year to give the annual Jefferson lecture, the most prestigious honor the national government bestows on academics.

More recent:

Reclaiming The Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town, by Brian Donahue, Yale University Press, 2001.   Helpful example about how a community can organize and support a local farm (with animals) for the local community and also harvest a local woodland for syrup and wood for the community. Still going strong today in Weston, MA.

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How To Grow More Vegetables (and fruits nuts, berries, grains and other crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine, by John Jeavons, Ten Speed Press,  1974 first edition, 2006 7th edition.  A primer for the backyard gardener with limited space.  Though I don’t find the need to double dig my beds as frequently as Jeavons, there is a lot of helpful information to help you with a garden plan and an extensive bibliography and supply catalogue list.   Jeavons is all about soil sustainability and encourages gardeners to grow their own compost crops rather than bring compost in from the outside (robbing Peter to pay Paul as he sees it).

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The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements, by Sandor Ellix Katz, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2006.  Chock full of facts and figures on where modern industrial agriculture and the food industry have gone awry and ideas for positive change, both at the policy level and in our own homes. Each chapter includes a list of Action and Information Resources.  For people interested in taking more direct responsibility for their own health and nutrition, this book goes into detail about how to grow it, forage for it, ferment it or cook it yourself and it gives lots of examples of how food was grown and prepared “traditionally” for years.

And even if most of you have already heard about these or read them, my personal list just wouldn’t be complete without them:

In Defense of Food (2008) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), by Michael Pollan, Penquin Press.

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is Pollan’s simple, clear message in the former.  It’s all here: how we produce and market food and learning how to eat healthily again.

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Pollan provides an inside look at industrial farming and organic, sustainable farming practices.  You will also go on foraging and hunting trips with Pollan.

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Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture by Wes Jackson, Counterpoint, 2010. Agriculture has gone through an Age of Monoculture.  And it is not sustainable.  If we hope to continue providing food in perpetuity, we must transition to the Age of Perennials. Jackson has been doing research since 1976 at his Land Institute in Kansas to help us make this transition.  The new farm bill needs to support this research and effort.    Write your government representatives and senators.  Come to the Smith Nature Symposium at Ryerson Woods on May 19th to learn more from Wes Jackson himself, the keynote speaker!

Marion Cartwright is a long-time member of Friends of Ryerson Woods and previously a member of the Board of Directors. Thank you, Marion!