Susan Hoenig is a painter and sculptor whose work is deeply connected to the spiritual aspect of nature – the mysterious and intangible part of the physical world we experience when we take time to simply watch and listen. Her bird paintings and relief paintings of birds, butterflies and sea animals invite us to pay attention to the diversity of the natural world, beckoning us to commune with it and appreciate its resilience and vulnerability. They are a celebration of life, and a warning about the harmful effects of climate change. Her ecological sculptures look through a wider lens at the land that sustains us all – animals and humans – and shape it as if to make apparent its hidden purposes.
You define yourself as an ecological sculptor and painter. Has your work always been inspired by the environment or did it evolve in that direction?
My paintings reveal the beauty of nature and the devastating effects of climate collapse. I depict the symbiotic relationship between habitat, plant and animal life, making visible an evolving landscape of color and distinct geometric form. These forms are connected to a history of Constructivist Art. My paintings re-invent this tradition, as constructions, new symbols for social change. They express an underlying reality, a presence of growth and beauty; that the earth be holdfast to a wavering, mesmerizing world of living diversity and enrichment; that salt marshes and deep forest thrive.
My ecological sculptures echo land formations in urban and rural environments. Earthworks are sculptural pathways – lines of stone winding through the contours of the land. The stones are embedded in the earth’s energy. They become the basis of a design, connecting earth and art, building and land. The structure and geometrical design of the earthwork is constructed upon contemplation of natural landmarks, in view of the historical and sociological particularities of the region.
In the summer of 1979, I worked with Paolo Soleri in the Desert Mesa of Arizona. Soleri is known for his “Arcosanti”– a place of “arcology”, a combination of archeology and ecology. I watched him making huge molds from the earth. Soleri dug out large forms, poured in homemade concrete, waited for them to dry, and then inverted the forms to create living spaces. I saw first hand how he was creating an ecological environment.
After this experience, my art gradually moved off the picture frame, off the canvas, into real space. It was really then that I began exploring the parks and the beauty of trees and their different forms. I began to work with what I found in nature. I ventured to more remote places where I created works of art, to create a focus echoing the land formations. While spending a summer in Oaxaca, Mexico, I became interested in the indigenous people and how they collected material to define their living spaces by outlining it with stones. I walked up into the mountains each day, watching people, usually women go off on their burros to collect firewood, taking the same pathways up into the mountains.
I decided to create lines, little borders, somewhat similar to the lines around their houses, to echo the landscape. I created “Stone Crossing”, my first large-scale earthwork. “Stone Crossing” was a place where I could observe the changes in nature, the changes in light at different times of the day, connecting myself to the earth.
Since 2006, I have been working with a bird bander/biologist in the Sourland Mountains of New Jersey. I see first hand the life cycle of birds and the conditions and habitat in which they live. In my Songbird Paintings, I explore the union of my inner self with the birds that I observe. I become one with the bird, then I paint their portrait. The body encompasses the circle; at the center a luminous quality of color interplays with the form. The designs create a self-reflective movement. On some of the bird’s backs I have painted their migratory routes. This very personal experience integrates a sad truth of a life interrupted.
In my Owl Paintings I have discovered a connection between bird and landscape, between feathers and trees. The growth and structure of feathers on a bird is as complex as the growth and habitat of the life cycle of a tree. Each is interdependent upon the other. In these paintings, landscape and feather markings merge as one. It is almost as though the bird is the land and the land is the bird. The beauty and sacred nature of land and animal are expressions and affirmations in my art.
Some of your recent paintings deal with the Arctic and the Antarctic. Is this a new direction for you?
I must understand the raw beauty of the coldest, most severe weather on earth. Antarctic ice is melting. How will this affect the most basic forms of life? The natural forces on the earth encompass an enormous web inseparably intertwined to form a balanced whole. At a young age, I carried within what going extinct meant, for my parents were survivors of the Holocaust. As an artist, I am determined to make Art for Conservation, Ecology and Anthropology. I hope that my art inspires people to see how art and nature can be interwoven in an ecological way. For, if we were able to understand diversity through feeling then all life would be connected.
Chantal Bilodeau is a playwright and translator whose work focuses on the intersection of science, policy, art, and climate change. She is the Artistic Director of The Arctic Cycle – an organization created to support the writing, development and production of eight plays that look at the social and environmental changes taking place in the eight countries of the Arctic – and the founder of the blog and international network Artists & Climate Change. She is a co-organizer of Climate Change Theatre Action, a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate change plays presented in support of the United Nations COP meetings.