On Water as Polluted Body, Place of Solace, and Life Force

Since June of 2017, artists Jarrod CluckGina R. FurnarisTo LenLeslie Sobel and Rachel Wojnar have been on an intense physical, emotional, spiritual, and art-making journey, which culminated with their MFA Thesis Exhibition, Confluence, on view at the Joseloff Gallery of the Hartford Art School, University of Hartford (Connecticut) from September 10-19, 2020. 

They are the third cohort to complete the Nomad Interdisciplinary MFA program. Founded by director Carol Padberg in 2015, the program uses an innovative field-based model and offers a curriculum that includes art, ecology, the study of place, indigenous knowledge systems, and technologies. Encompassing two hands-on residencies per year, the Nomad MFA provides courses in El Salvador; New York City; New Mexico; Mexico; Oakland, California; Miami; and Minneapolis.

Having traveled, lived, and worked together for two plus years, the cohort is a cohesive unit. The work in the exhibition, although specific to the preferred media and individual inquiries of each artist, also suggests an on-going conversation among the artists, a collective voice expressing grief over ecological destruction as well as a genuine respect for the natural cycles of life and all living beings on Earth. The topic of water was a common thematic thread running throughout the work – the pollution of our waterways and oceans, the sense of place that bodies of water create, and the liquid resource that enables life itself.

Despite the pandemic, the decision was made by the university to install a physical exhibition in the gallery, but with access limited to the college community only. Virtual programming and resources, including an opening, a tour of the exhibition, artists’ talks, an exhibition catalogue, and a dedicated website were available to the public. The virtual tour and website continue to be accessible online and provide an accurate sense of the exhibition’s richness and power.  

Jarrod Cluck: Dirt

Jarrod Cluck, page spread from The Book of Dirt. Soil, plant pigments, and found objects printed on paper and bound with sheep’s wool on oak wood, 2020.

Jarrod Cluck’s body of work in the exhibition was a visual record of his activities during the year 2019 in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas where he lives – observing the land, collecting native plants and seeds, planting and harvesting traditional crops, building a cob kiln, and firing clay pots. As Cluck describes it, “so much of my work is about the soil and how things come into being,” the process of poiesis, or the creation of something that did not exist before. He went on to add that water, the liquid substance deep beneath the soil and raining down upon us, is a collaborator is this creative process and enables the dirt and living beings to exist at all.  

Cluck’s work includes a video collage called Aletheia that was projected onto a scrim in a ninety second loop and documented his working year; a digital print of eggs photographed while they were candled over a six-day period of time; and a handmade book called The Book of Dirt, whose pages consist of the pigmented imprints of the plants he collected as well as “things made from dirt.” Cluck calls the book an almanac of his observations and experiences. A visceral and beautiful object, it begs the viewer to touch the earthy pages and then go play in the soil.  

Gina R. Furnari: Habit Dwells in Place

Gina R. Furnari, A Place For Us, (selection of Waveforms). Stoneware, digital audio, speakers and MP3 devices, 2020.

Gina Furnari is interested in the meaning and construction of place and in “the edge spaces around and within habitat: where bodies, water, land, sea, sky, and light all come together.” Her ceramic Waveforms are reminiscent of the shells she found along the habitats of southern New Jersey, where she lives. They also represent shelters, the places of rest and solace that proximity to water brings. Emanating from the Waveforms through a digital audio system are environmental sounds, including seagulls over Ocean City, artesian wells, wind through oak trees, and car and boat traffic. The undulating shapes of the Waveforms clearly mimicked the motion of ocean waves as they move towards and away from the shoreline.

In her video, On the Edge, A Kind of Bridge, Furnari recorded a performance in which she lies on the sand at the edge of the sea and then in the water near the shore in order to feel how each of the experiences impacted her body. The video was projected onto a vertical window blind. Normally associated with a protective barrier between the outside and inside of a house, the blind implied a sense of home and security. Both the Waveforms and the video projection successfully addressed our common need for the consolation and comfort that occurs in a home and around water.

sTo Len: Future of a Material

sTo Len, FOAM (FutureOfAMaterial), installation detail. Gomitaku prints, sumi ink, Styrofoam, jute, linen, and canvas, 2020.

sto Len’s carefully conceived and striking installation, entitled FOAM (Future of a Material), reflects upon our polluted waters and the toxic, plastic substances within them that will remain in the environment for generations to come. Using pieces of Styrofoam that he found in bodies of water and a self-invented printing process that he calls “Gomitaku” (trash impressions), he created ink prints on “scrolls” of unstretched canvas, linen, and paper. “Gomitaku” is based on the 19th century Japanese printing method, “Gyotaku,” that was used by fishermen to both record and honor their catches. The printed scrolls in the exhibition were hung vertically from monofilament attached to the ceiling of the gallery and directly on the wall suggesting the downward movement and eventual crashing of waterfalls. Walking among the scrolls, one can feel the enormity of the plastic pollution in our waters.

In addition to being a printing process, Len describes “Gomitaku” as “a pictorial writing system, a new language of repetitive marks describing the poisoning of our environment” and notes that “the monumental scale of the installation emphasizes the monumental legacy of pollution” left by companies like Dow Chemical, the makers of Styrofoam, who have put profit over the health of the planet. 

Leslie Sobel: Connecting Climate, Water, and Data

Leslie Sobel, installation view detail. L-R: Lake Erie Hypoxia GulfGulf and Hypoxia, and Mississippi Channel, all encaustic monotypes and mixed media on Rives BFK, 2020. On pedestals: Alga Flow, mixed media including cast resin in found box, 2020; Microcystis Box, cast resin and mixed media in found box, 2020.

Leslie Sobel has confronted the topic of water for decades, most recently focusing on the condition of lakes and river systems near her home in the Midwest. She is deeply concerned about pollution and the flooding and environmental damage that climate change has caused to our continental watersheds. Her series of large-scale, mixed media pieces on paper in the exhibition incorporate images from old survey maps as well as drawing and encaustic. The vibrant colors and visually pleasing compositions immediately draw the viewer into the work. At closer inspection, though, it becomes clear that Sobel is issuing a warning about and expressing her grief over the conditions of our water resources. The title, “Inflection Point,” which she used for one of the mixed media works, is a clue to that warning. As she states, “we are at the cusp;” we are at an inflection point where changes must be made in how we serve as stewards of our environment before it is too late.

As the daughter of two scientists, Sobel is finely attuned to scientific systems and often collaborates with scientists in the field. The more intimate, three-dimensional pieces in the exhibition, Alga Flow and Microcystis Box, reference the toxic blooms on Lake Erie and include cast resin pieces incorporating digital prints of photomicrographs of alga as well as digital photographs of Maumee Bay State Park – both in found boxes. The presentation of the objects in a manner similar to the storage of scientific specimens adds weight to their message of environmental crisis.

Rachel Wojnar: To Live, Entangled

Rachel Wojnar, Death and Her Faces. Plaster, growing medium, mycelium, mold, 2019-2020.

Rachel Wojnar embraces impermanence. Her intriguing, biodegradable masks in the exhibition were created to decompose, in direct contrast to the way in which the plastic products and other mass-produced, non-biodegradable, toxic materials in our culture remain in landfills and in the ocean for hundreds of years. The masks are also in direct contrast to the death masks dating back to ancient Egypt, which served as a likeness of a person’s face after death and were an attempt to immortalize the figure. Wojnar noted that she sees death, including ecological death, as the opportunity for renewal.  

Fungi is the medium Wojnar used for the decomposition process of her plaster facial casts. She filled the molds with natural substances, such as mushrooms and wood chips that fungi feed on, and then injected mycelium, the feeding structure of fungi, into the cavity. The symbiosis between the plastic cast of Wojnar’s face, the mycelium, and water, which activates the growth of the fungi and all living matter, created an ever-changing, human/non-human form, which underscored what Wojnar refers to as “our need to move from an anthropomorphic view of the world to one in which we are intrinsically tied to all living beings.

Confluence was a particularly fitting title for the combined work of these five artists. Their exhibition was a true confluence, a coming together of their individual styles, choices of material, and pressing personal and environmental interests, creating a narrative of grief, crisis, the cycles of growth and decline, responsibility, and solace. Flowing throughout was the presence of water, the force that makes life possible. 

(Top image: sTo Len, detail of FOAM (FutureOfAMaterial) installation. Gomitaku print, sumi ink on linen, 64” x 360,” 2020. All photographs are courtesy of the artists.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and climate change. She co-created a national, participatory public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – trees that have been exposed to salt water and died as a result of rising tides.

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