I’m excited to share with you an interview with artist and John Jay College professor of art and environmental justice, Mary Ting, whose latest show, Our Hive is Sick, is currently on view at the Augusta Savage Gallery at University of Massachusetts Amherst. The show is an overview of more than three decades of work on trauma and the natural world. As Ting says in our interview below, the show is a “call to action.”
For years, your artwork has exuded themes about the environment, wildlife, and climate change. What draws you to these themes?
My very first introduction to art and the natural world was my mother’s Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, the classic woodblock printed set of books on Chinese brush painting of trees, rocks, birds and flowers, insects, and such. I was in awe of the images, it was a magical world unto itself. I grew up in a house of wonder with one hundred orchids, a botanical garden, cats, rescued animals, specimens, an abundance of art and handicrafts, and the creator/keeper of it all was my mother. It was also a house of sadness. My mother’s stories of Nanjing 1937 during the massacre, the bodies, and the later shooting of the nesting herons on her college campus. As a child these stories were my bedtime fairy tales and the bodies of the raped women and the birds with their dangling legs and beaks were one and the same – their bodies side by side. I was raised in the language of sorrow, the love of nature, and the violence of humans. I dreamed of being a forest protector and along the way became an artist.
You have a new exhibition at University of Massachusetts Amherst opening in November entitled Our Hive is Sick. Please tell us about this show. What inspired it? And what do you hope viewers take away from it?
Our Hive is Sick, my second solo show at University of Massachusetts Amherst, Augusta Savage Gallery, is an overview of more than three decades of work on cultural history, trauma, and the ravaging of our bodies and the natural world. My first exhibition at the gallery, Memories and Wounds, also focused on personal history, the body, ecological loss, and mourning. In 2020, the year of a deadly virus leaping across species and oceans, record weather disasters, loss of cultural biodiversity, and the rise of hate and anti-science rhetoric – now, was the time for this exhibition. The title, Our Hive is Sick, stems from my work on bees, colony collapse, and unhealthy hives. In my prose poem, Our Hive is Sick, each stanza focuses on a different but related theme (COVID-19, extinction, hate, urgency). I hope the viewers will understand that environmental destruction is not new nor is its relationships to our cultural histories, policies, and consumption. Ultimately Our Hive is Sick is a call to action.
In a recent article for Truthout.com you’re quoted as saying “My work is basically about turning grief into action.” Could you elaborate on what you mean?
I realized early on that art had the power to transform, to create meaning out of our loss and confusion. That internal shift is a game-changer for mental health as well as for facilitating external community building and actions. In this way, art-making is a tool and the process itself can be a unifier. I see this constantly in my community projects and classroom. Making and looking at art is a setting ripe for real discussions, programs, and strategizing. An example of this is my ongoing workshop series, Daffodil Ashes, on grief and art-making, where participants created paper replicas of gifts to their dearly beloved. They also shared stories and wrote letters with words that were never spoken, culminating in a community garden ceremony. It is an individualized creative contemporary rendition of a traditional Chinese folk ritual.
With COVID-19, I am expanding Daffodil Ashes workshops to include pandemic related environmental group actions. “Doing” in the company of others is the best antidote to grief. Another example is the grief of elephant poaching for ivory which triggered related artworks and the organizing of two exhibitions and their public programming: COMPASSION for Creatures Great and Small on the endangered species market at the Chinese American Arts Council gallery and ENDANGERED! at John Jay College to raise awareness on campus.
Much of your work is created with paper. What draws you to this medium?
Every culture utilizes paper crafts in their rituals and folk traditions – it has a universality. Paper in its various forms is also very affordable, readily available, versatile, and practical to store and ship. I grew up with my mother’s brush paintings, her woodblock printed books, and the paper folk crafts she taught me as a child. My first cut paper art pieces in 1986, was a set of five 8-feet-tall scrolls for the performance piece Silent Years. The shadows created by the cutouts worked well with the lighting changes and the entire set was easily put in a tube when we toured the performance. I try to use what is suitable for the specific work. I have worked with a variety of other materials including wax, fabric, mixed media, wire, rubber, and clay. These days I try to use what is on hand and buy as little as possible.
Something I so admire about your work is how it incorporates words and books. Could you also speak to why you work with these things?
I am an avid reader, and very inspired by literature, the history and tradition of books, language (verbal and non-verbal), and storytelling. I have numerous book-related artworks, some of which utilize early book formats (such as slabs, palm leaf manuscripts, accordion fold bindings) with contemporary content. I am interested in lost or dying languages and stories that are never written down, stories deemed too terrible to tell. When I combine words and books to an artwork, I am adding a context and visceral layer versus a literal illustration or representation of the words. My works are essentially narratives.
What role do you think art plays in our greater understanding and/or awareness of climate change?
Artists provide another way of looking at things. which is critical in this media-saturated world. I think of myself as an artist, creative thinker, dot connector, researcher, and educator. My studio artworks often lead to community projects, exhibitions, public programs, and workshops. As an educator, I initially taught only in the studio art department. Now I also teach in the environmental justice program. My artwork has led me to doing research, lectures, and writing in areas outside of the art sector, such as wildlife conservation. To me, the very notion of art itself is changing, expanding in this time of the Anthropocene. We as artists are continually redefining ourselves and our role in supporting the social environmental justice issues of our day.
Finally, what’s next for you? Anything you’d like my readers to look for?
Working on the Our Hive is Sick retrospective catalog has made me want to revisit old themes. My work has always been circular, there is always more to say, a topic is never done, and tragically history is also circular. I am also eager to work on more text-dominant work related to our exploitative histories, zoonotic diseases, and the pandemic. In 2021, I will be starting a new series, 21st Century Tree of Life workshops on learning new skills while talking about serious issues and pursuing group actions. I hope to gather participants from various sectors to attend and teach the workshops. I am hoping one day to get to postponed travels such as the Kala Chaupal Uttarakhand India eco-art residency. But until then, there is plenty to do with New York climate change issues and awareness raising. In this time of continual loss and of urgent being and doing, there is so much to do, so much to love and protect.
(Top image: Shaanbei Ghost Diary, handmade paper, pigment, wax, soot. Photo courtesy of the artist.)
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.