STORY and PHOTOGRAPHS by FRIDERIKE HEUER
“The arts and humanities have the potential to remind us of past environmental change and positive visions for our environment. What we need, I argue, are narratives of hope…..We need stories that empower us to become thinkers, actors, and activists capable of imagining alternatives in a world dominated by technical and economic constraints. We need ideas that will find their way through the mesh of an ever-tighter net of path dependencies. And we need people who will dare to cut apart some of the meshwork.“
— Christof Mauch. Slow Hope: Re-Thinking Ecologies of Crisis and Fear (2019)
I WAS BIASED, ALRIGHT. My interests in art, botany, and communal work were all captured in the installation before me. How could I not be particularly taken? I presume, though, that a more objective observer would be equally excited by Chloë Hight’s contribution to Maryhill Museum of of Art‘s Exquisite Gorge II exhibition, which will feature a collection of fabric art sculptures, and will open on August 6, 2022 in the museum’s park. The elegance and geometry of her design, combined with her basketry weaving skill, would draw anyone in, is my bet.
Art has the power to remind us about the state of our environment, past, present, and potentially future. It can tell us important stories if presenting the right ideas; tales of warning, but also of hope. Hight is a storyteller who is keenly sensitive to issues of place and our history within it, but also of potentialities. Warning and hope.
Her tale begins with the frame that surrounds the sculptural elements she created. The frame is black, and not just any old black. It is black from having been burned with a torch using Yakisugi/Shou Sugi Ban, a traditional Japanese method of preserving wood by applying fire. She then rubbed it with charcoal, ground into powder and blended with pine tar and beeswax. The artist collected the charcoal on the site of the 2017 Eagle Creek fire, part of her section of the Columbia River that begins near the Harphan Creek tributary and ends near the Tumalt Creek tributary, with many draining tributaries, including Eagle Creek from its headwaters at Wahtum Lake.
The wildfire, started by a careless teen playing with fireworks, burned more than 48,000 acres in the Gorge and Mt. Hood National Forest. Hikers needed to be rescued; people lost homes and were evacuated. About 121 miles of national forest trails and the businesses of the area were affected during the three months’ duration of the fire and then some. Trails were subsequently endangered by landslides and closed. It is only recent that you can hike there again.
The vulnerability of the ecosystem at the juncture between urban areas and the wilderness is evoked with this frame, reminding us of the impact that deforestation and climate change had on the magnitude of the fire. But so is resilience: blackened wood still stands, and areas are now open so that charcoal, an important material for man and nature, can be collected and used. Both perspectives, catastrophe and renewal, are integrated into the narrative.
INSIDE THE FRAME flows the river, banked by gently curved steel rods fabricated in collaboration with MacRae Wylde, a local sculptor. The rods provide a metal loom with the metallic material representing the manmade industrial infrastructure along the Columbia River: rigid and constricting. The curvature of the form, on the other hand, echoes the fluidity and resilience of water, a river that seeks its way regardless, and that here is created from wood and plant material weavings that represent many botanical species of the Pacific Northwest. Again, a juxtaposition of elements that integrates both sides of an environmental story.
The weaving techniques are varied, some shapes hinting at scales and/or fins of fish, so elemental to the river and the people who have lived here for millennia. Some parts contain designs reminiscent of traditional basketry. All are made from plants that play essential roles in the ecosystem of the region and the culture of its inhabitants. Diverse techniques, including stake and strand weaving, twining, and plaiting, introduce texture and patterns. Variations in color, effects created by choosing appropriate plant materials — Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus), willow (Salix), European beach grass (Ammophila arenaria), iris (Iridaceae), day lily (Hemerocallis), and cattail (Typha) — from roots, bark and leaves, mirror the shading and dappled effect of light streaming into the local forests or shimmering on eddies or wavy water. Darkness and brightness, opposing forces here as well, provide the artist’s rendering of a region with ample tension and beauty — and us with ample opportunity to recognize shades of a landscape we so revere.
CHLOE HIGHT GREW UP and now lives again in close proximity to the Columbia, in Hood River. She earned her BFA at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, and expanded on her craft with a stay in Oaxaca, México, where she learned botanical dyeing and loom weaving. She has been a teaching artist at various institutions, including Arts in Education of the Gorge, Wildcraft Studio School, Rewild Portland, Young Audiences and The Right Brain Initiative (K-12 Arts Education and Residencies, Portland) and the Columbia Basin Basketry Guild.
One of her formative experiences, she told me, was an internship with Vancouver, B.C., artist Sharon Kallis, who focuses on environmental art and community engagement and is the founding Executive Director of EartHand Gleaners Society. Hight was fascinated by and adopted parts of Kallis’s approach to site-specific installations: using material found in the immediate environment, from tended or invasive plants as well as discarded materials in fields and gardens. Making do with what already exists is, of course, a profoundly sustainable approach.
There is an additional advantage, though. Much of the material that is ripped out of our gardens and fields consists of prolific plants that are not indigenous to the region, but are brought to us and considered invasive. Think beachgrass, English Ivy, or Himalayan Blackberry. Rather than demonizing these species, Hight approaches them as something that can serve a purpose. She embraces the abundance of these superspreaders for making functional items, once you know how to treat the plant parts best suited. An irritant, if not a danger, now shaped into something useful, integrated into the ever-changing biological melting pot.
I HAD PREFACED my observations with the words of Christof Mauch, a fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, an international, interdisciplinary center for research and education in the environmental humanities located in Munich, Germany, because I believe they fit very well with what Hight is engaged in. The center focuses on research in and education about plant humanities, a term that is relatively new, although the approaches it covers are historically pretty established. Think of all the humanities disciplines that have engaged with plants. Anthropology has explored health and biomedicine in different cultures. Environmental archeology has looked at factors that influenced the fate of civilizations. Art history has studied the many glorious plant illustrators who helped science move along. Plant collections have helped establish taxonomy systems and seeded our modern Botanical Gardens. From philosophers to poets, landscape designers to neurobiologists, questions about plants and their relationship to people have occupied us — now more than ever, I think, given the worries over biodiversity, environmental sustainability, and conservation. Biocultural institutions help find answers.
Artists like Hight are telling stories about the places we live in by teaching us about the plants these places contain; how to identify them and how to use them. Her small sampler of the most common plants she uses for weaving, cording, and basketry is sweet and functional.
It triggered a flood of childhood memories in me. We had large prints of several botanical illustrators hanging in our house, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717) among them,
but also Barbara Regina Dietzsch (1706–1783),
and Anne Pratt (1806-1893).
My mother, who held a PhD in agricultural sciences and was a master gardener, used them to teach us early about plant parts as much as plant identification, but their beauty alone instilled a lifelong connection. I see Chloë Hight as a great fit for this lineage of women educators, artists and botanists, with an added sense of practicality for schlepping around but a small booklet to have it ready for show and tell!
BIOCULTURAL COLLECTIONS — representing the interchange between plants and people — are, of course, not restricted to artistic renderings of our flora. They contain objects made from plants, tools used to process them, medicines derived from plants, and anything else, like archival materials and historical documents, that help us understand both the botany of a particular place and its culture — the art, history, and societal traditions of the people who used these plants. There are many of them: The Biocultural Collections Network has more than 215 member institutions ,including botanical gardens, herbaria, natural history, anthropology, and cultural history museums, which span the globe. (Ref.)
One of their major goals is to educate people about plants so they understand the role they play in our world then and now; how important conservation is; and what needs to be done to preserve access to sufficient quantities of food. Which brings us back to our artist.
HIGHT IS ENGAGED in teaching at a variety of levels and across domains. She has an interest in preserving and relating ancestral techniques related to fiber arts. She is keen on helping students identify plants and understand their uses. For the EG II project she worked with seventh graders in teacher Adam Smith’s class at Hood River Middle School, using the cordage they produced with her instructions as part of the Exquisite Gorge II sculpture. During the activities she also linked to the seventh grade curricular studies of riparian plants and ecosystems. In previous years she had helped middle schoolers at HRMS to understand the causes and implications of the Eagle Creek Fire. Here is a small film the students produced, including a focus on the fate of the plants. Impressive!
When I visited, she was teaching cording to people who had signed up for a workshop with The History Museum of Hood River, one of her two community partners for the project (the other is Arts in Education in the Gorge.) The museum is worth checking out next time you come through Hood River. Small, but informative about local history. They were in the process of putting up objects from their archives relevant to Hight’s piece.
Once the workshop started, Hight explained that cordage was one of the first human fiber technologies that has been practiced across cultures around the globe. It can be an essential skill for everyday survival — think bows, bow-and-drill-friction fires, fishing lines, securing of shelter, and eventually all the ropes needed for sailing ships across the oceans. (A detailed overview of the history of cordage in the Americas can be found here.)
She talked about the process of gathering the materials, splitting, prepping and drying them, and later, when it comes time to use, making them pliable again by immersing them in water.
Clearly the participants had fun, working hard but also together — community in action, under the blossoming, sweet-smelling Linden tree in the backyard of the museum.
Actually basswood (Tilia Americana,) a native genus within the Linden family. One of the many things I learned that day, grateful that I got to meet all these interesting, knowledgable, creative people associated with the EG II project. It will be a joy to see the sculptures connected, soon now.
“…a collaborative fiber arts project featuring 13 artists working with communities along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River from the Willamette River confluence to the Snake River confluence. The project, again initiated by Maryhill Museum of Art and following the original one by printmakers in 2019, takes inspiration from the Surrealist art practice known as exquisite corpse. In the most well-known exquisite corpse drawing game, participants took turns creating sections of a body on a piece of paper folded to hide each successive contribution. When unfolded, the whole body is revealed. In the case of The Exquisite Gorge Project II, the Columbia River will become the ‘body’ that unifies the collaboration between artists and communities, revealing a flowing 66-foot work that tells 10 conceptual stories of the Columbia River and its people.”
Artists and Community Partners:
Section One: Oregon Society of Artists–Artist: Lynn Deal
Section Two: Lewis and Clark University–Artist: Amanda Triplett
Section Three: Columbia Center for the Arts, The History Museum of Hood River County and Arts in Education of the Gorge–Artist: Chloë Hight
Section Four: White Salmon Arts Council and Fort Vancouver Regional Library–Artist: Xavier Griffith
Section Five: The Dalles Arts Center and The Dalles-Wasco County Library–Artists: Francisco and Laura Bautista
Section Six: The Fort Vancouver Regional Library at Goldendale Community Library–Artist: Carolyn Hazel Drake
Section Seven: The American-Romanian Cultural Society and Maryhill Museum of Art–Artist: Magda Nica
Section Eight: Desert Fiber Arts & REACH Museum–Artist: Ophir El-Boher
Section Nine: The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation–Artist: Bonnie Meltzer
Section Ten: ArtWalla–Artist: Kristy Kún
Frontispiece: Tammy Jo Wilson and Owen Premore
Originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on July 18, 2022.