Fitting the Human Within Nature

Umbel Series, by Jenni Ward. Photo by Bill Bishoff, courtesy of UCSC Arboretum.

Nature is inspiration to many artists. But while natural form has inspired generations of artists, today many are finding source material not purely within the plants and animals, the leaves and seeds, flowers and rocks that we think of immediately when we consider the definition of “nature.” More and more commonly, artists are drawn to the juxtaposition between the natural world and the human world.


Where the Forest and the Sea meet, by Larry Worley. Photo by Bill Bishoff, courtesy of UCSC Arboretum.

Amid nature on display at the UCSC Arboretum in Santa Cruz, are scattered works of art. The current installation of the Art in the Arboretum program is entitled Site Specific Environmental Installations, curated by Susana Arias, and features the work of ten local artists. Many works stand out starkly in the natural environment, and yet they mimic it. In creating sculpture from a combination of natural-appearing and unnatural-appearing materials, in producing both abstract forms and representational ones, and in placing their work within the unique landscape textures of a maintained and yet living environment, these artists leap back and forth across the gap between naturalness and its opposite. As the works emerge from the arboretum around them, one can see human artistry, that activity that we use to negotiate the difference.

And Sow It Begins, by Lucia Bruer. Photo by Bill Bishoff, courtesy of UCSC Arboretum.

The work is discovered as one walks through the arboretum, which perhaps in itself feels a natural way to encounter it. Weaving through a field of grasses, the visitor can walk alongside Jenni Ward’s Umbel Series, a series of ceramic pieces mounted on steel rods. Along a fence line, which might otherwise be a stark interruption in a walk, one finds an even more noticeable interruption: Jamie Abbott, Barbara Downs, and Roy Holmberg’s 3 + 7, a massive rendition of a eucalyptus seed pod rendered in steel and burlap. Found lodged in a tree is Larry Worley’s Where the Forest and Sea Meet, made from woven fiber and wood. As if directing the viewer, Lucia Bruer’s And Sow It Begins appears partially like farm apparatus, and partially like its own form of randomized growth, as wood extends towards the sun from a set of metal thorns. And then impossible to miss is Wendy Domster’s Sequoia Semprotea, which arranges fallen redwood limbs in a reconstruction of a Protea bloom, taking the viewer inside of its gaping arms.

Sequoia Semprotea, by Wendy Domster. Photo by Bill Bishoff, courtesy of UCSC Arboretum.

There is no material that is truly unnatural— the only thing that changes is the amount of human work that goes into bringing it into its new form. And the works in Environmental Installations reminds us of not only of this fact, but that humans have a choice in how far to work the natural world through our activities. Our presence can never be removed from the natural world, but we have the ability to tread lightly, and plan our interventions wisely, letting them fit into the natural world as seamlessly as possible.

By Adam Rothstein

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