The Art of Ecology

Bird Migration ArtAs many teachers would likely confess, the success of conveying and imparting knowledge is not just the quality of the information. It’s not only a question of the underlying message, but how effectively a language can be utilized to connect with who is listening–or in some cases, to get them to listen at all. The spoken and written word can be useful media to try and bridge the information gap when it comes to sustainability, but art can speak volumes in a language all of its own on any topic including ecological stewardship. I recently had the good fortune of meeting Ellie Irons, a Brooklyn artist that uses her work to discuss the importance of ecologies and their interconnected components.

When Ellie and I first connected it was for some collaboration on information surrounding the Gowanus Canal restoration for some pieces she was working on of watersheds in New York state. After some quick exchanges, it only took a quick look at her portfolio website before I was hooked. The images I saw spoke volumes about concepts of natural connections and interwoven systems. Despite the fact that I would not categorize myself as a learned art critic, I got the feeling that she and I were trying to say a lot of the same things in a slightly different dialect so I took her up on an offer to come out and see her studio.

Coming up out of the subway stop across the river, the face of the city in Brooklyn is not short on differences from its larger neighbor on the opposite shore. Walking through the smaller blocks of the artist-popular Bushwick, I passed row houses faced in an array of colors and materials, most with stoops that descended from the parlor floor down to touch the ground. Though the buildings were shorter the streets were still active and admittedly lined with less of the gentrified, mainstream establishments that continue to compromise the authenticity of Manhattan. Eventually I made it to a brick building that stood taller than most of its neighbors beside the wood and steel of the M-train. A few floors later and I had arrived at a weathered metal door with worn letters.

The studio beyond bore the quintessential characteristics of the refurbished Brooklyn space that draws artists from around city and beyond. The walls and ceilings had the clean lines of painted sheetrock from the relatively recent partitioning of a floor plate into residential space. The stacked rows of thin wood flooring, undoubtedly original, creaked softly beneath each footfall. Beyond the windows the elevated train sailed by with a light tremor and a loud wake in what would prove to be the first of a regular addition to the atmosphere.

The first collection of desks and shelves near the door belonged to Ellie’s studiomate, but beyond were shelves rife with pieces of tree branches and a series of plastic containers suspended on a welded metal frame and connected with clear tubing. At the bottom were full batches of green tinted liquid that I would come to learn was fresh algae. In addition to the expected accoutrements of books, pencils, paper and brushes, Ellie’s studio desk had collections of dried plants in jars across the top. The surroundings seemed all too appropriate for the production of the images of paintings that I had seen.

Bird Migration Art

Night Migrant Study, courtesy of Ellie Irons

Irons finds her inspiration for her work in the complexities of natural ecologies and their interconnected component, leaving it as no surprise that I was drawn to her work immediately. One of her fascinating collections grew from the notion of bird migration related to the loss of habitat from human development. These events can cause evolutions, or even the outright collapse, of ecosystems overtime that may ultimately find their way to regrowth. Ellie walked me through the first piece in the series that works with pencil and water on paper that is collaged with pieces of vintage bird guides. A network of branch-like forms gives birth to the color and shape of birds as it evolves across the three pages of the piece before fading out with only a hint of possible rejuvenation at the end. This series evolved into a “night” migration collection that I was particularly drawn to as well.

When she is not producing innovative artwork in her studio she also teaches art to both college students at City College and second graders as a resident artist at the Learning Through Art Program at the Guggenheim.

Ellie Irons Man and Nature

Fence and Leaves, courtesy of Ellie Irons

Ellie showed me another piece that took a different angle in reflecting on the interface and overlap between the natural and the man-made. Done in a combination of ink and watercolor, the composition has a rhythm generated by the diamonds of chain link fence over a field of colored tones with reversed silhouettes of plant life behind–the delicate overlap of leaves and stems inherently striking the parallel between the more rigid lines of twisted metal. On the right her birds return with a fluid form that resembles a completed bird at one point but dissolves into fence at one end and towards the network of leaves at the other. To me, the piece clearly highlighted how inseparable the environments of civilization and nature are with each unavoidably affecting the other.  I encourage anyone and everyone to take a more thorough look at her website.

Given that Ellie is an artist with interested in ecology and urban restoration, I had to ask her opinion of the Highline (which I think is extraordinary).

“I love it,” she replied with a smile. “Considering the amount of space, it feels surprisingly complete.” We agreed that the removal from the streetscape while still being immersed in the urban environment was a strikingly successful aspect of the project.

Irons’ latest project examines invasive species of plants in the United States—usually types that have been brought over and now propagate without any natural resistance to curb their growth. According to the artist, the project focuses on ways to depict the “unintended consequences of the things we don’t understand” (which instantly reminded me of the topic of geo-engineering). By taking flowers or berries from the various plants, Irons creates pigments that she uses to paint narrative images describing the history of the problematic species.

Ellie Irons Network

Network (Tree Creepers), courtesy of Ellie Irons

When asked if there were artists that had served as inspiration for her when it came to her ecological focus or natural media, she had an ample list. She mentioned Newton & Helen Mayer Harrison who work closely with the fields of ecology and biology to promote biodiversity and community development. Also included were Mark Dion and Agnus Denes. One of Denes’ most well known projects was the installation of a wheat field in the New York Battery Park landfill in 1982–grain that would ultimately be harvested at travel to 28 cities in a work that the artist described as commenting on “human values and misplaced priorities.”

Ellie’s work takes on a difficult task: trying to depict the connections of systems that are almost too complicated to describe, but the depth of her composition conveys the amount of information that operates behind the scenes. Again, despite the fact that Ellie Iron’s artwork and the informational resource of Intercon have missions that are closely related, the delivery is meaningfully different–but that could be a good thing. The more ways we can try to convey what is important, the underlying force of sustainability and why it is essential, the better chances we have of conveying more knowledge to more people. If anyone else has artists whose work operates in a similar vein, please share them as well.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Ellie Irons