Arts and Sustainability in the Land of Eden
Barbara Sellers-Young

John Dewey argued in Art as Experience (1934/2005) that art is central to the sustainability of daily life. In doing so, he is not only talking about being a consumer of arts by attendance at events or exhibitions but the creation of the aesthetic dimension within our lives from arranging our homes and gardens, to our public presentation of self in the clothes we wear. Gerald Bast, President of the University of Applied Arts in Vienna states, “The true beauty of art lies in its ability to move us intellectually, motivate us to follow new paths, shape awareness and character, demonstrate interconnections and teach us to employ all things that surround us in a conscious manner.”  Bast’s view specifically challenges a definition of the arts as limited to an aesthetic framework. Instead, art engages contemporary issues such as sustainability that confront our global community.

This narrative of Oregon and its artists discussed in Artists Activating Sustainability: The Oregon Story is a history of settlement and the engagement of the landscape often referred to as the Land of Eden as a resource for agriculture, logging, fishing, and mining. The practices associated with the latter and an influx of people beginning in the nineteenth century led to a degradation of the land and its rivers. In the 1970s, an environmental movement, led by governors, Tom McCall and Robert Straub, sought to clean up the rivers and create a land use plan that would limit overuse and growth. A backlash by land owners and resource-based industries followed and Oregon became, as historian William Robbins writes, a landscape of conflict. Embedded in the aesthetic dimension of Oregon’s artists are responses to this conflict in projects that promote processes that activate an attitude of sustainability. 

Attending to the Landscape: Perception—listening, hearing, seeing, and feeling—can be expanded through interaction with the ecology of a landscape.

For visual artist James Lavadour, the Blue Mountains and their geologic formation are a part of his consciousness, as history and as daily lived experience. He receives inspiration for his paintings from hiking through the mountains, drinking from a brook, and lying on a hillside or contemplating the dawn. He paints moments in time in bold colorful gestures that portray the Blue Mountain’s geologic underpinnings and combines them in groups of paintings that convey the constant process of the Earth’s transformation. He takes us on an ever-changing visual journey that challenges the conception of the Earth as static and reminds us that we are participating in an ever-changing environment. 

Raised in the central Oregon Cascades, Hunter Noack hiked and hunted in the forests, swam, and fished in the rivers. Angela Pozzi spent summers wandering along Oregon’s beaches. Each created an artistic practice that was an extension of their years growing up in a landscape. Noack brings people to new modes of listening in his outdoor classical concerts in settings that vary from the Columbia Gorge to the Alvord Desert. His concerts provide an opportunity for people to integrate the sound of a bird, the feel of the wind, and the smell of the forest or sea with the classical compositions he plays on a Steinway piano. Pozzi gathers people to clean the ocean shores of trash, much of it plastic, and turn the rubbish into representations of the sea’s creatures. The volunteer community Pozzi has organized collected, cleans, and sorts the collection as well as helped to build the sculptures that end up in zoos and museums around the world. 

The FisherPoets of Astoria describe in song and poetry long days lived on the everchanging ocean with colleagues that they must count on if the sea gets rough, an accident happens or the boat breaks down. Every moment is a sensory combination of the rolling of the boat, the wind, torrential downpours of pelting rain, the aching muscles from hours of labor, and the ever-present smell of fish. The FisherPoets acknowledge the challenges but celebrate the joy of working with the maximum focus of their entire being in an awareness that fishing is an embodied dialogue with the Earth’s oceans. 

Reflection as a Path of Knowledge: Science and art are complementary modes of knowledge.

Urban artists involved in backpacking journeys organized by Portland’s Signal Fire trek down forest paths, paddle down rivers, watch the sun come up over the horizon, and listen to the sound of the night to engage new sensory modes of moving, listening, and seeing that transforms their urbanized imagination. Artists affiliated with Portland’s Elizabeth Jones Gallery reflect on the trees in Portland’s landscape, sit in the community around trees under threat, and use their artistic skills to document what trees contribute to neighborhoods. 

Artists and scientists come from across the United States to live in the cabins associated with the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, a program that considers the deep complementary affinities of science and art. They traverse the trails and shores of the Pacific Ocean and Salmon River Estuary along Cascade Head. The artists and scientists are asked to embrace a reflective path, common to art and science, which was ceramicist Frank Boyden’s reason for establishing Sitka. Each resident picks a site within the Sitka surroundings that becomes a place of reflection and meditative release into the ecology of the place. The reflective practice in place evolves into their artistic or scientific project. 

History and Identity: Solutions begin at the local community level.

Vale is located on the geothermal hot spring that became the gateway to Oregon during the nineteenth century. The Vale Heritage Reflections Mural Society has created thirty-four murals as a representation of the diverse groups who visited the hot spring or traversed the basins and range landscape of Malheur County. As such, they celebrate the specific cultural histories associated with the landscape—the hunting and gathering Paiute, the fur traders, the settlers who walked the Oregon trail, the Basque groups who came to herd the sheep, the Chinese Americans who helped build the railroad, Japanese Americans who farmed and the Mexican Vaqueros who worked the ranches. An appreciation of unique identities and related arts builds mutual respect which is a key to collaboration and compromise.

Culture as Collective Imagination: Creating sanctuary opens up the space for dialogue that leads to reimagining. Playful improvisatory flexibility is a means to promote collaboration.

Sanctuary Stage and the Oregon Country Fair are the results of the lush farmland of the Willamette Valley and the many micro-communities that exist along the shores of the Willamette River. The Sanctuary Stage does not start with a script. Instead, it begins with the concerns of a micro-community that are discovered in a sanctuary space of non-judgmental dialogue. A performance based on these conversations becomes a site for community conversations that promote new levels of understanding. Correspondingly, the Oregon Country Fair’s organization is developed around an evolving mode of communication and consensus building in which the unanticipated situation finds resolution in a responsive playful attitude towards life as an ever-evolving improvisation with a community committed to respect, diversity, inclusion, and care for the land that sustains it.

Ultimately, Oregon’s artists advocate through their distinctive artistic practices a framework for activating our conscious interaction with a landscape that includes a reflective interaction with a landscape within an acknowledgment of history and community guided by flexible improvisation and collaboration. Klamath Falls, Oregon-based environmental writer Emma Marris suggests there is a tendency for Oregonians to mythologize Oregon as having retained its nineteenth-century designation as the Land of Eden. She argues, “We must temper our romantic notion of untrammeled wilderness and find room next to it for the more nuanced notion of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us.” Oregon’s artists provide a set of interactive practices for tending that garden.