Connecting to our landscape through art: Whole Terrain interviews Erika Osborne

By Hanna Wheeler

Scrawny, twisted juniper and pinon characterize environmental artist Erika Osborne‘s arid, mountain-west home.

“Because there aren’t a lot of trees, you notice individuals,” she said. “They have this character to them that’s a product of the environment and the weather. I started looking at them as individuals and making portraits of them.”

Her “Tree Drawings” series is a careful observation of those characters manifested in detailed graphite drawings. These tree drawings required her to be outdoors in the southwestern wilderness for up to 12 hours per drawing.

“When you’re working in the field, you’re dealing with the elements, the terrain, and a lack of resources, especially if you’re way out,” said Osborne. “I’ve had to stop at gas stations to get lip liner when I didn’t have any materials or had to use other surfaces that might be more conducive to being outside.”

Though she was traditionally trained in painting— receiving her MFA from the University of New Mexico— Osborne says the challenge of working outdoors has “opened up” her artwork.

“The limitations and restrictions force creativity. It makes you investigate your practice more holistically,” she said.

Hiking and exploring her home state of Utah prepared her for work as an environmental artist.

“The landscape helped form my character and my desire to be in open spaces. It instilled in me that sense of place. It helped drive me to create art that would bring awareness to some of the plight that is faced by that landscape,” she said.

Osborne takes an interdisciplinary approach, such as collaborating with scientists, to raise awareness of environmental issues. She spent time at the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research in Arizona where she worked with scientists and used wood samples and logging research to complete her “Wood Work” series.

“I wanted to be detailed and spend a lot of time investigating and drawing every ring. I wanted to pay homage to the ecology and individuality of the trees while acknowledging the economy of them, to wood as a product that we use,” she said.

Osborne compares tree rings to a topographic map, which is another interest of hers. In her “Mapping Bodily Connection” series, she paints portions of topographic maps across people’s backs.

“I’m fusing our different levels of awareness and understanding of place,” she said.

“Maps are representations of cultural connection, intellectual connection, politics, boundaries, borders… But when you’re outside, it’s a direct and visceral experience, like being in the desert where it’s hot and dry.” Within us, Osborne explained, we carry all of these ways of knowing the world.

Osborne also explores the theme of place in her “Imprinting Place” series. “It’s about the ways we connect,” she said. “When you experience being outdoors, you create a web of connection.”

Her work has been exhibited in books and galleries throughout the southwest, including “THE LAND/ an art site.” The site is a 40-acre property in the mountains of New Mexico.  It is dedicated to providing outdoor art installation space and artist residencies for environmental artists. “It takes the gallery outside,” explained Osborne.

Osborne now finds herself in a new landscape: the green and rolling hills of West Virginia. Through her position as an art professor at West Virginia University, she helps students, and herself, connect to Appalachia.

“I believe in place-based education and getting [students] out of the box that is the studio or the classroom. Choosing to go to school in West Virginia is very different from choosing to go to school in, say, New York. Students should take advantage of that difference and cultivate it,” she said.

Osborne’s students focus on topics of inquiry such as earth and sky, people and place, and sustainability. This type of study “creates community and gets people engaged. Students often go back to places and do more work and continue their research,” Osborne said.

Her classes involve a diversity of media. They also build collaborations with botanists, soil scientists, astronomers, farmers, and other non-traditional partners to help students understand their connection to place.

In one class, a local watershed group helps students tour the watershed, learn the area’s coal mining history, and understand its water quality issues. Students then create site-specific art projects in the watershed.

In another class, students further investigate mountain-top-removal issues by visiting coal mining sites and speaking with community members and environmental activists.

“It’s so complicated and so heated,” said Osborne of mountain-top-removal. “It’s a hard thing to make work about.”

But Osborne is used to tackling difficult questions with her art. Her upcoming work focuses on the American concept of Manifest Destiny, including mining and other industries that Manifest Destiny brought. “It’s about progress and destiny —how we see the artifacts of American expansionism today and what that brought to our environment,” she said. In a sense, she’ll be helping all of us connect to our place in the world and our place in history.

Erika Osborne received her BFA from the University of Utah in painting and drawing and her MFA from the University of New Mexico. Erika’s artwork deals directly with cultural connections to place and environment. She is now an Associate Professor in the Division of Art and Design at West Virginia University.

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