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

by Caroline Ailanthus

Note; this is an updated version of the 2010 profile written by Hannah Wheeler

Environmental artist Erika Osborne is a self-described daughter of the desert, and in many ways her art remains rooted in the arid mountain west, like the scrawny, twisted junipers and pinion pines she has so carefully drawn.

“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, graphite record of those characters. Each detailed portrait required her to be outdoors in the southwestern wilderness for as much as 12 hours. It was only by sitting with the trees for hours on end as the drawing grew from one sheet of paper onto the next that she began to understand how each tree responded to its particular place. The way the sun moved across a pinion pine explained the shape the tree had favored. Sharing a windstorm with an old and twisted juniper, she learned the reason for its wild, gnarled limbs.

And yet, for four years now, Osborne has made her home in the green and humid southern Appalachians as an art professor at West Virginia University.

“I left New Mexico because I felt it was time to move on with my career,” Osborne explains. “As an artist I have always been interested in how people connect to their environment – that is to say, how nature affects culture and conversely, how culture affects nature. By doing a 180-degree turn and moving from the desert southwest to the green (almost tropical) mountains of West Virginia I was starkly confronted with a disparate connection to place.”

West Virginia is a place of incredible beauty and rich biodiversity, yet it is also the setting of horrific mountaintop removal mining and fracking.

“It’s taken me a few years to figure out how to address this dichotomy as an artist, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’m there yet. But, after having immersed myself in the culture and issues over the course of the last few years, I feel I know enough to begin to address it in an honest and intelligent way. I am currently working on the initial research and data collection for a body of work I will be doing on MTR mining. We’ll see how it goes!”

It is through her position as an art professor at West Virginia University that she helps students, and herself, connect to, and come to terms with 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.

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.

Osborne has often taken an interdisciplinary approach, collaborating with scientists to raise awareness of environmental issues. Back in the southwest, 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, another interest of hers. In her “Mapping Bodily Connection” series, she paints portions of topographic maps across people’s backs.

In September, all of these various bodies of work and more will be out on display in one venue or another, certainly an exciting thing for any artist to be able to say. She has even graced the pages of Whole Terrain; her visual essay, “Rites of Passage, Manti La Sal Spruce Beetle Detection I” appears in the current volume, “Boundaries.”

Osborne is also spearheading a new interdisciplinary visual arts initiative that she and her colleagues are calling “the School of Art and Design at West Virginia University’s Global Positioning Studies, or GPS Program. This umbrella program will house my field-based programs along with those of my colleagues.”

But the most exciting news of all has to be the birth of a little girl, in March of 2011, whom Osborne calls “a true source of inspiration in my life.” Osborne, this daughter of the desert, has named her own daughter Sonora.

And yes, she does go back sometimes, traveling “back and forth, to stay rooted in both places. For that I’m grateful, I don’t know many people who get to call two places home!”

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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