Honey & Blood: a conversation with Fulbright eco-artist Craig Goodworth

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

Craig Goodworth at a Slovak hunting ceremony

Craig Goodworth is an artist whose work first caught my attention when he moved to my area a few years ago. This year, he received a Fulbright Fellowship to work on a project in the Slovak Republic entitled “Cross Pollination: Slovak Nature, Culture and Art Making.” Goodworth’s ancestors moved to the United States from Slovakia, so a good deal of this project explores his sense of place in his ancestral homeland. His art combines the visceral and the spiritual: the body (human and non-human), the land, and the sacred, making visible the connections between the three. With a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and graduate work in theology, fine arts, and sustainable communities, Goodworth’s art speaks the language of Whole Terrain’s focus on reflective environmental practice. He agreed to share with us about his artistic process, and the trust involved in moving his family to a foreign country for a year and exploring it as his homeland. He is currently examining the plight of honey bees in Slovakia, as well as connecting with the Slovak culture’s hunting practices, honoring the lives that sustain their community, and connecting with the land through their traditions.

Whole Terrain: About a third of the way through your Fulbright year, can you describe your project and any highlights?

Craig Goodworth: The Fulbright project I am working on can be distilled to “Blood and Honey.” By blood, I mean the blood connection to the place through my maternal ancestry, the hunting culture, and the zabíja?ka (domestic pig slaughter). The honey involves researching the ecological state of the honeybee here as well as the Slovak mead-making tradition. This will be undertaken in the spring. When I’m not in the forest a couple of days a week, I’m reading or crafting several essays and a series of poems, and ordering and editing photos.

Craig Goodworth and his neighbors processing meat from a family annual pig butchering

I just recently received final approval to do a site-specific installation in a historic courtyard in Liptovský Mikuláš. I’ll be working with a crudely hewn trough form I found in the nearby forest. Hunters use it to feed wild animals. My intention is to re-contextualize it in the city. I want to explore the trough as a symbol or metaphor for the human animal living for generations in the Liptov.

Concurrent with this Fulbright project in Slovakia, I’m also working on a forest fire project in collaboration with scientists and fire ecologists in the American Southwest, where I grew up. While this is a separate project funded by a different grant, these two projects require holding together the ecological implications of calamitous wind on the spruce forests of Slovakia, and epic fires in the ponderosa forests of the Colorado Plateau.

WT: What has it been like to live on the land of your ancestors, to take your family there, to this place that is your home, and yet has never been your home?

CG: There is an image in an essay by Barry Lopez where he speaks of la querencia: a place on the ground where one feels secure, a place where one’s sense of character is drawn. In Spain, it is the spot in the bullring where the wounded bull goes to gather himself, and where he takes his stand. The search for la querencia is driven by both threat and desire. Slovakia is la querencia for me.

The Liptov region of northern Slovakia, the place my grandfather left circa 1920 at nine years old to come to the United States, is one of these places. While the connection to family members still here is minimal, the place tells me—in part—who I am. This extends not only to me, but to my family as well. I’m here with an infant daughter hearing more Slovak in the first year of her life than English, and a three-year-old son who has re-learned his animals in a third language, adding Slovak to English and my wife’s French tongue.

WT: What has come naturally to you, as you explored the interior and exterior artistic landscape available to you right now?

CG: For the last several months I’ve been in the forests researching and participating in Slovakian hunting practices, as well as visiting museums and churches in order to learn more about the culture and traditions of hunting here. As the weather turns, the season of pig-feasts has begun. I’m attending traditional village zabíja?ka (domestic pig slaughter).

It occurred to me today that the hunting and pig butcherings serve as rituals of entry, or ways to ritually enter the environment and the community. Both hunting and pig butchering are traditionally recognized. Fully communal, these activities are a means to enter the land, the people, and the place. Without these means or rituals of entry I would feel removed, separated, and like a tourist—not really participating. As a participant, I am able to connect with the land and the people present here now.

This is what my people would have done, and it connects with my inner landscape: this is part of my blood memory. An enormous amount can be communicated through the body. With the little language I have, I readily (perhaps too readily) tell folks I meet that I have some blood here, that I am not just some tourist.

One question underneath my work here is: if I am a part of a family who comes from this place, what does it mean? What does it not mean? I recognize elements of my work here may be romantic—that is, I can’t prove what I’m sensing, that one’s blood line predisposes one to a particular place, to specific kinds of work, tools, and animals. Yet it seems common enough. People go back to their land of ancestry and feel at home. It is archetypal and intuitive, though it may not be able to be proven biologically.

WT: What has been challenging or unexpected about this setting?

CG: Frankly, I didn’t expect to feel this grounded as a family here. The warmth that the Slovak people have shown to our children, especially our baby (Krasna Babika) has been unexpected. I did not expect the privilege a Fulbright endeavor would allow me. It was a rich experience to eat Thanksgiving dinner at the Ambassador’s house with some other grant recipients and half a dozen marines in Bratislava last month.

WT: In thinking about the theme of our upcoming Whole Terrain volume on trust and environmental practice, where do you see these threads intertwining in your current art, or in your life and art leading up to this point?

St. Hubert Mass, September 2014

CG: I’ve learned one has to honor intellect as well as instinct, and to trust one’s process, whether it be environmental, artistic, or both. There can be a lot of distrust between the arts and environmental legislation. Obviously, the act of hunting is a loaded endeavor, along with butchering pigs. This stuff certainly has the potential to engender mistrust and be profanely ugly. Theologian Martin Buber stated that it is not the nature of the task but its consecration that is the vital thing. Perhaps the mundane and even the profane, through consecration (the act of respecting, honoring, and noticing), becomes the sacred. The Slovaks see their hunting culture as accountable to an ancient and venerable tradition that goes back to St Hubert. Widely venerated during the Middle Ages, the legacy of St. Hubert is still held in high regard through extensive rituals, rigorous seasons of apprenticeship, and forms of ceremony following the kill.

There is trust exchanged when you hunt with other people. There is trust involved in being invited to a family zabíja?ka  (butchering). There is trust at play when my work takes me between various cultures (American, Slovak, rural, academic), and a dynamic of trust anytime an artist offers his or her work to an audience.

Craig Goodworth and elder hunter Milan butchering wild boar

As an interdisciplinary practitioner, it is necessary to trust process and honor instinct. The different bodies of knowledge I’ve been lucky enough to study hold one another accountable. Can one really separate ethnicity and land and economics? One of my academic mentors years ago insisted that life-lived problems are too complex to be housed in one discipline. Whether my finished artwork is about the ethics of hunting, eating meat, disappearing traditions, large scale effects of wind and fire, or concerns about future pollination, I am seeking to make use of my entire educational background and lived experience.

To be an artist, Rick Bass said, you have to learn to see the world another way besides art. Seeking to see the land of Slovakia and the Slovak people another way besides art is important to my process. But at the end of the day, what generates the most meaning and coherence for me is art. I am able to respond to these larger concerns by making my contribution as an artist.

**This is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are their own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.**

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