Louisiana landscapes provide inspiration for artists
Coastal Louisiana, with its distinctive wildlife, rich wetland ecosystems and rapidly changing landscapes, turns out to be a delicate muse for artists of all kinds. From the photographer who documents the degradation of coastal Louisiana's abandoned castles, to the watercolorist and sculptor who preserves the balance of Louisiana's coastal ecosystems and scampering reptiles in her art, to painter struck by the juxtaposition of Louisiana's vibrantly diverse birds to toxic industrial landscapes, coastal Louisiana is a source of both inspiration and environmental concern.
Inspired by LSU's Commitment to the Coast, three LSU artists shared their stories and how their work ties back to the Gulf Coast Region.
Shelby Prindaville, a Master of Fine Arts student in LSU's interdisciplinary Painting and Drawing Program, is far from the typical art student. Prindaville's work spans science, art and environmental conservation, with an emphasis on watercolor drawings and figurative and interactive sculptures that feature biological forms.
"My work focuses on the beautiful fragility and resilience, as well as the capacity for destruction, of the natural world," Prindaville writes in her forthcoming thesis. "I am interested in the human role in shaping an ecological balance and create images centered on erasure and revival."
When Prindaville isn't creating vibrant watercolors and sculptures of Louisiana plants and reptiles, she is devouring ecological news, studying reptile biology and behavior and even contributing to a blog run by Harvard University zoologists about anoles, a coastal and arboreal species of lizard that is common in Louisiana and that has inspired Prindaville's artwork.
"I picked anoles because they are ubiquitous, but they are also diverse," Prindaville said. "Anoles are everywhere in Louisiana – I wanted to show the value in something common. They change color depending on their environment, and in certain areas they take on unique characteristics. I paint all aspects of their lives, including sex and skin shedding. I try to make all of my art biologically and anatomically correct."
In the body of work that constitutes her thesis, Prindaville communicates Louisiana's tenuous ecological situation and the power humanity has to preserve or destroy it. Prindaville's strong environmental value system started when she was a small child. She became a vegetarian at a young age, reading books about vegetarianism and environmental conservation. Today, instead of proselytizing on vegetarianism or other pro-environmental behaviors, Prindaville reaches out to a broader community through her art. She hopes that people leave her work feeling excited and wanting to know more about their local environments.
"People in the West are undernourished in terms of nature and natural forms," Prindaville said. "We see in terms of man-made forms."
Prindaville uses art, language and innovation to mediate her audiences' exposure to the natural environment and to engage people's curiosity in natural forms. She tries to be in the camp of artists whose work actually helps the environment, by engaging audiences' curiosity, emotional engagement and sense of responsibility toward the natural environment. Her art focuses on regional plants and reptiles.
"People need to be connected to the environment locally," Prindaville said. "As I develop my artwork, I research local fauna and flora and relevant biology, botany, and horticulture, as well as ecological ethics. I want viewers to encounter regional resources that they have a clear, present stake in maintaining."
The bulk of Prindaville's thesis work concentrates on a variety of anole lizard species within the genus Anolis and on two different species of plants: Mimosa pudica and Selaginella lepidophylla, or the "resurrection fern" that lives on swamp edges. Anoles are the subjects of Prindaville's figurative sculptures, while live Mimosa pudica and Selaginella lepidophylla star in her interactive sculptures.
Prindaville is passionate about plants, growing over 60 different species of plants in her apartment. But her artwork and galleries feature a special little plant, Mimosa pudica, or "the sensitive plant." Prindaville's interactive pedestal sculpture allows her audiences to physically touch and interact with this plant, which has the surprising property of visibly recoiling from the human touch or other stimuli such as heat and vibration.
"All plants react, but these react within a human time frame," Prindaville said. "People start emotionally connecting with this plant fairly quickly. Mimosa pudica, when touched, misted, or heated, folds up its leaflets and only reopens after a period of isolation. During a show, the constant energy drain of a steady stream of viewers' touches on a specimen can slowly kill it."
Prindaville hopes that, seeing a plant that recoils from their touch, audience members will become emotionally engaged in the plant. She also offers viewers redemption for any harm caused to the plant over the course of her art gallery by selling small pots of Mimosa pudica for viewers to take home.
Prindaville's interest in the relationship between science and art also extended to a collaboration with John A. Pojman, professor in the LSU Department of Chemistry and CEO of Pojman Polymer Products, or 3P. Prindaville became interested in developing a new class of kiln-free polymer clays with Pojman for unique art applications. She has been working with Pojman in formulating the clay, which along with other 3P art media, allows her to make pieces she couldn't make with traditional materials.
"Shelby tested the earliest versions of 3P QuickCure Clay, which is an art medium that can be sculpted but won't harden until it is gently heated with a heat gun," Pojman said. "This is called 'cure-on demand', and this feature makes it ideal for making the sort of delicate and beautiful sculptures of Louisiana's native fauna that Shelby so beautifully prepares. I hope showing the beauty of our native environment will encourage its preservation."
3P Clay also has applications outside of art. Coming full circle, scientists at Harvard's Losos Labs are collaborating with Prindaville and Pojman to test 3P Clay as a superior material for studying predation bites on clay models of anoles in the field.
"You have to have something you are connected to," Prindaville said. "My art clearly has a message."
Learn more about Prindaville's work at http://www.shelbyprindaville.com/.
In an ongoing body of work, Jim Osborne, Master of Fine Arts student in LSU's photography program, photographs the nineteenth century "Third System Forts" that exist throughout Louisiana's southeastern coastline. The forts, built following the seventeenth century French model of fortification established by Marquis de Vauban, were designed by engineer Simon Bernard specifically to defend against water-based attacks from the coastline, with each positioned at a major waterway granting access to New Orleans. However, these structures were made obsolete by advances in military technology and abandoned following the American Civil War.
"I grew up on the water," Osborne said. "This was an opportunity to lend a voice to something that I am interested in and that doesn't seem to be adequately represented to the public."
Osborne has a background in photojournalism, working as photographer for the Department of Defense for several years. As a New Orleans native, Osborne became interested in photographing the Third System Forts as a local issue with personal significance.
While his initial interest in photographing Louisiana's abandoned coastal defenses was to preserve their presence and condition in this time, during repeated visits to the once purposeful spaces, Osborne started finding himself considering the experience of the places themselves. Today, some of the forts are privately owned, while others are state or federally owned. Nearly all of the structures, however, are in disrepair.
"Only two of these forts, south of New Orleans, Fort Jackson and Fort Proctor, saw actual battle defending the city of New Orleans," Osborne said. "The structures are significant – their walls are over 40 feet thick. But the very presence of these forts along the coast, and the knowledge that they were garrisoned, was the deterrent that kept this part of the country from being invaded by foreign troops."
Osborne collaborates with archaeologist & historian Joseph Yarborough of the Louisiana Office of State Parks in visually documenting the Third System Forts in coastal Louisiana. Yarborough has helped Osborne gain access to the sites for documentation purposes.
"The historical value of Louisiana's coastal fortifications is not just the preservation of the structures themselves, but the preservation of the people who made these forts come to life throughout their active history," Yarborough said. "Louisiana's coastal forts played a vital role from the War of 1812, the Civil War Period and even after. These forts are now under attack from a different kind of enemy and are in danger of being lost for all times because of the recent hurricane events and coastal erosion."
The degradation of the Third System Forts along Louisiana's coastline is a markedly visible example of coastal erosion and sea level rise. As late as the middle to late 1970s, visitors could drive to Fort Proctor, a ruined 19th century fort in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. Today, the fort is only accessible via water.
"Water and wave action play a big part in the damage of these structures today," Osborne said. "That is what makes these structures so interesting – they are all located in coastal Louisiana. Fort Proctor is in Shell Beach, not far from the Hurricane Katrina memorial. People call it 'the Castle,' and it is one of the biggest fishing destinations in the area. This structure plays a role in peoples' experience, but people know nothing about them historically. It is a strange dichotomy."
Osborne's photographs describe the architectural elements of the forts, which include walls made out of locally available materials including oyster shells and sand, as well as the environments that the structures occupy. He employs a straightforward approach that takes advantage of both film and digital capture, which when combined with minimal digital post-production allows him to create richly detailed inkjet prints.
"There are very little funds to preserve these historic sites," Osborne said. "I have heard them called America's castles – they are some of the only significant masonry structures of this kind in the United States. But with every storm, every hurricane that hits the region, these forts are being increasingly structurally damaged. Some of them are falling back into the water that they were built on. A few of these forts are in peril of no longer existing – another significant hurricane, and they will be no more."
Osborne has been photographing the forts for a year and a half now, visiting key sites in coastal Louisiana a couple times a year. Over this time, he has seen significant damage to Fort Pike and Fort McComb as a result of Hurricane Isaac.
"The masonry is bleeding lime because of its interaction with salt water," Osborne said. "These forts are little time capsules that just happen to exist in an environment that is progressive. And yet they have never been officially visually documented. Part of the project is just creating a visual catalog as evidence that these structures did and do exist."
Osborne would like to see his photographs of the Third System Forts entered into the National Archives in the future.
For more on Osborne's work, visit http://www.jimosborne.net/#danger-shelter-opportunity.
Ed Smith, Associate Professor of Art at LSU, remembers vividly the first time he saw a spoonbill perched at the edge of a swamp, against a backdrop of industrial Louisiana landscapes. It was his first trip down a Louisiana highway, and he has been mesmerized by the clash of nature and man in Louisiana ever since.
After receiving his MFA from Brooklyn College CUNY and working at Queens College in New York for 12 years, Smith made the long trek south to teach at LSU. He became fascinated by the Louisiana landscape, interested in the work of John James Audubon and intrigued by the intersection of wildlife and industry in South Louisiana. Today, Smith paints large scale oil paintings, using irony and metaphor in his depiction of birds and wildlife to address themes of survival and the inherent difficulties that occur at the boundaries of the wild and developed world.
"With the damage of Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil disaster and everything else that has happened since then, people often express concern over the environment, but it certainly seems that we have the will to do more," Smith said. "I think that everything that is happening now is the canary in the coal mine for larger changes in the environment."
Smith can vividly recall a trip he took to the coast with photographer Michael Book after Hurricane Katrina hit the coast in 2005.
"The devastation was unbelievable, but I will never forget seeing things like the skeletons of horses up in the tree branches because the water was so high," Smith said. "Being down there, you were made very aware of how powerless we are in the face of natural processes."
In his paintings, Smith focuses on Louisiana wildlife, especially the diverse bird species that inhabit the coast, and themes of survival, consumption and the toxicity of industrial processes.
"I think of my own paintings as being about the instinct to survive," Smith said "It's not just about birds, it is about us too. There are many layers to how we survive and get through things. Sometimes we even have to form strange alliances and dependencies to make it happen. I suspect that someone who deals with evolutionary biology would find that plants and animals are coming together in different ways today that are interesting for survival."
During his frequent visits to the coast and Louisiana swamps, where he often draws from his kayak, Smith has noticed significant changes to the coastline, as water seems to eat away at the land. But as environmental processes and changes take place, many of us simply don't notice the world around us. Smith says that some days, just looking out of the window of his third floor art studio on the LSU campus, he will see red tail hawks hunting squirrels from trees.
"It's funny, I've seen students walking 10 feet under a hawk that has just killed a squirrel and is ripping it apart," Smith said. "And yet these students are completely unaware. There is this amazing little ecosystem going on, and kids are just looking at their iPhones."
In his paintings, Smith combines the rich wildlife and birds he notices on his trips to the coast with industrial landscapes and ominous weather. He describes the colors in his paintings as triggers of particular themes, such as consumption and the never-ending human desire for material items in the midst of a degrading natural environment.
"In Louisiana, just before or after a big storm or hurricane, there often really strange colors in the sky," Smith said. "You'll see the sky turn strange colors like a yellow pea green or dark smoky violet. I want there to be this toxic feeling around the birds – a bright unusual color that isn't in nature. But at the same time, the birds are painted in a naturalistic way, such that is feels like a real environment. I want your first instinct to be a feeling of beauty and seduction. But the more you look at the painting, the toxicity and tragic nature of the environment unfolds."
Sometimes Smith chooses birds for his paintings that are endangered or extinct, such as the Carolina Parakeet, painting them amidst beautiful and yet toxic colors and environments. In his paintings, Smith tries to squeeze in the whimsical, fun nature of the birds he depicts along with the tragic nature of the often toxic environments they live in. He is always searching for the right colors to set his birds into smoky, ambiguous, even grotesque places.
In one of Smith's famous pieces, 'the Raft,' a swan floating on blue-gray water hosts a struggling tangle of birds including a loon, kingfisher, cormorant and red-winged blackbird. Many Louisiana birds are being faced with pollution and habitat loss as erosion and sea level rise threaten the coast. 'The Raft' was featured on the cover of The Southern Review in 2011.
"I kind of have a voice now," Smith said. "I don't think there are many people doing paintings like this. I think that using the birds and the water, you can create very interesting shapes that tell a story."
Smith's work has been exhibited at Dartmouth College in New York, the North Carolina Museum of Natural History in Raleigh and the Clark Gallery in New York, among others. He is scheduled to have exhibitions at The Cape Cod Museum of Art in Massachusetts and The Appleton Museum in Florida. Smith is represented exclusively by Soren Christensen Gallery in New Orleans.
"Art has gone through so many cycles and ways of doing and thinking about things, but I think that there is a humanistic element to all art," Smith said. "If we can recognize ourselves in the art, I think that is a good thing. Art, like people, is ebbing and flowing, shifting and changing."
In the future, Smith is interested in going to disaster areas like Chernobyl or oil spill sites and study how animals are surviving in these areas.
For more on Smith's work, visit http://sorengallery.com/EdSmithANOMag.html.