Art during COVID: Environmental Art
This piece is part of a series on “Art during COVID,” an exploration of art forms to keep our idle minds creative during this pandemic. With many of us at home, our minds have ample time to wander, wonder, and create. This series highlights accessible and immersive art forms to both produce and consume during the pandemic months and beyond.
My favorite time to be outside is right before a storm. I watch the masses of clouds turning dark gray, the tree branches dancing, the ground whispering through the wind and I want to be right there when the anticipation finally spills over. It’s the first chapter of a story waiting to unfold. When the thunder and lighting do come crashing down, it’s as if the earth is telling us to pay attention.
On one particular November evening, when I was still in Ann Arbor, I had a friend come over for dinner. Toward the end of our meal, I sensed a storm coming and urged him to walk back to his house before it hit. He said he’d rather wait until it did come and then walk back in the torrents of rain, just to feel the drops hitting his skin. “The rain is warm when it’s storming outside,” he said. It seemed so simple to just let the drops hit you instead of seeking shelter under hoods and umbrellas. I wondered why I didn’t try it more often.
In my eyes, this pandemic is just another storm, a momentary pause that forces us to listen and pay attention to our surroundings. My last days in Ann Arbor before moving back home held the same eerie calm reserved for those moments before a downpour. And just like the worst hurricanes, I remind myself that this storm will also pass. While we’re stuck in this intermittent and uncertain time, the outdoors, already my solace, has become my everyday refuge. With it has come the conviction that our surroundings are more than just a place to be active or escape from the indoors. The spring terrain is overflowing with life and this pandemic is a wonderful time to experiment with environmental art.
As we wallow away in our homes, the earth appears to be rebounding. On my walk through the neighborhood today, I heard a woodpecker chipping away at an empty tree hollow, a blue jay perched on the uppermost branches of an eastern white pine and a dashing red cardinal hidden in a bush. The fleeting memory of a red winged blackbird I saw two weeks ago, swaying on the top of a wetland reed, still tugs at my consciousness. A robin has made a nest in my crabapple tree and the chicks are nearly ready to take flight, flapping their wings ferociously. The world is oblivious to the affairs of humans, likely happy to be undisturbed at last.
Sitting on my driveway, letting the sun warm my feet, has become my daily routine of seeing the world in a different perspective. Try planting yourself at ground level and sketching what’s in front of you, big or small. Sitting close to the earth is humbling — it reminds us of our roots and our destination, our link between life and death. Remind yourself that your creation doesn’t have to be perfect, because your surroundings aren’t. There are rarely any straight lines in trees or symmetrical leaves on branches.
If you’re hesitant to sketch from scratch, collect branches, flowers and shrubs and use them as a template to outline your shapes. I like to become my own ecologist and create field guides in this way, creating entries for different trees or flowers that I encounter. I plan to revisit my failed goal of last summer — to create a book of Michigan trees using pens and watercolor. I live in one of the flattest suburbs of metro-Detroit, but even my neighborhood lends itself to projects like these. Local trails, state and metro parks, many free of admission during the pandemic, are wonderful spaces to draw inspiration from as well.
Creating a time lapse of your surroundings, through paint or pencils or photos, can capture the moments of beauty even in the midst of a pandemic. My focus has been the robin nest in my crabapple tree that I spotted a month ago. Now, the three siblings have nearly outgrown their home. During cold spells, I watch the mother robin sit on top of her nest, covering the chicks to protect them from the rain that shakes the tree. During the bright daylight, the chicks crane their necks for food. I’ve taken to creating miniature watercolor paintings of the robin nest at these various stages, trying to capture the brilliant blue of the eggs and the burnt orange of the mother’s belly through paint.
When I find myself too busy to document my surroundings with art, I listen instead. I close my eyes and catch the deep-throated call of a green frog along the river’s edge, the buzzing of a bee’s wings early in the morning, the cooing of a dove in the twilight evening. Listening becomes a way to escape in a time of physical confinement, giving my mind a chance to wander away from the present. I can hear the earth’s lessons, feel its vibrations and rhythms, when I stop and pay attention.