ABOVE: This is a photo taken inside my studio. As you can see, I am a very tidy artist, even with work in progress.
Under my breath, I mutter that I am not a botanical or floral artist to no one in particular. When looking at my work, I’m certainly not a botanical artist. When looking at historical and present-day botanical paintings and drawings, I don’t think people would think of me as a botanical artist if they knew the precise definition.
These are lovely people and dear friends who think of me as a botanical artist. I don’t correct them. It’s human, we label. We like to place people into tidy categories, like filing cabinets and recipe books.
The truth is that the subject matter that interests me has to do with ecology, the environment, biodiversity, and climate change. These are what I try to depict through my art, accompanied by stories. It’s a work in progress, and I hope it leads me to become a better artist and storyteller.
I am thinking of the definition of an artist, too. I believe all people can be artists and are artists without knowing it. There was a time I fed into the idea that being an artist was an elite status — a gift bestrode to you by the gods. I don’t subscribe to this notion anymore.
Let me give you a definition of who I consider an artist. An artist is someone creative in their approach and open to ideas. They like to collaborate and value community. Making things, discovering things, or making something work better makes them feel alive. That pretty much accounts for most people.
I have been thinking a lot about identity, too. It’s a topic written and spoken about widely over the past two years (or more). I’ve been thinking about how important it is to acknowledge one’s identity for oneself. I think of it as a form of self-care. (I know, dear reader, self-care is a term dashed about and overused to the point that I cringe when I hear it mentioned.) In this case, the self-care I am talking about is taking care of one’s self-confidence, self-worth, and purpose.
Think about it. While it’s not your business to know what other people think of you, artist or otherwise, it’s essential that you know who you are and have the words for it.
I am not going to go into gender identity. I don’t have any authority or experience to offer other than I believe in the importance and significance of pronouns and people should be able to love who they love. Where I think acknowledging one’s identity for oneself is essential, women especially, artists, or otherwise, need to claim this.
I’ll give you how I identify myself as an example:
I am a post-modern ecological artist (thanks, Dad, for that. I’ll take it.) I am a woman artist, apprentice poet, writer, designer, and beauty hunter.
At one time, I was not brave enough to say any of these things for fear of the classic “who do you think you are?” response or having people look at me like I was nuts, puzzled, not knowing what to do with that information. Now at 61, I am claiming who I am. It’s time to shed that Scandinavian reservedness of “toe the line,” “don’t make yourself stand out,” or what? What will happen? The earth has not stopped routing on its axis and people are still talking to me. There is both bravery and vulnerability in being an artist and this is just part of the package.
I will continue to let people refer to me as a botanical artist until I find a gentle way to break it to them that I’m really not. It’s what they understand. It’s an entry point, a way for them to get to know my art. I figure, over time, they’ll refer to me as a post-modern ecological artist and the rest of it, too.
Another way to approach one’s identity I learned is rooted in poetry and storytelling,*George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From.” It’s a rich expression of telling who you are to others that invite exchange, connection, and understanding. We are a blend of many things and many experiences that shape who we are.
Now Your Turn.
I would love to hear how you identify yourself either as a human, as an artist, or as both. You can do this as I did in my example or as in George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From.” Totally up to you. I know we will all be enriched and inspired by the words you found to say “this is who I am.” Write your answers in the comments. I try and reply to all.
In a digital world, paper is close to obsolete. We are all pushing towards a paperless existence — a good thing for the environment and the space in our filing cabinets (which may also become obsolete). Paper for me, however, is for drawing my heart out.
When I was a little girl, I drew on every sheet of paper that was not in an adult’s hand and that I could get my hands on. Later I would make paper from various pulp mixtures in college and then at the Minneapolis Center for Book Arts. I would spend hours with a dear friend helping her select sheets for a self-promotion project at the Paper Depot (now sadly closed for good). As a graphic designer, I poured over paper swatch books and would order samples to try. When I was freelancing, my clients were either small businesses or nonprofits with tiny budgets. It made the paper selection narrower, none of the fancy high-end sheets I dreamed of using for print projects.
At my studio, I have dozens of large sheets of artisan and handmade papers waiting for me to put marks on them. Some are so beautiful that I am waiting for the right subject to strike me though I know I should just start. There are the even larger sheets of Mulberry paper in warm pale colors I purchased at Wet Paint in St. Paul the year before the pandemic hit. I have several artist drawing journals, little pocket sketchbooks, accordion-style books for drawing panoramic, and tablets for drawing using ink, color pencil, or graphite pencils No. 2 through the lights and darkest of leads.
Since I transitioned frommy professional life as a graphic designer to my vocation as a visual artist, I’m examining all kinds of surfaces to lay down marks such as wood and canvas. Paper that typically is not seen as paper for making art is not off-limits. After unwrapping the shrimp that was to be our dinner, I took a second look at the white saw-toothed edged paper covering it within the store-branded butcher paper. The white paper was sturdy enough for washing (till it no longer smelled of shrimp), and then I flattened it out to dry.
It proved to be a challenging surface – the sturdiness comes from the wax coating that wasn’t obvious at first. It made my Micron ink pen nearly give up. Color pencils didn’t give the same fuss when adding hues to my experimental drawing. I’m saving sheets of Kraft brown butcher paper to work on, making marks on the non-waxy side, of course.
It makes me think the little girl who drew on any sheet of paper she could get her hands on has not left me. Even though I have beautiful sheets at my disposal, it’s still freeing to try out ideas on the scrappiest of scrap paper just to see if a spark takes hold. Perhaps that’s why some of the world’s greatest inventions started on a paper napkin.
Things come to us quietly, in whispers, as it should be. Most of us recoil from loud noise or when someone or something is shouting at us. But whispers, like serendipity, are something I pay attention to — not in a “woo-woo” sort of way (I’m seriously allergic to woo), it’s more about patterns, nudges, and asking “why does this keep showing up” sort of thing.
Braiding Sweetgrass is just one such whisper. It first came to my briefest attention back in 2013 when I was taking a writing class at The Loft.The Loft is housed inside the Minneapolis Center for Book Arts where I have also taken classes in letterpress and bookbinding. There is was, in the lobby, this simple, elegant introduction to MCBA’s Winter Book, Minidewak Readings from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. There would be a reading event and author’s reception. Did I attend? I wish I had been brave enough. I was fearful of driving at night in winter and even more reluctant to attend events solo. At the time, I don’t even think I entertained the idea of going, even though it was free and open to the public. The question I always hold on to is “would I fit in, enough to be present and enjoy myself?”
But I held on to the little printed piece promoting Minidewak. It remains displayed in my studio as if a reminder of something I hadn’t figured out yet. I didn’t even look up who the author was or what her life’s journey was that lead her to write her book — which is so odd. I’m naturally a very curious person.
It wasn’t until almost another winter had ended six years later, that I ran across Wild Ones Minnesota Annual Conference being held at the University of St. Thomas in February. It would have been a wonderful conference to attend, even solo, but a waiting list and my poor timing blocked the possibility. One of the conference speakers was Robin Wall Kimmerer, Ph.D., who would talk about healing and restoring our relationship with nature. There was her name again from the little printed piece I have sitting in my studio.
There in the online write-up about the exhibit, it noted Hejny’s inspiration for her work — the teachings of the Honorable Harvest as recorded by Professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. There was her name again and the title of her book, just as it was on the little printed piece sitting in my studio.
So now I have a little over six years of whispers and a certain amount of FOMO* setting in. It hurts being an anxious introvert at times. Latent curiosity aside, I really wanted to find out what was it about Robin Wall Kimmerer and her work that kept coming into my view.
* Fear Of Missing Out
I wrote her name on a yellow post-it note and headed to the local library. I find books easily enough in the Fiction section but things get fuzzy finding a title in the Non-Fiction stacks. Luckily, a young librarian had just finished helping another patron stopped and asked “can I help you find something.” I showed him my post-it and it was if he had actually met the author. He knew exactly what I was looking for. A quick check on his mobile declared the library didn’t have a copy of Braiding Sweetgrass and it was on hold at another branch. (Some days I feel like my whole life is on hold). Had I heard of Hoopla, he asked, “you can download the audio book, it’s read by the author and her voice makes it worthwhile listening.” He had obviously listened to her book before. It was like another whisper.
So now I’m in my studio, working on a large drawing, listening to Robin Wall Kimmerer read from her book Braiding Sweetgrass. The young librarian was right. It’s not just a worthwhile listen, it’s wholeheartedly worthwhile.
From what I have gathered from all the whispers is that Robin Wall Kimmerer has inspired a lot of people, not just artists. I for one, would embrace living in a gift economy based on reciprocity and gratitude. It would flip the whole wage economy, consumerism, and private property on its head. Imagine Congress commencing its session with the Thanksgiving Address. Things might actually get done in an equitable and just way for all people.
I don’t mean to exaggerate that shifting our mindsets to those Robin Wall Kimmerer so eloquently tells in story would cure all our country’s ills, but it would be productive, healing place to start. It would have to be a collective mindset to happen of which I’m not certain we are ready for but am hopeful that a majority are moving towards knowing that living in balance with nature will be our saving grace. Listening to her words has opened me to a way of thinking and being in the natural world that I’ve always felt but never effectively articulated.
You could say whispers are gifts.
Originally posted on May 6, 2019 at kristin-peterson.com, our old debunked website. Moving a few good posts over here.
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Terra Kind Studio is the creative working home of visual artist, writer, apprentice poet, and graphic designer Kristin Maija Peterson.
“I write stories about of my work to bring you a connection and understanding of the thinking that goes into my work. As a self-proclaimed “Beauty Hunter,” I seek to represent the wild, the messy and the misunderstood places and spaces that are either ignored or destined to be controlled or developed. There is such beauty in the natural chaos of things. I hope your visit here is an inspired one.
Be kind to the earth. Be kind to others and especially be kind to yourself.
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