mariah anne johnson

Backyard Sublime: Meadow Project

Since my 2016 artist residency in Viborg, Denmark, I have been thinking about the intersection of Humanity and Nature, recognizing that one is a rogue element with outsize influence in the larger system of the other. I look for evidence of these intersections in the world around me, realizing that they are both everywhere and invisible at the same time. While on residency in Iceland earlier this year, I felt Nature as the strong force, constantly eroding the work of humans and knocking us down. Back home in Washington, DC, I feel more strongly the power of people to shape, alter, and destroy what is around us. Perhaps my impressions are based as much on a social attitude towards the natural world as on the physical realities at work.

I have begun my own push and pull with Nature in my backyard, creating a wild meadow using native species where once I had a tidy vegetable garden. I contemplate my own role as this ecosystem’s keystone species: by turning the soil and scattering the seeds, I set the process of growth in motion. I continue to affect its course by limiting the spread of some plants so that others might have room to flourish, encouraging maximum diversity. I find myself on hands and knees, in the mud, sketchbook in hand, watching my meadow grow. Watching the earthworms slip their slimy way through the soil. Watching bees swarm the clover blossoms. Watching ants eat a dead rat. Watching the seeds sprout and greedily reach for the sun.

I do not yet know where my meadow project will lead, or how it fits into my overall art practice. I do know that participating in such a system and observing it with my whole body feels urgent, and that doing so will help me understand how to incorporate our current ecological and political realities more directly into my work. (2017)

I am sitting, watching and looking, mostly resisting the urge to pull things up. Sparrows buzz by. Starlings chatter. A tiny fly landed on my knee for a moment. (May 30, 2017)

We have listened to birds chirp. Bees hum, and the D6 bus rumbles by. We watched a small black butterfly flutter across the meadow. We watched the ants swarm our dropped bear crackers. (June 7, 2017)

I saw the grass twitch, a small round opening in front of my foot, then close again. No swish of long pink tail, gleam of green back, or brilliant yellow mantis stare. Just an opening and a closing for an unknown visitor. (July 31, 2017)

Today I saw a mouse, and the mouse saw me. (August 7, 2017)

The grasses are growing tall and making seed heads. I come out occasionally and pull them off by hand, a futile effort to reduce the unwanted seed load in the ground. I am considering mowing soon, but I don’t know what effect this will have on the seeds I want to keep. A squirrel has been chewing off the heads of the sunflowers.

Once the sun starts to clear the roof of the house and shine into the meadow, it starts to come alive.  Little zips of wings in every direction.  All manner of bees, skippers beetles, flies, and birds.

I concluded my meadow project just as spring was beginning in 2018. Over its course, the meadow grew from a garden, or an occasion to watch, into a realm to act, a space for movement and performance.

As I engage with a landscape, I sit still and observe, sketchbook at hand. Ears, eyes, and nose are open, absorbing information, creating a record of my experience in line, color, and words. I am physically engaged with my surroundings, using my senses to understand it. I am operating outside technology, using my body in a direct, concrete, tactile way. I begin to move my body in response to the world I see and hear, stretching a leg like a tall tree, rubbing the grass like I would run my fingers through my son’s hair. Piled up over minutes, hours, or days, drawing can become a meditative, perhaps even devotional practice. This careful observation of a specific place, be it a backyard or a vista of bay and rocky shore, makes it intimately known and personally meaningful. The place becomes embedded in memory, and thinking about it can conjure up a complete experience.

Now that my meadow project has reached a conclusion, I am searching for opportunities to continue this open-ended work by exploring an unfamiliar landscape with my whole person. How will I develop a new work when there are no fenced-in boundaries within which to make it, just the capabilities of my own small body and the imaginative fire of a wild and unknown place? (2018)

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residency studio sign

Backyard Sublime: Meadow Project / Coda

In spring 2018, I participated in the Artist Mother Studio Residency, conceived of by Amy Hughes Braden, hosted by Rhizome DC, and funded by the DCCAH. I used my residency to create an epilogue for Backyard Sublime, making a large drawing and two performance works based on memories of working in the meadow.

 

 

mixed media drawing

Backyard Sublime: Meadow Project / Coda; mixed media drawing on paper; 7′ x 9′; 2018