A Critical Forest Art Practice

We live in the age of the anthropocene.  A  time that demands reflection on environmental changes and crisis. Under these circumstances we intend to make art that explores new relationships between humanity and nature. We seek to:

Establish a model for art with forests rather than in forests. Considering the process, method and form of art as forest interface in a rural setting and as a correspondent image, idea or artefact in an urban setting.

Experiment with the idea of empathic exchange between people and trees in urban and rural settings, to consider the ways that trees and forest embody culture and how people embody the forest in daily life, regular practices or celebration.

Consider how art might contribute to the potential wellbeing or prosperity of a tree or forest community in the age of environmental change.

(Originally written in 2012, edited again in 2016)


An Artist’s Ecological Biography

Timothy M Collins, An Artist’s Ecological Biography

Summer, 2012
After nine months adrift in the great amniotic sea, I emerged cold and wailing on the shores of the Pawtuxet River. In a place that is notable as it was once the site of such salmon runs that separatists from Roger Williams’s original band of religious immigrants found a sustaining valley with a river full of salmon where they could realize their own form of free religious expression. The salmon were long gone before my ship docked. My first memory is dad (Henry J.) teaching me to hold my breath underwater in the tub with my sister (Elizabeth M.) so we would have no fear of the sea that summer. My dear mother (Mary E.) brought me to the library and had me reading before I got to school. I grew up well, with no lack of love with tolerant parents that believed in a very long leash. As a boy, the 19th Century mill-yard was a playground with many wonders: the frogs in the wetlands, black ducks at the bends, and special places with raccoons and muskrats. Yet this was a mill trench with its old water wheel and island separating it from the river, which ran green, then yellow, and sometimes red with the dyes. The old stone mill was a site of dereliction and trespass; we wandered the six floors with remnant shafts and pulleys, bits of the old hydropower transmission system still present. It was mostly empty though, a great place to be chased by security guards. Later Hoechst chemical settled in upstream and the fish found a different relationship to water, mostly swimming upside down or gasping for air. I experienced Rhode Island as a series of ever-expanding concentric circles that I understood over time. From wandering the Pawtuxet River to fishing the Big River, and hunting in the Great Swamp, then knowing the estuaries, the bay, then my favorite ocean reefs at Matunuk and Point Judith and then Block Island. I moved from high school to a shipyard, out to California, then back to Rhode Island where I got into University through the wonders of a Pell Grant where I learned that a life of creativity and inquiry was possible and water could continue to be a topic of intense inquiry. I put myself through school by working nights, make much artwork, geting great grades and surfing every swell summer, spring, fall and winter. I was nurture by Richard Frankel and Margie Keller and others while being very productively provoked by Ron Onorato.

The circles of perception and appreciation would then swing to San Francisco Bay, where I was unexpectedly locked behind gates at sunset while surfing at Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge, and as a result late for my first graduate school classes. I showed up for the SF stars showing in New York but quickly gravitated to people like Al Wong and others who embodied the culture of the city and its conceptual and cultural underpinnings. I made a lot of work, and tended bar or waited tables to make ends meet most nights during the week.

I lived in a warehouse with fifteen people, donating my time weekends at the ‘Farm’ where I found myself slam dancing to Flipper on my 30th birthday. I would sink a boat—a very fast small experimental dinghy with two masts; in the middle of the Bay on my 35th birthday; and have many, many ‘Pacific’ adventures in between. West meets East, I fall in love with Reiko. We find a commonality in nature and making artwork and living a life as artists.  I would provide an interface between city and sea, bay and shore, water and light, water and well-being. At one point I cut a hole in the roof of my studio to create an installation of light, shadow, sand and dynamic water an idea that would sustain five years of work. She was interested in the relationship between us and them; the winged, the furry the loved, those that are ignored, hated and reviled all had a home in her arms and in her artwork. Once summer eve I come home to 86 baby pigeons in my studio.  I learn to feed them every four hours (they were destined to be euthanized) each night more are freed. We wandered the empty lots of the city, the hills of Marin together. We went to Japan to ask permission, we were married in a civil ceremony Nadia Scholnick standing for us at City Hall, then in a garden under the freeway with blue tattooed wedding rings. My friends (Jeff Brown and Dave McMahon) took me salmon fishing as a means of feeding those that thought they were simply coming to a party. We made art as we lived life, adjusting everything to that focus and purpose. Life was good we had many projects and opportunities but little or no money. My friend Jim Schaeffer sends me a short note about living in the land of time versus living in the land of money the exchange from one realm to the other is always unfair, I have time and am stingy about its exchange, he has money and no time, we each commiserate with the plight of the other.

It was then back east again to the confluence of the Monongahela and the Allegheny Rivers where the muddy southern shale soil river meets the island studded glacial drainage to form the Ohio at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We agreed to split one full time position. Three years teaching then we both made lives as researchers in the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University. Pittsburgh was a wonder with people, places and things dancing in a new post-industrial relationship of recovery and care. I developed deep and long relationships with Bob Bingham and John Stephens, the Merriman’s Tom and Connie, Kirk Savage and others that worked with us such as Noel Hefele and Priya Lakshmi. I would benefit from the experience and care of Bryan Rogers, Joel Tarr, David Lewis, Lowry Burgess, Indira Nair and Marge Myers. We had incredible opportunities and experiences. First an aesthetic engagement with a mountain of steel waste for three years, then a five-year project focused on the rivers working with scientists. (Mary Kostalos, Mike Koryak, Kathy Knauer, Henry Prellwitz, Sue Thompson and Sue Kalisz help us to see things differently.) We learn that to know it is to love it.  Our friends teach us to touch it and see what is otherwise unseen. The scientists count it to evaluate it, where we consider its relationship to perception and value. The aesthetic shift is not an act of man; it occurs on the vacuum left by industry. In the industrial downturn the agency of trees over a period of thirty years had reshaped the form, function and the view. We realize that artists need collaborators if they are to affect things at a landscape scale; we commit ourselves to trees and decide to attend to water to ‘see’ what happens when water drains from industrial soils that are compromised by aging infrastructure.  We spend three years working on a shit filled stream, with fish, turtles and beavers that show when the decision makers walk it, a flock of turkeys and herd of deer waiting in the forest for anyone that says ‘nothing could live here’. We realize that the movers and shakers suffer from panoramic myopia, green river valleys viewed from hills and over 700 bridges—all green, but assumed to be a useless remnant of the industrial past. Big steel, big glass, so much coke that Henry Clay Frick found his oil paintings deteriorating in that toxic air; but smoke was money.  The ‘Deer Hunter’ was shot upriver at Clairton works the largest coke works in the USA. Three steel works left of 15 in the County, coal fired power plants and an island of toxic chemical production—the island once considered the richest farmland in Allegheny County. Filthy rivers too, but upon careful examination even the director of the Microsoft foundation, in the middle of a rant about ‘real nature’, spots the Osprey from our boat and realizes the fish have returned to the river in that moment.  The Japanese call it Kami, the Shinto name for spirit/life force. As she says, ‘they’ are always with us… they know even if we don’t. We have learned that they always show when important disbelievers who can make a difference are present. (And no, we did not get that grant.)

As I finish a PhD the STUDIO begins to change with new agendas and policies.  The winds blow me to the University of Wolverhampton as an Associate Dean for Research. This is a post-industrial city like Pittsburgh in the heart of what is still known as the ‘Black Country’, (Tolkien would use it as a model for Mor-dor.) I would benefit from the experience of mentorship of Bryony Conway and Jean Gilkison coupled with the support and care of Trisha Cooper and Mike Fullen. I work with an amazing group of colleagues to establish the Black Country Centre for Art, Design, Research and Experimentation (CADRE). I walk from one end of the seventh floor of the art building to the other. I see conurbation, industrial ruins and poverty to the east and the wealth and agriculture arrayed around the Wrekin in Shropshire to the west. I sit in my office and marvel as I hear the young peregrines leaping off the ledges above me – I look up just in time to see them flash by. One night, after everyone is gone, one bounces off the window and sits on the ledge recovering his wits staring at the admin staff. An ecologist from York (Ian Truman) takes us walking amongst the bluebells, helps us see things in postindustrial grasslands that are invisible without him to help us see properly. We make friends with a plant physiologist (Trevor Hocking) who helps us to understand the science behind our goal to see and hear trees breathe. We learn about the Black Country Forest. The Eden3 project is off and running. A geologist (Mike Fullen again!) shares ideas about soils in China and his favourite translation of the Tao Te Ching. Meanwhile I am settling in with the Landscape Research Group and spend a weekend in Wales amazed by the obsession with a treeless landscape devastated by the wooly hooved locusts. This is a land economy with few people, a bio-industrial wool and meat machine by my way of thinking.  As we view a sheep exclosure with an ecologist passionate advocates of the view argue that forests would ‘ruin the agricultural landscape of Wales’. Some claim that any restoration targets are irrelevant due to the ice age, which makes it impossible to define ‘original and authentic nature’ on this island anyway. As tensions rise an old land manager talks to us about his native Welsh language and the differences between a traditional Welsh land holding and the realities of predation supported by government subsidy. He tells us the people and critters of this land, once shared a sense of ‘kinneven’ or the scope and limitations of the area necessary to sustain their livelihood. All were ‘hefted’ to the land, aware of the boundaries of their landholding the baseline conditions of family, herd and flock prosperity. We returned time and time again to the valley and coast around Cadr Idris. Where we find the city and the stresses of academia blow off us like leaves from a tree in the fall. In some places the coast looks like Northern California. During this same time, we lose all of our parents; Mary in the first year, and Chiyoko in the third, Tadao passes with Reiko providing hospice support in the last year in the Midlands. My dad is the last and he is strong, we think he might live forever.

I leave Wolverhampton for a Great job in the South West. Reflecting upon our new life in Cornwall we agree the coast is lovely (I am surfing again) but we can’t find a proper home and the workload is devastating. A few months later we travel for the holidays and celebrate New Year’s Day in Japan where a process of reflection is traditional. Reiko takes me by the hand and says, ‘I married an artist and love the researcher this administrator fellow… he has to go.’ The decision coincides with other things in the wind in that place at that time. We move north to Scotland where I secure a visiting research fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, at the University of Edinburgh. We rented a house in Stonehaven’s Old Harbour where we could see the sea, and she could focus on her own PhD. I would write and make artwork again. The sky in this part of Scotland is dynamic and expressive, I walk some mornings to touch the sea, check the waves and watch the sunrise. We watch the sunset together.  We immerse ourselves in work on Eden3 practicing and refining the equipment with trees in the city, then refining the system with musicians. We work out of our backyard (which borders the sea) with a greenhouse as studio. Some days we travel to Fowlsheugh to watch thousands and thousands of birds mating and hatching chicks on the cliffs, we are immersed in the space of a significant other that pays no attention to us as we lie on the cliff and listen to the raucous sounds of this avian city. Our sense of species dominance and appropriation takes a body blow. We begin to think about being in new ways.  This takes us into the Ballochbuie forest, to engage the idea and experience of a Caledonian forest and begin to ponder the application of ideas about extraordinary living things and the role of empathy in the process of freedom and emancipation of people, places and things.  She is working to finalize her own PhD.

I get a call from Rhode Island; dad is tired and ill with cancer. I then spend six months providing hospice care for him in Rhode Island. I find myself thinking about the trees in the yard and the wildwood that borders the river that lies over that fence. I have had a relationship with these trees and woods since birth. Listening to the breath of my dad in the room next to me and awakening at dawn to open the window and listen to the trees in the cool morning air I realize I have a sustained emotional attachment to the man as well as the trees and that land.  As he fades I accept a temporary position in Glasgow, we move three weeks after his death. I am in love with the city, the place and the people. Two months in the work-load starts to ratchet up, I am cancelling projects and meetings that are important to me. I am working hard, but… I walk away from what I hope to be my last administrative position in the early spring in time for the trees to bloom. We consider moving back to San Francisco or possibly Japan, but then decide to make an application for long term leave to remain in the UK. We like Glasgow, and decide its best to ‘be’ were you are at, and we are here lock, stock, body and soul.

I write a bid to explore the future meaning of forests with Reiko. Her PhD is complete and we begin working on a range of projects and publications. We travel once a week conducting initial research immersing ourselves in the Caledonian forest first nearby to the Trossachs to walk Glen Falloch, then multiple trips to the Blackwood of Rannoch, then we begin to engage the Abernathy Forest in Speyside and Glen Affric which is west of Loch Ness.  Reiko volunteers a bit with Trees of Life at Dundreggon Estate. We travel through the spectacular hills of the west coast, then out to Skye. She spends two days a week being mentored by a mature Icelandic mare in the Pentland Hills. This is an experiment in empathy and ‘thinking with’ another living thing about what it means to engage topography and landscape.

We are well grounded in Scotland; although we still dream of San Francisco, she remains connected to Japan; I retain a sense of attachment to Rhode Island.  We have made art and installations and experimented beyond the realm of things. She says it is simply about them, the living things that have no name. We live a life of creative inquiry and listen to trees and immerse ourselves in forests and writing and begin to reconsider a creative relationship with rivers.

After twenty -five years of marriage I ‘hear’ my dear partner more clearly than ever and we are finding new ways to make artwork and we are seeking a better balance to our lives. We are more or less financially secure for the time being as we consider the processes, methods and relationships necessary to enable creative inquiry. We came to England for stability and income to enable us to support our parents as they concluded their lives. This period of our lives is complete and the income and travel has changed our lives. This year on New Year’s Day she asked me to think with her about what it would have meant to set a tap root in San Francisco rather than leaving in 1993, we talked this through at length and agreed that we continue to grow and learn with every rotation of the wheel, seeds of change travel across oceans on the wings of birds. But we agree that we share a ghost root with its tendrils in the bedrock of the Bay Area.

I am back to being an artist and a researcher working full time with Reiko. We have just opened a studio here in Glasgow, Scotland. We work together on new variations on Eden3, and are busy writing and making and chasing projects. We have begun to immerse ourselves even deeper into both the idea and experience of the Caledonian forest, the first bid failed. No matter, all lines are in the water again, to fish is to love the passage of time and the experience of moving water. Having completed some reading and research while In Rhode Island I am now trying to secure a publisher for a book on art and environmental change. She has just completed a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and is finishing a chapter on empathy, landscape and conjoined experience with horses. I have a journal publication in the works and a conference article working for a Paris conference we are excited about. We have colleagues and authors in London, Berlin and Australia asking about old work. Otherwise we are working into a business plan for the studio.

We remain what a friend calls ‘albatross’ at the edge of the sea, as we sit with wings outstretched waiting for the next gust. If it takes us aloft it maybe to the next place that we need to be, or it could be a momentary gust that sets us back on Scottish soil. Time will tell. We have applied for UK citizenship, we are bidding for funding and projects to get some proper work in to get the studio back up and running we seek every opportunity possible. A professorship or some other as yet undefined research position would of course always be welcome, but we have decided to open ourselves up to the full range of life’s possibilities.

Living in Glasgow is good, people are friendly and Scotland is an amazing place with an impressive environmental arts tradition, new National Parks and an exciting future environment agenda. We are clear again that we have to focus upon gathering the temporal and material resources necessary to work together and alongside one another to immerse ourselves in the natural, the cultural and the social with the intention to make the best work possible. So at age fifty-six, I am once again considering what it means to be at sea with ones creativity and wits tempered by preparation and supplies for an adventure.


 The greatest thing in this world is not so much where we stand, but in which direction we are moving. To reach the port of heaven, we must sail, sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it, but never adrift and certainly never at anchor.”     

Oliver Wendell Holmes


T.Collins  2012.