An(other) Interview with Artist Katie Holten

By Amy Brady

In this month’s issue I have for you my second interview with artist Katie Holten. We first spoke back in 2019, when she created the NYC Tree Alphabet to draw greater attention to the threats that New York-area trees face. Now she’s created an alphabet for the trees of Ireland, her home country. In our interview below we discuss what inspired her latest alphabet, how she’s developed an accompanying tool for use in schools, and what to expect from Learning to be Better Lovers, her forthcoming exhibition about learning to love all creatures on the planet.

Last time we spoke, you had just completed the NYC Tree Alphabet. Now you’ve created the Irish Tree Alphabet. Please tell us about this project and what inspired it.
 
Love! The Irish Tree Alphabet is about love. It’s about sharing a love of language, landscape, and learning. The project had been germinating inside me for years, at least since 2005 when I made my first tree drawings. Ireland’s entwined language and landscape history is deeply entangled with layers of language invention (reaching back to the medieval Ogham, known as a tree alphabet, through Irish myths shared by Seanchaí’s) and language repression (British colonial forces banished Irish, inspiring the creation of hidden hedge schools). Activists like Manchán Magan are rewilding our words with a reappraisal of the Irish language/landscape.
 
When I was invited to have a solo exhibition at VISUAL Carlow, Ireland’s largest gallery space, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally make the Irish Tree Alphabet: there was funding for a research residency, curatorial support to connect me with the wider community, and a sense of urgency as Ireland had just declared a Climate Emergency. But obviously, everything was turned upside down due to the pandemic. I ended up quarantined in California. Developing the work there during lockdown wasn’t easy! But the need to make it felt even more urgent. There was so much fear and uncertainty. I wanted to create something beautiful that we could use to write love letters to the Earth.
 
I feel it’s my duty as an artist, as a human being, to create work that speaks to this moment. Our disconnect from the living world created the pandemic. Our species is literally gobbling the planet alive, devouring forests and mountains, damaging every biological system. We urgently need to think beyond the human. Trees can help us heal.
 
Your Irish Tree Alphabet comes with an “Explorer’s Guide.” What does this guide do, and what do you hope readers/users take away from it?
 
My heart is bursting for what we are losing. I offer the Irish Tree Alphabet – a new ABC – as a way to reforest our imaginations, suggesting a way forward by looking backward through our branches of knowledge. Right now, I feel the most important thing that I can do is share my work with children. We need to create fruitful and fun ways to connect people with themselves and the land, ways to introduce kids (and adults) to the beauty of communicating across time and species. Translating thoughts into Trees lets us share our vulnerabilities in this time of extinction, while offering a simple way to engage with human-induced environmental change. It’s about helping children to be informed citizens of planet Earth.  
 
The Explorer’s Guide to the Irish Tree Alphabet is a simple teaching toolkit in the form of a coloring book. It offers the very youngest members of our communities, and their families, an introduction to the joy of exploring their local landscapes through drawing, collecting, coloring, making, and growing, while learning through play. Growing from earlier projects like Tree Museum and Tree School, it uses city streets, parks, gardens, and public space as a classroom, inviting individuals and communities to learn by living, looking, listening to the street trees. Children are natural explorers. It doesn’t take long to realize that everything’s connected. Trees breathe out, we breathe in. A coloring book seemed like a nice, easy way to quickly reach families during lockdown. I started with the first three letters/trees; A (Ailm), B (Beith), C (Coll). I hope to expand it to the complete A-Z. It’s vital kids learn truth and empathy; trees can teach us that. If 2020 has shown me anything, it’s that we are living, breathing, and writing a whole new story for our species. Children need to be part of that.

You’ve been so busy this past year. You’ve even developed a curriculum for schools! What age group will be using your curriculum, and what does it teach?

I felt compelled to make the Explorer’s Guide to the Irish Tree Alphabet as accessible as possible. COVID-19 restrictions have changed our ways of teaching, moving people online and outside. I don’t have kids myself, but my sister has seven-year-old twins, so I can only imagine the desperation for alternative home-schooling material. VISUAL shared the Explorer’s Guide with local primary schools and hopefully, the expanded version will be made available to all Irish schools. It’s for children aged 7-14. I also hope to make an A-Z for younger kids.

Coincidentally, while I was working on it I was invited to develop a few other courses for older children and adults, including a course for Stanford University based on my book About Trees. Stanford’s expansive campus will be our classroom – we’ll learn while walking, with lectures by guest speakers, tree tours, and an academic exploration of all things trees.

The New School of the Anthropocene in the UK invited me to develop a seven-week course. This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to do something like this, so I decided to get straight to the heart of the matter! I’m calling it Learning to be Better Lovers: Forest Thinking for a Forest City. I’m excited to work with teenagers and young climate activists to explore what I believe are the urgent topics of our time: What is the language we need to live right now? How can we learn to be better lovers of the world? The city of London, a forest city, will be our classroom, our playground. I’m not sure where the trees will lead us, but I know it’s going to be a fruitful, exciting adventure!

Maynooth University has invited me to be a writer-in-residence to help develop a “Writing/Righting” project for Literature Declares Emergency. We’re working with Culture Declares Emergency on a few things, including a Letters to the Earth anthology for Ireland.

It’s about inviting people to slow down for the world’s most urgent issue! During this long year of COVID-19, haven’t we all seen how lovely – how important – it is to slow down? Let’s remember that. Our human heartbeat has been thumping too fast, at the speed of instantaneous text messages and emails; we need to breathe deeply and slowly, fall into tree time.

Your exhibition Learning to be Better Lovers opens in August. Please tell us about it, and why you’ll be handing out seeds!

I just love the idea of us all “Learning to be Better Lovers!” Honestly, it feels like the single most important thing that might get us through this dark time – learning to love ourselves, each other, and the creatures we share our home with. So this is the title for a few of my current projects. The show at Snug Harbor in Staten Island opens late August so right now I’m busy meeting people out there, visiting the Native Plant Center and the Heritage Farm. Their motto is to feed, inspire, and educate the local community.

In that spirit, and guided by my teaching/courses that I already mentioned, I’ll be sharing seeds – inviting visitors to PLANT LOVE and seed stories. Together, let’s reforest NYC with LOVE. I hope to give away care packages: seeds/seedlings of the four trees that spell LOVE in the NYC Tree Alphabet.

After 15 months of quarantine, it’s been wonderful to get on the Staten Island ferry and walk around the beautiful grounds at Snug Harbor and meet people working the land. At the heart of my project is a desire to look back at what was here before we (white people) came along. What was growing here? What stories can the land share? Will we listen? What will we leave behind?

You’re deeply involved in climate and environmental action beyond what you explore in your art. For example, I know you’ve been working to save a bog in Ireland. Why is the bog at risk, and what motivates you to try and save it?

Ardee Bog is a rare gem, the most easterly raised bog in Ireland. It’s at risk in the same way so many precious places around the world are – the government wants to build a road. I grew up there, on the edge of the bog. Bogs are Ireland’s rainforest, representing the largest store of carbon in the Irish landscape.

The plans for the road – if you can call them that: zero planning went into the project – date to almost twenty years ago. No Environmental Impact Assessment was ever carried out. It’s obvious they had no idea there was even a bog there; they thought it was just “empty” land – they drew a straight line with a ruler between point A and point B. But it’s a living, breathing ecosystem that entire communities call home, both human and non-human communities, including curlews which are in danger of going extinct in Ireland within the next five to ten years. The whole project stinks of corruption and petty politics. That’s why a group of us locals got together and formed Friends of Ardee Bog. We love the place, it’s our home and if we don’t protect it, no one will.

Ireland declared a climate emergency in May 2019. So why are we building a road through a bog? Eamon Ryan, the new Minister of Transportation (technically in charge of this road project) is also the Minister for the Environment, Climate, and Communications. The irony! If you’d like to help us protect Ardee bog, please sign our petition. I’ll be hand delivering it to elected officials when I get home. Hopefully we’ll have reached 10,000 signatures by then.

People cause great damage, but we can also create powerful change. We know the problems – and we also know the solutions. But we’re running out of time! A road can be relocated, but a bog can’t. The bog has been here for 10,000 years and is defenseless. How can we live with ourselves knowing the harm we’re causing? It eats at my soul.

What’s next for you? 

More of the same! Shouting in the streets! Demanding action! The Explorer’s Guide and Ardee Bog will keep me busy for quite a while yet, hopefully leading to real change in Ireland.

Work makes work so, of course, these projects lead to others. I’m currently developing This Was Once Forest / This Will Be Forest Again, a text-based work for the Irish Arts Center’s new building in New York City, opening in November. On June 10, I chatted via Zoom with the West Cork Literary Festival about the new anthology Women on Nature. During lockdown, I started making a series of drawings called Love Letters using inspirational quotes and calls to action from women through the ages. I think I might have to make a book. In fact, I’ve got ideas and sketches for about twenty book projects. Anyone want to make a book with me?

Then there are the projects that got put on hold last year. I was invited to Hamburg to work with printmakers, looking forward to that. I’ve been invited to develop work for a new project space in Dublin. I can’t say more about it just yet, but I can’t wait to get home and hug my mother and walk the bog road. 

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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