Interview by Krista Schoening
Holly, your recent work was — I want to say inspired but perhaps a better word is compelled — by the derecho windstorm that hit Cedar Rapids, Iowa, causing huge destruction. Can you tell me a little bit about that event?
The storm hit August 10, 2020. No one was expecting it; there was hardly any warning as it developed so quickly in speed and intensity. It started in Nebraska and intensified in middle and eastern Iowa, and traveled all the way through Indiana — causing severe damage to crops, infrastructure, buildings, and trees along its 700+ mile trajectory, killing four people. The storm had sustained 70 mph straight-line winds for 50 minutes in some areas, with gusts estimated up to 140 mph (on par with category three and four hurricane wind speeds). It easily took down cell towers that were built to withstand 200 mph winds and shredded buildings like a hot knife through butter. It was the most costly severe thunderstorm system in the history of the US, causing $11 billion in damage. Cedar Rapids sustained the most damage, especially to our trees, including the loss of 70% of the city’s tree canopy and an estimated one billion pounds of just tree debris, collected as a result of the storm. Approximately 4.5 million trees were destroyed or damaged in the storm, including 700,000 trees in Cedar Rapids alone.
You were here in Washington, this storm devastated your hometown, and you decided to go back. Did you feel that you needed to be there, to be physically present in that space, in order to make work about this? Could you have made these works if you hadn’t gone there in person?
I had to go back. I couldn’t see myself meaningfully engaging in work about the trees and this place I knew my entire life without physically being there. And, I think that made all the difference. No photo, video, or news report was able to capture the sheer amount of devastation. If I hadn’t gone back, I think I would have been making a lot of assumptions about what it was like to experience that type of devastation in person. I wouldn’t have felt what it’s like to stand six feet in the ground and look up into the empty space where a 100-year-old uprooted oak used to stand.
What sort of work did you make while you were in Cedar Rapids? Can you describe the materials and processes you used during those initial investigations?
Photography was the first medium I thought of to document the damage. Not only did the photos serve as references for some of my paintings and as a historical record of the derecho, but they also stand on their own as work to tell the stories of the trees and the people connected to them.
With so much physical debris, I wanted to incorporate the debris in my work in a tangible way. There is a rich history of making ink out of natural materials, specifically oak galls, with hundreds of artists including Piranesi, Van Gogh, Goya, and Rembrandt, using the material as a means of sketching, drawing, and writing letters. It’s a material that, when used, refers to the history of the material it came from. With the oak being a native tree of Iowa, and with so many of them damaged, I wanted to find a way to incorporate the oaks in my work. I made ink out of one of the oaks we lost in the back yard of my childhood home, a tree I’ve watched grow my entire life from my bedroom window, to use as a writing and drawing material.
When I used the oak ink to draw and write with, it felt like I was having a direct conversation with the trees. They were sharing their physical pain, their story, with me as I shared my experiences of loss and mourning with them. Using the ink made from derecho tree damage takes on the voice of the trees in a unique hybrid nature and human made form. In the number of oak ink drawings I did of the damage, the ink holds its own image of destruction. In a way, it allowed the trees to speak of their own damage through my facilitation.
How did having to leave behind your studio and take your practice on the road influence the work that you made at that time?
I thought a lot about portability — how am I going to bring this work back to Seattle? What could I bring back with me? I used my time in Cedar Rapids for a lot of documentation, making smaller works, and I also challenged myself to see how I could make a larger, travel-friendly painting. I came up with a panel system, so I could break down the piece to lay flat in my car as I drove back to Seattle. Turns out I really enjoy working on those panels, so it’s a substrate I can see myself working on in the future.
And did this accidental grid influence the compositional development of the paintings?
Yes! Initially I worked on a 6’x10’ scale, but with the use of the panels I was able to easily add to the grid to allow more space in the composition. As I was painting Rememory of Absence, the painting was telling me it needed to grow; it needed more atmosphere, space to breathe in the composition. I love that I could continue to add panels and grow the piece, and it is something I could even continue to do down the line.
The grid is an interesting facet to the work as it alludes to the painting’s materiality, while it also denotes a specific set of distortions. Logically speaking, the grid can extend, to infinity, in all directions. So, conceivably my paintings are small, cropped views of the landscape/memoryscape, but they do not shake the reality that space and landscape continue beyond what you can see. The paintings are only a glimpse into the experience of the derecho. In my work, the grid not only functions as sort of fragmentation, but also a piecing together that mirrors the shattered landscape and the experience of trying to remake sense of a place you once knew.
Can you talk a bit about the idea of your interest in form here, and also the dissolution, or erasure, of it? How does that play out for you in this body of work?
It was quite literally my experience of the changing landscape when I was back in Iowa. I watched these places I grew up around transform from debris fields to empty voids — the trees were essentially erased from the landscape after clean up was all said and done. My work mirrored the arc of the changed landscape — it started out primarily concerned with form, the tangibility of the damage, the documentary of it, and later down the line became more concerned with the state of and relationship to the altered trees and space — physically, mentally, and emotionally.
When I looked back into the physical empty spaces, all I had left of the trees was my memory of the trees, and the feeling of the haunted leftover presence of what was once there. I see my work bridging these two realms; the physical and spectral, the tangible and intangible, the presence and absence, a holding on and letting go. I think when memory began playing a larger role within the work, the dissolution of form became more prevalent. The combination of the physical erasure of the trees in the landscape, the fleeting, ever shifting qualities of memory, and the hazy, confusing cloud of grief I was experiencing came together to break down form I was working with.
In an earlier conversation you brought up the idea of ecological grief. Where did you come across the idea of ecological grief, and how does it inform your work?
Over the past year, I’ve experienced a significant number of losses — pets, friends, and family members. So I was relating the loss of the trees to other types of personal loss. Only later in the work was I introduced to the idea of ecological grief.
During my last quarter in grad school, I signed up for a landscape architecture, plant identification and management class with Dr. Brooke Sullivan. As an arborist who also considers trees as beings, like I do, I wanted to ask them about their experiences in the trade, their personal relationships with trees, and if they’d ever experienced significant loss because of trees. During that conversation, they introduced me to the idea of ecological grief, which led me to a new line of inquiry in my research. I came across Glenn A. Albrecht’s 2019 book Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World. He coined the term solastalgia, which is the ongoing loss of solace and the sense of desolation connected to the present state of one’s home — the existential and lived experience of negative environmental change, manifest as an attack on one’s sense of place — the homesickness you have when you are still located within your home environment. As part of the overall feeling of solastalgia, another emotion one can experience is tierratrauma: when people possess a deep connection to the earth, they can experience deep emotional trauma when that connection is directly impacted by powerful forces, natural or human made — it is the moment when a person experiences a sudden negative environmental impact, virtually or by direct experience. I thought, wow this is exactly how I felt for the trees in the derecho! I had no idea that there was a term out there to describe that earth-based sense of loss and grief. I wish I had come across these terms earlier in the process.
My experience of ecological grief has been largely associated with the loss of trees and the loss of sense of place because of it. Now that I have the terminology for the feelings of grief and loss I was experiencing, it’s something I want to continue investigating more specifically in my work.
Has the past year changed the way you think about trees?
I think of trees as beings; beings that feel physical pain, that have bodies, knowledge, and senses. Bearing witness to their pain, physically sitting with them in their demise was an incredibly important, painful, and humbling experience that set the tone for the work I needed to make. I don’t think I’ve changed the way I think about trees so much as I’ve felt more deeply my connection to them. It’s also made me question and want to know more about my relationship to trees I’m surrounded by. What affect do I have on the trees in my environment, what affect do they have on me?
Do you have plans for these works? Where do you see your artistic practice going next?
I plan to take these works back to Iowa, to exhibit them there for the people who experienced the derecho itself around the one-year anniversary of storm. It’s been a strange experience painting about a place 1500 miles away, and I’m excited for the work to be reunited with the people, place, and trees it was inspired by.
I see my practice investigating environmental grief more specifically through landscape painting. It’s a relatively new topic to me that I want to know everything about. I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface with my current body of work.