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Insights of an Eco Artist

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In conversation: Lauren Saunders

Joana Alarcão

In this interview Lauren Saunders explores how her experimental practice-research intertwines art, ecology, and social change amidst the climate crisis. Through collaborative, interdisciplinary efforts, she advocates for compassionate action and restorative connections with our planet and each other. Join us as we delve into Saunders' visionary approach towards fostering empathy, kindness, and kinship with the Earth.

5 April 2024

My experimental practice-research takes an autoethnographical approach in exploring how ‘line’ can positively impact the physical natural environment and ecoliterate social change in the context of the climate crisis.

Through an interdisciplinary collaborative approach with both human and more-than-human communities (drawing, sculpture, photography:film, installation, participatory activity) , I argue that creative, scientific, material, existential, emotional and spiritual transformation – on which the survival of humanity relies – arises from compassionate action. I believe in and call for a restorative (re)cultivation of care and respect with our more-than-human kin and with each other.

I am inspired by environmental philosophies and ethics, cutting-edge climate science, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, my British and Irish indigenous cosomologies, land-based ontologies and my own direct experience of the Earth. I use a blend of science, art-making, empiricism, mysticism and direct experience to better interact and ‘listen’ to the more-than-human world and promote radical empathy, kindness and kinship towards the Earth. I use natural, biodegradable and/or recycled:reclaimed:borrowed materials to draw experimentally in the expanded field, through page and print but equally through foraging, growing, and walking. I seek to directly challenge anthropocentric thinking whilst supporting biodiversity:wildlife through biodegradable sculpture, land-based installation, direct action and community participation.

I am also co-director of the arts magazine:project The Critical Fish, which looks to make writing and thinking about visual arts and culture more inclusive and accessible.

Can you start by giving us an overview of your practice and what steps you took to become the artist you are today?

Through an interdisciplinary collaborative approach with both human and more-than-human communities, I use drawing, sculpture, photography: film, installation, and participatory activity to explore ideas around kinship with the Land. I call for a transformational and restorative (re)cultivation of care and respect with our more-than-human kin (and with each other) because I think compassion and care are what will mobilise communities towards meaningful climate action.

I am inspired by environmental philosophies and ethics, climate science, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, my British and Irish indigenous cosmologies, land-based ontologies and my own direct experience of the Earth. I use a blend of science, art-making, empiricism, mysticism and direct experience to better interact and ‘listen’ to the more-than-human world and promote radical empathy, kindness and kinship towards the Earth. I use natural, biodegradable and/or recycled:reclaimed: borrowed materials to draw experimentally in the expanded field, through page and print but equally through foraging, growing, and walking.

My main research inquiry at the moment is understanding; a) how art can help us to understand, connect to and develop meaningful connection kinship with the Land; b) how this kinship mobilises climate action (especially within under-represented communities); and c) how to make art in equitable collaboration with the more-than-human as to centre its ‘voice’ within knowledge production and guide sustainable human practice.

The steps it took to get to this point were not straightforward. I went to University to do art and design but what should have taken four years took ten years… mostly due to disability and a lack of finances. I started training in Scenography, fell into mental healthcare and education work, and then returned to finish my BA in Fine Art with the intention of training as an Art Psychotherapist. But my undergraduate dissertation on the relationships between visual art and meaningful mental health recovery led me to realise that I’d be able to have more impact doing art creatively within communities, instead of behind a clinical and hierarchical framework that was only accessible to the most privileged. So that’s what I did for a few more years after graduating, delivering creative, peer-led education within Hull’s working-class community as an NHS Recovery College Tutor and later, the Learning and Talent Development Manager for an arts NPO. I also co-founded and built up The Critical Fish with my degree tutor (and now bezzie) Dr Jill Howitt, which is a magazine-project-collective that aims to make critical writing and conversation about visual art and culture more accessible. I was also building up my freelance portfolio as a professional practising artist during this time, and beginning to engage with climate activist groups.

And then just before the Covid-19 pandemic, I broke my back and had this whole resulting existential crisis about who I was as an artist (could I call myself an artist anymore if I was unable to make?) - I enrolled onto an MA in Creative Practice as a way to force my way back to myself and my practice. Which not only worked but deepened and contextualised my practice more than I could have ever imagined. I left my ‘proper’ job mid-way through my MA because my freelance prospects were growing with ever more ambitious eco-focused projects and commissions.

And so, it was a result of life circumstances, creative practice-research and community connection that resulted in me being the artist I am today.

Image of a instalation by Lauren Saunders, where you see a red carpet and some candles with a ritual vibe
Ritual by Lauren Saunders. Image courtesy of Lauren Saunders.

In your statement, you mentioned that your “experimental practice-research takes an autoethnographical approach in exploring how ‘line’ can positively impact the physical natural environment and ecoliterate social change in the context of the climate crisis." Can you deconstruct this line of thought for us? 

Yeah, this is a bit of a dense sentence, isn’t it! 

I use the term ‘experimental practice-research’ because I’m interested in finding answers, which I think through by using theory to translate into and inform my making, and make to understand new truths and perspectives that feed into my theory. I explain this a bit more in a recent article I wrote, titled A Curly Wurly Research Practice. As a result, it’s all quite experimental, especially because I share control with both people and the planet so I never know quite what to expect!

An autoethnographical approach is a reflective qualitative research method that relates personal experience to understand and critique wider cultural ideas, practices and issues. I hold the position that no research can be truly objective because the humans who do it are limited by their own beliefs, assumptions and biases… so we might as well lean into that and use our own lived expertise to navigate the world.

The bit about ‘line’ is because - even though I use a broad range of media and processes - I consider myself a draw-er at heart. I often use the term ‘the expanded field of drawing’ to describe my practice because, despite my love for traditional drawing approaches, I’m excited by using line in the absolute broadest sense to make a real tangible difference in the world. Where can I create physical lines - carving in rocks, troughs in soil, aerial walkways - that will actually increase biodiversity (or some other ecological benefit) in an area? An example of this would be in my proposed Living Lines project. 

And what about the abstract lines that are drawn through things like process, time and perception? This is partially why a lot of my work favours process over product, and is either really slow or really immediate. 

Another way to create line - this time for ecoliterate social change - is about building lines of contact within a community. Over the years I’ve built up a huge personal network of support and learning and I can help facilitate those lines of contact between people and help good things happen. Another use of line is about stimulating new (and hopefully transformational) lines of thought in people that inspire and develop kinship between them and the Land.

At an increasing rate, I’m starting to believe it’s an inefficient use of creative energy to simply make pretty pictures or objects when I could be using that energy to create real impact in the world, especially in the face of the climate crisis. Why would I admire and bring attention to the beauty of butterflies through an illustrative work to be hung in a gallery for human consumption, when I can plant buddlea and blackthorn buses somewhere to attract and feed real living butterflies? Not only because it brings more opportunity for people to directly experience and appreciate real-life butterflies (direct experience of which builds nature connection, kinship and subsequent stewardship) but literally sustains life and supports the local ecosystem. Why wouldn’t I choose to spend my creative energy in this way? And why wouldn’t this be art? After all, art is in the making process, not the artefact.


artwork by Lauren Saunders
Collaboration with the Earth (2022) by Lauren Saunders. Image courtesy of Lauren Saunders.

Your multidimensional practice is rooted in a restorative (re)cultivation of care and respect for our more-than-human kin and for each other. Can you share what motivated you to root your practice in these principles?

To plagiarise myself from one of my papers:

“I clearly remember noticing a small bird frantically fighting through a blanket of hardened snow one mid-winter morning, supposedly in search for food. I felt immediately overwhelmed by sadness, concern and frustration, imagining how cold her feet were and how difficult reliable food sources would be. Although I have always had a love for the natural world, it was this singular empathetic encounter in 2017 that significantly recalibrated my personal and creative efforts towards environmentalism. My outlook was later moulded by personal experience, circumstance and philosophy as opposed to any art practice.”

It took me a full five years of then researching and practising environmental philosophies, climate science and eco-artivism to come full circle, in realising that the answer to building climate resilience and land-based stewardship is compassion. Compassion. The exact emotional response that led me to this in the first place. The exact sense of kinship understood by indigenous communities the world over. The exact virtue that is promoted as a way to develop respect and care amongst differing (human) communities. If we could expand our Western definition of community to include more-than-human communities, imagine what a radically different planet we’d be living on. 

Could you elaborate on your approach to participatory art working and how you engage both human and more-than-human communities in your creative process?

Let’s start with human participatory art-making, as it’s the easiest to get one's head around. My approach to community participation is rooted in truly understanding the value of working as high up the Ladder of Coproduction as possible so participants are supported to take real ownership over the things that will impact them. I’ve been using co-creative methodologies for over a decade across health, arts, education, community and activism arenas, and even wrote a free-to-access online course on it. When devising participatory work (ideally devised in collaboration with participants), it’s so important to meet people where they’re at and work openly alongside them as an equal partner.

In recent years, I’ve been working with communities in a variety of ways to co-create meaningful artwork or storytelling opportunities to navigate and express ecological and climate topics such as flooding, climate resilience, climate hope and more, with the intent to inspire climate action and place-based care and stewardship. Sometimes these might be quick, half-day projects - such as when I delivered a workshop with SEND children at a local gallery to co-create a fleet of paper boats that carried their reflections on the climate crisis down a paper river, or more ambitious participatory public artworks - such as the Where the Beings Are installation, in which the local issue of flooding was explored through myth and magic. The ‘Riverspeaking’ project was another example, where participants spent time researching local waterways and re-imagining what a more compassionate relationship with the water would look like as a maritime heritage city of the future.

A huge part of my work is about understanding how to share these transformational experiences with other people. Because, fundamentally, it’s all well and good for me to have this eco-literate transformation and do my bit for the planet, but I can’t negate the effects of climate change on my own. It’s only useful if other people give as much of a crap as I do. So knowing how to share these experiences in an impactful way is just as important as anything else is.

As a participatory artist, I find myself always taking time to see people as the individuals they are, celebrating their strengths and ideas, understanding their needs and trying to minimise barriers as far as possible so they can shine. I don’t understand why this caring, empowering approach typically stops with our species. Imagine what could happen if this sense of support and care was extended towards our more-than-human community too.

So when I make work - either in the indoor/outdoor studio or alongside human communities - I share creative control with the more-than-human. I have developed a system of principles and processes that help facilitate this in practice in the most fairest, equitable way possible. Of course, like most moral issues it’s not a black and white endeavour, but I find chewing over the moral and philosophical implications of things helps come to the most beneficial and least harmful conclusion.

Stills showing people and plants made by Lauren Saunders
Stills from Where The Beings Are: The Movie, feat. Lauren Saunders. Image courtesy of Lauren Saunders, Rights Community Action and Hull Friends of the Earth.

How do you navigate the complexities of conveying scientific concepts and ecological principles through your artwork?

I haven’t actually considered this before… because it comes so naturally I guess. I honestly don’t think it’s complicated to show your thinking and influences by just practising what you preach, and allowing ideas to come through in a tangible way. Maybe I’m just skilled (or lucky!) at communicating sometimes really complex ideas to people, but it’s about knowing who you’re talking to at just talking to them on an everyday, human level. And show examples in practice. People understand the material a lot quicker than the intangible.

But honestly, the biggest complexity I encounter is the systematic inaccessibility of knowledge. I don’t mean the type of expertise that comes from experience that is shared freely and easily within the community, but the gatekeeping and ivory tower-ness of new learning.

The big issue I have with a lot of writing, academia, science and research-led art is that it’s just fucking hard work to get through. So many key texts use vague, overly poetic or academic sesquipedalian writing (which ironically means to use big words to sound smart!) to communicate sometimes really simple ideas. And there’s a level of pre-existing knowledge that’s often required to get through all the jargon… without the offer of an easy-read glossary? Why can’t we use everyday normal language to explore complex topics, whether in writing or presentations? This is especially more frustrating to me when research about particular communities isn’t written in a way that they can access it. How patronising and disempowering! I understand from experience that word count restrictions can force one to write in a really high-brow way and that there’s a problem in the art world of using language in a way that complicates and obscures. … but there’s ways and means to make sure your audiences - not just your peers - but everyone can access your ideas and thinking.

It’s a big barrier to fighting climate change, to be honest.  

Your use of natural, biodegradable, and recycled materials is a central aspect of your practice. How do these material choices challenge anthropocentric perspectives?

We as a species produce and consume crap on a monumental basis. Especially plastic crap, because it’s cheap and maintains the multi-trillion dollar oil industry. Our whole Western neo-liberal society revolves around consumption and unsustainable waste. Choosing natural, biodegradable and recycled materials serves a number of purposes that undermine the dominating anthropocentric perspective of the world.

Firstly, and most importantly, choosing natural material gives agency and voice to the non-human entity they represent. This is based on the Latour’s Actor Network Theory (1996), which describes how material impacts knowledge production. Supposed human qualities - such as agency, expertise, creative intention, and symbolic meaning-making of social relations - are entangled with and affected by all the more-than-human entities that are involved (Mark, 2017). This is really interesting to me philosophically. Secondly, naturally-sourced materials are typically the most low-impact options available in terms of carbon footprint (itself a construction of the oil industry to shift blame on the individual, by the way), especially if processed on a very small-scale. On a base level, because I procure materials and equipment mostly through growing, scrounging or borrowing, it also feels like I’m sticking two fingers up at an unsustainable industry that is designed to make me buy crap that ultimately negatively impacts the planet. Although I can’t totally avoid buying things as a functioning member of society, I recognise the negative impact of mass consumption on the planet and I don’t want any part of it when there are more sustainable (and affordable) options available to me.

Drawing made by Lauren Saunders
Evaporation Drawing No2 (2023) by Lauren Saunders. Image courtesy of Lauren Saunders

In your artist statement, you mention drawing experimentally in the expanded field, foraging, growing, and walking as integral components of your process. How do these practices inform your artistic exploration and connection with the natural world?

I mentioned ‘drawing in the expanded field’ earlier but foraging, growing and walking are integral too yes. They are examples of ‘space: time interactions’ (Jokela, 2008) which help develop that nature connection as well as provide creative inspiration. It provides me with the space to learn, notice and listen.

However, I’m interested in trying to make the artistic translation of these important processes as minimally disempowering or damaging to the earth as possible. So, if we look at a lot of art-walking traditions, artists have typically installed permanent artwork across the landscape… which feels very anthropocentric and arrogant, to be honest. So instead of me physically imprinting onto the Land, how might I encourage the Land to imprint on me? Similarly with foraging… the art-foraging tradition is about extraction and specimen display - which to me echoes the nature-disconnecting, scientific dissection of nature that has shaped our society since the Enlightenment. I made a year-long foraging artwork called ‘foraging365’, in which I took a photograph of the ‘loudest’ non-human Being I encountered everyday. This practice flipped the idea of foraging on its head; instead of me seeking out ‘something’ to extract I waited for ‘someone’ to call for my attention, didn’t pluck or cut or remove so that life remained intact within its environment, and took a photograph for a digital collection rather than a physical one. It’s this sort of work - that challenges both anthropocentric thinking and existing art tradition - that I’m interested in developing.

I’m also a working-class disabled artist living in an urban city and sometimes have issues with physical mobility and transport to green and blue spaces. So walking takes on those intersectional lenses between nature, disability and class too. Who gets to access natural spaces, and how do we manage the barriers that come with less privilege?

You are the co-director of the arts magazine/project The Critical Fish, which looks to make writing and thinking about visual arts and culture more inclusive and accessible. What can you tell us about this project?

I’m so proud of The Critical Fish. It began in late 2017, following a conversation between me and my then tutor Dr Jill Howitt about two things; how there didn’t seem to be a fun, accessible and creative platform for critical writing about art, and how there was absolutely no critical discourse in our city around the 365 days of arts and culture across the 2017 Hull UK City of Culture celebrations. We recognised a lack of artistic critique in our city, but as both believers of art being common property and knowing the literacy rate in Hull is shockingly low, we set out to make the most inclusive, creative and experimental art-writing/critique platform we could. We launched in 2018 with a print journal and over the last six years have expanded into more print publications, an online archive of articles and artwork, participatory projects, exploratory exhibition response workshops, local databases, regular groups and more. Fish is now also a lovely, mutually supportive community that is maintained by a very small (mostly) voluntary team of wonderful individuals.

What I really love about it though is that we do such a good job of helping people - no matter their background, ability or creative skill - to feel more confident in understanding and making art. I love being able to help creatives to contextualise and situate their practice, whilst celebrating the artistic research and knowledge of mostly regional artists, writers and researchers of all ages. We commission, showcase and celebrate PhD-level writing next to the creative responses of young people, and (most) things are written in plain English and without pretension. And we love a good aquatic pun.

We’re always open to global submissions, so if anyone out there thinks they’ve got something that would be a good fit… just get in touch!


Still Made by Lauren Saunders
Breydon Water (still) by Lauren Saunders. Image courtesy of Lauren Saunders

Looking ahead, what are your hopes and aspirations for the future of sustainable art, and how do you envision your role within this evolving landscape?

I always find myself really frustrated by artists who make art about the climate/environment but use processes, materials and other choices that completely undermine their messaging. Which is understandable to some extent because we are all products of our time, and thus we are all (in the mainstream West at least) products of individualism, Capitalism and neo-liberalism. To some extent, we all sleepwalk through life without stopping to think about the collective consequences of our actions. But it’s so easy to make choices that centre and empower our more-than-human community, examples of which can be explored in my environmental policy (which is in the process of being developed into a more detailed resource for artists).

There’s a phrase about how art is a tool for discovery and artists are ‘expert observers’, both of which have the power to give instruction to society through aesthetical pleasing (Wilson, 1984). My hope for the future of sustainable art is that those artists who are interested in to this cause use their power to lead by example in sharing a vision of the future that is compassionate and equitable with our more-than-human kin. I’m not saying every artist has a duty to report and respond to the climate crisis, but all material has been extracted from the Earth at some point and will return to the Earth at some point in the future, so all makers have a moral responsibility in how they use it. And yes, I think all humans need to think about this but we artists are visionaries so we can lead the way! 

I want to see every artist understand their responsibility as a maker to use the material and interact with and empower more-than-human communities in a way that isn’t undermined by poor material, moral, making or philosophical choices (which I write about HERE ). And I hope that artists begin recognising that nature isn’t just media, muse or material, but a living entity with something to say, especially about the very real issues that involve and impact them. 

My role in the evolving landscape of sustainable art? Probably to keep doing and sharing both the theoretical and making research, and having ever-increasingly strong opinions about it all!

What message or call to action would you like to leave our readers with?

Recognise that the more-than-human community is part of your community, and tell everyone you know about that fact!

Go have a look at the artist's website and Instagram

Cover image:

Orb #5 (2023) by Lauren Saunders. Image courtesy of Lauren Saunders.

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