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Insights of an Eco Artist

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Green + Just- i3C Group

i3C Group- Michaela Morse

Today, we are privileged to sit down with a truly exceptional artist, Michaela Morse, the last artist from the i3C Group. Her journey as an interdisciplinary artist is a profound exploration of the interconnectedness between people and materials. From her early focus on clothing and textiles to her current exploration of food and agricultural processes, Michaela's work prompts us to consider our relationship with the world around us.

Joana Alarcão: So thank you, Michaela, for being here. You are my last artist from the i3C group, and I think that's a great way to finish my conversation with the group. As always I want you to speak a bit about your practice. So how did your practice evolve from exploring clothing and textiles to focusing on agriculture and food processes as environments that interact with our bodies?

Michaela Morse: Yeah, well, I wanted to say thank you for chatting with me today. I'm so excited to get to connect and be a part of the group. I had sort of an interesting path to lending and referring to myself as a visual artist. I, my background was really working in textiles. I worked in costuming and theatres and I studied apparel design for a couple of years and was really drawn to it because I understood textiles to be kind of a universal language.

I thought about clothing as these intimate environments that our bodies spend so much time in. And although they have externally different looks across cultures, that is a shared experience, ultimately, that we as a species hold through our clothing, through textiles. There are so many layers of meaning.

And I didn't find in the program of study that there was a lot of room for that exploration, for that conversation. It was very much interested in preparing you for the fashion industry, which was fast fashion, most practices are not interesting or appealing to me at all. So, I ended up only doing or leaving after half of this apparel design program and kind of wandering on a gap year and landed transferring into a duals program of study so I could take on a studio art degree, still have that creative hands-on aspect but have a classic liberal arts style education where you can ask questions and find classes. So that landed me in Boston, in the Boston area at Tufts University, which has the School of the Museum of Fine Arts as part of its undergraduate education and art studies.

And there I was becoming acutely aware, I'm from the Midwest of in the U. S. I'm from the state of Minnesota and I have family in South Dakota and we own farmland and I've been on the farm. We participate in hunting and it's very, you know, agricultural roots are not abnormal for the area that I'm from, and I was becoming very acutely aware on the East Coast of the U.S., that's not the connection that everyone has to place, to land, to landscape. And I started to understand that the discourse around food, around agriculture may hold sort of a more familiar place than textiles and the way that I could use that as a material, as a topic to unpack some of these questions that I had about how are we connected to each other.

How are we connected to this place that we find ourselves in and found that you know, there's been a food movement, if anyone's names like Michael Pollan come up throughout the last couple of decades? And as well as in art discourse, art historical discourses, which expanded discourse on food in art.

So really finding that with these materials relating to food and the cultivation of food, agricultural practices are kind of internally known to us by the way that we consume food as we're dependent on it and process it through our bodies and that this may be an area in my practice that I started to see as very fertile for exploring my broader questions.


Joana: Yeah I can understand that. Can you describe one of your works, its text, its installation, and what it is, so the audience can understand a bit better?

Michaela: Certainly. I broadly would put my work in a sculptural category because I am working three-dimensionally, often with found objects and reclaimed materials.

My practice has a couple of different arms and ongoing stories of work that have really kind of crystallized for me. Thinking about how I'm using, working with and collaborating with materials. In this practice, I actually take coffee grounds, tea leaves to sons, and all sorts of dried plant matter or plant matter that I brew first and I drive back out and as I save these materials, I keep them in the order that I consume them and those fill glass jars.

That sort of transparency allows you to see the layers as they accumulate and these sculptural objects in and of themselves that I have also gone on to explore with photography, sort of understanding documentation as another layer of art making and have started to exhibit the photographs and also work digitally to edit and combine and layer those images that I've captured from the objects that I was was creating over very ritualistic practices. So, multi-disciplinary and kind of multi-stage processes.

Joana: So, do your practice exploration - You really talk about the interconnectedness of bodies and species. Can you talk a bit about this line of exploration? 

Michaela: Sure. Yeah. So when I kind of landed in the space of taking studio art classes and wasn't really thinking of myself as, all right, I've set out to become an artist, but just again, interested in ways I think that creative expressions can expand and inform our relationship to the world.

So I was taking coursework in visual material studies, sort of this branch of art history, contemporary art history that is situating the role of materials. As really key to understanding or analyzing artworks and that started to give me vocabulary and a way to process artworks that I had not previously had and look at materials not as something that's stagnant.

That's kind of a weight or human activation like this clay to be formed or the sculpture or marble to be sculpted but really questioning sort of a one-sided relationship to materials and thinking that they themselves carry first and foremost around social, political, economic, historical context that we kind of layer onto the materials because of the histories that we have used. Which we have used our classical art-making materials and now broadly and contemporary art having so many more materials kind of within the realm of fine arts and wondering kind of providing materials their own agency to carry out their own lives to decay to rot, transform over time, interact with elements, react chemical environments.

Those kinds of human-driven forces of it's economic history, its political context, et cetera, start to become entangled in this greater web of ecological forces that all life, including ourselves, our species is a part of and once I started to grapple with sort of this layered understanding of, okay, there's not just a one-way hierarchical relationship material use in art making. I started to find there to be a lot of energy in this conversation and I feel acutely that at this moment that we're living in the age of human-driven climate crisis, that those ecological forces, these equalizing forces, I would say that all life shares are pushing back and they're evident through it. So many of the headlines that we're hearing each day, I mean, you're speaking, we're speaking this week with the third three hottest days in the world. And the record of recording heat from the world. So, too many evidence, like, moments evidencing the way that these forces are pushing back and really, I think what they're doing is getting our attention and they're inviting us to live this relationship that's not centered around us versus them, kind of centered on humankind, but mutually built on this recognition that we're all in this web of forces, so I think again, exploring food and agricultural practices and where I'm with a lot of my work right now. We have this opportunity because we know these materials really well. We understand how they're going to decay that they're subject to time, the passage of time, in a scale that we see, that we witness regularly, whereas maybe classical art materials, marble, bronze, they're considered, you know, to be more long lasting, like, you don't see that impact that's part of a draw, that they can stand the test of time.4

So, this area of food based art agricultural art I'm seeing has the space to kind of position the material to tell its own story in the artwork and remind us that we are allied with the non human world anything other than ourselves. And really the survival of not only the rest of the world, but our own species, all of it is dependent on this world remaining in balance.

Joana: So in navigating the challenges of contemporary life and its impact on the planet, how do you practice a world-centered way of thinking? 

Michaela: Sure this, this was actually some of the logic that I was building up in my thesis work. I got to work with Salvia Bottinelli an art historian that's at the School of Museum of Fine Arts, who was my mentor and now a good friend and helped me sort of situate talking about the role that material plays in art making and step back and think about through scientific, scientific revolution, the age of enlightenment, this sort of worldview in the West was crystallized that things were diagrammed, categorized, simplified and that's how we mark the world as material for the benefit of and use of our own species really. And even through the age of globalization until now, I mean, anthropologists across disciplines here have acknowledged that we kind of situate society as a concept, history as these human achievements that have come about by way of our use of materials to make objects, to make things but I think that that's sort of intention or disrupted by the fact that already well over a century ago, our scientific inquiries into the microscopic world of atoms into some mechanics into the theory of relatively all of this destabilized the physical world.

And we started to understand materials to be these energetic forces with, our understanding, even though mapping and categorizing things that the world is that everything is connected is that so you kind of land in this tension and we need to break apart that false human versus non-human material hierarchy and division that has ultimately been constructed.

So, as I shifted into this language of a world-centered way of thinking, I think there are disciplines across the humanities that have grasped onto this shift to a sort of transcend our state of human exceptionalism in some people might be familiar with object-oriented ontology or post-humanism speculative realism.

Those are kind of areas I've dabbled in, and I'd like to do more. But I also like want to recognize and I think it's so important to understand and pull into the conversation the fact that there are indigenous methodologies that have for a very long time already insisted that humans are fully integrated into a natural world and that they're just division of humans hierarchy over materials of human versus nature was never constructed in the 1st place.

So for example, I've explored some art historical literature that takes on ecologies and contemporary Native American artworks and how artists are reframing this material world and viewing the world as a material world and using that as sort of a bridge to understanding the way that we are intertwined versus using it, the materials, to construct this material world that just sort of mirrors back to us, our state of human existence activity being at the top of the hierarchy. And really the idea is that if you stop seeing the materials as raw and available for our use, and you start seeing the materials and the changes that they undergo themselves as part of a life that has its own entity, you can follow the lives of the material over the bridge and towards sort of this less human centered way of understanding the world.

I guess the last little thing I'll add there isand I am trying to unpack materials materiality. I often kind of find myself using the term entity over maybe thing or object because if we understand the world as many entities, it starts to give each entity its own vitality and agency in being in the same way that Western philosophical traditions have historically reserved only for the state of being human. So that is a language that I started to find really important. And it's one that I'm still becoming more comfortable with in terms of how you weave that in for broad audiences. But these are the mix of ideas kind of floating around behind a lot of my practice. 

Joana: Yeah, this was a thing that I was thinking. How do you, because you worked in such a massive conceptual realm, through artwork, convey this?

Michaela: That is, I think, a part of the practice that I am still growing the most because I spend a lot of time writing, and I aspire to do a lot more reading than I get done, and chewing on ideas on the page. Often it's, I think the process is as much of the artwork as the product because it is going through and taking all of these thoughts and trying to find something that I can summarize after the fact. I don't want to simplify them, but I want to be able to communicate them.

And I've explored displaying and exhibiting my sculptural works, having brief meditations so there's still text involved, but offering the viewer, if they take the time to walk through stages that have comments on the breath, comments on what are you thinking, what are you feeling, and finding the responses that I'm getting from viewers to come back with this energy that there's been a connection made.

There's been sort of something opened up in the brain, but you don't have the language maybe to express exactly what it was that you experienced when looking at the objects or reading the text sitting in that space. And that is exciting. I'm so happy to have viewers expressing that. And it's something that I'm still working on how do I share that with, I guess, more broad audiences?

Joana: So now, can you tell us a bit about your time with the collective? How did you join and how has been your experience so far?

Michaela: Sure, I was a member of another Boston area-based artist group, Unbound Visual Arts, and Adriana, who you spoke with as our leader and the wonderful leader of i3C Artists was doing an exhibition in the Unbound Visual Arts gallery space and found my name on their member roster wonderfully reached out to me interest in my work and just immediately we clicked and had a fun time discussing all of the opportunities.

And I was also at the time not located in the Boston area. I left after I finished my studies and wasn't sure what, ultimately where I wanted to land, but was contemplating coming back and so excited that I have because in the last, it's been less than a year since I resettled we've had a whole series of group exhibitions throughout the greater Boston area, and this network connecting me to other artists located in this area and beyond. It has really just given me sort of an exposure that I don't know how I would have received otherwise, becoming more familiar with gallery spaces and as well as local art organizations and sort of just all the learning that comes from participating in group shows. And now I'm also helping co-curate with Adriana and another member of our collective and our next show that's coming up in the fall.

Joana: Yes, that's great. So how do you feel that your time with the collective has enhanced your practice in general?

Michaela: I firmly believe that ecologically engaged artworks are sort of a bucket term for anything that's addressing the environment, the climate crisis. These artworks have the potential to shift us towards this more balanced relationship with our planet, they can politicize our relationships with ecology and really ultimately work us towards this sort of global ethic of mutual recognition of our fellow entities and the need to care for it and having the opportunity to show and these large group shows with our collective, I think, really offers such a breadth of environmentally informed artworks that there are so many entrance points for the viewer to come into a show to connect with an artwork.

Maybe they have the language and maybe they don't, to understand why, but ultimately there is something in some part of this show, whether it's my work or whether it's one of the others. And then we have a group of other fantastic members of our group that will help click and sort of meet the audience where they are at on this process of processing the climate crisis of coping with it, of taking action and response to it and then when you multiply that by the range of exhibition spaces, we've had the opportunity to go into and share. The impacts are only multiplying. 

Joana: Yeah, I can see that. That is one of the general ideas that, I've been getting from the interviews with the group. Would you advise a young artist or an established artist who works with these types of themes to join a collective of artists?

Michaela: I think so. Absolutely. As an emerging artist, there are so many questions that you have when you're on your own in your studio, or when you're trying to find time to be in your studio and imagine how is this all going to work. Sometimes I experienced the opportunities, group spaces, to have windows into answers for questions that I hadn't even finished asking yet. So the opportunity to be out in the creative world and not just in our own heads is so valuable. 

Joana: Lastly, do you have any advice for artists?

Michaela: I embrace the process. I embrace the time. I think, especially, you know, my experience, I'm not that many years out of school and when you're in the world of classes and deadlines, everything happens very quickly and there's so much, so many positive things that come from that exploring and sort of make now think later. But I'm also seeing that when you have space when time passes and you step back you can start to see some of the ideas that were coming through before you even really tuned into them yourself and that, oh, this item I started a couple of years ago, or this thought that's not old it's actually just blooming or maybe, however, whatever amount of time later. So I would embrace that passage of time and the process. And know that you'll get where you're trying to go.

Joana: Thank you, Michaela. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. It's the last question that I have. I really appreciate your input and your insights into your work and your work with the collective.

Michaela: Thank you again, this has been fabulous to participate and I'm really looking forward to hearing how it all comes together.

Know more about the artist here.

Know more about the i3C Group here.

Michaela Morse is an interdisciplinary artist who seeks to listen deeply and respond carefully to people and materials. Over time, Michaela’s work has shifted from examining clothing and textiles as the environments which are most immediate to our bodies, to exploring food and agricultural processes as environments that flow inside and out of the body. A common thread in her practice has been considering the ways in which we are intertwined with other beings, across greater social and cultural exchanges in this relational place.

What impacts do our bodies have on the greater Earth body? How do we communicate across this anthropological tapestry? In unpacking questions such as these, Michaela works to practice a more world-centered way of thinking and reflect on the contemporary challenges of living in an out-of-balance biosphere that is pushing back, calling us into a relationship with one another and the planet in which the livelihoods of all entities are always already inextricable. From her work’s research to realization, Michaela will continue to turn to those around her, in the community and to the materials themselves, asking for their responses and contributions to her work as she endeavors to be complicit and just in being in this world.

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