This past spring, I was walking through the Minneapolis Airport half listening to a podcast about the Wandering Albatross. It is the largest of the albatross breeds, with a wingspan measuring 11 feet, and it can keep aloft in wind currents over the southern oceans for a month without returning to land. This bird’s population is dwindling on account of industrial line fishing; the Wandering Albatross is being decapitated at the rate of a bird every five minutes. In Minneapolis Airport, I had been walking for fifteen minutes, three albatross. Right there by gate C15, I was actually brought to my knees, stunned by this bycatch carnage. But what can I do about this? Quit my job, leave my studio and head out for civil disobedience? Throw myself in the path of industrial fishing factories? Oy vey. Not very effective or realistic. However, I am a potter and a teacher, and I can make something generally unseen, visible.
Making pottery is how I understand the world; for this project, I am making covered jars, urns really, for endangered species. Urns are traditionally used to hold ashes from cremation. I am making urns for endangered species of the United States – species in my back yard. The urns are sized to hold an average human’s ashes. On each urn is an images of each an endangered, threatened or special concern species. The urns are displayed empty, as most of the species are still alive – the emptiness is a sign of hope.
Please understand, I am trained as an artist and have just about no education in the sciences and none, zip, zilch, credibility in the world of conservation. The list of extinct, endangered, threatened/vulnerable and of concern species I have developed comes from combining the official state lists and information for the United States Fish and Wildlife websites. My list commenced at the end of the industrial revolution, when the term ‘extinct’ was invented, and ended when I started the project on August 1st 2018.
This project has been influenced by three primary events. First, I was raised in Boston, my mother a compassionate and active feminist in the 1970s. From her I learned that the personal is political, and when private things become public change can occur. This is still the philosophy I often use for problem solving; when something unseen (private) becomes seen (political), that is when we make change.
Second, I grew up during the first AIDS crisis, and looking back now, I am stunned with how slow the response was and how little information was made public. Looking back on this now, it seems it seems to me when the crisis became more visible with groups like ACT UP, more information and solutions began to move into move into the public consciousness. When I saw the AIDS Quilt – “Names Project: AIDS Memorial Quilt” spread out, overflowing across the Mall in Washington, DC – I was floored by the power of how making loss visible, the profound effect of something generally unseen becoming seen.
Third, last year, artist Akio Takamori – a long-time hero of mine, passed away. His final exhibition was titled “Apology / Remorse” at the James Harris Gallery. “Takamori presents both drawings and sculptures of men apologizing, inspired by images in the media. Densely weighted with social and political narratives, this work poetically illustrates the artist’s role in society as a conduit for catharsis, particularly during troubling times” explained Judy Anderson. It was amazing to me, that Takamori, with so little time left to create art, focused on the idea of apology and remorse.
For a long time after that I thought, what do I have to apologize for, what should I have remorse for? Of course, I feel remorse about simple things, not being an attentive daughter, sister, friend or partner, being lazy or insecure or sometimes fearful. Yet these things pale in comparison to my wider fears and sense of remorse about the current state of the environment. In 1962, Rachel Carson published ‘Silent Spring,’ warning us of our impact on the natural environment. The first international celebration of Earth Day was in 1970. The Clean Water Act became law in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. We have known about our impact on the environment for such a long time; the legislation of the early 1970s had an overwhelmingly positive effect on species and our environment. However, during my life time, we have not come closer to solving these problems and, in fact, we have actually have made things worse. This is a challenge to both me and my generation, who have made a terrible mistake by not picking up the gauntlet passed to us. I cannot save the Wandering Albatross – I am a potter and a teacher. What I can do is make unseen things seen, and in doing so, I hope to make change visible as well.
Julia Galloway, 2019