Several years ago I was walking through the airport half listening to a podcast about the Wandering Albatross. A regal bird with a wingspan measuring 11 feet, it stays aloft in wind currents over the ocean for a month at a time. This bird’s population is dwindling at the rate of one every five minutes on account of industrial line fishing, and right there in the airport, at Gate C15, I was actually brought to my knees, shocked by this bycatch carnage. Stunned, I wondered, what could 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? Not very effective or realistic. I realized that I must respond to the current loss of species through my artistic practice. I am an artist, and art is a catalyst for change.

"making pottery is how I understand the world..."

Funerary urns are traditionally used to hold ashes from cremation. They are a powerful icon representing death and loss, and historically have been used in Native American cultures, throughout most of Europe, the Mediterranean, Australia, and extensively in Asia. I am making burial urns, one for each endangered, threatened, extinct, or recovered species in the United States. The urns are made from porcelain clay and are sized to hold an average human’s ashes, between 10 and 13 inches tall. Each urn has a meticulously carved surface portraying a specific species. The surfaces of the urns range in color and reflection, and, in fact, I have been researching and testing glazes consistently for more than three years. The urns are not made for use, they represent each disappearing species and are displayed empty as a sign of hope.
Endangered Species Project

Porcelain was invented in China during the Han Dynasty in 220 AD, and porcelain carving techniques were mastered during the Song Dynasty in 960 AD. When I was in Jingdezhen, China, the porcelain capital of the world, I studied carving under a Master Craftsman Chen Ming. Though she spoke no English, and I no Chinese, I sat directly next to her, carefully mimicking each movement of her tiny metal tools. The success or failure of each of my carving gestures was met with a grin or a grunt, and after several months, I received a convincing nod that I was making progress. From my relentless practice I am now carving urns with intense detail, portraying endangered species we rarely, if ever, see in person. The care and detail taken on each urn is a clear demonstration of my devotion to, and investment in this project.

According to the United States Fish & Wildlife websites there are over 1300 endangered, threatened, extinct, and recovered species in the continental United States. It took almost a year of researching to create and understand these populations. The list starts in 1820, when we, as a culture, came to commonly understand that we could cause extinction of a species, and ends in 2020, the year I began carving urns. Each time I start a new urn I study the species, whether it be a mammal, plant, reptile, fish, bird, or insect. How do they look at different stages of their life (egg, juvenile, adult)? What is their habitat (cave, swamp, desert)? How do they live (travel in herds, schools, grow in clusters, or are they a generally solitary species)? Depending on the complexity of the species and its habitat, an urn can take between two and seven days to finish. At this submission date, more than 375 urns are completed.

 

The overwhelming scale of an exhibition of these urns is undeniable. Even with one quarter of the urns completed, when walking into my studio the collection stuns people into silence. Making such a vast number of unseen species visible is the overarching intention of this project. The multiplication of an intimate object of sorrow and honor — each individual urn inextricably linked to its species, but the group as a whole speaking to the immensity of the potential loss – creates an impact beyond mere numbers.

The timeline for the Endangered Species Project plans for a large-scale exhibit ready to travel to public museums and venues throughout the country beginning in 2027 (six museums have already expressed interest). I anticipate the exhibit will travel to four museums a year for 10 years.

I am an artist and have just about no education in the sciences and none, zip, zilch, credibility in the world of conservation. However, I believe that at the intersection of the arts and science, we can create a more expansive space and an accessible process for the most important discussions facing us as humans – the sustainability of our planet and its flora and fauna. Surely this basic question underlies all other issues of social justice and cultural critique.

Like many works, the intent of this project is to use art to effect change. Artworks such as “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso in 1937, changed how the public understood war. Barbara Kruger’s photography and text artworks, ‘Untitled (Your body is a battle ground)” from 1989 challenged the public to consider issues of choice and women’s right to autonomy. Sonya Clark’s unraveling of the Confederate Flag in 2016 addresses cultural symbols and racial injustice in Americas history. From the very beginning, artists have used their tools to give voice to injustice, to shatter complacency, to impel.

The Endangered Species Project blends the philosophical, conceptual, and physical. I am inspired by the bold uniqueness and craftsmanship in Judy Chicago’s Dinnerparty; the intimacy, grace, and anguish of the poems of W.S Merwin; Green Peace’s ferocious insistence that we acknowledge and witness the destruction of nature; and the undeniable and profound effect through scale and personal expression of the Names Project: AIDS Memorial Quilt. As the Quilt brought individual lives to light, I intend to make the disappearing species visible through an overwhelming display of urns, including all species from Karner Butterfly, and its barely one-inch wingspan to the 1000 pound California Golden bear, now long extinct.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, warning us of our impact on the world around us. 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 habitat. However, during my lifetime, we have not come closer to solving these problems and, in fact, we have actually made things worse.

I was raised by my mother, an early feminist, and still believe in personal responsibility and service: the personal is political, and when private things become public, change can occur. I am working with Endangered Species as they represent the consequence of our domination, ownership, and consumption of the natural world, they are one part of the complicated multifaceted decline of the environment. My intent with the Endangered Species Project is to make the 1300 disappearing species undeniably visible, to say “I see you” and, through this visibility, in the way that art can do so well, be a catalyst for change.