Local environmentally-focused artists provoke questions beyond Earth Day

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Sustainability isn't just something Pontiac artist Jeff Schofield thinks about when Earth Day rolls around. It's a tenet of his work.

Schofield is a sculptor and mixed media artist whose work explores the intersection of humans and nature, and how one impacts the other. An architect for 35 years in Paris and Dubai before turning to art full-time, Schofield has created large installation sculptures from razed barns, burned branches from Michigan forest fires, even weeds and plants he's found near his home in Pontiac.

"I want to be provocative," said Schofield, a graduate of the Cranbrook Academy of Art where he focused on sculpture. "I want to confront the viewer."

Schofield is one of many local artists who use nature and the environment as their muse, which is especially relevant now as Earth Day approaches on Friday. He calls himself a sustainable artist, using solely found objects in his work, but others call themselves eco-artists. 

A 19th century dairy barn from upstate New York inspired this large scale installation by Pontiac artist Jeff Schofield. He said the barn had stood for more than a century and then climate change impacted it.

Leslie Sobel is an Ann Arbor-based environmental artist, for example, who has created prints from the algae that once bloomed in Lake Erie. She co-curated an exhibition in West Bloomfield earlier this year, "Environmentally Speaking," that aimed to both raise conversations about climate change and its impact but also a sense of healing. A component of that exhibit, also curated by local artist Laura Earle, opened earlier this month at the Nurture Nature Center in Easton, Pennsylvania.

The Detroit River Coalition, meanwhile, has organized a special Earth Day-inspired art exhibition, "Art + Earth," this weekend at the Belle Isle Aquarium. Opening Friday, the three-day show will feature the work of dozens of artists, highlighting environmental conservation, stewardship and climate justice, according to the coalition. Admission is free.

For Schofield, who has a solo exhibition in July at Hamtramck's Hatch Art called "Atmospheric Pressures," he never knows where inspiration will strike.

One installation in his Pontiac studio, called "Weeds and Wildflowers," features roughly 60 large and small canning jars, suspended from metal wires at different lengths. Inside each jar is a different kind of plant, set in resin. One has a simple blade of grass.

Jeff Schofield's "Weeds and Wildflowers" installation features more than 60 canning jars with a variety of plants and weeds set in resin.

"Isn't it lovely?" asks Schofield, holding the jar up to the light. "I find these plants in my neighborhood. These are just the weeds and wildflowers from my neighborhood in Pontiac." 

Even as an architect Schofield was drawn to sustainability, working on LEED-certified buildings, meaning they specific standards for health, efficiency and green buildings. So when he started to create art when the Great Recession hit in 2008, he used found objects from construction sites. 

"I would throw it (materials) on to make it look like the noise and dust of a construction site," said Schofield. 

Eventually, Schofield, a New York native, walked away from architecture all together, turning to art full time. But even now, his architect background figures into his work in terms of scale and repetitive themes. 

Jeff Schofield calls himself a sustainable artist. He uses only found or used materials in his work.

One large installation in his studio, "Barn Razing," features dozens of beams from a 19th century barn he discovered during an art residency in upstate New York. The beams jut out from the wall at all different lengths, some smooth to the touch, others rugged from being exposed to the elements.

"One of the women who works at the residency is the daughter of a demolition guy and he was going to take this barn down. I said 'No, wait, wait, wait,'" said Schofield. "I got the exterior wood and floor boards from inside. This barn was there for 140 years and only in the last 10 years it started to fall apart due to excessive storms, windows. Due to climate change, it couldn't resist."

For his mixed media sculptures, nothing is garbage. It's all potential material for his work. One mixed media piece he's working on is composed nearly entirely of different colored plastic cups. He has an entire series called "Trash to Treasure" with everything from children's toys, cars and crayons to another piece made from bottle caps.

"I don't really know where the ideas come from," said Schofield. "Not really. But I have an institution. The idea doesn't come to me as a formed idea in my brain. sometimes it has to evolve. 

Madelaine Corbin is another local artist whose work is largely inspired by the environment. A multidisciplinary artist based in Detroit who, like Schofield, graduated from Cranbrook, she combines fibers, installation sculpture, writing, and drawing to communicate ideas about land, climate, and human connection to the environment, according to Wayne State University, where is an adjunct faculty member.

Corbin, who grew up in Oregon, said it isn't even conscious to be connected to different landscapes; it's just ingrained. One focus lately for her work has been the color blue.

"Our skies above cities are graying," said Corbin, who also recently won a Fulbright Award. "Our oceans are greening with rising temperatures as they acidify." Even blue on land "is disappearing in our flowers and different plants that express blue."

For Schofield, who also plans to do some performance art at his solo show in July, it's about what happens if the world keeps going the way it is and global temperatures possibly raise 4 degrees: "We keep going the way we are — conflicting with nature — we're going to exceed those four degrees. This is an imbalance."


Earth-related art

'Art + Earth' exhibition from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday-Sunday at the Belle Isle Aquarium.

'Atmospheric Pressures' by Jeff Schofield in July at Hatch Art in Hamtramck. Go to http://www.hatchart.org/.