Eco-Art Re-imagined From What is Tossed Away
The Willow by Rebecca Kouchit
Ecological art, or “eco-art”, is a contemporary form of environmental art created by artists who are concerned with local and global environmental situations. With climate change a serious concern, the field is growing rapidly with hundreds of artists working around the world, and many female artists, in particular, participating in the movement.
Tucson-based artist Rebecca Kouchit stands out in Southern Arizona. Eco-friendly methods and upcycled materials make up the visual artist’s portfolio. Her art embraces materials gathered in the sacred reaches of the Sonoran Desert to the sky islands of surrounding mountain ranges, as well as the profane in junk stores, alleys and dumps. What she acquires from these places becomes art that asks the viewer to pause, breathe deeply and allow oneself to become immersed in moments of awe.
Kouchit’s journey of making art from eco-friendly material began while observing another artist’s oeuvre. “Victor Muniz, a Brazilian who gathered his art materials from landfill debris, inspired me,” she says, while displaying a portrait of broken glass, beads and brushed wash on a re-purposed canvas she had made. “I began moving toward it—away from store-bought brush and canvas a few years ago.”
Eco-art is not new. Before tubes of oil paint that made plein-air art possible or the petroleum based formulation of fast-drying acrylic paint, artists used a variety of natural, non-toxic recipes to make paint. Milk powder, lime and pigments served artists well for thousands of years. Mosaics of gathered stone and shards of pottery grace ancient walls in memorable displays. Even Picasso was forced to use found wood board to paint on during the shortages after World War II. Kouchit too has had to experiment with unfamiliar material, pursuing ecological ethics in her art and shaping images in new creative forms.
On an easel in her art studio is a piece she is currently reworking. Materials include tree roots of copper wire made from a tossed away speaker, a fragment of rough woven cloth and small stones, combined to make a naturalistic representation in her tree and waterfall series. “I never plan a painting or installation, just begin with the materials at hand and see what happens,” she says. Working with found objects, she acts through an inarticulate knowing, like a seed becoming a flower or a caterpillar cocooning into a chrysalis, then a butterfly.
The Tucson-based artist is an early joiner. The expanding movement follows an eco-friendly ethic concerned with using materials grown sustainably and produced in ways that do not deplete the ecosystem. Earth-friendly art supplies that are environmentally and socially friendly because of the way they are formulated, manufactured or packaged, are less wasteful and less toxic than mainstream products, are safe for humans, animals and the environment, engaging recycled, reused and renewable materials that are relatively benign in their extraction phase.
Kouchit is interested in the Southern Arizona Arts Council’s call to artists for the 2016 Recycled Art Exhibition. According to the arts organizations, “Art is the perfect medium to heighten public awareness of recycling efforts.” The exhibit will open April 18, coinciding with Earth Week.
Kouchit’s attention to living a sustainable lifestyle spilled out of her garden and into her kitchen and art studio. “Things grow, produce and decay,” she says. “I wait for my five senses to take it all in until the moment of inspiration appears.” Like the hunter-gatherers who feasted when it was bountiful and fasted when resources were scarce, Kouchit follows a naturalistic artistic path that does not fit a production schedule.
The artist is a graduate of the College of Saint Benedict/St. Johns University, with a background in theater and art. She began her art career as an art teacher in Minnesota, continuing in Tucson to eventually transition into her own art studio.
Inspired by her work as an art teacher, Kouchit sought to provide anyone the opportunity to have a creative expression. She found the avenue publishing the Enchanted Desert Coloring Book, to reflect her life and work in Southern Arizona. Arriving in 2001 from the moist greenery of the upper Midwest, she was humbled by the stubborn perseverance of natural beauty despite the harsh desert climate. The pen and ink illustrations in the adult coloring book offers an interpretive exploration of the Sonoran Desert. Printed on recycled paper, the book is Kouchit’s invitation for color palette explorations.
The natural world is the principal source of Kouchit’s inspiration throughout her assembled, painted and printed art. A secondary inspiration are the many things people toss away that become found objects for her. Kouchit’s artwork draws attention to the significance of our ecosystem and how each plant, insect and human is dependently connected. Following nature’s cycle of returning and rebirth, the artist wanders canyons and ridges, scours thrift stores, alleys and dumps for materials to re-purpose in art. Her ongoing search for materials draws her away from the studio into varied ecological paths—from those we embrace to those that we avoid—then she returns with new inspiration.
Dale Bruder is a freelance writer interested in creative people, social and cultural movements and applications of esoteric knowledge. Connect with him at 520-331-1956 or TaoTime@DaleBruder.com.