The Artful Environmentalist

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Susan Hoenig, Connected, 2019, black walnut ink on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

How many types of trees and plants can you identify in your local ecosystem? Do you know what specimens are native to the region? How can we become more ethical and sustainable environmentalists, while maintaining a thriving practice as creatives? The multidisciplinary art of Susan Hoenig helps us to answer the aforementioned questions and become attuned to forming a balance with our natural resources.

Hoenig’s artistic practice is environmentally sustainable, which is an essential solution to the ecological problems that confront a materials-based artist. Making art has many social, emotional and cognitive benefits for individuals, but the media used to create art can have negative outcomes on the environment if not treated properly or sourced sustainably. Hoenig uses organic materials to transform the physical environment while treading lightly within nature. Her work has an overarching pedagogical framework that compels us to learn more about the world around us and develop empathetic responses to the ways we interact with natural settings and lifeforms.

Two ongoing bodies of Hoenig’s work, which have activist, aesthetic and pedagogical implications, are her Ecological Leaf Sculptures at Graeber Woods Preserve in Franklin Township, New Jersey and her ecologically themed black walnut ink paintings.

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Susan Hoenig, Red Oak Leaf Sculpture, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

The Ecological Leaf Sculptures (2016-) are large stone outlines of leaves displayed beneath the tree that they represent. There are eleven sculptures in total among 96 acres of trails winding through a diverse ecosystem of forest, meadow, marsh and stream. Hoenig leads walking tours to educate the public about the understory (flora growing beneath the canopy) of the forest. Ten of the leaves are from common trees, native to the Eastern United States (Red Oak, Bigtooth Aspen, American Beech, Black Birch, Tulip Poplar, Shagbark Hickory, Red Maple, Sassafras, Flowering Dogwood and Black Walnut). The one cultivar (a plant produced by selective breeding) is the Liberty Elm, which has been bred to resist Dutch elm disease. The scale and graphic simplicity of the sculptures makes future identification of these tree species much easier.

Hoenig’s series of Black Walnut ink paintings is another body of work that aesthetically raises our consciousness about the natural world we collectively occupy. During mast years, she collects walnuts from the leaf sculpture site at Graeber Woods Preserve, and transforms them into ink. She also collects and uses other nuts like acorns, winged-seed pods, husks and other small seeds to create prints that make associations to many diverse species of leaves. In the painting Connected (2019), Hoenig overlaid an image of a tree trunk and roots on top of a silhouette of the artist’s arm and hand. While the trunk is a darker shade than the hand, everything seemingly blends together as the roots and fingers conjoin. This painting symbolizes an interconnection between ourselves and the natural world, which is a relationship we need to foster by realizing that our actions have tangible consequences on the climate and environment. If we disrupt nature’s due course, then the whole cycle of life is in danger of being ruptured.

In the Anthropocene, we are at risk of losing natural resources that we rely on each day. Whether it is because we are uniformed or indifferent, we are taking our ecosystems for granted. Susan Hoenig’s art makes it possible to reflect on environmental transformation and climate change in both a symbolic and very real manner. It also encourages us to find creative ways to depict and express both subtle and profound properties of our natural surroundings. It is an understandable impulse to want to document the beauty that envelops us. Art has a longstanding tradition of visually expressing the relationship between humans and their habitats. Doing so using sustainable materials helps to ensure that current and future generations will be able to enjoy and maintain an interconnected and artful collaboration with nature.

The environment is changing before our eyes, both due to natural cycles and our interference with natural rhythms. Art helps us to become careful and discerning observers of physical environments. When utilized to make connections between the Earth and our relationship to it, art can evoke empathetic responses to the impact of ecological issues and the effect that it has on us all.

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