The Flow Of Knowledge

I haven’t published a suggested reading post in quite some time (see prior suggested reading posts). I thought that I would be doing far more reading (for pleasure and professional development) during these ‘Quarantimes’ than I have actually done. Typically, I am a slow reader, but lately I have had a hard time committing to several of the books I told myself I should read. That said, I have found a great deal of solace, wisdom and reverie in the book that I have actually finished reading.

On a related note, I sure do miss libraries. I think they are the cultural institutions I long for the most. Not museums, but libraries. Prior to the pandemic, I had been going to the New York Public Library nearly once every other week. Surrounded by towering stacks of books that have been published over centuries, and basking in the silent transfer of knowledge via each turning of the page, the library is a profound spiritual and pedagogical space for me. My wife and I spent Valentines Day at the New York Public Library (for their after hours event), so it also is a very meaningful social and emotional place. As if that were not already enough, libraries have fantastic art collections, public exhibitions, art workshops and performances, so they truly encapsulate a full spectrum of culture.

Anyways, it is time to get back on track with this suggested reading post! I am excited to share this publication with you:

FOAM, FutureOfAMaterial, Selected Writings by sTo Len (FreeLY Floating Press, 2020)

As I mentioned, since I have not gotten around to finishing many books over the past six months, this post will mention just one publication, a book by the contemporary artist sTo Len. The book, FOAM, FutureOfAMaterial, contains selected reproductions of monoprints, ephemera, photographs and writings, including an ecological thesis informed by sTo Len’s MFA studies and journal entries reflecting on life during the pandemic. There is also a smattering of poetry and a brilliantly creative fictional narrative inspired by George Luks’ 1907 oil painting of a woman and a parrot titled Pals. Overall, FOAM is the perfect read for this very moment. The book addresses why we are in such a dire situation, while presenting us with hopeful meditations on how we can all create light in these dark times. Over the course of the text, sTo Len examines effects of climate change that has been enhanced by plastic pollution and the colonization and maltreatment of our natural resources. He also elaborates on how and why he believes art can make a philosophical and tangible difference. For some, art provides an escape from reality, but for sTo Len, art is a “productive survival strategy in times of crisis.” He considers art to be a form of mindful empowerment that stimulates us to “reclaim our balance and relationship to the natural world by taking inventory of our consumption, waste and disconnectedness with each other.”

sTo Len, FutureOfAMaterial, installation, gomitaku prints on linen and canvas, sumi ink, jute, 2020

sTo Len is based in New York, although his practice is nomadic. You could say that he travels and works like the waterways he sources his art from (I have previously discussed some of sTo’s art in the following post: Learning to Visualize A Bright Future For Our Environment). sTo Len’s art is environmentally conscious. His materials include navigable bodies of water and pollutants found in and around the water. He utilizes traditional processes, most specifically printmaking, through ecologically friendly means. Taking inspiration from the Japanese gyotaku technique, where artists (it was originally a practice started by fishermen to brag about their daily catch) make an ink laden impression of a fish, sTo Len creates what he calls gomitaku or “trash impressions.” Regarding the form, function, content and context of the gomitaku prints, he explains:

“Styrofoam and other detritus fished from waterways replaces the fish as a print material and acts as a visual language that engages in our detachment with water, waste and its interconnectivity to a multitude of injustices. The resulting mono prints conjure the dark shadow each object globally casts in unseen landscapes, their textured “scales” reflecting back at us the layered impressions of our environmental oppression. The often broken shapes are fragments of larger objects whose phantom pieces remind us of their possible futurity in the stomachs of fish and birds, nestled into folds of a shoreline, or added to the 51 trillion microplastic particles floating in the sea.”

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. sTo Len’s reuse of synthetic materials which he combs from the natural environment signifies an empathetic ethos to the processes of upcycling. He treads through essential waterways, purging them of toxins. These contaminants are then transformed and take on new restorative meaning as they are used to make gomitaku prints. This artistic practice is in line with the following pedagogical frameworks: STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) education, materials based learning and social and emotional learning.

In FOAM, sTo Len takes his readers on a material-centered, experiential learning journey full of passionate humanitarian perspectives and mechanisms that help us get in tune with our environment. Water is sTo’s mentor, and like an educator, water provides him with instructional scaffolding (see: Fisher and Frey, 2010) that supports the growth and development of his artistic and personal identity. He says, “One cannot direct something as large and alive as a river; instead you must allow yourself to be guided by it.”

sTo Len’s art and writing provides us with a thirst to learn more about the world around us, improvise with what life gives us and develop empathetic responses to the ways we interact with our natural settings. While the materials he works with are messy, cheap and undesirable, the works of art he makes with them are invaluable. Their aesthetic beauty and enduring ecological message is akin to the characteristics of water: reflective, soluble and fluid. Water connects us all, as does art.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Fisher, Douglas and Frey, Nancy. 2010. Guided Instruction. Alexandria: ASCD.

Len, sTo. 2020. FOAM, FutureOfAMaterial Selected Writings. FreeLY Floating Press

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