Unseen California art initiative uses NRS reservations as canvas

The reserves of the UC Nature Reserve System are best known for fostering science education and research. But that long-standing reputation is expanding. A new artistic initiative from UC Santa Cruz, Unseen California, aims to connect both professional artists and UC students with reservations. Inviting artists to engage with the human and natural history of California landscapes, the program seeks to make the arts an integral part of the NRS profile.

Launched in 2021 by UCSC Associate Professor of Art Karolina Karlic, Unseen California is an arts research initiative that engages diverse artist voices on research themes relevant to the future of California. The program also enables immersive learning experiences for UCSC art students and the community through curricula, exhibits, and an ongoing documentary film.

“The goal is to be able to use the umbrella of Unseen California to support research in the field of immersive arts,” says Karlic. Connecting with reserves, she adds, helps students “realize what it means to create site-specific works and connect with communities at large.” During this time, participating professional artists can explore a wide range of eco-friendly locations with the help of knowledgeable NRS guides.

Reserve visits push artists to think about larger questions about their roles as they engage in reserve environments across California, Karlic says. “What do we take away as humans by engaging with a site? What does it mean to be a practicing artist in the world? UCSC, which encourages students to address environmental and community concerns in their artistic practice.

“The best question a student ever asked me in a nature reserve was, ‘what are we supposed to do here?’ “says Karlic. “This question has guided the entire development of Unseen California as a research initiative.

Launched in 2021 and intended to be a ten-year program, Unseen California has many facets. These include immersive research into the field of art by cohorts of professional artists; education; and engagement with the public.

A cohort of active artists

The first artist search cohort is made up of five female photographers from a wide variety of backgrounds. Each is an educator and an active professional in the arts.

The artists’ identities contrast sharply with the white cis men (think Ansel Adams, Carleton Watkins, Edward Weston and others) who dominated the canon of landscape photography. The Unseen California artists seek to reframe cultural histories and ecological landscapes with alternative concepts enriched by their diverse identities and experiences. They operate with the belief that the arts are at the heart of solving the most pressing problems of our time, but require the participation and commitment of disciplines and sectors of society.

“It was very important to me to create a research cohort that extends outside of the university to engage with our students, with nature reserves, and for the work to extend to their communities outside university walls,” says Karlic.

The residencies have an unusually long duration of two years. This allows artists to visit the reserves multiple times during different seasons. Artists have the space to reflect on their experiences and deepen their connection to place and community with each return.

“The most generous part of this residency is the ongoing conversations and community that I believe are necessary as a female photography educator,” says artist Tarrah Krajnak. “Often an artist’s work is in solitude. Even though we are all apart and in different institutions working on different reservations, I feel real support for the first time in over a decade.

A conversation between art and science

Artistic research can reveal knowledge about the landscape that is distinct from what can be gleaned through the practice of science, says Karlic. “We don’t usually approach a particular question in mind to collect data to find results. What we are going to cover are multiple questions and being informed by the site itself. We respond and interpret those responses that occur.

The fact that human settlements as well as scientific issues have been studied on the reserves makes the NRS an ideal place to host the initiative. Reserve staff helped impart knowledge to artists about their sites, fostering inspiration and insight into the process. “The experiences with the managers of the reserve are really essential to support the curiosities and the research that the artists carry out with the site that they have chosen. These relationships propel and create connections for artists working on different research themes,” says Karlic.

An example is the work of artist Mercedes Dorame. Dorame herself is Tongva. She chose to work at the Santa Cruz Island Preserve and Catalina Island in part because her ancestors inhabited what is now the Los Angeles Basin as well as the southern Channel Islands. Her study contrasts the sense of safety and shelter on the virtually uninhabited island of Santa Cruz with her experiences growing up and currently living in Los Angeles. During her explorations of the islands, she also created a series of observations highlighting the past and future potentials of these landscapes.

NRS Santa Cruz Island Reserve Director Jay Reti helped give Dorame a deeper sense of cultural connection to the island, says Karlic. “Jay is a paleoanthropologist. He knows stone tools very well in his own research. This knowledge and understanding has been incredibly useful for Mercedes, who studies the exchanges between the peoples of Santa Cruz Island and Catalina Island.

From caches of acorns to remnants of fog

At Hastings Natural History Preserve, artist Aspen Mays is working with Preserve Director Jen Hunter to reimagine the Preserve Museum. Currently the building is used for storage; most plant and animal specimens and scientific notebooks were transferred to UC Berkeley. Mays will examine how photographs, field notes, recordings and other observations from Hastings can be made engaging for museum visitors.

Additionally, Mays investigates the lives of acorn woodpeckers, whose behaviors and interactions with oak trees have been studied at the reserve for over 50 years. Mays is collaborating with former NRS environmental informatics director Becca Fenwick, now with the CITRIS initiative for drone education and research, to collect 3D drone imagery of attics where woodpeckers hide winter stores of acorns . Mays found an immediate resonance between his earlier work on astronomical observations and the acorn galaxies that woodpeckers store in attics.

“Without the support of Dr. Jen Hunter and reserve managers like her, we artists would not be able to do the work that we do,” says Karlic.

At NRS’ Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center, artist Dionne Lee examines wilderness survival skills as a metaphor for combating harmful systems and historical structures, and recognizes survival as an active attempt made every day. It focuses on the fact that the reserve was the site of anthropological excavations that wore away the rocks and soil in a process analogous to erosion. Lee writes that she expands the definition of erosion “to include the consequences of human domination over the land and positions the act of erosion as a product of colonialism”. Likewise, she sees the act of excavation – to display, dig up and sell – as a lens through which to examine what has been stolen and altered by colonialism.

Artist Tarrah Krajnak was inspired by an event that happened at the Landels-Hill Big Creek Preserve: photographer Ansel Adams’ speech at the preserve’s dedication ceremony in 1978. Krajnak has studied recordings of Adams’ speech and recorded herself performing an increasingly redacted version. . This work pursues its interest in highlighting problematic aspects of the canons of modern photography through acts of erasure, redaction and reconstruction.

The Big Creek and Santa Cruz Island coastal reservations were the sites of some of Karlic’s work. For years, scientists have set up fog collectors – vertical mesh squares where airborne moisture can condense – to measure the amount of moisture provided by fog at different altitudes of the Earth. Reserve. Inspired by this data collection tool, Karlic implemented similar vertical humidity collectors but replaced the mesh with copper plates, typically used in print media. On the Karlic collectors, the mist leaves visual traces of its passage in the form of oxidized patterns on the metal.

Karlic worked closely with Big Creek Preserve Superintendent Mark Readdie and Stewards Feynner Arias and Mackneal Byers to engage with multiple climate change events that impacted the Preserve. His work at the reservation includes setting up trail cameras to document and photograph soil movement and the impacts of burnt vegetation after the Dolan Fire, which scorched 8,000 acres of the reservation.

Art classes without walls

The educational component of Unseen California builds on UCSC’s Faculty of Arts’ long history of fostering community dialogues about the environment. This includes a decades-long effort by art teacher Norman Locks to expose students to NRS reservations. Karlic will continue to bring undergraduates and MFA students from the Department of Art’s new MFA program in Environmental Art and Social Practice to reservations under the Unseen California umbrella to experience the value of fieldwork and immersive learning.

“The photography research trips led by Karolina Karlic and Norman Locks were one of the most defining experiences of my undergraduate studies at UCSC,” writes former art major Edgar Cruz. “As an artist, these trips were very important in helping me question and explore the ideas behind my work, which was new to me at the time.”

Once in the field, students have the opportunity to collect data, participate in fieldwork, and learn about topics such as land, climate change, and ecology. These first-hand experiences allow students to immerse themselves in new subjects, which then influence their academic artistic research.

“This kind of travel is essential for artists. Art is not always about the studio. There is an inspiration that can only be discovered in the world,” writes Brian Young, who visited Landels-Hill Big Creek as an undergraduate art major in 2018.

Now, Unseen California operational needs are largely funded by grants. To support the professional and student artists whose work is at the heart of the initiative, Karlic is seeking the help of donors. Those interested in learning more about this giving opportunity can be contacted at [email protected]