An Artist Who Finds Uncommon Meaning in Common Trees
By Patrick Rogers
"I'm really into trees," said the sculptor Hugh Hayden. "I'm drawn to plants."
Nature and plants have always been a source of fascination for the artist, who grew up near a protected greenway on the outskirts of Dallas. "My family was always outdoors, not in the sense of camping, but of gardening," he recalled fondly. "When I was in high school, I was the youngest person in the North Texas Water Garden Society — I was, like, 15, and most of the people were over 55."
Now working out of a studio in the Bronx, Hayden uses elements of nature to powerful effect in sculptures that have grabbed the attention of curators in the U.S. and Europe. And he recently won a major commission at New York City's newest cultural outpost, The Shed. Housed in a large exhibition space, Hayden's Hedges installation presents an architecturally accurate facade of a single classic American suburban home that, thanks to mirrors mounted on opposing gallery walls, is amplified into infinity to form the illusion of an entire street.
Hedges, 2019 © Hugh Hayden
Those illusory houses and their imaginary middle-class occupants, however, are not alone. Sprouting from holes in the walls is a thicket of bare tree branches that appear to colonize the living space. When seen in the mirrors, they form what looks like the world's longest hedgerow.
© Hugh Hayden
There's an obvious tension in Hedges between human civilization and untamable wilderness. But Hayden, whose art tends to challenge perceptions of social order and the environment, is also interested in how people use nature as a form of camouflage to mask their differences in order to become part of their communities. "It's the idea of home ownership and being part of the American dream, of having a little house with its own yard — of blending into a landscape that is also a social landscape," he said.
Hayden mostly uses salvaged wood that he manipulates through carving and juxtaposition. The branches used in Hedges came from a display of Christmas trees that once stood in the median strip of Park Avenue in Manhattan — one of the nation's most pedigreed addresses, he notes — which lends his work an aspirational quality. And due to the mirrors placed around them, viewers cannot avoid encountering their own reflections. The artist said, "They're seeing themselves reproduced in something that is a fantasy. They see how they fit into that American dream."
America, 2018 © Hugh Hayden
Hayden, who trained as an architect at Cornell and quit his day job designing in the hospitality industry last year to pursue art full time, has been finding great meaning in the trees that he uses as raw material for his sculptures. In 2018 he traveled to the U.S.–Mexico border and gathered branches of mesquite, a tree that many Texans regard as an undesirable invasive species. "Mesquite trees thrive where other trees can't, on limited resources like water. Given the issue on the border around immigration, I thought of the material as politically charged." Hayden used the thick branches in a sculpture titled America, which takes the form of a kitchen table and chairs, a classic symbol of welcoming and comfort, but with sharp protuberances that discourage gathering.
On the same Texas trip, the artist paired up with a crew of nursery scouts who buy slow-growing desert palmettos from landowners in the region and then resell them for a profit to wealthy urbanites in Houston. Together they located stands of so-called Texas ebony trees, which have a narrow range of growth in the southern part of the state and in northeastern Mexico. Hayden used the dark brown and blackish wood of the trees' interior in a pair of meticulously rendered sculptures that comment self-reflectively on the experience of young African-American men.
"To me, that species was like my own identity as a tree," he said. One piece, Crown of Thorns, which was exhibited at Art Basel in Miami Beach last year, was in the shape of a football helmet, with a knot of thorns inside that render it impossible to wear. The other, Oreo, shown at New York's Lisson Gallery, represented a baby's crib also studded with sharp thorns. "I was interested in positioning the imposed expectations of a black man in Texas. I hated playing football, for example, but it was the expectation that I play." As for the crib, its construction brings to mind the neoclassical architecture of a typical Texas courthouse, where, because of systemic injustices, an African-American man is likely to turn up during the course of his youth.
Oreo, 2018 © Hugh Hayden
"I think people could interpret my work as an ad for a group like Greenpeace," Hayden said when asked if he considers himself a part of the environmental movement. "Of course, I am for the environment. But I would say my use of natural material is more an extension of my personal interests," he explained. "I like plants, and I like the idea that I can use something as ubiquitous as trees to change the way that people think."
Hedges is on view at The Shed in New York City until August 25.
Crown of Thorns, 2018 © Hugh Hayden
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
Returning the ‘Three Sisters’ – Corn, Beans and Squash – to Native American Farms Nourishes People, Land and Cultures
By Christina Gish Hill
Historians know that turkey and corn were part of the first Thanksgiving, when Wampanoag peoples shared a harvest meal with the pilgrims of Plymouth plantation in Massachusetts. And traditional Native American farming practices tell us that squash and beans likely were part of that 1621 dinner too.
Abundant Harvests<p>Historically, Native people throughout the Americas bred indigenous plant varieties specific to the growing conditions of their homelands. They selected seeds for many different traits, such as <a href="https://emergencemagazine.org/story/corn-tastes-better/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">flavor, texture and color</a>.</p><p>Native growers knew that planting corn, beans, squash and sunflowers together produced mutual benefits. Corn stalks created a trellis for beans to climb, and beans' twining vines secured the corn in high winds. They also certainly observed that corn and bean plants growing together tended to be healthier than when raised separately. Today we know the reason: Bacteria living on bean plant roots pull nitrogen – an essential plant nutrient – from the air and <a href="http://www.tilthalliance.org/learn/resources-1/almanac/october/octobermngg" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">convert it to a form that both beans and corn can use</a>.</p><p>Squash plants contributed by shading the ground with their broad leaves, preventing weeds from growing and retaining water in the soil. Heritage squash varieties also had spines that discouraged deer and raccoons from visiting the garden for a snack. And sunflowers planted around the edges of the garden created a natural fence, protecting other plants from wind and animals and attracting pollinators.</p><p>Interplanting these agricultural sisters produced bountiful harvests that sustained large Native communities and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/eam.2015.0016" target="_blank">spurred fruitful trade economies</a>. The first Europeans who reached the Americas were shocked at the abundant food crops they found. My research is exploring how, 200 years ago, Native American agriculturalists around the Great Lakes and along the Missouri and Red rivers fed fur traders with their diverse vegetable products.</p>
Displaced From the Land<p>As Euro-Americans settled permanently on the most fertile North American lands and acquired seeds that Native growers had carefully bred, they imposed policies that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/87.2.550" target="_blank">made Native farming practices impossible</a>. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the <a href="https://guides.loc.gov/indian-removal-act" target="_blank">Indian Removal Act</a>, which made it official U.S. policy to force Native peoples from their home locations, pushing them onto subpar lands.</p><p>On reservations, U.S. government officials discouraged Native women from cultivating anything larger than small garden plots and pressured Native men to practice Euro-American style monoculture. Allotment policies assigned small plots to nuclear families, further limiting Native Americans' access to land and preventing them from using communal farming practices.</p><p>Native children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they had no opportunity to <a href="https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.57.1.0145" target="_blank">learn Native agriculture techniques or preservation and preparation of Indigenous foods</a>. Instead they were forced to eat Western foods, turning their palates away from their traditional preferences. Taken together, these policies <a href="https://kansaspress.ku.edu/978-0-7006-0802-7.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">almost entirely eradicated three sisters agriculture</a> from Native communities in the Midwest by the 1930s.</p>
Reviving Native Agriculture<p>Today Native people all over the U.S. are working diligently to <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reclaim Indigenous varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and other crops</a>. This effort is important for many reasons.</p><p>Improving Native people's access to healthy, culturally appropriate foods will help lower rates of <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aian-diabetes/index.html" target="_blank">diabetes</a> and <a href="https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/ethnicity-health/native-american/obesity" target="_blank">obesity</a>, which affect Native Americans at disproportionately high rates. Sharing traditional knowledge about agriculture is a way for elders to pass cultural information along to younger generations. Indigenous growing techniques also protect the lands that Native nations now inhabit, and can potentially benefit the wider ecosystems around them.</p>
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