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Heather Bird Harris: The Integration of Art, Earth and the History of Place

August’s artist on Between the Art is Heather Bird Harris, an artist and history educator.

Bird is based in Atlanta having moved there from New Orleans, USA. She studied Art History and Studio Art at Skidmore College and went on to gain a Master’s degree in Education Leadership from Columbia University. After graduating, Bird worked in education, a School Principal in New Orleans East, and focused on subjects including Art, English, and Social Studies. She began writing History curriculum in 2015, and this interest in the subject led to her using Earth pigments in her own art work.

Bird’s visual artwork and social practice, including history education, is growing increasingly connected. Through these practices, she engages site-specific materials to explore the through-lines between land history and environmental crises, as well as being a mother during the current climate change crisis.

Here Bird shares how her artistic practice has become integrated with her history education, questioning why certain histories have been intentionally forgotten, and how we can draw parallels to interconnect people with the places where they live. Read on to learn more…

Heather Bird Harris

Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?

I work in a studio connected to my house which allows me to be flexible without having to commute.

I’m not originally from the south, but I’ve been here since college; New Orleans is where I have lived the longest, and Atlanta is new for me having moved here last year. Place is an important part of my work, and so I want to learn about where I am located, seeking out the hidden histories and natural histories. To understand not only history that has been intentionally hidden but also the place’s connection to environmental crises. I think a lot about this connection between history and environmental issues, such as land loss, air pollution, and soil toxicity. Every place has its issue that it’s reckoning with. Decisions that humans have made in recent history, post-Civil War in the US or the Industrial Revolution, are very much connected to these problems that we are facing today. Getting to understand and experience the specific issues of the place where I work has become very important to my practice.

"I think beauty is a more effective tool than fear. A lot of the media around climate change is fear-based and has an alienating effect on audiences because it’s too big and too scary. Instead, I would say that practicing intention, which is a pre-requisite for care, is a better way to face this."

How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?

My work is largely researched based. I tend to begin a project with research, leading into a fascination materially, but also the research weaves its way throughout the process. I have two parts to my practice: my painting, visual practice, and my social practice. I view these as an introverted side and an extroverted side, and I think they both need to exist. Painting is very personal and meditative, focused on observation: how does water move the land? What happens when these two natural materials meet? How do they flow together? It’s a natural fascination that is land- and water-based, as well as increasingly land ink-based. It’s a way for me to notice what is around me and bring it into the studio to observe it further.

My social practice is connected to my work in education and facilitation, creating learning experiences for individuals and communities to work through some of those bigger questions that we are all faced with. It’s also a practice of radical noticing and appreciation of natural beauty in the place we are in. I think beauty is a more effective tool than fear. A lot of the media around climate change is fear-based and has an alienating effect on audiences because it’s too big and too scary. Instead, I would say that practicing intention, which is a pre-requisite for care, is a better way to face this.

Heather Bird Harris

Do you have any rituals that help with this process of creating work?

Getting outside, though I don’t do it in a regimented way, is definitely important to help me to zoom out and think bigger. There are a lot of great places to walk in Atlanta under a full canopy of trees, or to look out across water. Being outside in a zoomed out experience and seeing things bigger than myself as a human really helps when dealing with big questions around climate change.

In terms of my painting practice, I try to walk away a lot and not have my hand involved! I let the materials do what they are going to do and then leave. It forces me to let go of any sense of control, which I struggle with but it’s important to do to face this internal battle. It’s a practice of letting go and to just be.

"Sense of place has become increasingly important the more I’ve become aware of how fragile the earth is, both how we treat the places that we live in and how people have been treated in the places where they live. These are interconnected with the potential loss of place."

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m about to start my MFA in Painting at Georgia State University so I’m in an in-between phase. I’m currently doing both a mental clean out and a studio clean out, creating space for new things. I’m doing a lot of experiments with natural inks, which I have wanted to explore for a while. It’s fun playing around with them! The inks are from Earth pigments or soils, which I have been making into watercolour-based colours. I took the bark from a crepe myrtle tree in my back yard and made some ink from this, though I’m not sure how it will turn out! I’ve used safflower, turmeric, walnut, and done many other wild experiments.

Also, I’ve just installed a project at a science gallery in Atlanta, called The Land Memory Project. The gallery partners with universities and they pair artists and scholars together to work on different projects. My project was a community-based, collaborative art project on land memory in Atlanta in partnership with an historian from Emory University and a soil scientist. We worked through some of the questions surrounding the environmental crises and place history, and created a collaborative scroll that people painted their land memories on using soil from places important to them. I’m hoping that this is the first project of many. I think so many places are coming to this tipping point of awareness of their environmental issues that are really affecting the health of the place they live. These toxins differ from place to place: creosote in Houston, slag in Atlanta, land loss in southern Louisiana. The causes for them are very similar; a cause of human actions to attempt to control nature, or to ignore it in some way. And so I hope that this project can travel to other areas as I’m interested in the connections globally between communities; how these communities are reckoning with climate change and imagining a better future for their own locality but also for the connections between others.

Heather Bird Harris

What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?

When I think about sense of place, I think about the multiple perspectives of history and how layered it is. It’s important to consider as many of these layers as possible when thinking about the holistic sense of a place: geological history, native history, personal narratives and family stories. What are the hidden histories that have been intentionally forgotten? What are the imagined futures?

I found my way to using Earth pigments through an interest in history, and then through the importance of educating students on American history, especially in the south, and especially with anti-racist lens. That was around the time that Trump was getting elected which coincided with brazen political attempts to erase difficult history, instead of facing it, moving through it and actually solving problem in America. We see this pressure of erasure continue today. I started working with Earth pigments through this lens, thinking about how the Earth remembers history, shown through changes in physical substances, such as soils and water. The history is carried through the Earth itself, despite our intentional forgetting.

I try to gather as much information as possible about a place when I’m trying to get a good sense of it. This also includes the visuals, the sounds, and the scents that come from being outside in a place. I often identify plants, study the colours, consider the natural landmarks and question how they all work together. I think usually nature has some parallels to how humans in the same place could also work together.

I’ve always been quite nostalgic about place. I don’t have a great memory so catching a scent or seeing a colour helps me visualise a memory to establish where I am and remember what has happened in that place before. In this sense, place has always been very grounding for me. Sense of place has become increasingly important the more I’ve become aware of how fragile the earth is, both how we treat the places that we live in and how people have been treated in the places where they live. These are interconnected with the potential loss of place.

Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world through your work?

Increasingly I feel as though I don’t have any answers. However, I think so many answers could be found through paying greater attention to both the history of the places where we live and to what makes a balanced ecosystem within these places. There is so much connection between these two things. There is a growing sense that we are not in equilibrium with where we live, including with the people and communities of these places. It hasn’t always been like this and by looking at the long-view of history, there is solace in that. We feel very stifled by late stage capitalism but we have existed in a capitalistic society for less than five percent of human existence on the planet. By understanding what life looked like for humans and natural systems, we may find better answers than what we currently have. We can then move forward. I don’t have these answers but that’s what I’m looking for through my work.

Heather Bird Harris

Bird's Book List:

1. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

This is such an important book and a great place to start learning more about the history of place.

2. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

This book helps with unlearning US history.

3. The Twentieth Century: A People’s History approved by Howard Zinn

This book has a more global perspective and contemplates the long-view of history.

4. We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power by Caleb Gayle

This is about the double dispossession experienced by Black Muscogee Creek people in Oklahoma and Georgia. It’s an intersectional view of Black History and Indigenous History, and one of those stories that is very seldom told. This is a good example of history that is new to me but something that is really important to understand the complexities of this place where I live.

Heather Bird Harris

To learn more about Bird's work, go to her website and Instagram @heatherbirdharris

All Images: Artist's Own


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