Investigating the intricate relationship between human beings and their surroundings has been a lifelong passion for artist and designer Lisa Carroll. Carroll brings this passion to bear on her artistic practice, incorporating a variety of media to create abstract pieces that evoke the organic world, probing the boundaries between the manmade and the natural, the individual and the world at large. Her work discloses just how imperfect and provisional such categories are: our sense of opposition or belonging to a broader context can shift dramatically when we are placed in situations—or before works of art—that preclude or, conversely, encourage our contemplation and participation.
“Western Sector” by Lisa Carroll. Mixed media installation.
Carroll grew up on the coast of Massachusetts, in a place that she describes as “full of cranberry bogs, marshes, pine forests.”
“For my brother, sister and I these were our playgrounds,” Carroll said. “We would run and explore for miles and lose all sense of time until someone would hear someone’s mother calling to come in for dinner.”
Eventually, Carroll relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she has been living for 22 years. An avid runner and camper, she spends much of her time in the remote places of California.
“My understanding of the West is that of both place and spirit,” she explained. “It is my ideal vacation to get myself to a remote lake in the mountains, hike to a hot spring, set myself down on a mesa in the desert, tuck away into a pocket in a canyon and feel myself in the middle of everywhere out there in the middle of nowhere. There is a perfect spot at 8,000 feet in the White Mountains (Eastern CA) where you can look across Owen’s Valley toward the Eastern slope of the Sierras; it is a pleasure to sit there for hours watching the light change and shape that endless space. That is the West in an external sense. There is also the West in an internal sense, the mode of quest, engaging one’s curiosity.”
It is the landscape of California that has had the most decisive influence on Carroll’s artistic sensibility, suggesting materials and motifs for her gorgeous paintings, sculptures, and installations. One of the recurring forms in Carroll’s work is lichen, which she became interested in over time, through her repeated encounters with it in her athletic practice.
“For years I had been running the trails in Redwood Regional Park finding my eye drawn to the lichen encrusting the Bay Laurels,” Carroll said, “And then it just built to a point where the only possible next thing to do was to make that connection and create artwork that expressed my sensorial ritual experience of taking in that lichen for all those years.”
This motif was featured prominently in Western Sector, an installation Carroll created as part of a group exhibition at Inhabit Gallery in Oakland. Walking into the room, viewers found themselves surrounded by clusters of large, delicate lichen-like shapes framing the room’s functional elements and spilling onto the floor, their organic exuberance not so much at odds with the simple geometry of right angles as complementing it, transforming the gallery space so that it might be experienced with the body as well as with the eye. Inviting the viewer to explore and inhabit a temporary space, the work functioned as a reminder of the continuity between nature and human activity, and the simultaneous ephemerality and repetitiveness of their processes.
“It is an acknowledgement that our impact on our environment is a pattern,” Carroll explained. “The action of making each individual part is a repetitive act, a meditation, an act of devotion, embracing the merging of the divine with the mundane. The action of installing and de-installing continues the process. We are nature.”
Carroll has also carried her sense of belonging to a broader context beyond her creative engagement with the mountains, forests, and coastlines of the West. Among other things, she has channeled her love of running into an effort to aid some of the most vulnerable members of the global community. In 2010, Carroll joined her longtime running partner Deidre (Dee) Williams on a 40-mile run to benefit Run For Congo Women.
The situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been a humanitarian crisis for years, and women have paid the heaviest toll for the unending war. Many have lost homes, friends, and family members—including children, many of whom perish before the age of five from inadequate nutrition and medical care. Moreover, the bodies of women have long been treated as part of the battlefield. Horror stories of torture and gang rape abound, and survivors have to live with the physical and psychological trauma, as well as the stigma that rape inevitably carries, usually subsisting below the poverty line and without access to resources that might help them start over.
Run for Congo Women is a grassroots effort to raise awareness and funds for women affected by the continuing violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo through running and walking events. According to Carroll, her running partner had been inspired by Lisa Shannon, the organization’s founder. When Williams first discussed the idea with her, Carroll recalled in a phone interview, “It brought tears to my eyes… I had no idea that there was something like this out there and that I could be involved.”
They called their run the 40-40-40 Project, dedicating each mile to a specific Congolese woman. Carroll worked out the logistics and designed their route. On the day of the run, they took part in a drumming ritual, establishing a connection with the women to whom the run was dedicated. The grueling nature of a forty-mile run deepened this connection.
“[When you run for long distances], you tap into interesting places in your mind,” said Carroll. “By mile eighteen I was in pain, but the thought of stopping was not possible because these women were on our minds… We have a refrain: ‘Pain is just a sensation.’”
To date, Run for Congo Women has raised over $1 million for Women for Women International, an organization which enrolls women in war-torn regions of the world in yearlong programs that offer counseling, education, and job training. The goal of the program is to provide women with skills and confidence they can put to use in starting businesses and building better lives for themselves and their children.
So far, over 58,000 women have benefitted from the organization’s work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Almost all of the participants in the region have first-hand knowledge of the miseries and deprivations of war, whether through seeing their homes destroyed, surviving rape or the loss of loved ones, or being unable to receive necessary healthcare. Graduates of the program report an increase in confidence, and most are able to find jobs or even start businesses of their own, contributing to the growth of their economy and the healing of their nation. The Women for Women International website reports that “[o]n average, graduates nearly double their income over the course of the yearlong program.” Additionally, 98% of the women who finish the program report knowing their rights, compared to 5% of those who are just entering the program. These are encouraging statistics. Amidst the wreckage of war, the strong, courageous women who can support themselves, their children, and one another may be the surest sign of hope for the future.
When you look at Calvin Grimm’s paintings, what do you see? Biomorphic forms and vivid colors? Abstract expressionism – with an organic twist? The melding of line and shape that both haunts us and gives us hope? There’s no right answer; the work of this Woodstock-based artist and environmentalist embodies all of the above. Each of Calvin Grimm’s paintings is a rich and personal expression of our human relationship with the natural world. He articulates that his goal in painting is “to inspire people spiritually through art in a conversation about the beauty of nature and about the sustainability of nature. I feel gifted that I can do that through my art.” There’s another important element to Grimm’s work: optimism. “Very often my paintings are optimistic because nature is constantly fulfilling and revitalizing,” he says. Grimm’s gift with a paintbrush allows him to share the beauty of nature with others, and to engender hope that humans can interact meaningfully with, and protect, our natural world. He calls painting “the unique language that I have to help people feel optimism, so we can sustain the fight, and sustain the involvement [in environmental activism].” Grimm shares this unique language and skill with a number of organizations whose missions center around environmental protection.
Calvin Grimm: “Seeker/Sought: Deep Ocean/Deep Space Series”. 2013. Oil on canvas.
Grimm believes firmly in the importance of experiencing nature’s beauty and power firsthand. This, he says, is our best environmental defense system: if people interact with the natural world, they will come to see its importance, and then will be inspired and motivated to protect it. Beginning in the early 1970’s, Grimm became involved in the National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS, leading five-week-long mountaineering and sea kayaking expeditions in Wyoming and Alaska. (He also transported supplies to the adventurers by horseback). He says that the work allowed him, and the young people on the trip, to “absorb the nuances of the natural world,” and to “experience the wilderness, and the dynamic of forces and people and the changing environment, and all the while, to build a sensitivity in how we relate to that environment.” The genuine interaction between people and the natural world makes up the basis for human respect for nature – and the foundation for working together to protect it.
In addition to his work with NOLS, Grimm has been involved with the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a 106-foot long replica vessel of the sloops that sailed the Hudson River in the 18th and 19th centuries, conceptualized by activist and American folk legend Pete Seeger. Since its construction in 1969, the Clearwater has served as the flagship of the environmental movement, its purpose to educate youth about what they can do to protect and preserve the Hudson River.
Grimm was a boatswain on the Clearwater throughout the 1970’s, charged with the boat’s maintenance, as well as an educator for students who came aboard. He describes Seeger’s vision and the mission of the Clearwater: “If you get people to fall in love with the river, they can actually appreciate that there are living creatures in it, and that it has a life of its own. Then, it became a love, which became a political force – Seeger wanted to create a groundswell of political activism – taking people’s sense of love and a sense of the crime that was being done and transforming that emotion into action.” Grimm also mentions how powerful it was for children to see that it took serious teamwork to raise the boat’s huge sail, an idea of collective intention that would fuel their efforts as champions of the environment long after they disembarked the Clearwater.
Depicting the devastation – both physical and emotional – of nature’s destruction by humans is also an important element in Grimm’s work. He describes the time he spent in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and the particular memory of how the tide receded to reveal sea urchins and sea anemones clinging, vulnerable, to the rocks. He developed “a deep and personal relationship with those creatures.” When he heard news of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 in Prince William Sound, Grimm was overcome with emotion. What he’d begun in his studio as a hopeful painting about these sea animals became “visceral, slimy, oily, and devastating. The creatures attempted to pull themselves out of the mess, unsuccessfully, and black crows were flying around, but it was all in an abstract representation…It was a real expression of my disappointment, my hurt, and my anger.” Grimm channeled his emotions into his work, and the result was a remarkable canvas that chronicles a disastrous natural and historical event. When he heard news of the BP oil spill in 2010, Grimm knew that he had to revisit the painting. The final canvas, titled Exxon Valdez to BP Gulf Oil Spills (1989-2010), both awes us in its beauty and frightens us in its reality.
In speaking about his work with youth, Grimm also touches on our modern disconnect with nature. He mentions Nature Deficit Disorder, a condition defined by a lack of connection with natural elements that can result in attention and mood disorders, depression, and obesity. He says that children in particular have lost their interest in and respect for nature, and have not “developed their intuition, sensitivity and feeling for it. They can’t have a spiritual experience with it if they can’t actually feel it.” In terms of protecting our environment, the worry is that “these people are not going to be qualified to steward [nature], not being in touch with it, and not knowing what it means to lose it.” Grimm speaks with a palpable sadness, and we can see the potent memory of his experience working with youth on the Clearwater and during NOLS expeditions.
But, ever the optimist, Grimm continues to show us through his work how central and vital our connection with nature can be. And, Grimm maintains his connection to various environmental protection organizations, such as The Woodstock Land Conservancy, by painting pieces to be used as auction centerpieces that attract critical fundraising. Grimm’s home, too, stands as a testament to his passion for protecting our environment. Built out of recycled and repurposed materials and designed to complement the wooded mountainside it rests on, Grimm’s house functions as both an art gallery to display his work, and a work of art to be admired all on its own.
To be sure, it will take more than appreciating works of art imbued with the majesty of our natural world to alter attitudes and environmental policy. And paintings may never be enough to recapture what we have already lost. However, the impact of Calvin Grimm’s art is undeniable: he allows us to understand what, precisely, we are fighting for.
If you are interested in learning more about Calvin Grimm and his art, please visit his website, calvingrimm.com. You can also learn more about the organizations that Calvin Grimm is involved in, including the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), by visiting their websites for more information.