Essay: Understanding Art Through Nature
Much of my work in the Visual Arts is centered on understanding and creating compositions derived from the exploration of patterns and organizing dynamics in Landscape, to better explore the themes of change and transformation in the world and in us.
“Nature is an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws. She hums the old well-known air through innumerable variations.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘History’ essays
What attracts me to this study is the way in which differing forces are reconciled, and how fixed and seemingly static states succeed in incorporating differences in endless variety, using only a simple set of rules and dynamics. I am fascinated by how natural systems can adapt and rearrange their own structures to account for new forces and thereby establish new orders. Patterning is the mechanism for how new orders can grow out of older orders, but can also incorporate them into the new paradigm. It seems evident to me that this is the exact process by which culture itself is created. Patterns in nature become formed or revealed by instabilities introduced by external forces to a system of relative equilibrium or symmetry. This area of study is called ‘phase transitions’ in the modern science of thermodynamics. It includes the study of various patterns that arise in matter or energy in an attempt to reconcile opposing forces: they include vortices, branching, fracturing, crackling, cellular, concentra, ripple, contornare, polygonal, nubilous, phyllotaxy, labyrinthine, vermiculate, fractal, etc… While this field is being explored in thermodynamic science, only a few older civilizations ever sought to extol these patterns within the Visual Arts. The ancient Chinese landscape painters of the Taoist lineages are a notable example. The old Chinese sages used the term ‘li’ which meant ‘natural principle’. Li eventually became a standard study for ink painters and scholar-artists, arguably reaching its highest expression with the mountain landscape painters of the Sung dynasty in the 11th and 12th centuries.
“Speaking of painting in its finest essentials, one must read widely in the documents and histories, ascend mountains, and trace rivers to their source, and only then can one create one’s idea’s.” – K’un-ts’an,, (Zen painter 14th century)
For many years now I have been studying these processes as the requisite research to developing a personal approach to abstract painting and organic design. To that end, I have been studying these principles by direct observation and primary experience. This has led me to travel and study the land in vast, remote wilderness preserves and National Parks throughout North America. Such wilderness ecosystems have included old-growth forests, tide-pools, alpine mountaintops, wetlands, high and low deserts, salt flats, cliff erosions, dry plains, canyons, underground cavern complexes, coastal ranges, and volcanic formations, among others. I have also collected and published my analysis into several volumes of photography, which describe sets of visual correspondences in natural forms across differing ecosystems. In a sense therefore, all my work is ‘earth-centered’ and ecology-inspired, be it in the synthetic art of painting, the analytic art of photography, or in the application of organic design. My concern artistically is of approaching the subject of landscape as dynamic and abstract, yet the underlying idea has always been broadly one of transformation, transmutation, and change from one state of being into another.
“The equilibrium phase transition, like the abrupt transitions that characterize much of pattern formation are spontaneous, global, and often symmetry breaking changes of state that happen when a threshold is broken.”- Philip Ball (The Self Made Tapestry)
The transformation from one state to another is the basis of all such ‘alchemy’, and change itself is really the only universal constant. All matter on our beautiful Earth once existed inside the fiery belly of some distant star. So creation is not really a matter of purity versus impurity, as those old alchemists thought. More simply, it is a change in the organizing systems. In this way, the universe creates itself. The more this is grasped, the more interconnection we will feel with Great Nature. This interconnection is one that every age must rediscover for itself in its own language. Every generation of poets and artists must sing these songs anew.
“I believe now there is no school worth its existence except as it’s a form of nature study — true nature study — dedicated to that first, foremost, and all the time. Man is a phase of nature, and only as he is related to nature does he really matter…”
-Frank Lloyd Wright. (Education and Art on Behalf of Life)
So what are the implications of such a message? What is the point of researching Nature and then pictorially describing the phase transitions of one elegant pattern engaging another in space? The purpose is to convey and speak eloquently of the change we are all a part of, and then attempt to convey it in humanistic and poetic terms through the Visual Arts. The message for this civilization is that we are still evolving, still in a change-state, as is all of nature. Furthermore, this transition is intrinsic and interconnected to our very being.
We are an expression of Great Nature. I believe Art can be a noble means of reminding us of this understanding. A reconnection with this knowledge is urgent in our current age. Our ecological ignorance is threatening our collective future on this planet. By using the poetic language of Art to speak to others of the dynamic forces in nature, I am attempting to remind them of their own deep but perhaps unaware connection. In an age of global warming, floating garbage islands, and undersea oil geysers, we need to become aware of our relationship to our living planet in more conscious way, and I believe Art to be a very powerful vehicle for this message.
[Justyn Zolli, 2010]