Earth to earth

by Victoria Bradford

Staff Writer    

Many students think of the natural area, a protected piece of land across Route 15 from Hoehl, as a secretive, off-limits space. Declan McCabe hopes that a new art exhibit, slowly melting into the earth along the nature paths, will encourage students to explore the land.   

What is art? Can we challenge the ideals of art? These are questions artist Nancy Winship Milliken wants you to walk away with after experiencing her installation “Earth Press Project: Dispatch from Gaia” in the Saint Michael’s College’s natural area.  

Her project is a collaboration with professors Declan McCabe, Brian Collier, and Vermont Poet Laureate Chard deNiord. Five stanzas of deNiord’s poem “Dispatch from Gaia” have been imprinted into blocks made of clay and other materials from the Champlain basin, baked by the sun. Throughout one month, these blocks will break down and return to the natural landscape. 

“Mother’s singing to us now in a loud-soft voice, ‘Put your ear to the air and ground and sea,’” the blocks once read. Walking down to the sculpture’s exhibit, “Mother” is the only legible piece of art left after weeks of rain and scorching heat. 

“We extracted the earth and now it will dissolve back into the earth,” Milliken explained, explaining the meaning of her piece. 

When approached by Collier about a project that promotes sustainability, Milliken, who typically conducts site-specific work, was inspired by the sights and sounds of the natural area surrounded by local flora and fauna.   

“After walking the property with Brian [Collier] and Declan [McCabe], the idea of the transformation of the land, and how changes can happen, I thought should be represented in the work,” Milliken said.

Milliken’s “earth press” approach works through baking the clay and imprinting the words using through pressing in old typeface. 

“If you follow through from beginning to end this particular form of art is extremely sustainable and is literally designed to go back into nature,” said McCabe, who has a lead role in stewarding the natural area and emphasizing sustainability. “Literally if you go down and look, it is falling apart. The rain is just taking it apart grain by grain and it won’t need to be removed  because the weather will literally put it back into the ground. And because it’s native clay, you’re not risking bringing any invasive species in with it,” he said.  

Milliken mentioned the importance of the collaboration between her, Collier, McCabe, students, and other artisans. “One of the outtakes is collaboration and how accessible we are not just by ourselves, and that this project was made with interns and other artisans. We all came together for this project and we’re sort of combining poetry and sculpture and natural resources.” 

Milliken said her piece represents the ephemerality of the earth and our thoughts. She typically doesn’t want the viewer to take something home with them. In other words, she doesn’t want them to anticipate a specific outcome after viewing the art. “I hope it is open-ended and that there’s thought about not only our earth and vulnerability of our earth and of our thoughts and words, but also what is art?” 

“You know this is not a stone sculpture or a steel sculpture that will last forever. It’s challenging the notions of art,” she said. 

You can see the time-lapse of the project’s return to Earth on October 3 in the McCarthy Art Gallery along with a reading by Chard DeNiord.