EILEEN HUTTON emphasizes environmental ethics in her art practice. Her collaboration with small birds and honey bees in the creation of nest and hive sculptures is mutually beneficial. She provides her collaborators with the opportunity to do what comes naturally to them for the perpetuation of their species, and, in return, she gets to make that into art. The resulting sculptural objects highlight the beauty of the natural world while emphasizing the wonder that emerges when humans collaborate instead of conquer. Eileen received her PhD in Studio Art from the National University of Ireland in 2012. Her upcoming solo exhibition The Birds and the Bees opens on April 12, 2013 at Siamsa Tíre, the home of the National Folk Theatre of Ireland. Eileen lives in Ballyvaughan, Ireland.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Where did you grow up? Did it have an effect on your interest in ecology and the environmentally conscious work you make now?Eileen Hutton: I grew up in Orange Park, Florida, where it's warm year round. I spent a lot of time outdoors—at the beach, swimming, waterskiing, biking and camping. Looking back, that time definitely helped me develop an appreciation of and contentment with being in the natural world. My interest in ecology and environmental concerns grew naturally and certainly progressed once I started making art. The two disciplines easily overlap as the constant act of questioning and problem solving are central in both the art and scientific communities.
OPP: You have collaborated with Native Irish Black Honey Bees to create honeycomb sculptures and with Great Tits and Blue Tits to create nest sculptures that you exhibit in galleries. The idea of collaborating with animals to make sculptures is fascinating because we don't usually think of animals and insects as having this kind of agency. The work is certainly about a harmony with nature and an emphasis on the awareness of our roles as humans in the world, which makes me curious about the aesthetic decisions you make. How much are the aesthetics of the hives and nests determined by you and how much by the bees and the birds?
EH: That's an interesting question—one I am asked often. The work is conceptually based, but I see myself first and foremost as a maker. It is important for me to have a part in the creation of the sculptures.In the first two nesting seasons, I built the nesting boxes to determine the nests' final hexagonal form so my aesthetic decisions are most evident in the shapes of the finished nests. In the third season, I had a heavier hand in determining the final outcome. I added various materials— colored wool, string, yarn, brightly colored craft feathers, cow and horse hair—inside the boxes, and the birds built their nests among these materials. Or they didn't, and the nests were left abandoned. For me, the birds' building always takes center stage. The intricate weaving and layering of found materials and the soft round hole that they make for cradling eggs always results in a remarkable object. Once I install the nest in the gallery setting, the display plays a large role in how the collaborative relationship is visually expressed. A traditional framed honeycomb is rectangular. But the top bar beehive I built, which looks similar to a watering trough, allows the honeycomb to become much more sculptural in form. The bees are responsible for building the perfect hexagonal cells of the comb, but I unobtrusively move the top bars around to encourage the bees to make unusual forms, such as double tear drop shapes and white crown structures. Once again, the decisions I make about installation, including the addition of sound recordings, are crucial to the experience of the final sculpture. But it is the bees’ architecture and precision that are the most prominent features of the sculptures.
OPP: Did you first learn beekeeping in order to collaborate artistically with the bees or was it a skill you already had that grew into an art project?EH: I decided to learn beekeeping as the result of research on the current plight of the honeybee. An easy way to bolster a priority species' population is to maintain artificial habitats. I knew an art project of some sort would probably develop, but it took about six months before I had any solid idea of what it would be. OPP: You emphasize the ethical environmental implications of creating art and encourage artists to be aware of the environmental impact of their art practices. I think artists should be encouraged to act ethically in other areas as well. I've never liked the attitude that, as artists, we get to do whatever it takes to make our work regardless of the impact on individuals. I'm thinking about work—Sophie Calle's Address Book (1983), for example—that objectifies individuals without considering the emotional impact on them in order to reveal some truth about culture. Do you think this is a symptom of something in the art world specifically, or just representative of how people are in the world in general?EH: I would say that the art world is generally representative and reflective of the world itself. Certainly there are artists whose production methods or ethical contexts are questionable, but there are also artists whose practices are incredibly sensitive, ecologically and socially beneficial and remarkably innovative. Ideally, it is this latter type of work that resonates with people.
OPP: I like that you want to focus on the positive. Who are some artists whose practices have influenced you aesthetically or ethically?EH: Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, as well as Brandon Ballengée, have had considerable influence on my practice. The works of these three artists engender conscientious relationships between humanity and the natural world through ameliorative actions and through the creation of images and objects. For me, it can be difficult to balance my practice so that the work is both centered around the practice of making and extends positively beyond itself into the world.
OPP: Do you have plans to collaborate with any other insects or animals?EH: My next collaboration will be with earthworms—once I receive funding. Earthworms, often overlooked and certainly undervalued, are a priority species and play a variety of vital roles in ecosystems and especially agroecosystems. Through a series of sculptures and drawings, I want to make visible and explicit their critical role. OPP: Can you give us more details on how the collaboration will work?EH: I want to build a series of Evans boxes, which are three-dimmensional, glass-fronted terreria, that measure 80 cm × 31 cm × 1 cm. Inside the boxes, I will compress multiple layers of soils, various organic materials such as leaves, grasses and compost from my surrounding environment. The layers in the boxes create a kind of framed earth drawing or an organic landscape representation. I will then place one or two worms inside the boxes for up to three days. As the earthworms move around the Evans’ boxes, they will create an intricate pattern of tunnels. Removing the front panel of glass, I will then remove the earthworms and release them into designated areas in order to directly benefit—on a modest scale—a surrounding agroecosystem. Finally, I will pour plaster casts into the earthworms’ tunnels. The glass will be replaced to maintain the integrity of the sculptures and earth drawings.
OPP: What are you working on while you wait for funding?EH: For now, I'm working on the next series of nest sculptures—knitting square sweater-like holders in which the birds will build their nests. Lately, the care that drives my practice has a domestic feel to it. We'll see what happens.OPP: Ah! There’s obviously a connection between the labor of the birds and the bees and the history of undervalued labor in feminine handicraft! Will the sweaters be part of the final sculptures or will they be removed like the hexagonal nesting boxes you built? Are you introducing more artificial, crafty colors or mimicking the natural aesthetics of the nests? EH: The sweaters will be an integral part of the nests. The nests made with the birds this past season are prototypes for the upcoming season. Aesthetically, I'm attracted to bright, crafty materials. The birds are normally attracted to muted, organic materials. The juxtaposition of those with the vivid wools I've introduced visually emphasizes the collaborative effort. It allows the work to simultaneously express the contrived and the natural, allowing the to nest exist both as a conceptual and craft-inspired object.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).