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Sustainable Missoula: Reflecting on art through reclaimed materials

Untitled, 31 x 47 ½”. Materials: canvas drop cloth, wood, latex house paint, leather, wire, staples, graphite, rabbit fluff. (Stella Nall)

As 2020 comes to a close, many of us are taking time to reflect and process. What this looks like is a little different for each of us; some folks talk through their feelings, some are introspective, some journal, some create, and some do a mixture of these and other things. For me, I have found art to be an incredibly useful tool for reflection – especially at the end of such a tumultuous year.

Art – the intention, the process, and the results – are how the lived experience of various emotions can be drawn out of us. The coming together of physical movement, connection to materials, and generation of ideas metabolizes difficult emotions, such as grief, and transforms it into something new – something that gives insight and wisdom rather than being stuck in the realm of pain alone. This is an important way to gain resiliency and sustain ourselves, our community, and our world.

One artistic experience, in particular, illustrates these concepts. This past summer I participated in the place-based Artist-in-Residence program Open AIR. This program connects artists with culturally, historically, and ecologically significant locations through collaborative partnerships in Western Montana. My residency site was Home ReSource, the building materials reuse store and community sustainability center in Missoula.

I was initially drawn to Home ReSource because I try to work sustainably as an artist and do my best to limit the new materials consumed in my creating process. I was blown away by all of the awesome recycled, donated and reclaimed stuff at Home ReSource – each time I stepped foot on-site, I was inspired by the colors, textures and artistic possibilities that surrounded me! I spent my days working up in the loft which hovers above the retail space of the store, and used my time there to explore new materials and processes.

One of the bodies of work that I further developed during the residency is a series of large scale abstract paintings. I created them primarily with reclaimed materials from Home ReSource, including latex house paint, staples, steel wool, radiator mesh, power cables, wire, and more. Not only is repurposing these materials a sustainable way to create art, it is a demonstration of the potential, value, and beauty of materials. And, most significantly for me, it is an outlet to process complex emotions, including ecological grief.

I began to refer to these paintings as ‘process pieces’ for this exact reason – because they helped me work through my feelings. For this body of work, the experience of creating is more important to me than the final product. I prefer working on a large scale because of the way it forces my body to literally move across the surface to progress the imagery; I feel that this helps me to become fully immersed in the process.

“Her”, 23 x 35”. Materials: latex house paint, shop rag, staples, graphite on vinyl wallpaper. (Stella Nall)

Each piece stems from an experience, emotion or impactful time in my life. I begin by thinking of the very first memory of the matter, and then work forward through all of the thoughts, recollections and emotions up until the present. I work on a given piece until I feel as though I have thought all there is to think about it, or at least until I have found some sort of peace within myself about it.

In addition to using these paintings to sort through my personal life, I believe that making them enables me to deeply invest energy into my other work as a studio artist. Many of the thematic concerns which I address are emotionally difficult to engage with (loss and grief, environmental degradation, mental illness, love, contemporary impacts of settler colonialism, racism, identity). I often make these ‘process pieces’ concurrently with other my projects, and it (usually) keeps me from getting too overwhelmed about the issues I think about in the studio.

When I first started making these pieces I viewed them through the psychoanalytic theory as a form of sublimation. I initially thought of them as a way to disappear my emotional pain. They can still be viewed through this lens, but I now see them a bit differently. Rather than to dissipate anxieties and sorrows, I look at these paintings as a way to enflesh them into something that I can see and touch. By giving body to difficult emotions, they become more tangible, and as such are easier for me to understand.

I don’t know whether there is palpable magic in the process of painting, or if healing comes simply by allowing myself the space to think. Either way, these paintings have been instrumental for me in maintaining balance in my life while navigating mental illness and challenging circumstances. This is the very root of sustainability. Finding and leveraging these mechanisms of reflection is essential if we are to live harmoniously with each other and the natural world.

The resolution I find in this work isn’t always permanent. This process, like many systems in nature, is cyclical. If I find myself worrying about something again, I return to the creative process once again.

Stella Nall is a Montana artist and poet. She recently completed a residency at Home ReSource through Open AIR. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

As COVID-19 has altered many community events, some have moved on-line or found creative outlets. Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

Through April. Missoula Valley Winter Market. Located in the Southgate Mall (in former Lucky’s Market). Market hours: Saturdays, 9am-2pm through April 17. Also open Wednesdays from 4:30-7pm through December 30th.

Now until it’s gone: Buy a beer to support Climate Smart Missoula! Imagine Nation Brewing collaborated with Climate Smart Missoula to brew “Silver Linings,” a New England style IPA to celebrate finding the silver linings even when skies are dark and daunting. The beer will be available starting 12/4 until it sells out. Purchase the beer at Imagine Nation, the Good Food Store, and Worden’s. $1 of every 4-pack goes to support Climate Smart’s work.

December 13 – February 13 (dates added periodically). Virtual Fixit Clinics. Want to try fixing from home? Present your broken item to a global team of expert community repairers and get suggestions for things to try. After all items are presented, participants move to Zoom breakout rooms to implement the suggestions and, hopefully, fix the items.

December 19. Missoula Christmas bird count. This annual event is organized by Five Valleys Audubon Society and led by Larry Weeks. Contact Larry at bwsgenea@gmail.com or call 549-5632 for more information.

December 21. Winter Solstice Event: Rekindling our Commitment to a Brighter Future, hosted by Families for a Livable Climate and Climate Smart Missoula. On the shortest day of the year, gather with your household on your porch or yard to welcome the return of the light! We’ll join as a community – physically apart, but together – to rekindle our commitment to building a brighter future and share our Climate Resolutions for 2021. We’ll feature resolutions in the January 1 Sustainable Missoula Column and compile photos/videos into an inspiring vision for our community as we head into 2021. More info on how to participate is HERE.

Find more activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar.