[The environment] is most definitely an urgent issue to the people of all nations, and getting more urgent the longer everything continues in the old ways, but so far the corporate influence on policy has prevented any meaningful action.
Portland, Oregon based artist, Bruce Conkle, combines natural phenomenon such as snow, fire, crystals, trees and tree burls into his artwork to bring attention to the environment and human kind’s relationship with nature, climate change, deforestation, and extinction.
What originally propelled you to incorporate environmental themes in your artwork?
Since I was quite young I have been interested in science, nature, and politics, and where these three areas converge is the environment. As thoughts on those topics reverberate in my head and influence my dreams, they find their way into the creative process.
You incorporate tree burls in many of your pieces. What is a tree burl and why do you find them so intriguing?
Burls are not harmful to the trees, they usually occur in places where damage or stress has occurred and they seem more like a healing signifier or scar. Trees may or may not be aware of what they are making when they create the burls, but somehow they manifest these amazing shapes and that fascinates me. It strikes me as similar to how some humans display an individual desire or need to create art; a tree with initiative or with some particular itch can be quite prolific. The burls can be simultaneously beautiful and hideous and erotic and grotesque protuberances and ornate orifices. The gilded burls represent the ultimate expression of Eco-Baroque- an ideology that Marne Lucas and I came up with to frame naturally occurring beauty that is decorative and extravagant.
For the record I would like to mention that I use maple and oak burls from a trustworthy source, and I have never used a redwood burl.
Your Burls Will Be Burls public sculpture body of work, which can be seen at the Portland Mall in Portland, Oregon, symbolizes the extinction of the snowman. How does that message manifest in this series?
The figurative works in that series came about after seeing some trees in a spruce burl forest that resembled snowmen forms inhabiting spruce trees on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. There are a few different theories for how these might come about, but the one I like the best is that the snowmen were built near these trees, and as the snow melts the spirit of the snowman travels in the melted water and nourishes a nearby tree where the spirit coalesces, in a similar way that the burls form.The bases for these pieces are stumps that were made out of disposable paper products. They represent chopped tree trunks as monuments to the trees cut down to make the paper used in their creation.
Another version of the theme is the freezer pieces as artificial life support, a way to keep things inanimate. I was recently in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and there is a mummy on display that is on some sort of negative life support system, where it is in an enclosed space pumped full of some inert gas, in an attempt to keep the mummy dead.
It has recently been reported that 2015 was our warmest year on record and experts are forecasting 2016 could top that. In theory, the extinction of the snowman is not an unfathomable idea. How are you able to conceptualize cute, whimsical and magical imagery with such sad and horrible concepts?
It is a tragicomedy unfolding before our eyes. The humor you see is nervous laughter as my own anxiety gets processed.
You and fellow artist, Marne Lucas, were invited to take part in Land Art sculptural, video and photography installations in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert as part of the 2nd Land Art Biennial Mongolia 360°. You applied gold foils to the ancient desert rocks. What did the gold set against the desert’s terrain represent?
Marne and I took part in an environmental, political, land art biennial in the Gobi Desert. This was in an extremely remote and beautiful area called Ikh Gazriin Chuluu, which translates to “land of great stones”. In the Gobi Desert there is a mining frenzy taking place now for copper, silver, and gold. Companies are destroying the land to extract as much sellable material as possible as fast and cheap as they can. And of course with this flow of money you get all the corruption and pollution that comes with that scale of operation. We found a rock formation that has a very delicate balancing act going on, and proceeded to gild portions of it. This work addresses the fragile balance of the ecosystem there and acknowledges the value of the land and water with the metals buried underneath and nomads with all their animals able to live there part of the year, with the monetary value of those extracted metals that causes so much environmental degradation and the land becomes toxic and unfit for habitation.
Your Moon Tree public sculpture is a tribute to the Douglas fir planted on the State Capitol grounds in Salem, Oregon. The tree was germinated from one of the hundreds of seeds astronaut Stuart Roosa carried with him as he orbited the moon in 1971 in the Apollo 14 Lunar Command Module. What is the significance of the Moon Tree to you?
The Moon Trees represent optimism about technology and the outlook for the future, which is rare to have these days. Impressive to think that this tree we can all walk over and touch has orbited the moon.
Your Moon Tree is smiling. Why is it happy?
It is happy to be a space traveler and to have visited the moon.
You have shown your work all over the world. Do you find other countries are more or less concerned than the United States about protecting and preserving the environment?
Not at all. I mean, yes there is a lot of awareness and concern among the general civilian populations of many countries, and in most reasonable nations the scientific community’s voice would take precedence over gun toting bible thumpers, but the governments and corporations and wealthy individuals merely pay lip service to the issue. The U.N. Climate Summit in Paris (also known as COP21) recently agreed on targets that are impossible to achieve, but the political delegates felt good about reaching an agreement knowing full well that those in power are non-responsive to the task.
Does having your work commissioned as both permanent and non-permanent public sculptures all over the world give you hope that preserving the environment has become a more urgent issue to global society?
It is most definitely an urgent issue to the people of all nations, and getting more urgent the longer everything continues in the old ways, but so far the corporate influence on policy has prevented any meaningful action.
What are you presently working on?
Traveling and sketching when I can, making test pieces and preparations for an upcoming exhibition titled Surface Glitch, which will have sculptures and drawings and a Pepto-Bismol fountain.
You can see more of Bruce Conkle’s work here:
Bruce Conkle declares an affinity for mysterious natural phenomenon such as snow, fire, rainbows, crystals, volcanos, tree burls, and meteorites. He examines contemporary attitudes toward the environment, including deforestation, climate change, and extinction.
Conkle’s work often deals with man’s place within nature, and frequently examines what he calls the “misfit quotient” at the crossroads.
His work has shown around the world, including Reykjavik, Ulaanbaatar, Rio De Janeiro, New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Seattle, and Portland.
Recent projects include public art commissions for the Oregon Department of Transportation, TriMet/MAX Light Rail, and Portland State University’s Smith Memorial Student Union Public Art + Residency.
In 2011 Bruce received a Hallie Ford Fellowship and in 2010 and an Oregon Arts Commission Artist Fellowship. His 2012 show Tree Clouds was awarded a project grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.
Hallie Ford Fellowship in the Visual Arts recipient 2011
Magic Chunks received a Project Grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council in 2010
Tree Clouds received a Project Grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council in 2012
Surface Glitch received a Project Grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council in 2016