Teagan White, an artist from Oregon working as a volunteer in various environmental projects, gave an interview to the Ecopoiesis Journal talking about their art and its relationship with nature and environmental issues. They share their experience of co-creation with nature, their perception of death as a part of a holistic cycle of life and transformations of different life forms, and the role of art and creative self-expression for changing people's attitude to nature.
Brief note about the interviewee:
Teagan White is an artist living in Portland, Oregon. They received a BFA in Illustration from the Minneapolis College of Art & Design in 2012 and are a member of the VACVVM illustration collective. Their paintings have been exhibited in dozens of solo and group shows across the United States, and they have worked with Nature Conservancy Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Pangeaseed Foundation, Patagonia, Mondo, Nike, Target, American Greetings, Penguin Random House, and many other magazines and journals. In addition to their nature-related art, Teagan makes picture books and other products for children under the name Tiny Moth Studios, with six books published to date.
During their time in Minneapolis, Teagan was a volunteer in the Avian Nursery at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota. They are currently a member of the University of Washington's Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) and Oregon Shores' CoastWatch, two citizen science projects dedicated to monitoring ecosystem health and public land use and collecting baseline data to help assess patterns of seabird mortality due to natural and human-induced events.
A.D.: Please tell a bit about yourself and your approach in art.
T.W.: I’m a 29 year old artist and illustrator. I grew up in the Midwestern United States (born and raised in Chicago and lived most of my adult life in Minneapolis), and relocated to the Pacific Northwest in 2019. I make detailed, allegorical gouache and watercolor paintings based on my experience with nature, usually depicting animals that appear dead or struggling for survival.
Figure 1 “Least Concern”| 24 "х24" | gouache and watercolor on paper
A.D.: Let’s talk about your relationship with nature. How did it begin and evolve? How would you describe your connection with your land?
T.W.: I can’t pinpoint the exact origins of my affinity with nature, but for as long as I can remember I’ve felt out of place in modern society. As a kid I was less interested in making friends than in reading books about heroic mice and bats, or staring out the window trying to identify the birds I’d memorized from a field guide.
But I grew up within a huge sprawling city, so my relationship with Nature was definitely stunted until I moved to Minneapolis. There I began exploring urban forests, riverbanks and wetlands, taking trips north to Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Finally discovering the private immensity of nature felt like finding a missing piece of myself, or like my soul opening up and pulling everything in so it could all become a permanent part of me: small brittle bones scattered in the dry grass, the shrill shriek of a fox nearby when the moon is high, the ceaseless lap of frigid lake water against a smooth slab of sun-warmed rock, the sagging weight of road kill in my hands, bits of floating ice that clink together like wind chimes until they melt to nothing at the river’s edge.
Figure 2 “Moondance”| 8 "х10" | gouache, watercolor and colored pencil on paper
I get around by bicycle only, which dictates what types of places I have access to, so I primarily experience nature at the fringes of human life. I find beauty in railroad tracks overrun with invasive plants. I internalize the sadness of shorelines dotted with little pieces of styrofoam. There are all these threads of meaning I’m trying to unravel in the indefinable spaces where human activity ends and nature begins. For years I buried every animal I found dead in a bike lane; I feel strong kinship with the “pest” animals that live among us, that have adapted to cities or backyards or distressed remnants of habitat. They help me make sense of my own life.
Figure 3 “Ash” | 6 "х6" | gouache and watercolor on paper
Moving to Oregon was accompanied by a sense of loss; when the land you live on becomes a part of your identity and the way you understand and heal yourself, being uprooted is a little traumatic. But I quickly realized that even if the specific species or ecosystems around me were unfamiliar, I could still relate to them in the same way I always had. I’ve never been very interested in traveling to far-off places or seeking out impressive sights, preferring to choose a small number of places to visit frequently and learn about exhaustively. Like any other relationship, your relationship with a place becomes strong when you show up consistently, when you appreciate its beautiful complexity and stand witness while it changes and grows, when you are personally invested in its health and wellbeing. For me, being in love with a place and the things that live there conjures the same powerfully magical feelings that being in love with a person does, and at times I believe that nature reciprocates that love as well.
A.D.: Tell us about your experience of co-creating with nature.
T.W.: I have a hard time separating what is “art” and what is “nature” — if I’m being honest, I think that my real art in its purest form is the relationship with nature that I’ve cultivated over the years. It exists in the space between nature and myself and shouldn’t need a physical form to justify itself, so the paintings that I make based on it sometimes feel like a disappointing failure of communication. I paint anyway, a little because I enjoy it, a little because I once in a while believe in art’s potential to have a positive effect in the world, and a lot because my pretentious “pure art” has no value under capitalism and won’t translate into food or shelter unless I turn it into something marketable or useful.
These days I don’t so much decide what to draw, as nature asks it of me. I learned a while back that my best work comes from direct experience, and I avoid subject matter that doesn’t emotionally resonate with me. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to see a certain animal or plant in person to draw it, my work isn’t that literal, but it encourages me to put in the time of engaging with nature on a regular basis so that I accumulate experiences that can potentially inspire future work. I've found that when I go to a natural place with an open receptiveness towards what that place might have to teach me that day, I'm answered with an avalanche of incredible experiences and the urgent need to share them somehow.
Figure 4 “Residue (slickness and silt; the body's remains as witness)”| 12"x18" | mixed media on paper
I’m very intentional about allowing nature to be my co-creator, but I’m also cautious about keeping a respectful balance between how much I take and how much I offer back. Besides supporting all our lives, nature has brought me so much joy, is the foundation of my career, and in many ways the art I make relies on the exploitation of the earth’s resources. I don’t think it would be ethical to use plants and animals as my subject matter without recognizing the ways that they are suffering because of us, depicting that with honesty, and using whatever influence or money the art generates to help protect and restore them. Art sometimes seems like an ineffective way to change anything, but when I take on other conservation-related roles — volunteering in songbird rehabilitation, removing invasive species and planting native ones, monitoring beaches to collect data on seabird mortality — some part of those experiences inevitably becomes subject matter for my art, as if my work isn’t complete until I’ve processed it by creating something as well.
A.D.: I can see that the theme of life and death/the cycle of life inspires you a lot. Can you tell us why it is important for you?
T.W.: Themes emerge in my work when I’m fixated on a concept that is new to me, and need to spend time looking at it from different angles to decide how I feel about it and integrate the conclusions with my larger understanding of the world around me and my place in it.
When I was first becoming more familiar with the natural world, I was struck by how often I encountered death all around, and particularly by its unthreatening beauty. Most of us are taught to assign all sorts of negative qualities to death, to see it as ugly and as an end to something, and all of these perspectives betray a total lack of understanding of the harmonious cycle of life and death. So for a while I was fixated on depicting my revised understanding of death as part of an intricate and life-sustaining system that I’m overjoyed to be a part of.
But over time my attention shifted to the deaths that could not be as easily celebrated: road kill, pest animals that are shot or poisoned for our convenience, the ones we treat with cruel indifference because they are only food, the forests we strip for lumber or clear for farmland, the native plants displaced for prettier and more useless species. Here the concept of a cycle is broken, and death is a sentence passed down by the unchecked power of a species that kills based on value judgments rather than need, kills not within sustainable limits but with the goal of extermination or with a heedless gluttony that consumes until there is nothing left; it's a barreling towards doom. As I learn more about the land I live on, I see fewer healthy cycles playing out and more irregularities triggered by collapsing ecosystems, poisoned air and water, human-fueled disasters, and climate breakdown. Each death I stumble across comes with uncertainty — is this one natural, or did we cause it in some way? So now when I draw death, I really do connect with the sadness and horror that society told me I should associate with it all along. But the death isn’t what’s scary. What’s scary is seeing the places you love dearly fall apart before your eyes, and to feel complicit in their destruction. Ultimately, death itself isn’t really my subject matter anymore, but has become a shorthand visual language that I’m trying to use to portray our entire human relationship with nature, to process my guilt and hold myself accountable, and to focus my mourning on something smaller and less overwhelming.
Figure 5 “Hollow Bodies”| 11 "x14" | gouache, watercolor and colored pencil on paper
A.D.: How do you think relations between society and nature/environment should develop in the future? What is the role of creative expression in this development?
T.W.: We need societies that are aligned with the land they live on, that respect the intrinsic value of nature irrespective of its usefulness to humans, and that understand that a realignment of human activity with nature is not only essential for the survival of our species but also a cure to all sorts of problems we have as individuals and as a community. There are indigenous cultures that have held onto these truths, but they are met with violent repression instead of looked to for leadership, and I don't know if any progress can be made until we undo the legacy of capitalism, settler colonialism, patriarchy, and anthropocentrism.
Figure 6 “The Restless Sea” | 16 "х 20" | gouache, watercolor and colored pencil on paper
My partner and I sometimes laugh about Thoreau, who complained in the 1800s about fences being built around private property… Wouldn’t it be nice if fences were the worst of our worries? What would Thoreau have to say about oil pipelines, or plastic islands in the sea? But really, he was right to fixate on the fences, because the direst problems in the world today are all symptoms of the same worldview that created the concept of property. You can’t just tell people not to put up fences; we need cultures of people who have a strong enough relationship with nature to intuitively understand that the very concept of a fence to keep people out or claim ownership over something that can never be yours is evil, who would never have the desire to build one in the first place.
I do think art can have a role to play in developing this kind of understanding in the world. Big changes of perspective only happen if they originate in a place of subjective truth, which can’t be dictated by scientific fact or an authoritative code of ethics. I think art can stir the emotional part of the brain that needs to be activated for you to take personal responsibility for a problem, instead of leaving it for someone else to solve.
A.D.: Do you see any possible ways to overcome our estrangement from nature?
T.W.: It’s incredibly difficult for anyone living in a developed country or a culture that has lost its grounding in the ecology of their region, because the estrangement is so deeply ingrained and all-encompassing, and we’ve virtually lost all frames of reference for what a healthy relationship with nature would even look like. For me it comes in waves… Sometimes I feel an intense, blissful sense of understanding of and belonging to nature, and sometimes I feel intensely foolish and embarrassed for thinking I know much of anything or that I'm anything but a burden to the Earth. But I think that’s a good combination of things to feel. One gives you purpose, and one wills you to action. Maybe the estrangement is not something we need to overcome, but something we need to exist inside of and allow it to motivate us. If you’re even aware that you are estranged from nature, that’s a good first step, because it means you’re listening, and if you listen hard enough, I think you’ll hear your own sorrow wrapped up in the sorrow of the Earth, and recognize that the only way to heal yourself is by working towards healing the world.
Figure 7 “Racket”| 14 "x14" | gouache, watercolor and colored pencil on paper
Note: Teagan White’s works can also be seen on their website. https://www.teaganwhite.com
and in instagram https://www.instagram.com/teaganwh/
About the interviewer: Dvornikova Alexandra
self-employed artist (St. Petersburg, Russian Federation)
Reference for citations
Dvornikova A.V. Featured artists – interview with Teagan White.Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 2020, 1(1). – URL: http://ecopoiesis.ru(d/m/y)
“Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice” is the first international multidisciplinary Journal focused on building an eco-human paradigm, disseminating eco-human knowledge and technology based on the alliance of ecology, humanities and the arts. Our journal aims to be a vibrant forum of theories and practices aimed at harmonizing the relations of mankind and the natural world in the interests of sustainable development, the creation of Eco-Humanity as a new community of human beings and more-than-human world. The human being is an ecological being, not separate from the world. The Ecopoiesis journal is based on that premise and aims to develop a body of theory and practice within that framework.
The Journal promotes dialogue and cooperation between ecologists, philosophers, doctors, educators, psychologists, artists, musicians, designers, social activists, business representatives in the name of eco-human values, human health and well-being, in close connection with concern for the environment. The Journal supports the development and implementation of new environmentally-friendly concepts, technologies and practices in the various fields of health and public life, education and social work.
One of the priority tasks of the Journal is to demonstrate and support the significant role of the arts in their alliance with ecology and the humanities for the restoration and development of constructive relations with nature, raising environmental awareness and promoting nature-friendly lifestyles.
The Journal publishes articles describing new eco-human concepts and practices, technologies and applied research data at the intersection of humanities, ecology and the arts, as well as interviews and conference reports related to the emerging eco-human field. It encourages artwork, music and other creative products related to eco-human practices and the new global community of Eco-Humanity.