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Kentucky and changes in environmental thinking

By Rachel Frank

Editor’s Note: This post continues our series featuring KMAC Triennial artists. The KMAC Triennial, on view through December 1, 2019, brings together twenty artists who spent formative years in Kentucky.  Comprised of artworks that preserve certain traditions like weaving, crocheting, drawing, painting, and ceramics, the Triennial also includes the newer territories of conceptual photography, video, sound, installation and performance.

Near where I grew up in northern Kentucky, there have been several historical events and places that triggered major radical shifts in our understanding of the environment, natural history, extinction, and our role as humans. The history and impacts of these environmental shifts have greatly influenced my artistic practice and the work I made for the KMAC Triennial. 

Vessels, 2017, Single-channel HD video still with sculptural woolly mammoth mask,

8:23 minute total running time

Big Bone Lick State Park in Boone County is known as the birthplace of American vertebrate paleontology. Once the site of a salt lick, the area is famous for the numerous Pleistocene (Ice Age) era megafauna fossils found there, which were first documented by European explorers in the late 1700s. The discovery of large tusks, teeth, and fossilized bones of unknown species caused a stir in the western scientific community at the time. During this period, it was commonly believed that the earth was a constant; species neither changed in shape or form over time nor went extinct. Some bones, like mammoth fossils found at the site, resembled animals already known to science, such as elephants, while others were from unknown creatures.

Benjamin Franklin noted that it was strange to find the remains of elephants in a “winter country” when they were known to live in places with hot climates. Many people, including Thomas Jefferson, believed if explorers travelled far enough westward they would find such animals still living on the continent. The particular discovery of giant jagged teeth and tusks of what is now known to be a mastodon helped lead to what were once radical and controversial concepts —evolution and extinction — and aided in understanding past climatic time periods of the planet.

Mastodon Tooth (Big Bone Lick), 2019, Stoneware ceramic with glazes, embedded video monitor with video Offering Rituals for the Future, 3.75 x 18.5 x 11.75"

Across the Ohio River from Kentucky at the Cincinnati Zoo is the Passenger Pigeon Memorial, a commemorative pavilion dedicated to Martha, the last known passenger pigeon who died at the zoo in 1914. Less than a century before her death, the passenger pigeon was the most numerous bird species in North America, if not the world. Almost mythical in its abundance, flocks of migrating passenger pigeons were so large they darkened the sky and took hours to fly overhead. Landing to roost on trees, their great numbers would sometimes take down whole branches with their collective weight. In the mid-1800s, European settlers launched massive hunting campaigns against the birds, luring them with decoys, burning their roosts with sulfur, or simply shooting them out of the sky. The birds were so abundant it was impossible to believe humans could have any impact on their numbers, much less cause their extinction. As the population rapidly disappeared, some people thought the birds had flown to South America, or that humans had not caused their extinction and they had instead drowned themselves in the Pacific Ocean. By the early 1900s, captive flocks failed to produce enough young to save the species, and on September 1, 1914, Martha died at the Cincinnati Zoo, the last of her species. The rapid disappearance of billions of birds in such a short time span has become an environmental parable of sorts and led to major shifts in environmental thinking: nature could no longer be viewed as inexhaustible resource and humans were capable of directly causing the extinction of a species. 

Offering Vessels: Indicator Lichen and Fungus Lekythos with offering cups, Indicator Milk Snake Kernos, Indicator Alligator Snapping Turtle Shell Kernos, 2019, Stoneware ceramic with glazes

It may be surprising to learn that the Kentucky region was so instrumental in these seismic leaps in environmental thinking, but both of these local places and events aided in our knowledge and understanding of the natural world and our role within it. Today, skepticism around climate change and humankind’s impact on the planet is the issue that parallels the early disbelief around these historical events and discoveries. Like the decline of the passenger pigeon, we may not immediately be aware of the changes in the climate or manmade impacts on various plants and animals, but many species, such as reptiles and amphibians, insects, and lichen are showing early indications of the effects of climate change and pollution in ecosystems. Some of these “indicator species” native to Kentucky are presented at KMAC in the form of ceramic Eurasian offering vessels. 

As I think of the familiar night cacophony of cicadas, katydids, and spring peepers outside my window in Kentucky, it’s difficult to think some of these species are at risk of disappearing.  It is my hope the artworks in this exhibition can acknowledge the role the Kentucky region has played in environmental understanding and point to a future role in seismic change for action around climate change and conservation of species and ecosystems. 


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