Written by Ysabel Gana
For many of us, our first experience in appreciating landscape art was probably while we were making it ourselves. Maybe it was as a kid in class, interpreting nature’s subtleties into wild incoherent scribbles and having the essential “sun with sunglasses” peeking through the corner of the page, or maybe it was in rearranging fallen leaves and branches into makeshift installations (forts) or adorning yourself in wildflowers, transforming them into ephemeral jewelry.There is something so universal about finding childlike inspiration from the natural landscape.
When we enjoy the landscape, in person and through art, we are given the gift to slow down and just observe. These observations can be incredibly personal, or reassuring in the simple affirmation: “look, I exist, isn’t that amazing?” Maybe it's just me, and that all of this just sounds like me waxing poetic about looking at plants, maybe my take is a bit silly and that’s ok! I believe that even if we all observe the same landscape, everyone takes away something different - and we’re all the better for it.
I think this is the power that landscape art has. It’s easy to visualize this genre of art as this monolithic image of maybe Van Gogh or Monet artistically painting what they see, or possibly the ubiquitous hotel art landscapes that looks like it came out of a Bob Ross episode, but the landscape has its own story to tell - and when we view or make art inspired by it, its story becomes intertwined in our own.
As Alison Cuddy from NPR describes, it's easy to see a landscape as something that appears in front of us “[that] landscapes are something we see. But, that definition has significant limitations: it limits us to the surface and to the present.”
When we look at landscapes as containing their own stories, it also allows us to consider how we situate ourselves within it. How do I feel when I look at this landscape? Can we see ourselves in these spaces? What histories unfold when we really consider the landscape and who gets to tell these stories? What emerges when we imagine what lies beyond the work’s/the view’s boundaries?
Every landscape depicts a space that is constantly changing, whether it's immediately visible or not. Cuddy elaborates that “Past events, stories, and legends, also shape a landscape’s identity. And what is underground, be it literally or figuratively, gives a landscape its character.”
It's humbling to view the landscape as something separate yet intertwined with our own existence, and that there exists a reciprocal relationship in how we are molded by the landscape and how we affect it - that we have a responsibility to the spaces we inhabit and to learn about the histories of the spaces we continue to shape.
As Robin Wall Kimmerer teaches in the book Braiding Sweetgrass, “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”