My Emerging Eco Art Practice — Exploring the interrelationships between urban ecology, climate change and COVID-19

Quadrat Project 1

While doing my master’s program in Art History, I wanted to take a different slant on art revealing the harms of industrial animal agriculture – my long-term art and writing focus (see Formulating my thesis statement for my major research project (sort of like a thesis but without the defence), I discovered ecocriticism and eco-art.

Ecocriticism is a relatively new discipline within the humanities and is an umbrella term for a range of critical approaches that explore the representation of the relationship between the human and the non-human or the human and ‘nature.’ Although ecocriticism took form at the beginning of the 1990s in the arts and literature, it is still not widely acknowledged in contemporary visual art and art history.

The term “Eco Art” was first used in 1989 by Felix Guattari to describe the new practice of revealing environmental concerns of the planet to society, drawing on the root of eco from Oikos, Greek meaning “house, domestic property, habitat, natural milieu.” Some artists were actually making eco-art since the 1960s. According to Mark Cheetham in Landscape to Eco Art, eco-art has become a way of structuring a wide variety of contemporary art practices that engage the conundrum of what individuals can do in responding to ecological and environmental issues in the Anthropocene.

In light of the growing environmental concerns and the climate crises, many academics and artists, myself included, may indeed be working ecocritically without knowing much, if anything, about it. When I finished writing my MRP — “Mishka Henner’s Feedlots: New Perspectives on the Contemporary Ecocritical Landscape” — I felt like I had found my niche. While I remain an animal advocate, I have shifted my art practice towards ecology.

While the apprehension of COVID-19 was growing, it was not until mid-March that the lock-down took effect. As art galleries, art classes and even my printmaking studio closed down, I decided to begin an eco-art project at home. I launched the “Quadrat Journal: An eco-art project that will (somehow) integrate ecology, geospatial representation, pandemics and social/ physical distancing” on March 27, 2020.

Wanting to refresh and update my knowledge of ecology for my new eco-art practice, I came across the “quadrat,” an ecological tool for measuring population densities of species in a given area. My original idea was to carry my newly constructed quadrat around and take pictures through it to add a spatial lens. I did this for a couple of days but it was awkward so I decided just to photograph my backyard. I started taking five square iPhone pics everyday—two of my garden, one of the lawn and two of the Ottawa River at the end of my backyard. At the same time, as I come across interesting ecological news item or other things I want to research, I would make a new slide in my journal. In it I cover a range of topics from pandemic movies, alien species, biological and viral classification systems, to herd immunity and personality factors in social distancing. I also talk a lot about critters in the backyard.

SOAP-POOP Meets the Urban Water System

Inspired by artist Maria Gomez Umana’s foray into soap-making that resembled poop, I decided to extend my current project on urban ecology to take a closer look at Ottawa’s water purification and wastewater treatment systems.

We partnered with the Unstuck Collective, who were curating a Culture Days event outdoors at NECTAR — the New Edinburgh Community and Arts Centre, 255 MacKay Street, on Saturday, September 26, 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM. See An Unexpected Intersection: Soap Meets Poop for more details.

Unlike Maria, who made her soap-poop from scratch, I reworked some old soap, candle wax and the ends of tubes of acrylic paint from which I modelled my soap-poop. 

Beth Shepherd, Soap-Poop Sculptures, 2020 (Soap (oils, lye, fragrance), wax, acrylic paint)

Then soap-poop in hand, I headed off to the Britannia Water Filtration Plant to take some pictures. A few days later I went to the Robert O. Pickard Environmental Centre where all Ottawa’s wastewater is treated. Finally I biked to the Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant and took some more pictures with my soap-poop. The map shows the three facilities located on the Ottawa River.

Beth Shepherd, Ottawa Urban Hydrologic System Map (Composite rendition of screenshots from Google Earth, 24 X 36 inches, ink on paper encased in plastic

In keeping with a theme a conversations in a relaxed outdoor living room setting, I decided to present my work in the form of a “coffee table book” to inspire conversation. My coffee table book contains the photographs I took, an Ottawa Urban Hydrologic System map and a related article I wrote on the relationships between water, soap, poop, COVID-19 and climate change. Visitors could sit and flip through the COVID-friendly pages (all in plastic and wipeable) while we had very interesting conversations.

Unexpected Intersections: SOAP-POOP Meets the Urban Water System, A Coffee Table Book, by Beth Shepherd (Photo: Karina Simpatico)

The event went very well and the weather was great.

Nancy Baele and Petra Halkes, of the Unstuck Connective, in conversation
The Soap Meets Poop event at NECTAR September 26, 2020 (Photo: Karina Simpatico)

A number of people took the opportunity to browse though my coffee table book. Ian Allen read the whole thing and even caught some typos, which hopefully I have corrected in the posted version (below).

Ian Allen reading the coffee table book, September 26, 2020 (Photo: Beth Shepherd)

Maria began making her own soap to try to reduce consumer plastic. I found it ironic that in making my eco-art exhibition suitable for the out-of-doors and COVID-friendly, everything was covered in plastic! After visitors flipped through one copy of the coffee table book, I disinfected it by wiping the cover and each page with an alcohol cleaner.

Wiping down the coffee table books between uses (Photo: Rene Price)

All the images I took for this project are imbedded in the revised document.