EcoPsychology and Art
by Amy Lenzo

'Boscawen' © by Christopher Castle
(see more of his work in the Image Section of this issue)

"Art is our oldest and richest form of environmental awareness. The earliest artistic expressions we know (the great Paleolithic cave paintings and Neolithic ceremonial sites) are celebrations of natural wonder. Long before science, art and religion were viewed as separate realms, these works constellated the keenest knowledge our ancestors possessed of the heavens and the Earth".
-Theodore Roszak

Once upon a time in human history, ‘art’ was so much a part of the human experience that there wasn’t even a word to differentiate it as a separate sphere of activity. Whatever our race or ethnicity, we can each trace our origins to this early period, when cultures over the entire geographic spectrum held several elements in common. Food, eating utensils, clothing, shelter, ceremonial objects – everything we needed to live- was fashioned by hand, made from materials bountiful within our environment. The human spirit has always recognized the sacred, and our original culture valued and utilized the ability to interpret reality and communicate our understandings to each other via ritual and symbol. Our lives were led in accordance with natural principles, and reflected an immediate relationship with the natural world.

I start with this fairy tale beginning, not to unfavorably compare our modern lives with some impossible lost paradise, but to point out the intertwined roots of these two complex and multi-dimensional words: ‘art’ and ‘ecopsychology’, in order to find where their current relevance to each other might be.

Although we all still live within the natural world, most of us have traveled far from the place where we recognize our relationship with it. There are indigenous peoples all over the world, however, that still operate from our original, natural ecopsychological perspective when they create the ‘indigenous arts’ which are practical and beautiful elements of their lives. A rug, blanket, basket; a piece of jewelry, or a map; a mask, or other ceremonial or healing piece- these pieces start as integral components of life within a specific culture and often end up being sold in galleries, within other contexts, in other cultures. But when they were first created, each of them connected their maker, and those who used them, to the matrix of beauty and sustenance found naturally in the world around us.

In addition to this direct practical relationship with art, in all historical periods there has also been art that has sustained and nurtured humanity on a psychic level. Much of this art, too, has been derived from (or enhanced by) our relationship with the natural world. Editor Donna Seaman, in her introduction to the new anthology of fiction, In our Nature: Stories of Wildness, recognizes this when she says:

"The arts, humanity’s flowers, are inextricably rooted in the wild. Our symbols, myths, sacred texts, songs, stories and poems are as inlaid with nature-based metaphors as a meadow is with wildflowers."

Both Art and Ecopsychology are concerned with attention, with perception and imagination, and they share a common language- the language of the senses. In the making of art, and the experiencing of it—whether one is viewing, reading, feeling, tasting, listening to, or empathetically ‘connecting with’—we are fine-tuning the sensual media we are all born with. Art is an innate and natural human activity.

In many cultures today, art is seen as the product of a rare commodity, talent, which is parceled out to ‘special’ people under ‘special’ conditions. Either that, or it is depicted as a fool’s pursuit. But the truth is that art is our birthright. Our lives are art, or could be, and every aspect of our experience opens itself to the clarity and beauty that comes with focusing our attention, our creative energy and imagination, upon it.

Art is the expression of a powerful and primal force, capable of creating real effect in our psyches and within the world. Although not all art is aligned with an ecopsychological view of life, This issue is a celebration and exploration of art that focuses and deepens awareness of our connection with ourselves and/or the rest of the natural world. Whether it uses nature as inspiration or subject, consciously uses natural materials for its medium, or ‘paints’ upon it like a canvas, this kind of art can bring us into direct relationship with ourselves-in-nature.

There is enormous value in the visual, literary, dramatic and musical arts, but there are other, gentler, arts, too, equally nurturing to our spirit and aligned with a nature-based psychology. Gardening and bee-keeping; potting, weaving, quilting, and knitting; the culinary, healing and martial arts– all find their roots in the relationship between the human psyche and the natural world. They all require sensitivity, and attention, and they all work with imagination.

Sensitivity, attention and imagination are key elements for both Eco- Psychology and Art. Laura Sewell talks about the importance of each in her wonderful book, Sight and Sensibility: The Ecopsychology of Perception. In it, she cites David Orr’s belief that there are two obstacles to fully experiencing our lives: one is denial, manifested by a lack of sensitivity or a numbness, and the other is lack of imagination.

Cultivating sensitivity, developing our imagination and teaching ourselves to be aware of our perceptions, honing our senses ever more acutely and becoming more and more conscious of the process; this is the artist’s path. The creative process emerges from a heightened perception—a sensitivity—that is then transformed through the artist’s process of thought and imagination, and manifested into being through his or her body and its senses. This depth of sensitivity is not just the province of artists, either; we are all born with it. These are the faculties with which we go out to meet the world, and know our place within it.

Sewell and others suggest that the loss of our innate sensitivity to life is a response to, or defense against, the clamor of a culture that, quite literally, goes against our nature. To break through our numbness, into a life that is more fulfilling and connected, may be difficult, but it is deeply fulfilling, and essential. As Sewell says,

"Cultivating our perceptional capacity is fundamentally related to both the quality of our personal lives and restoring the quality of life on the planet."

Developing our imaginal capacity is no less crucial to this project. We need functioning imaginations in order to envision a different, more connected way of living. Our imaginations help us bridge the gaps between the multiple dimensions of our lives, to link our interior and exterior worlds. It enables us to make whole pictures out of apparent fragments and dualities, and begin to heal the wounds made of our incomplete understandings. These qualities - attention, perception, imagination - are all natural extensions of our senses, and their development is the key to seeding and cultivating a healthy ecopsychology.

Reading List:

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, Vintage (1996)

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses, Phoenix (1996)

Suzi Gablik, The Re-enchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson (1992)

Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, The New Press (1997)

Lucy Lippard, Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, The New Press, New York (1983)

T.C. McLuhan, The Way of the Earth, Touchstone Books (1995)

Laura Sewell, Sight and Sensibility: The Ecopsychology of Perception, Tarcher and Putnam (1999)