The Unseen California art initiative uses NRS reservations as a canvas


The reserves of the UC Natural Reserve System are best known for promoting science education and research. But that longstanding reputation just keeps getting broader. A new art initiative from UC Santa Cruz, Unseen California, aims to connect both professional artists and UC students with reserves. The program challenges artists to engage with the human and natural history of California’s landscapes and seeks to make art an integral part of the NRS profile.

Founded in 2021 by UCSC Associate Professor of Art Karolina Karlic, Unseen California is an arts research initiative that engages diverse artist voices on research topics relevant to California’s future. The program also enables immersive learning experiences for UCSC art students and the community through programs, exhibits, and a documentary in the works.

“The goal is to be able to use the umbrella Unseen California to support immersive art field research,” says Karlic. Connecting with reserves, she adds, helps students “recognize what it means to create site-specific work and connect with communities more generally.” Meanwhile, participating professional artists can explore a variety of ecological sites with the support of knowledgeable NRS guides.

Reservation visits encourage artists to ask broader questions about their role when engaging in reservation environments across California, says Karlic. “What do we take away as humans when we engage with a website? What does it mean to be a practicing artist in the world?” This aligns with the principles of the UCSC Art Department, which encourages students to engage with environmental and community concerns in their artistic practice.

“The best question a student in a nature reserve asked me was, ‘What should we do here?'” says Karlic. “This question drove the entire development of Unseen California as a research initiative.”

The program, which was launched in 2021 and is scheduled to run for ten years, is to Unseen California has many facets. These include immersive art field research by cohorts of professional artists; To teach; and public engagement.

A cohort of working artists

The first artist research cohort consists of five female photographers from diverse backgrounds. Everyone is an educator and a professional in the arts.

The artists’ identities stand in stark contrast to the white cis males (think Ansel Adams, Carleton Watkins, Edward Weston, and others) that have dominated the landscape photography canon. That Unseen California Artists attempt to reframe cultural histories and ecological landscapes with alternative concepts enriched by their diverse identities and experiences. They act on the belief that the arts are central to solving the most pressing problems of our time, but require the participation and engagement of disciplines and sectors across society.

“It was very important to me to create a research cohort that extends beyond the university to engage with our students and the nature reserves, and for the work to extend back to their communities outside the walls of the university,” says Karlic .

The residencies last an unusually long two years. This allows artists to visit reserves multiple times at different times of the year. Artists have the space to reflect on their experiences and deepen their relationship with place and community with each return.

“The most generous part of this residency is the ongoing conversations and community that I feel is necessary as an educator for women photographers,” says artist Tarrah Krajnak. “Often the work of an artist takes place in solitude. Although we are all separate, working at different institutions working on different reservations, for the first time in over a decade I feel real support.”

A conversation between art and science

Art research can uncover knowledge about the landscape that differs from what can be gleaned through the practice of science, says Karlic. “We don’t typically go with a specific question to collect data to find results. We come in with several questions and are informed by the site itself. We react and interpret those reactions.”

The fact that both human settlements and scientific issues on reservations have been studied makes the NRS an ideal place to host the initiative. Reserve staff have helped share knowledge of their sites with artists, encouraging inspiration and insight in the process. “Experience with the reserve managers is really essential to support the curiosities and research that the artists are doing with their specially chosen location. These relationships drive and create connections for the artists working on different research topics,” says Karlic.

One example is the work of artist Mercedes Dorame. Dorame itself is Tongva. She chose to work on the Santa Cruz Island Reserve and Catalina Island in part because her ancestors lived in what is now the Los Angeles Basin and the southern Channel Islands. In her study, she compares feelings of safety and security on the virtually uninhabited island of Santa Cruz with her experiences growing up and currently living in Los Angeles. During her explorations of the islands, she has also produced a series of observations that highlight both the past and future potential of these landscapes.

Jay Reti, director of the NRS’s Santa Cruz Island Reserve, helped give Dorame a deeper sense of cultural connection to the island, Karlic says. “Jay is a paleoanthropologist. He is very familiar with stone tools from his own research. This knowledge and understanding has been incredibly helpful to Mercedes, who deals with exchanges between the peoples of Santa Cruz Island and Catalina Island.”

From acorn caches to fog residue

At the Hastings Natural History Reservation, artist Aspen Mays is collaborating with the reserve’s director, Jen Hunter, to redesign the reserve’s museum. The building is currently used as a warehouse; Most of the plant and animal specimens and scientific notebooks were moved to UC Berkeley. Mays will consider how the photographs, field notes, records and other observations from Hastings can be made of interest to museum visitors.

In addition, Mays studies the lives of acorn woodpeckers, whose behavior and interactions with oak trees have been studied at the reserve for more than 50 years. Mays is working with former NRS Environmental IT Director Becca Fenwick, who now works with the CITRIS Initiative for Drone Education and Research, to collect 3D drone imagery of the granaries where woodpeckers store winter supplies of acorns. Mays found an immediate resonance between her earlier work on astronomical observations with the galaxies of acorns that the woodpeckers store in granaries.

“Without the support of Dr. We artists couldn’t do our job to Jen Hunter and reserve managers like yourself,” says Karlic.

At NRS’s Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center, artist Dionne Lee examines wilderness survival skills as a metaphor for engaging with harmful systems and historical structures, acknowledging survival as an active attempt made every day. She focuses on the fact that the reserve has been the site of anthropological excavations that eroded rock and soil in a process similar to erosion. Lee writes that she expands the definition of erosion “to include the consequences of human dominance on land and to position the act of erosion as a product of colonialism.” Similarly, she views the act of excavation – uncovering, digging up, and selling – as a lens through which she examines what has been stolen and weathered by colonialism.

Artist Tarrah Krajnak was inspired by an event at Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve: speech photographer Ansel Adams, held at the reserve’s dedication ceremony in 1978. Krajnak has studied recordings of Adams’ speech and recorded her performing an increasingly edited version. This work continues her interest in demonstrating the problematic aspects of the cannon of modern photography through erasure, editing and re-enactment.

The coastal reservations of Big Creek and Santa Cruz Island have been the setting for some of Karlic’s own work. For years scientists have set up fog collectors — vertical mesh squares that allow moisture from the air to condense — to measure the amount of moisture fog at different elevations on the reserve. Inspired by this data collection tool, Karlic built similar vertical moisture collectors but replaced the grid with copper plates typically used in print media. On Karlic’s collectors, fog leaves visual traces of its passage in the form of oxidized patterns on the metal.

Karlic has worked closely with Big Creek Reservation Director Mark Readdie and Stewards Feynner Arias and Mackneal Byers to address several climate change events that have impacted the reservation. Her work on the reservation includes setting up wildlife cameras to document and photograph the movement of soils and the effects of burnt vegetation after the Dolan Fire that burned 8,000 acres of the reservation.

Art classroom without walls

The educational component of Unseen California builds on UCSC’s long history of fine arts promoting community dialogue about the environment. That includes a decade-long effort by arts professor Norman Locks to expose students to the NRS reserves. Karlic will continue to bring undergraduate and MFA students from the Arts Department’s new MFA program in Environmental Arts and Social Practice to reservations under the auspices of Unseen California to discover the value of fieldwork and immersive learning.

“The photography explorations led by Karolina Karlic and Norman Locks were one of the most powerful experiences of my undergraduate studies at UCSC,” writes former art major Edgar Cruz. “As an artist, these trips were very important in helping me to question the ideas behind my work and to explore what was new to me at the time.”

Once in the field, students have the opportunity to collect data, participate in fieldwork, and learn about topics such as land, climate change, and ecology. These first-hand experiences allow students to immerse themselves in new topics that then inform their academic art research.

“Such journeys are indispensable for artists. Art does not always have to do with the studio. There are some inspirations that can only be found in the world,” writes Brian Young, who attended Landels-Hill Big Creek as an art major in 2018.

At the moment, Invisible California Operational needs are largely covered by grants. To support the professional and student artists whose work is at the heart of the initiative, Karlic is seeking donor support. Those interested in learning more about this fundraising opportunity can be reached at [email protected]


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