After a week of traveling through some of the major Italian cities, moving north from Rome, I arrived in the charming village of Sottochiesa, situated within the Taleggio Valley of the Orobie PreAlps. I will stay here through the end of July, participating in the Nature, Art, and Habitat Residency (NAHR), with the goal of creating a sculpture garden built solely from natural materials.
Ilaria Mazzoleni, an Architect from the valley who’s research focuses on the intersection of architecture and ecology, co-founded the program in 2015 and hosts the residents in her family’s rustic apartment complex, Soggiorno Mazzoleni.
Being here has been a breath of fresh air to say the least. Each morning I open my large windows wide to listen to the birds and watch the clouds across the sky, from one side of the valley to the other. Each sunny day here magical because, even in the summer, thunder and lighting puncture the skies nearly every evening.
I spent my first week in Val Taleggio exploring the many hiking trails that connect the small mountain villages together. Some villages are only a church and several family homes. The valley is known for its bio diversity so my hiking pace has been quite slow to allow for a careful examination of the habitats along the path. Some of the most common flora are strawberries, which grow like ground cover), various wild flowers, ferns, and maple, walnut, and hazelnut trees. As for fauna, I have seen numerous small lizards, snails and slugs, birds, snakes, butterflies and other insects, and perhaps most notably, cows.
Cheese is a major export from this region, and there is a beautiful interdependence between the cows and people here (you can likely buy Taleggio cheese at your local fine cheese retailer). One of the other three fellows here with me is researching the cattle herds and mapping their journey through the pastures throughout the seasons (ancient transumanza tradition).
I’ve also noticed that many people keep bees here, yet another relationship of interdependence. Bees are crucial to this landscape as pollinators, but they also produce the most delicious honey which I feel so lucky to be eating together with the light fresh cheeses here. Because I’m creating sculptures from all natural materials, I am keeping honey in mind as a potential light binding material, like glue. While the sweetness may attract animals and insects, that could provide for an interesting interaction with the the sculptures. Bees also have a very obvious relationship with geometry, in their creation of hexagonal honey combs. Hexagons tesselate better than pentagons or octagons, and are significantly stronger shapes than squares due to the fact that they contain 6 equilateral triangles which is structurally the strongest shape.
Another pattern which I feel inspired by for my project, is the beautiful spirals of the snail shells, which are reminiscent of the Fibonacci Spiral I mentioned in my previous post (although the shells of this species are coiled tighter). The environment here is very moist, which the snails and slugs (and mosquitos) love, so shells of all sizes and colors, inhabited and uninhabited, can be found every few feet on the forest paths. In addition to rain, the landscape features many creeks which run into the Enna stream (torrento). The drinking water here is superb, and we are situated just above the town of San Pellegrino. The ample availability of snails also make them a reliable food source. I don’t know much about this but noticed a group at the village restaurant sharing a huge bowl of snails smothered with pesto. Yum!
I have been foraging several things on my walks, in way that feels sustainable to me. It is important to me to leave a very minimal footprint on this land. While I will be modifying the landscape, it is my intention to only make changes that would be reintegrated and erased by nature in accordance with natural, seasonal, cycles.
To me, this is an anti-capitalist idea. Capitalism values continuous growth- bigger, better, more, higher, louder, etc over sustainability. There is also a fierce individualism and greed within this idea. Capitalism teaches us to horde resources and wealth, and to want to own things and make them ours alone, so that we become richer, better, and more worthy than our fellow humans.
My very first walk confirmed the capitalist mindset deeply seeded in me, which I am always working to unlearn. On this first excursion I came upon a single tiny mushroom as well as a single tiny strawberry. As far as I knew at that time, these were rare findings. My very first impulse was, of course, to pick them both. The strawberry I knew I could eat, but the mushroom I didn’t have any particular use for. Yet my impulse was to interfere, own, and horde. (Later I found an abundance of strawberries and edible mushrooms to nibble on sustainably).
Capitalism seems to have given us a dangerous combination of scarcity and abundance mindsets. Our scarcity mindset relates to money and material- there is never enough of it. Our abundance mindset relates to nature- treating is as an infinite resource to exploit. These can not healthily coexist and, together, negate the balance that allows all life to endure and thrive. Nature is abundant! When interacted with sustainably, the cycles of natural birth and death allow for this constant renewal. One major goal of this project is to rediscover that balance by releasing my own capitalist hold on permanence by creating impertinent art that gently reorganizes nature, then is reorganized by nature, with minimal ecosystem interference.
I have been excited about trying out numerous creative techniques using only the materials provided by the land. Hazelnut trees and Climbing Ivy, which both grow abundantly, have been reliable materials, acting like dowels and rope, with which I am able to build frames and structures.
It has been an interesting part of the process to watch living materials change once I’ve foraged them. They change colors, curl, and become more brittle, loosing any elasticity unless they’re kept in water (but not too long to avoid rotting). These cycles of death and decay have been informing the art I’m making. For example this frame contains leaves, at various cycles of decay, sewn together using the holes that were already there when I collected them. I searched for a long time for a thread-like plant that wasn’t too brittle. This thin vine is playable when fresh, but only blends in with the leaves once it has dried.
Coming into this research, I was particularly interested in attempting to create a paper-like material in order to fashion lantern-inspired sculptures. I did lots of research of natural paper-making and tried a few different kinds of leaves, but wasn’t successful in creating pulp that would hold together enough to not crumble it dried, until I ventured a little further and harvested algae from the river.
As I began the shift from observation into hands-on creation, I also had to shift from a theoretical mindset to embodied experience, allowing myself to be inspired by the textures and materials available to me. Prior to allowing the totality of this shift to occur, I approached my project in a way that would create a very linear and prescribed (“guided”) experience for the viewer. However, the pieces weren’t fitting into the rigid structure I was creating, and it began to feel forced. However, by focusing on process over product, I have settled on a more free-flowing experience. While there will be a suggested path, in the shape of a spiral, all guests will be able to roam freely, exploring the embedded sculptures at a pace and in a fashion that feels right to them.
In following this free non-linear ideology, symmetry, golden ratios, fractals, and platonic solids will be present in the final work as more of an inspiration rather than the substance of the art. There will be no forced engagement with these concepts, rather, they will be presented as an offering which some visitors may see as overt while others don’t pick out so specifically.
The goal of my culminating art piece, “Ephemeral Garden,” is to create an immersive, durational, self-recycling, zero-waste, bio-art installation, that evokes feelings of simplicity and unity with nature through geometric ideas, while challenging capitalist definitions of permanence, and fortitude, through experimentation with natural materials.
Learn more about my final piece in my next post!
Lilia Deering (She/Her) is an LA based artist with a focus in environment design within a variety of contexts including the stage, the gallery, film, and experiences. Coming from a background in dance and performing arts, Deering’s overall goal is to push boundaries in world-building and visual storytelling. She is interested in collaborating with diverse creative minds, and is not limited by any single medium, experimenting with various materials and technologies to spark curiosity and ignite the imagination.