The Late Great Pine Forests & Death by a Billion Cuts, a wood cut by of trees

Connecting to Nature

Leading up to a fall exhibit, resident artist will have a piece on our Learning Landscape—and project videos online

Published06/25/2020 , by Gretchen Zampogna

Josh Winkler, the Bell Museums third resident artist of 2019-20, uses a range of drawing, printmaking, and sculptural processes to build layered landscape narratives that ask viewers to consider the social, political, and environmental contexts of their surroundings. We chatted with Winkler to learn more about his plans. Also check out the blog he set up to document his residency.

What are you working on and exploring in relation to your resident artist project?

I am creating a body of works on paper using printmaking techniques, and also a sculptural project to be displayed on the Bell’s Learning Landscape. Overall, I have given the project the working title Connecting to Minnesota’s Forests: Past, Present, Future.

In the work, I am thinking about how humans have affected our environment, past and present, and what that might mean for the future. One piece, for example, is about how the logging of white pines in northern Minnesota has drastically altered the ecosystem and culture of our state. Another piece is about the exploitation of beavers in America, their partial comeback, and how their ability to create wetlands nourishes the environment in so many ways.

I am also using this work to celebrate and stress the importance of personal connection to the land in the present as we struggle to protect important landscape spaces and make decisions about our warming climate. In another layer to this, I’m thinking about how the isolation of the pandemic affects the way people are able and not able to connect to nature.

We’re planning to bring these pieces together in an exhibition at the Bell this fall.

How are you using Bell expertise or resources to do your work?

I have been in discussion with Sharon Jansa, curator of mammals, about beaver resources, and will be speaking to experts at the University about beaver ecology. I have also been in conversation with Daniel Stanton, an ecology professor, about lichen and moss characteristics for an outdoor sculpture on the Bell’s Learning Landscape. I’ll work with others as I learn more about my questions. And I expect to collaborate with other RARP artists. For instance, Mike Shaw and I are talking about ways I might use his astrophotography in one of my prints.

I’m thinking about how the isolation of the pandemic affects the way people are able and not able to connect to nature. 

What can you tell me about the sculpture you’re working on?

This piece will be a stone cairn made from cast concrete and iron stones. I am working on establishing colonies of lichen and moss on the stones, using material I’ve gathered on walks in the forest near my home in southern Minnesota, and working with Daniel Stanton to identify what will be most likely to grow well at the Bell.

In this piece, I use the repetition and transformation of cast stones to comment on the monotony of the built environment while utilizing the materials of the built environment (concrete and steel). I am thinking about the evolution of human presence on the landscape, from collectively stacked stone cairns to commercial products like faux stone pavers.

But the piece also celebrates the resiliency of the natural environment and adds a layer of hope or optimism to these ideas. By establishing colonies of lichen and moss, the long-term goal of this work is to express the natural environment’s ability to take back the built environment. This piece also celebrates the symbiotic relationships between plants and fungi, and the remarkable ability for lichens and mosses to break down concrete and steel. It might also give us an opportunity to think about our own relationship with nature, and what we want that to be now and into the future.

Your project will be about engagement, focusing on how people explore nature and how they’re doing it right now, during this bizarre stay-at-home/work-from-home time, and on top of that, lots of social change, etc. Can you talk a bit about that engagement? What inspired you to explore people’s connection to nature?

One of the driving forces of my work is promoting personal relationships to nature. Tangible relationships with nature, from walking a long distance backpacking trail, to growing a vegetable garden, to simply looking up at the sky for a few minutes every day, put us all in better positions as we make decisions about land use and energy consumption.

During the pandemic, at least at the park near my house, the foot traffic has increased dramatically. The increased traffic is taking a toll on the trails, increased erosion, etc., but I believe that the more people out there the better for the long game of increasing protected land, increasing personal connection, and ultimately better decision making by our leaders.

I understand we’re planning to exhibit this work in the fall and that you’ll do a print-making workshop then?

There’s a lot to learn about how and when we’ll all be able to get together, but right now, we’re hoping to be able to have a two-hour hands-on workshop at the Bell. Students will walk the museum and Learning Landscape seeking inspiration, taking pictures, or doing a few sketches. Then I will work with students to carve and print relief printed postcards inspired by their Bell experience, using a mini printing press I own. If we’re not able to gather for a program in the fall, we’ll do an online version of the program. I will show people how they can do relief printmaking processes at home with minimal materials.

I heard you’ll be working on Instagram videos. How do those relate, what are they all about, and what’s their significance?

I will be producing a series of short, meditative videos that promote connection and relaxation as we deal with the abundance of external stressors. The footage will come from hikes I take at my home near St. Peter, and out on trips around the state. This is my way of thinking about how I connect to nature, and how I can share that with others. For people who haven’t been experiencing nature much, this may give them a way to connect, or some inspiration to go ahead and get outside themselves.

I’m also working on a handful of process videos, and I’ve recorded a video introducing my home studio over the weekend (see below). These videos will give Bell audiences a chance to learn more about how I do my work over the course of the residency.