Tee Harbor Jackson interviews Larry McNeil about the Lunacy of the Climate Crisis with his Arts and Humanities Fellowship
Part One, The Creative Process and Global Climate Change
THJ: I see that you’re busy in the midst of making new work, congratulations; you must feel pretty good about it.
LM: (laughs) Don’t congratulate me yet, there are less than eight of them so far. I’m still never sure how the public is going to respond to the work, but I guess we'll see soon enough with an upcoming exhibition in a couple of weeks in California.
THJ: What exactly are you doing with your new work? Is it a continuation of your Fly by Night Mythology series?
LM: No, it’s about Global Climate Change. I just received an Arts and Humanities Fellowship from Boise State University, where I take the year off from teaching to dedicate to a new body of work. I think the advantage of this new work is that nearly everyone on the planet is aware of the subject, because it has already affected her or him in some manner. I can’t seem to get it out of my head. Some days it makes me either angry, a bit depressed or incredulous at how remarkably stupid we humans can be, especially here and now at the start of the 21st Century on planet Earth. If a subject is stirring up that many emotions and thoughts, one should definitely make work about it.
THJ: What can you share with us about what you've learned so far?
LM: I traveled to quite a few coal fired power plants earlier this summer and realized that it is one thing to read about them, but quite another to be right there with them in all of their immensity. On a very critical level, the problem of coal powered power plants is a simple issue of money. As long as there are billions of dollars to be made from burning coal, it will continue. A simple clarity doesn't mean solving the problem will be easy however, it just means it is easy to comprehend. It's kind of like saying if you want to build a pyramid you just have to get millions of truck-sized bricks and place them according to your engineer. It's a simple concept, but an overwhelming task. It's the same here; it will be nearly impossible to get an entire industry to give up their multi-billion dollar cash cow (actually it's more likely a multi-trillion dollar, Euro or Yen industry internationally), which unfortunately, is the burning of coal to make electricity. Easy to say, but nearly impossible to accomplish.
THJ: So tell me about the look of these new photographs. Why the gas masks?
LM: It was definitely a visceral response to the coal fired power plants. When I got home from photographing the coal fired plants, I had a nasal irritation that turned into a nasty infection. When I was walking around them, the air definitely felt acidic, like you were breathing something that stung your nasal passages. I was in the thick of it for nearly ten days and like I mentioned, it started irritating my nasal passages. After a week, it was a gross infection and my doctor prescribed a topical antibacterial for my nasal passages. While photographing the coal fired plants I literally wished I had a gas mask and was dreading breathing the air in their vicinity. It was nasty and I felt bad for the people who have to work around them or live nearby. I especially felt bad for the people, plants and animals that had to live on the same planet where hundreds of millions of tons of coal waste go up in the air every year. Very bad indeed, and that is no joke.
THJ: What can we do if the electricity industry has no incentive to stop burning coal?
LM: To tell the truth, I'm not sure. Becoming informed about how truly nasty it is may be the first step. There are links all over the internet regarding the Climate Crisis, including http://www.climatecrisis.net/ and our own Environmental Protection agency at http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ The irony with the federal EPA is that in reality, they're just as helpless as the rest of us when it comes to protecting the environment from the harm of these coal fired plants. Unfortunately, that is not a cynical opinion, but rather a stark, hot reality. I think that in order to really solve the problem, we simply stop using the electricity from the coal fired plants and stop the demand. We can't do that though, because we need our electricity and there is no other viable alternative right now. Believe me, I think about it nearly every time I turn on my lights or watch a program on our big-screen television. So I acknowledge myself as being a part of the problem, because I'm buying the power derived from the burning of coal.
THJ: How does that make you feel?
LM: It's one of those demented paradoxes. Here I am making work that has to do with informing what the issue is all about and yet I'm increasing its usage while doing it. It could drive you crazy, but I guess we have to start somewhere. Part of the reality is that burning coal is the easiest and cheapest route for us consumers to take right now. It would be very expensive to try and switch to wind and solar energy right now for our house. If I could make the switch right this moment and pay the same utility bill, I certainly would make the switch. But we can't, the infrastructure is obviously not there. When we built our house back in 2005, it was prohibitively expensive to install solar panels on our house. We have the ideal setup for it too, with near constant sunlight with a southern exposure in a desert. It's truly stupid to burn coal when this ideal situation is right here, but we can't afford to make the switch, especially in this economy. This is the insanity that nearly all of us face. In the meantime, we continue to pump ghastly amounts of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere every day around the world. Wouldn't it be ironic to knowingly kill ourselves in our own wastes? I think that the punk term Sewercide fits perfectly.
THJ: What about your actual work for the series? Can you tell us what you were thinking about as you started working on it?
LM: Starting new work is kind of like a first date when you're single. You're a bit nervous about saying the wrong thing and wonder if you stink, either literally or intellectually. In the end (or the beginning) you just have to get over it and dive in. Because I've been working on various projects over the years, certain practices kick in kind of automatically, like getting the creative process humming. For an example, it is generally a good practice to make work that stirs something passionate deep inside you; I believe it’s at the core of the creative process. You should always make work about the passions you have and not ignore them. This is one of my key challenges as an art professor too by the way; that is, to help students get in touch with what is relevant in their lives. It’s always very rewarding to see that proverbial light bulb go on and have them discover the possibilities and potential of their own work.
THJ: Can you talk about the creative process and how you get started with new work? That seems to be a common challenge with artists; how do you approach it?
LM: It seems that at some point, you’re clear about the core idea, like I was with Global Climate Change. It’s not always like that though; sometimes it’s more nebulous, enshrouded in fog, but you know instinctively that there is something good in there to pursue. Sometimes it’s a mix of both. It seems to me that the creative process can be a slippery state of being that sometimes seems to be part subterfuge, part conscious strategy, and part intuitive act, all mixed together to figure out as you go along. As for myself, I get the feeling that part of it comes directly from my personality without much filtering, and yet other parts seem to be gifts from the creator; pure happenstance that I can’t really claim. I suspect that the creative process favors those whom constantly push it, but who knows? It’s that slippery aspect that remains a mystery, which I suppose is likely a good thing, because if we had all the answers, it would likely be a bit predictable and bland, so here is to the creative process (raises coffee mug).
THJ: Can you be more specific? What about advice for young artists trying to figure it out?
LM: I think an essential part of the creative process simply involves rolling up one’s sleeves and getting busy. In my opinion, the magic of the creative process simply lies in the act of doing. It is fairly common knowledge that the brain gets very adept at whatever it does the most. I would put forth the assertion that if you spend enough time learning something and perfecting it, you not only get accomplished at it, but you may also start doing something entirely new and unique that may be altogether your own, especially with a sense of style or visual aesthetic. Lots of artists start to make their own visual vernacular, which is when art becomes very interesting.
THJ: Can you give me an example with your own work?
LM: Maybe. I’ve been working with photography for about thirty years and when I envision a project, sometimes I have a general idea of what I want to say with the work, and how it may look, but the nitty-gritty essence of it only unfolds as I actually do the work. This means that the essence of the art happens more as a journey where one sometimes charts a general course, but a substantial part of it has to do with discovery and being open to what you find along the way. Maybe it means having the ability to notice things that other people don’t pay much attention to and emphasizing it with your work in some manner, but who knows?
THJ: Can you tell us why the above print looks the way it does?
LM: The new print “X’áant xwaanúk Tléil yee ushk’, I’m angry You are bad” is about Global Climate Change and has a foreboding looking set of smokestacks at the center of the print. Nearly every country in the world has these nasty coal fired power plants spewing their carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, which is what makes them universal. Ravens also appear on nearly every continent (except Antarctica, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were there too), but only our own Northwest Coast people have the legend of a white raven, so far as I know. It’s meant to be kind of satirical with the white raven looking into the empty head of a human wearing a gas mask. To me, this print feels like an old crumbling wall with ancient tribal crests and designs in the background, among other things. The white raven has to do with overcoming evil and being transformed from white to black along the way. It was vital to have the coal fired plant in there, because it is the international problem that hopefully will not be our undoing.
THJ: Does this mean that your work is targeted towards an international audience?
LM: Yes, definitely. One of my very conscious strategies with this work was to make art that has a broad audience, because the work is ultimately about humanity and not any one group. For an example, some of the key layers of meaning with the above print are for all of humanity, not one narrow demographic. We’re all faced with the nastiness of coal fired power plants.
The other element that helps to make the new work universal is my use of photography. In my opinion, photography helps to break down artificial barriers between cultures just because every culture knows what photography is and how to easily navigate it. You could say the same thing about other media too, including painting, sculpture, literature, video and music, which is the value of what the humanities have to offer.
I was looking for a dark, gritty feel with a bit of trepidation and subtle unease on the side. Some ravens are naturally regal and project a real air of aloofness, seemingly above us mere mortals. I hardly ever have to look very hard for them, it's the look they project when I'm around.
THJ: What about your specific cultural identity as a Tlingit and Nisgaá person? Doesn’t that influence the content and visual aesthetics of your work?
LM: By all means; this is the part of the discussion where our life’s experiences and historical background enters the fray. One’s interpretation about the meaning(s) of life, if you will. In my opinion, one of the basic truisms with humanity is that you can’t escape the culture in which you were raised; it will always be a part of your character. This is true regardless of whichever culture you are from in the world. I once had an audience member at a museum comment that she wished she had a culture to draw from for her work. I laughed at the silliness of the comment, but assured her that her culture from middle America was just as teeming and vibrant as any other in the world, all it took was acknowledging that it exists and that it has its own quirks, strengths and distinctiveness. By the way, I'm also a fully entrenched member of middle America with all strings attached, especially as a University Professor who helps teach young students how to become better humans via the educational system.
You can try and run away from your background, but it’s like trying to shake the DNA out of your body. In the end, this effort will only make you dizzy, annoyed and maybe indignant, so why deny it? If you’re in touch with the content of your art, you’re generally tapping into your life’s experiences and using them as momentum for your work; it is who you are and it is a rarefied strength to be nurtured and tended to, so that perhaps a bit of wisdom may become an element of what one is producing. I'm pretty sure this is right.
THJ: How does this apply to artists from other cultures trying to succeed in the world?
LM: I think it just means that you need to be true to yourself and use your natural strengths, experiences and ways of interpreting them, regardless of your demographic background. The key here is the act of interpretation with your work; this is what makes you unique in the universe and you can’t hold back. If you hold back, I think that mediocrity may sneak into the fray. At its best, this becomes a journey of discovery for both yourself and the viewer, where we have the opportunity to learn new things, which is perhaps what humanity is all about; that we do have the ability to better ourselves, whatever that means. This sensibility is essentially what I bring to the art academy as a scholar and artist for young artists.
THJ: I have a lot of questions about your other work too, including a discussion about photography, but it appears we’re out of time.
LM: I'd like to add that this body of work is having its inaugural showing at the C.N. Gorman Museum at UC Davis, where my nephew Da-ka-xeen Mehner and I are having a two person exhibition. Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie (Director of the Museum) and Veronica Passalacqua (Curator) have graciously invited us to exhibit together, Gunalshéesh, thank you.
Arts & Humanities Fellowship sponsored by Boise State University
Exhibition sponsored by C.N. Gorman Museum from September 28 - December 5, 2010
With additional funding from the Evergreen Longhouse via their National Native Creative Development Grant
Part Two: Photography, How Process informs Meaning
All images are Copyright Larry McNeil, 2010, All Rights Reserved. You must have permission of the artist in order to reproduce any of them.