When I was in elementary school, I remember once sitting outside with my scout troop after class. In a clever idea to fill the time, our leader pointed to a nearby tree. “Everyone choose a single leaf from this tree, anywhere on it, and look at it for a moment. Admire it. What makes it different?” Curious, we obliged. “Your leaf is very special. Do you know why? No one else has bothered to appreciate it like you have. By giving it your attention for a moment, you have given it meaning. ”
What may have seemed like a silly little activity for kids at the time has lingered in my heart into adulthood. Growing up in a rural community, surrounded by pastures and forests, I have always held a deep fascination with the natural world. I collected artifacts that captured my eye, filling drawers in my room with stones and twigs (sorry about that, Mama) I learned to press leaves and flowers with my grandmother, and interspersed them between the pages of my sketchbooks.
I collected artifacts that captured my eye, filling drawers in my room with stones and twigs…
From a young age, art established itself as the way through which I seek to understand the world. It’s no surprise to me then that my work quickly took on natural themes. In my preteen years, I retreated into the woods, sketching the trees and landscapes to capture the sense of home I felt there. In high school, I used nature as a metaphor to explore the human experience through portraiture. As a college student, natural artifacts themselves have found their way into my work. I see the process of selecting and incorporating these finds into my work as an extension of the lesson I learned from my scout leader as a child. For me, making art from natural finds serves as a way to give reverence to these otherwise overlooked components of life. A leaf from the sidewalk that would otherwise be trampled now serves as a canvas to display the scene it was once part of. A painting on the wing of a fallen bee on now immortalizes the creature, drawing us near to examine it.
In gratitude for my inclusion in this great orchestration, I use art to pay respect to the work of an artist far greater than I. For some pieces, this requires tucking the painting carefully back where I found it. North Carolina beachgoers may find a landscape painting on a shell resting along the shore. If you explore the Blue Ridge Mountains, a painting on a stone may greet you on your path. In doing this, I hope to encourage others to look closer at the wonders we often dismiss as mundane. By giving the details of this life our attention, we assign meaning to them. It’s in these small moments—the catching of an eye, with the sudden appreciation that follows—that we awaken to the miraculous complexity of this life.
North Carolina beachgoers may find a landscape painting on a shell resting along the shore.
This process, however, is still relatively new to me. Art made from natural elements requires the acceptance of risk. I am not the sole artist of these paintings, but working in collaboration with nature itself. As a result, these paintings are largely experimental.
I preserve my works to the best of my ability, yet they will always ultimately be at the mercy of nature and time. This fragility can often be difficult to work with, but I believe the potential transience of these pieces makes their presence all the more noteworthy. In this, I am reminded that though the fruits of our efforts may be temporary, this in no way makes them less important. The satiation we gain from a meal will not last forever, but this certainly doesn’t make eating less worthwhile.
… I am reminded that though the fruits of our efforts may be temporary, this in no way makes them less important.
Though I am confident my works will far outlive me, I am comforted in the faith that their presence will not depart until they have fulfilled their role here. As a child, I first fell in love with this idea that everything in our world is designed for a unique and irreplaceable purpose. In adulthood, I vehemently believe people are no exception to this rule.
Moving forward in my artistic career, I strive to translate the idea of art as reverence from an approach to the natural world, to an approach to humanity. As artists, how can we lead people to see their own inherent value through our work? If we can stop to appreciate and give worth to a leaf, why not one another?
Katie Brooks is a freelance artist and student at North Carolina State University’s College of Design. Her work and online store can be found online using the links below: