Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only Start Doing

Earthly Matters: Befriending Change in Nature

By Laura Chessin
Associate Professor
Department of Graphic Design/ School of the Arts
Virginia Commonwealth University

Last fall I was awarded a sabbatical to assume the role of “Artist in Residence” at VCU’s Rice River Center, the environmental research field station along the James River in Charles City County. As an artist joining the ranks of the Rice researchers, my options were wide open. I started with the intention to identify a space in the woods to observe change over time, to document, to befriend.

I explored with my camera potential study sites. One area I returned to revealed miscellaneous decay: an upended tree trunk, a small squirrel skull. Some deer vertebra. I continued to collect hundreds of images, documenting as an effort suspend change. While editing a short film of a walk through the labyrinth at Shrinemont, I began to hatch a plan to construct a labyrinth in the woods at Rice.

As plans unfolded, I decided against introducing additional materials onto my site. On the pragmatic level, to use only materials on the site was in effort to cause minimal impact to the site. On another level I questioned the urge to “make an impact”, “to leave my mark”. What if nothing I constructed was permanent? What if the project was less the thing itself that I constructed, and more entirely just a set of short films documenting my exploration of the site, the changing of light, and the impact of time and weather on a space?

One unplanned reward of my sabbatical was a return to a spiritual practice, including a silent retreat at SSJE after almost a 15-year hiatus, coinciding with my assuming my current academic position. It is exactly this pause, this break, this unplanned gift of unstructured time that I am hoping to recreate with my work at Rice. The space and time are gifts that ask nothing in return.

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