Mill pond, as the body of water is known, is consistently the first pond to freeze in the area of Massachusetts where I am from, and as such is an important meeting place for local pond hockey players. Friendships have been forged and maintained over a love of a game dependent on specific winter conditions. Relationships based on ice, however, are of a precarious nature. A pond that freezes less often means that some friendships fall by the wayside, bonds over shared experiences and appreciation become more vulnerable. Humanity and the societies we inhabit are interlaced with these bonds based on shared love, and when they are broken down and lost, the world becomes less connected, and a disconnected world is one that is brittle and more vulnerable. My focus on this pond, originally objective, has turned subjective as I’ve come to realize what the crystallization and bonding of water molecules to form a solid surface of ice means, not only in terms of staying alive, but also with regard to the survival of important bonds and relationships within my own life. As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, it will be of increasing importance to not only scrutinize and mitigate the effects on our environment, but to consider more closely the damaging effects it has on the smaller but ever so crucial bonds that hold together a healthy society.
‘Mill Pond’ was the result of continuous observation and interaction with this pond. Daily investigations of ice conditions – for the original purpose of playing ice hockey, turned into something more, as, following record heat waves in December and January, the turmoil and confusion of a world searching for balance amid the mounting pressure of an unpredictable, changing climate, showed up on the ice of a small pond struggling to freeze. The day before the first heat wave, a young man approached me with a bible, walking over frozen water, speaking of hellfire and the end of the world. When the cold returned, a hand-forged cross lay frozen to the ice. Following the second heat wave, a serpent lay frozen to the fresh, black ice, warmed from its hibernation many months too soon.
I arranged these pieces across from one another with the intent of letting the viewer fill the void and consider the space between. Alone and depending on the person, a serpent and a cross can conjure up a wide range of feelings and associations. Together, they suddenly speak to each other. The viewer, placed between, becomes part of this conversation.
A man called out to me as he walked out of the woods and across the frozen water. I skated over to him. He was young with short blonde hair and a closely trimmed beard. His eyes were the kind of blue that make you feel like they might go all the way through his skull and you’re just looking at the sky behind him. He asked me if I wanted a bible. I sinned and told him I had one. He told me that Satan and his demons were rising. They were here already. The earth was burning all around us, we were just too blind to see. To prepare for judgment day, he was learning to live in the woods which seemed odd because aside from army fatigues he wore low cut black dress shoes with black laces and there was three inches of snow on the ground. I asked if he was learning to hunt. He said no but that he had ordered a crossbow for hunting and other things. Other things. He became nervous when I asked him questions and would stutter and claim that demons were preventing him from speaking God’s word clearly. He told me how he and all his online chat-room friends were having dreams of a near future filled with hellfire, tsunamis, war. He asked me if I was religious and I said not really but that I really loved playing hockey on a frozen pond in the woods. His see-through eyes darted from here to there. I didn’t think he heard me.
Three days later I was skating again. Where my conversation with the young man had occurred I found a cross. It was made from rotting wood tied together with twine. Two days before we had the hottest day ever recorded in December in Massachusetts. A bitter cold returned soon after. The cross was frozen to the ice. [text from exhibition]
Some time later I was skating again. The day before we had the hottest day ever recorded in January in Massachusetts. The cold had returned quickly and the ice was perfect and clear, all rough spots melted and smoothed away by the unusual day. Near the edge of the pond I found a snake frozen in infinity. I went home and got warm water to thaw it out. Something about reptiles being cold blooded made me wonder if I could warm it up and bring it back to life. It stayed dead, its cells having crystalized and exploded and I buried it near the wood pile where snakes go to shed their skin. [text from exhibition]
The main body of my work is based upon vulnerability, immediacy, perspective, and connectivity. With these interests in mind, I seek to examine, through experience, the subtle details that coalesce and make up the things and places which I find to be personally significant. I seek to not only examine why these subjects make me happy, but to also look at how the state of the world might reveal itself in these details. We know most completely and intimately those places, people, things which we love, and through this knowledge and a willingness to be aware, we are perhaps best suited to notice first hand the effects of a changing world and to therefore respond more thoughtfully and personally. Whether it’s through the vulnerability and precariousness of a social game dependent on the quality of ice, the immediacy of stepping into a stranger’s car on a direction-less hitchhiking trip through the Scottish highlands, the perspective gained only after living within the quiet solitude of a cave for a few days, or the connectivity exemplified in mycelium and mushrooms, I’m interested in looking deeper into what is important to me as a way to understand why I value something while at the same time considering how a changing world is revealing itself in the details.
I have always had a love for alternative means of travel. Whether it be hopping freight trains across the United States and Canada, or hitch-hiking whenever the opportunity is provided, I don’t believe there to be a better way to get to know a land and the complexity and diversity of its people than opening one’s self up to the powers of fate on the road. Shortly after moving to Scotland, I had a desire to get to know a place which I was to call home for two years. In what I would describe as a collaboration with fate, I decided to embark on a hitch-hiking trip in February of 2016 with no destination in mind. Of particular interest to me were the reasons why people take a moment from their day to lend a stranger a hand. Whether it be their faith, boredom, a hitching history of their own, a simple desire to speak freely to a stranger who they might never see again, or perhaps more simply, a willingness to be generous and helpful, there is always a reason that seems to speak purely of some crucial element of humanity. My piece consisted of a photo of each driver and the road where I had been waiting for them, as well as an isolated quotation that I felt revealed some different element of humanity or reflected the state of the world within which we live. There is something to be said for sitting next to someone while looking forward as the road unfolds in front of you. There is a safety to be found there which I believe allows people to be more vulnerable, to open up and reveal details of their life to each other more quickly than if those same strangers were sitting across from one another at a table. Like staring off into the warm light of a fire, side by side, a unique intimacy is gained. Details of an individual’s world and where they may see themselves within it, come forth. By stepping into these cars, these moments, these little worlds one after another, I encountered the opportunity to put details together in order to form a new understanding of a place and its people. Slowly, the complexities of life in this unpredictable world begin to surface and reveal themselves.
Searching for perspective is a substantial component of my practice and I find I’m most successful when I’ve immersed myself in a place for more than a day in order to properly begin to “see” where I am and to “feel” why I am there and what it means to me. Perhaps the best example of this was the original photograph from the inside of a cave looking out in the hills near Fort William. It took three days and two nights sleeping in the cave and wandering about inside and out for my eye to truly consider the cave opening. It has since lead to an ongoing series of photographs called “Irises”, taken from within 7 different caves around the highlands of Scotland as well as a video piece taken during my stay in cliff-side bothy on the west coast of Lewis. For me, caves provide a unique opportunity amidst a noisy world to find peace while tapping into a dormant awareness that comes from returning, even for a short while, to a more elemental existence. But our relationships with caves are complicated, for as much as we are drawn to the shelter and womb-like protection of caves, we remain uncertain about what may be hidden within where history, myth, and our own fears lie in wait on a shadowed canvas. If we, however, accept that light isn’t a requisite for sight, there exists an opportunity for new awareness, as we locate ourselves within the darkness. Anthropologist Wade Davis in his book The Wayfinders, touches on this in describing poet and translator, Clayton Eshleman’s in-depth study of cave art in France: “[Eshleman] was dazzled yet perplexed not just by what he saw but how he felt in the sensory isolation of caves, his imagination suspended between consciousness and the soul of an all-devouring earth, a “living and fathomless reservoir of psychic force”” (Davis, 2009).
My focus on and concern with layers of social and environmental connectivity and awareness, as well as investigations of light and darkness which underlie my aforementioned pieces, has led to a more sculptural output that involves growing mushrooms on mediums based on various mixtures of sawdust, toilet paper, coffee grounds and human hair. Fungi, which have an endless list of medicinal applications and benefits as well as a vast potential for environmental remediation, if properly considered and encouraged, could provide a cheap and natural solution to an endless list of environmental and health concerns that currently plague our world. Of further interest to me are the examples of connectivity associated with certain varieties of fungi. Paul Stamets, a leading Mycologist, describes this interconnectivity as “interlaying mosaics of mycelium [that] infuse habitats with information-sharing membranes. These membranes are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind” (Stamets, 2005). I believe there are many lessons to be learned through a deeper consideration of this fungal model amidst a time of increasing disconnection among humans as well as between humans and nature.
Anthropologist and author, Deborah Rose, in her piece, An Indigenous Philosophical Ecology, calls this disconnection ‘hyperseparation’ and further defines it as the “west’s effort to make extreme differentiation between human beings and other living things” (Rose, 2005). This idea of hyperseparation is something that troubles me deeply and my practice and interests reflect an attempt to actively reconnect to the natural world while, like mycelium, considering the “long-term health of [our] host environment”; our planet.
Will Urmston is an artist whose work explores the subtleties of the natural world through the mediums of photography, video and fungi-based sculpture. Soon to graduate from the Art, Space and Nature MFA program at the Edinburgh College of Art, he has exhibited work at An Lanntair, Stornoway, the Hidden Door Festival in Edinburgh, and at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation.
‘Mill Pond’ was exhibited in Tent Gallery, Edinburgh College of Art, 1-2 of February, 2017