Mara Adamitz Scrupe
Back to Nature: Collecting the Preserved Garden

Making and the Mission: the Art of Mara Adamitz Scrupe
We have seen in recent years in the United States debates and disputes around, yet also resilience and reaffirmation of the power of the art experience and value of the artist to the greater society. Manifested through challenges to federal art-funding mechanisms, these conflicts went to the heart of the historic American dilemma with the aesthetic. Does art have a use in a healthy society? Are we living in a different America being reshaped by other cultural persuasions that complicate our European-Puritanical origins? Maybe not disassociated is the current disturbing dismantling of environmental acts, aiming to roll-back-the-clock, and threatening land and water systems and all those who depend upon them. Can we forget our ecological awakening and go to sleep again?

Man's [I'll revert to this gender-based language here]…man's relationship to nature has been shaped by culture over time. And America's [I'll use this term, too, as it is not the national boundaries of the U.S. implied here but our national hubris and hemispheric blindness that we alone are "America"] …America's emergence in world history came at the height of-precipitated-colonialism: an era in which venturing Europeans proclaimed domination over all living things, even other human beings, and acted upon it. Colonialism was spread in the name of the Church; "The Bible proclaimed man's divinely given dominion over the earth and was often used to justify nature's brutal exploitation."1 Superiority of man over nature gained the imprimatur of the rational secular enlightenment when, in the early 17th century, Francis Bacon claimed that scientific knowledge means technological power over nature. This might be viewed as a catalytic development as its: "Acceptance as a normal pattern of action may mark the greatest event in human history since the invention of agriculture, and perhaps in nonhuman terrestrial history as well." 2 Thus, European and New World settlers were armed with an ideology of conquest.3 And, so, spiraled cycles of growth and deforestation, consumable production and resource depletion, increased population… increased need.

Some claim that with environmental stress, beginning centuries ago, came a need to rejuvenate nature, inspire hope and future fruits of the earth, while appease man's guilt about acts inflicted on the environment. Early religions reinforced bounty by instituting the worship of animals, nature, and goddesses of fertility. With this arose a reliance on conjuring up a beneficent relationship with the earth through the use of nature imagery in art. In ancient times, the tree emerged as one such sacred form. As a symbolic representation, this solitary image lent itself to being an icon or talisman to promote a positive relationship with nature. Further fostering a sense of contentedness and cohesion between man and nature, landscape painting evolved as civilization moved further into an urban way of life. 4 But while in the East, Taoism's belief in animism and a unity among all things led to a flourishing of landscape traditions, in the West, Catholicism's one god- and man-centered universe had an opposite effect. As reverence for nature gave way to mastery over it, Christianity taught that God planned all of creation explicitly for man's benefit and rule, the physical creation had no purpose other than serving man: "Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient Paganism and Asia's religions…not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends." 4

So, is Christianity really to blame for the ecological conditions of the West?, Author Lynn White writes: "The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture." 4 "Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man." 5 An echo from the ecology camp, Paul Shepard saw that to have positive change: "…means nothing less than a shift in our whole frame of reference and our attitude toward life itself, a wider perception of the landscape as a creative, harmonious being where relationships of things are real as the things. Without losing our sense of great human destiny and without intellectual surrender, we must affirm that the world is a being, a part of our own body." 6

By the 19th century-the era in which Mara Adamitz Scrupe finds the roots of the discourse in which she participates and which she seeks to extend through her art-there was a move back to nature. In 1873, the word "ecology" came into English usage meaning: a branch of science concerned with the interrelationship of organisms and their environments. Existence of this back-to-nature spirit is further evidenced by the 1907 introduction of the specific term "human ecology," meaning: the ecology of human communities and populations especially as concerned with preservation of environmental quality (as of air or water) through proper application of conservation and civil engineering practices. In the world of art, we might cite William Morris who saw art as nature, nature as art. He not only conceived of an interpenetration of image between house and garden, but also took stock of his surroundings, valuing the indigenous and scorning the exotic in a reappraisal of the natural beauty of a locale. But Morris also knew that this meant protecting nature and so this prominent leader of art and design also figures among ecological pioneers for his call to end destructive deforestation in Britain. In the pattern or design or the practices of our lives, Morris promoted: "All works of man that we live among and handle will be in harmony with nature." 4

The 19th century saw, too, the phenomena of the greenhouse made possible with the greater availability of glass-whether it be a rarified private enterprise or a public large-scale and spectacular conservatory. Greenhouses are nature contained: controlled growing environments in which the usual conditions of weather or pestilence are removed; a kind of plant museum in which species are collected/curated, maintained, and preserved for reasons of pleasure, science, education, or entertainment. And, like art, greenhouses let us enter other worlds. Mara's greenhouses do all this at once!

Collecting the Preserved Garden is a glass greenhouse in which grow Missouri prairie grasses, creating a portrait of an idealized, indigenous landscape. Here Adamitz Scrupe, like Morris, responds to and values what is around us…if we care to look. The Victorian-style of the structure not only evokes those first greenhouses but also is contemporaneous with the most intensive period of Midwestern prairie cultivation that sought to replace indigenous plant materials with marketable grains. This image, too, connects to the artist's own background and to her grandmother whose Minnesota farmhouse lay at the outskirts of the prairie; to her extended family, second and third-generation immigrant farmers; and to the landscape in which she was raised that is now her mindscape of palpable experience. Plants can trigger memory and imagination.

Around this powder-coated emerald-green structure, on grass-colored walls, are backlit glass transparencies of flowers: brilliant translations of oil paintings by amateurs, their imagery in shocking contrast to the ostensibly plain and drab grasses; their virtual representation removing them from their own time, making them more of ours; distancing them from the actual plant, bringing them into our own, and making them more artifact than real. This appropriation of other's work repositions these uncomplicated, celebratory renderings of flowers into a contemporary frame: What issues lay beneath these pretty flowers that came to be planted on the prairie, to remember homes in other places, more loved than the landscape before one?

This work builds upon a recent related work called Back to Nature that was inspired by an exhibition site's proximity to Weir Farm, a trust under the National Park Service. Its title speaks of the 19th-century naturalist movement, while it belies the involvement of this property's original owner, the American painter J. Alden Weir, and connects it to Weir's art through which he manifested his dedication to nature. As with Collecting the Preserved Garden Scrupe features light-box images of drawings of local plants, this time made with her own hand. And, too, Back to Nature takes the form of a Victorian greenhouse to house a contemporary story: native flora is in danger in local areas slated for development. Do we need glass boxes to preserve a past that will disappear in our lifetime and forever?

As with Back to Nature, Collecting the Preserved Garden is sustained thanks to solar-generated power systems for the automatic sprinklers, grow lights, and transparency lights. These renewable energy technologies are part of Adamitz Scrupe's art and ideas and, so, remain in gallery view; they have a visual and conceptual-and mechanical-integrity. Designed by the artist, these systems convey an ethic of 'do-it-yourself!' In fact, it is Adamitz Scrupe's 'can-do' spirit, in balance with and in service of a larger conception of nature, which is at the heart of her enterprise as an artist. There, too, lay a provocation to others to take responsibility for nature. Is preservation the job of the individual or the collective…or both? Can we really job it out, remove it from sight? What complicities are at the root of our relationship to nature's ecosystems today?

"For me," Mara Adamitz Scrupe writes in her project proposal, "the garden is a staging ground for exploring social constructs, most obviously those having to do with relationships between human societies and nature." She probes this in her published writings as well. In an essay entitled "The Intangible Trail," Adamitz Scrupe discusses a key linkage in the American ethos between the pioneer spirit, individualism, and Christian redemption. As a corollary, all image making may be an expression of the human need to experience the sacred in life and, based in a yearning for nature, art on the theme of nature reaffirms the potential for redemptive experiences in nature, partaking of "a transformative process whereby 'the environmental' become sacred nature through art."4

But, as Adamitz Scrupe knows, our American individualism is not always in our best interest and that of nature and a troubling thread has been woven over time through our understanding of self-the sacred-and nature. She tries to unravel this by bringing us into the experience of her art, in her essays, and through her way of life as an artist. A recent study (aimed to illuminate the growing divide between American and European perspectives) coined the term 'American Exceptionalism,' attributing the policies of the Bush administration to deep-rooted American values that come together in this concept. 'American Exceptionalism' locates our individualism at the intersection of our belief in God and in country, making it a national right to act separate from and be privileged over other peoples. This attitude harkens back to our founding as a colony and westward expansion as an expansionist power that has today leapt beyond our continental borders. 5

In an address to artist, Adamitz Scrupe speaks of a shared mission to make a difference, through the images or actions artists can provide, asserting an artist's duty and responsibility on the part of the common good. For her, artmaking is a special province of possibility. She calls upon fellow artists to adopt an 'enduring environmental ethic' that can influence more than art…but our collective future: "We must believe in the value of our contributions, we must believe in the future of the artist as a meaningful contributor to the dialogue that takes place in the broader realm....As humankind decides, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the viability of our very existence, we as artists and visionaries have a responsibility to eschew the self-limiting market-driven forces in the art community, to join the broader community and embrace the humanitarian and planetarian. I believe that only then can we make a direct connection to the creative impulses which will help us lead the way into a more just, sane, and healthy global future". 6 In her making and mission that move the genres of art and the identity of the artist beyond self-interest, Mara Adamitz Scrupe rightly dubs herself anew: a "public environmental artist."

Mary Jane Jacob
New York

1 Barbara Mitilsky, Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists' Interpretations and Solutions (New York: Rizzoli, 1992), p. 14.

2 Edward Moran, ed., The Global Ecology (New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 1999), p. 4

3 For a discussion of this concept see White, Lynn Jr. "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" Science, March 10, 1967, p. 1203-7.

4 Mara Adamitz Scrupe, "The Intangible Trail," Public Art Review no. 23 (September 2000), p. 8.

5 National Public Radio, Morning Edition, November 11, 2003, Bob Edwards's interview with John Parker discusses America's traditional emphasis on patriotism, religion and individualism. He said: "For me, the heart of American Exceptionalism lies in three distinctive public attitudes. Americans are more patriotic than most people…91% of Americans said they were very patriotic. Americans are much more religious than most countries. Half of Americans go to church…70% or 80% say that you have to believe in God to be a moral person…The third is a sort of social attitude. Americans are more individualistic, and Europeans are more collective….I think that unilateralism is rooted, in this sense that America is a model for the rest of the world… that it's unilateralist, that it pays no attention to the rest of the world, that it's tearing up international treaties left, right and center....the roots of the administration's characteristics deep in American history."

6 Mara Adamitz Scrupe, "Finding Courage Off the Beaten Path: Examining the Roles and Resources of Provincial Artists in the Next Millennium," Keynote Address, Mid-American College Art Association, Lexington, Kentucky, 1998.


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