Nick Neddo with his handmade art supplies - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR (sevendaysvt.com)
Nick Neddo Interview
A Sustainable Art Practice & the Paradigm Shift that May Accompany it
Anna Chapman, 2020
In October of 2020, I interviewed artist/educator Nick Neddo to learn more about what a sustainable art practice entails. To my delight, our conversation taped into a cosmological paradigm shift that often accompanies place-based creative practices. In the following essay I will provide a brief summary of Nick Neddo’s work while cross-referencing his theory and praxis with the notions of holistic education (as discussed by Bell Hooks in Engaged Pedagogy, 1998) and transformative criticism (as discussed by Edmund O’Sullivan in The Project and Vision of Transformative Education, 2002). I am interested in the potential for a sustainable art practice to serve as a vehicle towards remembering that we are embedded in this world, not apart from it. I will also reflect on the practical limitations of taking up this work in an institutional setting as well as the accessibility limitations of who has access to the natural world.
Nick Neddo is a 6th Generation vermonter who grew up exploring the wetlands, forests and fields of his bioregion. He recognized early on that he would become a life-long apprentice to the study of the natural world, Stone Age Technology (popularly known as primitive skills), and creating art. While Nick does make art from the tools he crafts, I appreciate the making of these tools to be an art form in itself.
“Making your own tools (and processing materials for doing so) from the landscape is unbelievably satisfying on a profound and even instinctive level. Much of this satisfaction comes from the process of transformation that occurs each time we make something from another thing. One of the results of making things from the landscape by hand is the unavoidable deepening of one’s knowledge of (and relationship to) the local bioregion where we live. Through working with raw materials, we begin to learn to speak the language of that particular material. We have to use our awareness in order to observe the specific characteristics, strengths and limitations that are unique to the material. Through this level of interaction a conversation begins, where we learn to be receptive to the feedback the raw materials provide as we manipulate them to take the shape and function that we desire. Ultimately this level of participation with the landscape is a path to help us remember that we are part of its natural history and ecology, not just a visitor like an astronaut on a foreign planet.”
Taking up a “sustainable art practice” sounds like something most artists and art educators might consider today as we face the inconvenient consequences of unsustainable practices within and outside the classroom/studio. But logistically speaking, a sustainable art practice is not a simple feat, especially in an institution setting where schools/organizations may be intertwined with corporations providing their supplies. Further, entertaining transformative criticism is a daunting task. It’s calling for a shift at a foundational level, not just with regard to materials, but in pace and perspective. However, it is my belief that should one embark on the labor and inconvenience required to transition toward a sustainable art practice (for instance, foraging & crafting your own materials), they will be taking up a holistic practice that will give back in previously unforeseen ways.
In her text, Engaged Pedagogy, Bell Hooks calls for holistic approaches to education; taking into account not just the mind, but the body and the spirit of the student. Hooks intersects Brazililan educator and philosopher Paolo Friere’s notion of “conscientization” with Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nat Han’s framework of engaged Buddhism. “Conscientization'' embraces education as a tool toward freedom; to come into consciousness of one’s agency in the world. Both Friere and Han emphasize the importance of active engagement and reflection in the learning process, linking awareness with practice. Further, it is Thich Nat Han’s buddhist philosophy that offers a refreshing emphasis on wholeness; a union of mind, body, and spirit. This emphasis on wholeness helps cultivate knowledge about how to live in the world. Carrying notions of reflection and active engagement outside the classroom and into the natural world can have a huge impact. The outdoors become the teacher, forcing us out of anthropocentrism. Continuing this thread of holistic education as a means to address how we live in the world, I would like to carry us over to Edmund O’Sullivan’s text regarding Transformative Education.
A deep rooted shift toward sustainability, in the way that Nick Neddo exercises, entails a transformative criticism that is so immense, most people/institutions may not feel prepared or up for responding to. Transformative criticism, as defined by Edmund Sullivan, is “a form of criticism that calls into question the fundamental mythos of the dominant cultural form and indicates that the culture can no longer viably maintain its continuity and vision”...maintaining that “the dominant culture is no longer “formatively appropriate” (O’Sullivan, Integral Transformative Education).
There is immense capacity for healing to occur when taking up bioregional engagement at this level. That healing may happen on a communal level, for instance, working toward autonomy through direct connection to resources. It may happen on a personal level, such as the repairing of one’s relationship to their environment or the wide array of psychological and emotional benefits that are commonly appreciated to result from time spent in nature (see “ecotherapy” of “forest bathing” to learn more). And further, it may happen on an environmental level, such as the repair of ecosystems.
When we talk about the growth and well being of any person, we must also recognize that their growth and well-being is inextricably linked to the health and well-being of the environment which they are embedded in. To not appreciate the health of the land is literally in-sane. In the least because we are demarcating ourselves from the livelihood of our future kin. Considering the fractalized sense of self/community and resource insecurity exacerbated by globalization it is necessity to take into account bioregional awareness in contemporary education.
Lastly, I want to revisit some important limitations came up in speaking with Nick about this work. 1. Access to land. 2. Lack of feasibility in an institutional setting. 3. Impracticality for artists.
Who has access to land? The settler colonial impetus to privatize land is antithetical to Nick’s desired means of engaging with the natural world. Nonetheless, it is an imposition that must be considered when reflecting on who has access to this practice. Nick points out that even in a dense city setting one has access to the natural world.
(taken up earlier in essay)
Artists often want to hit the canvas running. Making your own art materials takes a lot of prep time.
Artists can take up a sustainable art practice without going through the trouble of wild-crafting their own art materials. Start by paying more attention to the materials being used: how are they sourced? What does their after-life look like? How will they be disposed of?