Earth’s Palette: Changing perspective through Nature’s work
May 11, 2018
Words: Ginni Seehagel
Ginni Seehagel is an artist and writer living in Vancouver, British Columbia whose work is grounded in careful observation of nature. She frames parallels between the human and the natural in hope of encouraging a greater state of awareness.
As humans we spend most of our time standing sprouted, perpendicular to Earth’s surface. We look out at its features seeing its design most often at a horizontal cross-section. Moving through landscapes or past them in our busy daily lives, we can take for granted the many things we’ve seen before, and therefore feel we know everything there is to know about the place we inhabit. In a world that already ‘works’, we rarely initiate a change in perspective, and in turn, our perceptions of the environment remain somewhat limited.
Looking out into a landscape is a ritual I’m sure we can all appreciate – the way the Rockies erupt from prairie land making us feel smaller or full of intrigue, how the horizon warms up at sunrise or set, pulling us in and leveling us out. These experiences are universally valued – their characteristics surely recognizable.
“Detail has always held me, but I’ve become more fixated on Nature's finer marks since I started walking more seriously and changing my viewpoint whenever possible.”
As an artist and frequent walker, I’ve learned that a change in perspective sometimes requires a new physical position – a transformation from the usual upright posture, to moving oneself to lie parallel to the Earth, obtaining the coveted bird’s eye view. Looking down instead of out shifts things from the three-dimensional world we’re used to, to nearly two-dimensional, flattening out even more so with increased distance.
Detail has always held me, but I’ve become more fixated on nature's finer marks since I started walking more seriously and changing my viewpoint whenever possible. It began with crouching on beaches, focusing until what I previously knew, or thought I knew, suddenly appeared as something else. Sand cut up by frozen runoff looks different from a low top-down position.
I noticed that when I focused on only what I saw instead of thinking of the land as a whole, my brain’s registration changed. I’d go from seeing a beach, to sand and ice, to simply shapes, colours, and textures arranged as they are in a painting – Nature’s abstract work. In seeing land in parts instead of whole, the grander context is removed. Rather than known environment, it becomes a picture with various elements coming in and out of the frame depending how you station yourself and move along.
This sensation only magnifies with distance, allowing compositions to be seen on a much larger scale, resembling murals. During a stay in an Icelandic guesthouse a couple of years ago I came across a book exclusive to aerial captures of the island's various regions. I was perplexed. Glacial rivers were brushstrokes leaching in from all sides, contrasting perfectly against the rusty reds and cool greys of mineral-laden soil. ‘This couldn’t be land’ I thought. I had never seen it this way. I admired it deeply. When we left and returned to the road it seemed to humble or at least impress me. My eyes were drawn to the roadside more carefully. The horizontal layers of Earth in the form of frozen fields, deep cutting canyons and snow-capped rocks were also the abstract images I’d seen in the book. How fantastic! It was solidified – what we think we see, is not all there is. Or as the old cliché suggests ‘There’s always more than meets the eye.’
Historically I’ve been most comfortable at sea level. I’ve filled a lot of time looking out across seascapes and lakes, off to silhouetted mountains in various lights, instinctively studying and memorizing known inventory. The idea of going ‘up’ didn't especially appeal to me, in fact it deterred me by instilling an intense fear. Scrambling up and looking down was only something I wanted to do to get out of a situation, not into one. Many hikes with friends were spent leg-locked wishing the earth underfoot would disintegrate, sending me back down to what I knew with ease. It wasn’t until I’d seen the book of aerials and made the connection between walking and crouching that I had any willingness to fly high.
“Moving through landscapes or past them in our busy daily lives, we can take for granted the many things we’ve seen before.”
“Glacial rivers were brushstrokes leaching in from all sides, contrasting perfectly against the rusty reds and cool greys of mineral-laden soil.”
Writing has taken me along routes of photographers, and recently though reluctantly, into the upper atmosphere to note some of Canada’s most pristine northern and coastal areas. Advice received pre-flights included, “Just keep taking pictures”, implying that I’d be less scared. This logic didn’t bring confidence to the thought of hovering about in structures made of steel and glass, propelled by not much more than a couple of giant fans – until I was up there. The photography diversion actually ended up being pretty solid advice. Once I got over the initial feeling of stomach-to-throat and pressed my forehead as close as it could go against the back of my camera, manic thought disappeared.
“Remove the context”, something told me, and it worked. Within the rubber boundaries of my camera’s viewfinder and through the tunnel vision of its lense, I saw only the paintings again instead of land that in reality, I was very high above. Shadows against steep mountain faces were merely shading and contour. All of it had nothing to do with me or my previous ideas. I was just a viewer at a moving gallery. With no frame of reference, my brain had nothing to base its fear upon anymore. It didn’t understand that I was above, and with that I gained the ability to sit comfortably with illusion, gaining presence and an appreciation for new knowledge.
The job of an artist can be to inform, to introduce new viewpoints, to prompt celebration for the things that exist, and to leave us wondering about those we’ve never seen. This process brings a greater understanding of our environment, and even further seasons our capacity for empathy. Earth offers us this experience through its many works. It’s up to us how we position ourselves to see.