Prove your humanity

The walls of artist Ashley Cecil’s studio are covered with flora and fauna, from shapes of different bird species cut from brown paper to bold images of flowers in pink and green.

The space reflects Cecil’s tenure as artist-in-residence at some of Pittsburgh’s major nature and science institutions, like the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Phipps Conservatory and a herpetology lab at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s just finished another at Tree Pittsburgh, a nonprofit which protects and grows the city’s urban forest.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple visited Cecil at her studio to talk about the art she’s produced from her six months at the organization’s headquarters and nursery. The new exhibition is called FRUITFUL, and will be on display through September 26, 2019.

LISTEN to their conversation

KH: What draws you to this intersection of art and science and nature?

AC: In 2015, I did a really loose residency project, where I hopped around the National Aviary, the Natural History Museum, and a few other places adding specimens from each of those locations to a series of paintings. It was really for the aesthetic of it.

But I started asking the staff,” What happened to that bird? Why is it dead?” I got these very elaborate answers, based on science, about what’s happening to nature because of human impact. And it just opened the floodgates. There was no going back. 

KH: So you’ve spent six months at Tree Pittsburgh, which has a nursery along the Allegheny River. What did you learn about trees there that you didn’t know before?

AC: I was sort of embarrassed that probably, at the outset of the project, I could only tell you that they produced oxygen, and that they were probably good for our home values–really surface level things.

I was blown away by what I learned, from reading research from individuals like Frances (Ming) Kuo, who was in Pittsburgh last year receiving the Heinz Award for Environment. Her research shows really surprising things, like having a green landscape in a city reduces urban crime rates.

But then on the public health front, how trees reduce asthma rates and mitigate storm-water runoff. When you hear about these landslides in Pittsburgh, because of all this additional really quick rainfall and these flash floods that we’re having–that’s something trees can help with. We come up with these infrastructure projects to help mitigate that, and all the while we’re cutting down more trees for development, which seems really backwards. 

Ashley Cecil standing in front of a wallpaper print entitled “Reciprocal Service”. Photo by Kara Holsopple.

KH: Tell me about some of the pieces.

AC: A good place to start are these Kentucky coffee tree seed pods.

I was given these by Joe Stavish at Tree Pittsburgh. He’s the education coordinator. He uses these for an activity that he does with children to talk about the importance of humans being stewards of trees, because this tree co-evolved with mega-fauna like woolly mammoth. It was a rare creature that had the ability to take off the hard coating of the seeds through its digestive system, which allowed the seed to germinate once it came out the other end. Now that the creature is gone, this tree is dwindling. We don’t see it as often. 

KH: Are you saying this tree has been around since the woolly mammoth?

AC: Yes, it has. So it relies on humans now, because it doesn’t have the creature that it co-evolved with. It’s important because this tree species is really fantastic for urban settings. It’s drought tolerant, can also tolerate really poor soil, and it’s also disease resistant, which is really key. So we need more of these trees in our city settings, because it thrives there. 

“Germination Pending”, a piece from the FRUITFUL exhibition. Seed pods are painted over with their eventual flowers. Photo courtesy of Cecil.

KH: Describe what the seed pods look like. They’re very large. 

AC: They’re huge. Most of them are at least six inches long. They kind of have this messy, banana shape to them, but they’re dark brown. They’re kind of rough looking.

So what I’ve done to bring something to draw you into them is that I’ve taken actual gold, and I’ve drawn the mature tree leaves and the flowers that this tree produces on them. So there are these delicate gold drawings of what the tree looks like when we involve ourselves in ensuring that this species continues to thrive, to basically illustrate what beauty comes of this. 

“The whole idea is that this philosophy of caring for trees should be in everyday life.”

One of the main themes in this show is what I’ve been calling “reciprocal service.” To gain these benefits from trees, we have to be involved in their care, their planting, and their maintenance. So I’ve created a contemporary twist on a French toile wallpaper, (shown above) where I’ve created four vignettes of people caring for trees. This includes Tree Pittsburgh staff and the tree nursery. We’ve got a family underneath a fruit tree picking some apples. This pattern is repeated all over the show, but they’re also put onto textiles and home decor products, like pillows, chairs and even upcycled some vintage plates with these patterns that have been refired with those vignettes on them.

The whole idea is that this philosophy of caring for trees should be in everyday life. We’re bringing that into the home, in a similar way that the decorative arts and arts and crafts movement had done–that these this love of flora and fauna is in and around us everyday, and not just up on a pedestal.

KH: There is a lot of art about trees, from poetry to paintings, going back as far as we have representation. What do you want people to think or feel about trees when they see your work, at this moment in time.

AC: I want them to think of them as more than decorative. I feel like we’ve lost touch with why they’re important, and I’m hoping that this work can spark a reconnection.

It’s not just fluff, and it’s not just for landscaping. They are critical for our health, and it’s diminishing. We’re losing our tree canopy. Every year it goes down a little bit more. We’re losing some to development. We’re also losing trees because of disease. We’re losing them because of invasive species that are being introduced, which these trees just can’t tolerate.

I mean, my goodness, they are given these teeny little plots of land along streets to absorb all the water they need, which is typically inadequate, as well as having to face the utility companies, too, that are constantly cutting them back.

So there are a lot of attacks that we have to face, and that can be done through ordinances, it can be done through tree plantings. That’s why I’m really thrilled to draw people into Tree Pittsburgh, because they’re really on the front line. So I want people to understand that importance, and to realize that we need to be actively engaged as stewards.

Where are the Trees Going in Allegheny County?