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The Floating World

Burlington City Arts & Shelburne Farms, Vermont


Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Invited by DJ Hellerman, curator, to create a commissioned body of work that would enable me to continue my future-focused, environmental art in and around Burlington, Vermont in conjunction with Of Land + Local 2014 exhibition. The shoreline of Lake Champlain at Shelburne Farms, a historic Vanderbilt estate designed by Frederick Olmsted, gone literally to ruin by the 1970s and resurrected as an inspired eco-farm teaching by example sustainable farming and conservation. This became the site to imagine the future, illuminate the present while creating visual and verbal dialogues regarding the environmental issues currently at play in the region.

The water’s edge is packed with fragile ecosystems that in order to thrive depend upon our custodial attention to its maintenance. Burlington’s beloved recreational areas, sunset beaches, nostalgic campfire gatherings, local, sustainable farming practices and sunken ships, are juxtaposed with blue-green algae blooms, excess phosphorus run-off and poor water quality, invasive species, local farming run off, and loss of biodiversity, all of which represent perfect binaries where past, present and future collide.

My creative practice is defined by in-depth research, reading, looking and making. While researching information for my work, I came across this quote by David Nix: “when the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away, and all hope is lost, what remains is a true glimpse of humanity at its worst and best, and the question “what makes us human” leaps to the forefront of existence.”

This kernel, this “glimpse of humanity” is at the very core of my art practice, my “mission”. How does art find hope through awareness, knowledge, social engagement, and our own humanity?  The question “what makes us human” is a constant, nagging, question that is ever present in my work. I enjoy the collision of odd intersections of humor with controversy, while deciphering areas of inquiry that are potentially deemed too wacky, too improbable, and too speculative to be “real” science. It is in this creative space of the unknowable, that my work resonates.

Photographs are all about the here and now. They locate the who, what, where, why, when, for a viewer. However, I design my work to do just the opposite…to displace the viewer rather than place them, and invite them to ask, “where am I, why am I here, and how will my life change?” In the book Artists Reclaim the Commons Suzaan Boettger (p 40) writes “For many social and environmental problems what is lacking is not scientific research or technical knowledge, it is social imagination and the ethical will to envision and enact changes in our ways of living.” I make the most compelling images I can make that engage and invite the viewer to contemplate our relationship with the natural world while seeing ourselves as part of the network of living things not segregated from them. For better or for worse we have established ourselves at the top of the natural world, and carry the responsibility of stewardship for it. I photograph nature as it is today, inseparable from us and like us, in turmoil.

A photograph has a remarkable ability to describe the surface of the scene that is in front of the lens. My role as artist is more the role of weaver of a tapestry than singular thread, weaving together a variety of genres of photography – landscape, portrait, still life – as well as video, sculpture, collage and sound, to allude to the complexities and inter-relationships of subject and content, like the ecosystem illustrations in National Geographic that I loved as a child. These cross sections depict slices of life systems that become perfect metaphors for my work, as I aspire to reveal both the forces that shape the surface of the earth that we can’t see and only imagine, while beautifully depicting fragile and threatened landscapes that we can see. For me, making a photograph is more creating an act of interpretation than a document of what is in front of the lens.

I am often asked if my photographs are manipulated, digital constructions, but they are not, since I truly believe life is stranger than fiction.

Water is many things at once, sacred and profane, creative and destructive, long associated with the magical, the mysterious, and the divine.

The relationship between farming and water became the crux of my work for the exhibition Of Land and Local. Without water, nothing would or could grow, thrive, or reproduce; an obvious but profound realization. With too much water, we would not survive either, as Vermont knows all too well from experiencing flooding that resulted from Hurricane Irene. The earth, our survival, all living things, literally teeters in the balance between flood and drought.  We “float” on this fundamental element of water and depend upon nature’s perfect balance of ebb and flow, of constant change and the continuous movement between rain, snow, wind, evaporation, rivers, lakes, tides, oceans, sky, and groundwater. The natural world is constantly in flux; nothing is fixed in time and like Hokusai’s profound work of art The Great Wave, finds beauty in the impermanent.

The title The Floating World directly references a Japanese concept Ukiyo-e, which literally translates to “floating world”. This defined 17th-19th century prints and paintings of the merchant class who found themselves beneficiaries of rapid economic growth, and the term came to describe their hedonistic lifestyle which seems a unique parallel to today’s economic status in America. This concept was central to forming the West’s perception of Japanese art. Ukiyo-e also translates as the sorrowful world and this duality seems an appropriate one as America expands and contracts between great wealth and poverty, and the tides of displaced cultural anxiety is at its highest point since the World Wars. I’ve been equally inspired by the London designer John Warwicker’s book The Floating World Ukiyo-E, that also plays with flux and flow of ideas that defines his creative insights. 

The process of making art creates a world from the world, by transforming and transcending the naturally experienced, the artist maps his or her world as their document of this symbiotic process.

John Warwicker

The Floating World – Ukiyo-e

Creating a suite of portraits where all things – people, objects, and animals – float in water, specifically Lake Chaplain on the shores of Shelburne Farms, celebrating both the workers of Shelburne Farms, with appropriate, meaningful, and metaphorical “props”, and the products/ produce/animals that are planted, harvested, and raised at Shelburne Farms, I portray our fragility and uncertainty while emphasizing our humanity and hopefulness to enact change. Referencing the many interpretations of water – from the biblical and the mythic, to the contemporary and the humorous, I explore all aspects of the floating world.

Lake Champlain, as I have come to know and observe at Shelburne Farms Bay, has many moods. Calm, serene, inviting one moment, angry, choppy white capped the next. But by day’s end, the waters still, usually finding equilibrium, lyrically flushed pink with glowing hues of florescent orange.

By placing humans in water, and a chilly body of water at that, I literally take humanity out of its comfort zone, out of our element of firm ground, and subject my collaborators to the constant flux of movement, tides, currents, waves, wind and rain, clouds, and ever changing light, to contemplate together the ever changing impermanence of the world, and how we find meaning in that space.

Photographically, I explore the sites where land and water are engaged in a tug of war, of domination and reclamation, fascinated by the many intersections of dry and wet as they “ebb and flow”, though not in response to any gravitational tidal pull, but rather as interpretations of the profound human struggle to adapt to this ever changing spongy territory, to provoke and engage in conversations about global warming and climate change to locate humans on decidedly firmer ground of sustainability and social change.



I want to acknowledge first the support of Burlington City Arts and its entire full time and volunteer staff; in particular Executive Director Doreen Kraft and Assistant Curator Ashley Landers, who have all been generous, enthusiastic and welcoming. I am indebted to Curator DJ Hellerman, whose glorious invitation sparked more than I possibly imagined at the start of this project and whose intelligence and “art smarts” I have come to rely on and trust.

Shelburne Farms has been the perfect, hospitable, and willing partner, both providing housing and the site of incredible inspiration! In particular I would like to thank Tre McCarney, who has been a fantastic partner and constant source of information regarding the history, the programs, and the people who thrive at Shelburne Farms. O Bread Bakery generously donated their delicious loaves of bread for a photograph, and believe me, it pained me to put their delectable products in the water.

Lastly, I extend a heartfelt thanks to the individuals who volunteered to participate, ne collaborate with this crazy idea of mine to wade into the June coldness of Lake Champlain in the wee hours of many chilly mornings – some not once but twice – to produce these remarkable images. The creations of which seemed to have floated outside of time, space, and contemporary life; a gift of cosmic convergences that are born of being at the right place at the right time with the right people. Without them, this work would not exist and I am exquisitely grateful for their time and trust. This work is dedicated to the incredibly generosity of spirit my subjects gifted me:


Holly Brough Tre McCarney & family

Rachel Cadwallader-Staub Craig Newman

Josh Carter Gennifer Noble

Vera Chang Gina Pandolfo

Callie Douglass Bjorn Shulke

DJ Hellerman Martin Tierney

David Jonah Marshall Webb

Maura Linehan Cat Wright


Working Bibliography

The American Farmer: The Heart of Our Country

Paul Mobley (photographer), Katrina Fried (writer)


The Farmer in Us All: An American Portrait

Paul Harvey


The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love.

Kristin Kimball


The Last Farmer: An American Memoir

Howard Kohn


Ebb and Flow: Tides and Life on Our Once and Future Planet

Tom Koppel


Ecologies, Environments, and Energy Systems in Art of the 1960s and 1970s.

James Nisbet


Art + Science Now.

Stephen Wilson


Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews.

Donald Barthelme, Kim Herzinger, John Barth


Why the Tides Ebb and Flow

Joan Chase Bowden


Dickinson and Whitman: Ebb and Flow

audio cassette


Lake Champlain: An Illustrated History

Adirondack Life


Lake Champlain: A Natural History

Mike Winslow, Glenn Novak, Libby Walker Davidson


Taking the Waters: Spirit Art Sensuality

Alev Lytle Croutier


Water: A Spiritual History

Ian Bradley


An Artist of the Floating World (A Novel)

Kazuo Ishiguro


Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity

Sandra Postel


Celebrating the Source: Water Festivities of Southeast Asia

Lindy Poh