Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Webinar: How Artist Bethany Taylor Strings Together Nature's Relationships

Webinar: How Artist Bethany Taylor Strings Together Nature's Relationships
January 26, 2022

Amanda Sciandra:
I'm Amanda Sciandra from the National Museum of Natural History. I'm a brown haired woman, wearing a blue and red shirt with pink and white flowers, sitting in front of a full bookshelf and a window with the plant. And on screen is an image of a fiber drawing, and the date and time of tonight's event, How Artist Bethany Taylor Strings Together Nature's Relationships. Thank you all for joining us.

A couple of standard housekeeping notes for those who are new to our programs. First, closed captions are available by clicking the arrow next to the CC button on the Zoom toolbar. We'll open up for audience Q&A after the conversation, but please feel free to submit your questions at any time in the Q&A box on that Zoom toolbar. The Q&A does go by so quickly, so please help us answer as many questions as possible by submitting your questions as you have them. And if your question is just for Bethany or just for our moderator, please let us know when you submit it.

All right. This discussion is the fourth in a series of talks last Fall and this Winter with artists featured in one of our current exhibitions, Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans. We're hosting two more events, one next month and one in March, so follow the link in the Q&A to find out more.

Tonight's featured artist is Bethany Taylor. Bethany will be in conversation with Joanna Marsh, co-curator of the Unsettled Nature exhibition. Joanna is deputy education chair and head of interpretation and audience research at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where she develops audience centered interpretive content and experiences for the museum's collections and exhibitions. From 2007 to 2015, Joanna was the curator of contemporary art at the American Art Museum. Many of her curatorial projects, including Unsettled Nature, focus on the intersection of contemporary art and environmental issues. Joanna will be moderating our next event in February as well. Thank you to Joanna and Bethany, and to all of you for joining us today. Joanna, I turn it over to you.

Joanna Marsh:
Thanks so much for that introduction, Amanda. It's a real pleasure to be with you again this afternoon and into the early evening, and to be in conversation with Bethany Taylor, one of seven artists included in the Unsettled Nature exhibition. And before I introduce our featured guest, I want to take just a couple minutes to provide an overview of the exhibition, which as Amanda said, will be on view through this March.

The exhibition is the result of a unique territorial collaboration between myself and Scott Wing, who's a paleoclimatologist at the Natural History Museum. If you have attended other events in this program series, you know that the exhibit and the work featured within it is a meditation on the influence that humans now have on all of Earth's natural systems and on how the effects are both visually stunning and sobering. Each of the artist in the exhibition aims to set us back on our heels, to surprise, unsettle and awaken us to humankind's cumulative impact on the planet in the hope of inspiring reflection and action.

In September, I spoke with artist, David Maisel, whose aerial photographs you see here invite us to gaze upon landscapes forever transformed by human industry. In October, we spoke with Ellie Irons, she discussed the value of urban plants and what she calls "weedy species", and helped us rethink our notions of nature and beauty through her photographs of wild urban lots. Then in December, Andrew Yang shared his project of attempting to grow plants from seeds found inside birds that have died in collisions with urban buildings. This mournful yet hopeful project draws attention to the ecosystems that are interrupted by human development.

And finally, this afternoon we'll hear about the intricate and entangled ecosystems that are increasingly imperiled by human impact. Artist Bethany Taylor's sprawling installations of tapestries and fiber drawings evoke the interconnectedness of the natural world and comment on the fragility of our landscapes. Bethany Taylor is an associate professor at the University of Florida, and her work reveals ecological and sociopolitical narratives embedded in everyday materials, and employs drawing and textile craft as social and political activism. She received a BFA from the University of Southern California and an MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Taylor's work has been exhibited nationally and internationally at museums, galleries and art spaces such as the Seattle Arts Commission Gallery, Site:Brooklyn, the Athens Institute for Contemporary Art New Mexico, as well as a number of international venues in Berlin, Italy, and further afield. Bethany currently lives and works in Gainesville, Florida. She's tuning in tonight from her studio. And it is now my pleasure to introduce Bethany Taylor and have her share some of her work.

Bethany Taylor:
Thank you for the nice introduction. And thanks for inviting me to be in the show with a lot of artists that I've really admired for quite some time. To give people a little background on my work, most of my art is rooted in experimental drawing practices using materials and textiles as sociopolitical metaphors. And for thousands of years, textiles have been an intricate part of everyday human life. Cross-culturally, textiles have exhibited both humility as well as great status, wealth and power. They've clothed us, protected us, told stories for us. Traditionally, textiles were derived from animals, plants and minerals, but in the 20th century, many textiles began to be made of petroleum derived synthetic fibers. Both types of materials are perfect metaphors for human relationships with the environment, and with the extraction and manipulation of material resources.

So, I'd like to begin. I'm showing some of the slides from the series, but I'd like to begin talking about this series of woven drawings “To Write in Silent Marks”. It's a series of emblematic tapestries that serve as cautionary tales. They remind us about age old problems of overconsumption, violence, misuse of power and resources, and a general lack of care about the environment. The Jacquard weaving in this project is digital. I draw from collaged images appropriated from life and mass media, and I weave them together to make conceptual connection between the historical purposes of emblems and tapestries as everyday news and other forms of cultural propaganda today, such as print and social media.

I use Latin text to refer to medieval allegories and books of emblem, which historically, through image and text, together inspired people to reflect on moral lessons. And my tapestries do tell stories about the Anthropocene while acknowledging this historical origin and our escalating power of human disregard for the natural world that began really there.

Another idea that I have been really involved in is this idea of the “hyperobject”. And this is a piece 21st century albatross, it's an adaptable wall installation of a growing accumulation of engraved drawings on plastic. Object-oriented philosopher, Timothy Morton, coined this term “hyperobject” to explain objects so massively distributed in time and space that they transcend locations, such as climate change, evolution, plastic, styrofoam, to name a few. Hyperobjects are non-local, they're atemporal, they're massively distributed in time and space, they occupy a space that involves them being completely invisible to humans for stretches of time. And they're basically--they are time-stretched to such a vast extent that they become impossible for us to hold in mind. And this is the problem of fully seeing the hyperobject that is a real thing like climate change, we can't get our mind around something that vast.

So I've created this gradually growing installation of recycled plastic as my own visualization of this hyperobject of plastic accumulation in ocean gyros to make visible the invisible and the long lasting waste products of human manufacturing and capitalist consumption. Plastic is basically our 21st century albatross. And as we know, it has a long and destructive lifespan of over 1,000 years. And a lot of times I like to implicate myself in these by in this installation I'm literally throwing trash on my daughter to realize that it's hard for us all to make changes in this way.

I also like on this idea of trying to capture the real and sometimes invisible. I'm drawn to the idea of the line itself. Artist Salowitz said, "Obviously, a drawing of a person is not a real person, but a drawing of a line is a real line." And I like this idea of the integrity of a line or a thread that can be woven into an image, it can be undone, unwoven, it's an ecology of strands that can be destroyed, rewoven again and there's something new. And I like that idea that they always retain their same strand no matter what you do to them, how you manipulate them. And that becomes a great metaphor, again, for the state of flux that I see our ecology in, in this time of dramatic change.

The work I'm showing at the Smithsonian is part of my "Unraveling Ecology" series, and so I wanted to show just briefly a couple of those. This is “River Unraveled”. This is a New Mexico panoramic horizonless New Mexico landscape in a time of dramatic climate change. The narrative centers on the Rio Grande, and there are so many complicated political human dynamics around water, drought, and climate change that threaten this ecosystem. The installation includes images of human consumption of water resources, extinct and endangered birds and fish, as well as struggling wildlife of the region in living and skeletal form. And also I have Runoff Verdure, which unravels the story of Florida's toxic algae coated waterways. This is caused by inadequately treated sewage, pesticides, manure and fertilizer literally choking our waterways and creating dead zones in our ecology that are harmful to both humans and wildlife.

And I love that these installations of unraveling ecologies can change each time they adapt to a new space. And that prompts me to do research on new locations and specific ecological challenges of each space. So, when asked to do an exhibit at the Smithsonian in Unsettled Nature, I wanted to introduce the new ecology situated in the Northeast region of the United States. And here's the installation, it's got three intertwining ecologies, the Amazon, the Northeast United States and the Arctic. And the next here is the Amazon rainforest and part of the Northeast section. This prominent fire extinguisher on the wall I was given totally changed my installation plans because I knew that the Amazon forest tapestry that's burning had to be on that wall. So a lot of times, wherever I install this work, it speaks to me what I'm supposed to do with it. These are adaptable to different spaces.

There's a king vulture, there's a Cayman, jaguar, sloths, various types of monkeys. And on the Northeast part of the wall it features Hurricane Sandy, the deadly and destructive superstorm that hit the Northeast in 2012. And there's a human skeleton that's not quite life sized, but it's getting there, that's holding an umbrella accompanied by the adaptable coyote in skeletal form. And coyotes adapt to all kinds of spaces, so I like to use them as a metaphor too.

Next, there's more images in the Northeast going on to the Arctic. I love showing these different kinds of ecologies together because they really do start to intertwine and even some of the wildlife is in multiple locations. But here there's wolves, salmon, lobster, Eastern rat snake, Eastern puma skeleton which essentially vanished from the Northeast but can still be found in other parts of the country.

These sprawling installations also intentionally place the viewer directly inside the narrative. Unlike traditional landscapes, which utilize Western perspective and privilege the artist or viewer, if I'm looking at something, it moves with me, I like this meandering landscape that can be seen from multiple perspectives at once. So it's less able to be contained or controlled by the human eye, but simply experienced in applied state of flux.

And here's the Arctic tapestry, and you can see how it's woven. Essentially, each color is a different strand. And so I unweave parts of those and use some of the texture from that, you can see it up close. And then I use the same strands that were used to create the tapestry to create the drawings that surround them. And here's a caribou. And research shows that climate change is disrupting migration and birthing patterns of caribou, and this increased frequency of icing or these thaw and freeze events are leading to their starvation. An Arctic hare, it switches from brown to white, camouflaging them from predators, but with climate change they may no longer be able to sync with their environment. And this Arctic fox.

And of course, polar bears are part of this Arctic. And we hear a lot about them in the media right now, which is good that it seems like people are caring about that and the loss of some of these animals that are suffering because of melting glaciers. This butterfly is a fleeting feeling that I wanted in this. Here's the burning Amazon. And fires are increasing by the thousands in the Amazon and they're mostly caused by agricultural practices, illegal clearing of land and deforestation. And the jaguar, of course, is part of that ecology. And scientists think that in the short term they might be okay, but with deforestation and extreme weather events, there could be a loss of wild prey, and they're also illegally hunted.

And the maned wolf, it didn't used to be found in the Amazon rainforest, but now there's frequent sightings as the savannas to the South are being burned and climate change is altering the landscape on the edges of the rainforest. Hyacinth macaw, their populations are decreasing, habitat diminishing, hunting and rare bird trade. And I have an adult tapir and a baby tapir, one's a skeleton just reminding us of the whole life cycle and that things are impermanent. The green anaconda is one of the largest snakes in the world and it also is invasive, and a lot of people import these as exotic pets and they end up in places they shouldn't be like Florida.

And the three banded armadillo, they're threatened but highly adaptable. And this cruises into the Northeastern part of the installation in the center of the narrative is Hurricane Sandy from a NASA satellite image. And scientists predict that warming climates and warmer waters may increase the intensity and occurrence of these storms, and hurricanes and flooding may become more prevalent. This will be really disruptive to urban areas as well as the fishing industries, and also pose destruction to the habitats for wildlife. And here you can see a white-tailed deer. And so I research the area and some of the animals. Here's a river otter, they're all over the US, but in the Northeast they're diminishing and people are concerned with habitat destruction, illegal hunting and trapping, it's a concern.

And I thought it was appropriate to end my talk with a bald eagle, our national emblem, and actually a conservation success story, at least for now, we should say. In 1978, the bird was listed as protected after their numbers severely decreased due to human activities such as hunting, poisoning, as well as DDT causing reproductive failure, and kinder human practices toward bald eagles and the banning of DDT has allowed a comeback. And in 2007, the eagles were removed from the endangered species list.

So I'll end with a story of hope where we bring back a species from near extinction by conscious choice, but it's also a reminder that our human activities remain a threat to fragile ecosystems, which we really need to realize we are a part of and we need to remember that everything is interconnected. And with that, I'll just ... That's the end of my talk.

Joanna Marsh:
Thanks, Bethany, that was fascinating. I really appreciate you sharing so many fantastic details from the Smithsonian installation and other projects. And I'm excited to dig into some of the topics that you raised. Before we do that, I just want to send a reminder to our audience to ask your own questions in the Q&A box at the bottom of your screen. We're keeping track of your questions and we'll get to as many of them as we can after I chat with Bethany. So I think what we'll start with is where you began, Bethany, on talking about your choice of textiles as your primary medium, at least for the bodies of work you've shown us today. And how textiles are part of both a really long art historical tradition, as well as an integral part of our everyday life. And what's drawn you to those materials and what about that dichotomy is so resonant for you?

Bethany Taylor:
Well, for me, it's really that they're inherently political. And just from the very beginning, just even the word "textile," this is a Latin word derived from the word "texture," it means to weave. So it has this root in text. In fact, a lot of the same words that get used to describe textile arts is also used to describe storytelling, like to spin, to draw out, to fleece, like when you swindle someone with your language. And so I like that language and storytelling is already a part of this practice.

And craft has really come into the spotlight in the last little while in contemporary art, and I think it's mostly because of its subversive potential. It was long marginalized in Western art, partly because it was considered women's work, which is part of what I'm most interested in, and also that it was associated with non-Western cultures, which I'm not as interested. I love non-Western textiles, don't get me wrong, but I'm not interested in appropriating them for my use. So I'm much more interested in their use there. A lot of artists didn't like it too because they were associated with decor, or wealth, or religion, or power, but those are the things that I like to attack. So I think to be subversive with that is what I like.

So they've always been political flags, banners, slogans, transform every day textiles. There's quilts that tell stories and are passed down generation to generation. And then clothing too implies the status of the wear, whether it be their culture, their political ideology, like it matters if you're wearing a pink knitted hat in D.C. versus a red baseball hat with the letters MAGA on it embroidered on the front. These things tell us about the culture, and they're inherently political, embedded in the textiles. And we can't forget either that textiles are some of the biggest polluters of the world and they've also been implicated in exploitation of human labor for ages.

So if you go back one slide, I'm sorry, Amanda, I was going to talk a little few minutes about this. So this is a work of mine, sleeping through the dream, where I unweave an American flag blanket from Walmart, and there's these apathetic Americans. And I want to subvert the loaded meaning of this already commercial flag blanket, that the flag will keep you comfortable somehow. So that's what I like is this idea of using textiles to diminish the power they have and also reveal the truths that they tell, whether we like them or not.

This is the apocalypse tapestry at the Château d'Angers in France, and it's a medieval tapestry. And it was commissioned by Louis I, the Duke of Anjou. He was a brother of King Charles V of France. And it was in the 14th century, and these were 90 scenes from the book of Revelations that were created after the Black Plague at a time when basic health was a concern and loss were becoming a part of everyday life. So again, these tapestries are the news of the time.

You can go to the next slide. This is two of the sections of the tapestries details of floods, and blood, and death, and earthquakes. And the Four Horsemen is on the other panel which is representing death as a rotting corpse. And this idea that were waiting in this time of death and suffering, that these somehow brought us comfort but also they were subversive because they were talking about the battle between heaven and hell, but at the same time they were being real about the loss and death. So I like that, that they're embedded with those stories already.

And if you go to the next slide. And from an ecological perspective, I'm interested in Verdure tapestries. This is one Chateau and Garden. They were literally green tapestries and they depicted the flora and fauna of a region, but they were really popular with the wealthy and people that could afford this luxurious décor so they could bring the landscapes into their home. And that idea of owning the landscape is something I definitely want to unravel, that idea of this ideal of landscape that you can have and hold. So I like subverting that idea, and you can go to the next slide, and that's what happens in these pieces that I do. And this is unraveling that ideal landscape to show the problem of increased phosphorus and nitrogen entering these waterways. So I like subverting that power in a way.

Joanna Marsh:
That's great, thank you, Bethany. Seeing this image and the previous ones of the historical tapestries making me wonder about your process more and what you might be willing to share about the making of your tapestries, how that compares with historical tapestries, as well as the fiber drawings that we see surrounded even in this image around the tapestry.

Bethany Taylor:
Yes, you can go to the next slide. But most of the process of tapestries was either hand done, and then technology came along and we started to have the Jacquard loom. And you can see in these two pictures there's actually a punch card system. And really, that allowed it to be just completely translate well to the digital era. And basically, I'm using a Jacquard loom or a Jacquard digitally printed Jacquard tapestry, but it's really the same process, it's just the stored information that then decides what strands of thread to weave together.

If you go to the next slide. And so I produce these tapestries digitally from photos that I've either taken myself or taken from NASA imagery or Google Earth, I've drawn and collaged, sometimes burned them. But I do research in different ways, I visit museums, I talk with lawyers and scientists. And this is me at a museum. And also, if you go the next slide, go on nature walks, and take photos, and do drawings. And then I experiment with these images. And for instance, with the burning tapestry I started out with taking photos from television of burning Amazon rainforest and then I would draw it, watercolor it, take it out, burn it, and I took photos of that. So I like this idea of translating the image, I think it's more true to the way that media has manipulated to tell stories.

And if you go to the next one. This is my studio and you can see the spools of thread that are used to make these tapestries, those same colors I used to make the drawings. And here's the drawings lying on the floor drawing. I use gum Arabic and starch to hold them together just temporarily, and then I have to pack them up. And if you look at the next slide, then I can take them, pack them up and take them to the show. This is the unpacking the tapestry at the Smithsonian. I really like how tapestries can be rolled up, they're really nomadic, so you can get the message across. A painting can't be just folded and sent off. So they really lend themselves to creating messages and I love that transportability.

If you go to the next one. The big challenge with this is getting it from the paper to the wall, because they'll fold in on themselves and destroy themselves as you're trying to put them up, which I think is partly what I like about is that difficulty, but I lose some of them getting them up on the wall. I'm getting much better at it. But I put blue tape on it, and you can see on the walls the blue tape is on there just delicately and I have to peel it back ever so delicately as I pin parts of it.

And if you go to the next slide. I have to pin it really strategically, here's a triangle you can see, so they don't pull apart in any direction. And depending on the way that the drawing is constructed, and they have to be drawn ... it's not like normal drawing, they have to be almost woven while they're being drawn so they don't fall apart, because essentially, there's barely anything holding them together but the pins. Some of the larger ones like that caribou I showed earlier, it could be up to 100 pins to get that thing to the wall, because it's huge. And then I pull them away from the wall and I like the shadow, and it implies this movement. And I always leave strings and stuff so you could pull them and just it would come apart. And I like that idea that it's the pins that are holding it there really.

Joanna Marsh:
I'm so struck, Bethany, in what you've just described by the permanence of tapestries that they can last for centuries and that even when you're installing your own tapestries, you can just roll them up and transport them so easily. And that contrasted with the fiber drawings which you've just described as incredibly fragile and may not even last beyond a single exhibition or even make it through an installation of an exhibition. So I'm curious about these ideas around permanence and impermanence in your work, both in terms of your artistic process as well as the content, which certainly relates to this idea of things that are transient, the world around us. Do you want to talk a little bit more about those ideas?

Bethany Taylor:
Yes, I think even when you called me I was terrified of these being up for a full year, because most of the shows were not more than two months or so, three months maybe. And how it's been up two years, so I know it can handle two years, so that's good. But one of the things I like about these two is I don't need art to outlast me and I don't mind that. What's really frustrating, I think, to collectors is they can't really collect this. Even though they do these are going to fall apart, I have to tell them it's really they're fragile. And I've tried pinning them to the wall or pinning them to things and hopefully making them stay.

But I love how it takes me ... I have to meditate to make these and that's almost like this caring about the environment as I'm making these. And then trying to get them to the wall before they fall apart is caring for these things. And then just accepting that they're going to fall apart is just acceptance of change and death and stuff. You have these impacts but there's just a really poetic way to think about it, just the process. I think it's really beautiful I have to accept difficulty and impermanence in actually making the work. So I mean, I think I like the poetic quality of that, but then just practically, I like the idea of not making waste and recycling things, and I don't need my art to be a commodity, I like the idea that it's more of an educator than something that can be owned or bought and sold. And it's hard to take it apart too.

I also like that it grows, that every time I showed a new place, it changes. If a species becomes extinct, they'll definitely go skeleton. All of a sudden, I'll take that drawing out, I'll put a new drawing in if we discover something. So I love the also changeability of it. You have these landscape paintings that are there for all time, but the reality is our environment is constantly changing. So as a painter, originally, how do I make something that really gets to that aspect of a landscape rather than this idealized form?

Joanna Marsh:
Bethany, what you've just shared, this idea of embracing change, of leaning into the challenges of neo material, but also the idea of the environment continually changing around us seems a perfect segue to a question that I have about, again, process related, but I'm curious how the last two years, working through a global pandemic, have either inspired or forced you to embrace change in your own work or your approach to your practice?

Bethany Taylor:
Well, yes, I mean, it has, it's really difficult to do installations right now. People aren't doing them, they're not traveling for weeks at a time to be there like I was at the Smithsonian every day for eight hours a day for a whole week. So before the pandemic, I was really interested like a lot of my work, some of my work was digital and I liked the physical handcraftedness of these installations. And so it's really disappointing that now this work that's all about being physical and handcrafted is now only being shown on screens. So I had to get over that part of it. So I'm doing research and working on some of these installations, one on the Everglades, and then I'm also doing a sound installation that I foresee showing in the future when it's easier and I can find a venue for it. But they're not far enough along to share.

But what I have been doing is just thinking about how the pandemic has changed all of us. Just prior to the pandemic, my mom died of cancer two months before the pandemic. And then with all the sickness, and suffering, and death that I felt, you could go to the next slide, Amanda, and show some of these works, but I've been working on a new series of drawings, And they're called, "Drawing Breath, Drawing Near." And it's very similar that I like this idea of being out of control, but basically, I just take ink and soap. We're always soaping our hands now and then I just throw it down on the paper, and then I just quietly breath on that material until it stops moving. And when it stops moving, the drawing is done, and I draw a hospital bed on it. And I like the hospital bed as this architecture that's created to just hold a healing or dying body, so it's the last drawing I do on top.

So I've been doing these and they're almost like ... they're actually they sound really morbid and sad, but they're actually healing because just sitting there and just breathing and being aware of your breath as a drawing mechanism has been really good for me just to settle in. So this is a side project that's just a growing group of these drawings.

Joanna Marsh:
Those are beautiful, thank you so much for sharing that end process work with us, Bethany. I think we've got time for you and I do have one more question and then we'll turn to some questions from our audience. So I'm curious, in addition to making art, as I said in the introduction, you also teach studio art courses and art and science courses at the University of Florida. So I'm curious how your role as an educator informs your thoughts on the role of art in the age of humans.

Bethany Taylor:
Yes, I mean, I think for me, because I'm teaching and trying to make art, and that takes a lot of time, I have to consider my teaching my activism. And so I try to use that to do good and to help motivate people, change minds. Art has the ability to attract new audiences, so I really see my role as educating the public. And I love to start conversations across disciplines. So I've taken on classes outside of the studio artists. For instance, I'm teaching right now for the second time Gen Ed course on art and it's called, Art and the Global Citizen, and it basically deals with artists that are making work about globalism, labor, migrations, citizenship, environment, economics or activism. And just bringing art as a strategy to non-art students I really enjoy. I also did a course with science students and a science professor where we paired up an art student and a biology student to create work together. And those discussions that happen in interdisciplinary format, I'm really engaged in.

I also was contacted years ago by Artworks For Change, and I really liked my work being used to educate K-12 folks too. And here you can see that plastic work that I was showing you and it's put together to be a tool for teaching a K-12 about ... well, it wasn't just about plastic, it was about all these kinds of environmental issues that have human impacts and trying to teach students to care about that and see what ways that they can make a difference in the world. So I love that.

And if you go to the next slide, and I also collaborate with artists. And my partner in life, Sean Miller, does this portable biodiversity museum that engages artists and scientists to work together to bring art to the people. So instead of audiences going to the art museum or the science museum, it comes to them at different locations where they wouldn't expect it. And that idea of just engaging new audiences and thinking about the interdisciplinarity of everything, I think, is what I'm all about. That's why I loved it when you contacted me about this show, Unsettled Nature, because I think when people from different disciplines work together for social justice and the good of the planet, that's the best way to do it.

Joanna Marsh:
Great, thank you so much, Bethany. This has been a great conversation. I'm excited to now voice some of the questions that have come in from our audience. So I'm going to start with one that actually I think ... Hey, Amanda. That relates to what you were just speaking about, the confluence of teaching and education with your artistic practice. So there's a question here about, how can art impact and influence behavior change in our culture? It's a big question. Maybe we start with, do you believe that art can impact behavior change or influence behavior change around issues of climate change, for instance?

Bethany Taylor:
Yes, I mean, I wondered this for a long time. And then I have an example of this because the curator of the Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville, after showing this plastic piece at the museum, took all the water bottles out of commission at the Harn Museum. So she just decided after and she told me about it. So she actually said, "Your piece made me rethink whether we should really have these plastic bottles even at our museum." So, I mean, that's just one example. But I like to believe it can. I mean, and there's one thing about art that I think it does different than a spreadsheet. We don't respond to data as much as we would respond to something that's tact or the visual.

And I think even these installations are a lot more didactic than I used to be, but I don't mind that anymore, because I think the urgency of trying to educate people is important enough to me. I love the poetic but I really like people just being in the space and being able to take it on. And I think that's got to make them think, I mean, differently about the information that they're being fed in other ways that are a lot less tactile. It's my hope. It's hard to answer that question, that's a really good question.

Joanna Marsh:
I like your example of the water bottlers, Bethany, it's as a perfect example.

Bethany Taylor:
One other thing I can say, in history, people have tried to silence artists, so that must mean that they're powerful, right? That their messages have an impact, or why would you want to silence them? Right. So I think about that too.

Joanna Marsh:
Okay. Couple questions here about process and we've talked a lot about that already. One question from Kate, which is, “How do you select the different species that are featured in your artworks?”

Bethany Taylor:
It's completely the research. So when I went into the Northeast, I had to think about, first of all, times I've been there and the wildlife I've seen and then I ... I mean, thank goodness for the internet really for being able to actually find all these really good educational sites in almost every region or park system, or whatever it talks about the animals that are inherent in those areas. And so I do research on the area and then I go down these rabbit holes where I'm like, they're in New Mexico but they were also here, but they're not here anymore, like the puma. And I love that idea of how I can start to see the connections between different places I've researched and the animals of those regions, and how they suffer different challenges. And even just thinking about the reintroduction of the wolf to parts of the West, how it's completely brought back ecologies that we thought were dwindling or dying.

So I choose the animals based on what exists and doesn't exist. And I used to be really weird about, which ones are skeletons and which ones are ... And I'm not that way anymore because I think that's in flux and the more research I do I understand things change. Like the bald eagle, the numbers change. And it does reflect our care for these animals. I mean, right now there's a lot others extinctions every day. So we have to remember that too. And there's, according to scientists that I've talked to here at UF, there's still so many species we probably even haven't even discovered. So that's amazing to me.

Joanna Marsh:
Bethany, in all this research that you've done for prior projects, I'm curious, are there landscapes or geographic regions that you haven't yet featured in your work that you're really eager to work on? I understand that some of this is driven by the invitations you get and the locations of the venues for your exhibitions, but beyond that, where would you like to have the geographic focus of a project day?

Bethany Taylor:
Oh, gosh, that's a really good question, because it is where I can travel and where I can afford to travel and how long I can be there. But I mean, I guess, the most diverse kinds of places interest me. Besides New Mexico, I haven't really looked at deserts worldwide, so that might be interesting to me. And some of these areas that are constantly flooding and stuff, I'm very interested in too. So I mean, I'm open to all of the world, but I think I get interested ... I mean, there's too much out there, right? I get interested in the specifics of a local place because I get invited to that place. And that's just, I think, the best way for me because you can take it all on. I mean, and I also don't want to have a ton of superficial interaction with the place that I'm representing, I love being able to go there and actually spend up to a year maybe researching it as I make these.

Joanna Marsh:
Thanks for that, Bethany. Okay, there are two questions from the audience which are related. Both Monica and Kate are asking if you remember the very moment you decided to work in this vein, presuming around textiles. And if so, can you explain, was there a single lightning rod moment for you?

Bethany Taylor:
Yes, this is a strange thing because I was supposed to do a large installation in Ireland in Limerick, and I couldn't afford to ship things, and also I had just had a baby, so I was starting not to work with toxic materials, and string seemed very untoxic to me. And I created a piece with her helping me, we collaborated on the piece. So the very first piece I ever did with textiles was actually a collaboration with my two year old daughter. And it was this bunny piece where she dismantle all the notions of female that are told through stories about bunnies, that they're innocent, there's the Playboy Bunny, there's all these different kinds of bunnies.

And so I loaded this life size stuffed bunny, my size, into a duffel bag and took it on the plane along with some spools of thread and I created the work on site there and it was with me, I feel like, at the time because it could have really flopped, I've never really done that before. But that was where these installations were born when I started making these weird little drawings of bunnies on the wall out of string that had become untangled from this pregnant bunny on the floor that had been ripped apart. So it's like, I think, again, my origins of this work, I think, are also feminist in nature too and thinking about ecology and just caring and passing what I want down to my children as well, child, I shouldn't say children, I have one child.

Joanna Marsh:
That was a great story, I want to see those bunny drawings.

Bethany Taylor:
That was the very first.

Joanna Marsh:
We have a question going in a little bit of a different being but circling back to this idea of interdisciplinarity and what we can learn from different disciplines. So Craig is asking, "What can scientists learn from artists and artists learn from scientists?" And I think specific to your experience, I'm curious, what have you, yourself learned from scientists that have informed the way you think about producing your work, what subjects to focus on?

Bethany Taylor:
Yes, one thing is I started working with a lot of scientists at UF through that class that I taught with a biology professor for one, who basically, he took a semester off from teaching in biology so that he could be in our art college as a scholar and residence. And he went to all the critiques and saw all the artists in their process and everything. And he said, "This is a lot like science, it really is. It's a different kind of research." And we started uncovering together all the stereotypes we have of each other, like, the artists are more emotional and do crazy things without research behind it and everything, and that scientists are very objective and everything. And really, there's not that divide at all. There's really similar processes in both. So when we had students work together, it was really interesting because they learned from each other.

And I've worked for a couple other artists that are here or scientists that are here in the Biodiversity Institute. And the other thing, I think they bringing a lot of artists into their grants and into their things because I think they think that artists can, again, tell the story in a different way. But I guess, what I think scientists can learn from artists of when I've been at these discussions with them and stuff, is that they can give themself permission. In fact, that was one of the scientists told me, there was a fear of bringing art into their research project, I guess, but they were like, we got to give ourselves permission to let these areas merge.

In fact, we've pulled them apart in the modernist era. Leonardo had them together, Leonardo da Vinci. These things were part of the same practice of trying to uncover and discover the world, right, as a humanist venture. And so, I'm not answering it completely, but I think they both have a lot to learn from each other in that they're really not that different in their pursuit.

Joanna Marsh:
I think that what you've just shared is what we hope to achieve also with the Unsettled Nature exhibition and the collaboration between a contemporary art curator and a paleoclimatologist, and the staff at the Natural History Museum was that opening up of conversation and bringing back together these disciplines. I think we've got time for one or two more questions. There's an interesting one here about what piece you think has been the most emotionally resonant for you or for audiences. Is there, probably hard to choose a favorite piece, but a piece that has really stuck with you that you felt like had a big impact on your thinking?

Bethany Taylor:
Mm-hmm (affirmative) that's a good question. It's funny because I've been doing these and I see them as part of one big work, so it's hard for me to separate them out in a way, they're just these growing unraveling ecologies. But I mean, I think the plastic stuff always has one kind of impact, but I think the impact of this is just the fragility. I like watching viewers come up to it for the first time. Maybe I'm not answering the question of the one single piece. For me, I think it resonates more, than one close to home, the runoff that is the Santa Fe river right by my house, realizing that this toxic algae is killing dogs, there's manatees washing up every summer dolphins. And just the reality of that in my backyard, I think resonates for me. I don't know whether the piece does that, but because it's close to home.

And I guess I would hope that me making these unraveling ecologies close to home for others might get them to think about their local area. But I do like watching people go up to there for the first time and realize, oh, my gosh, these are strings. They think they're wires or something more solid, and when they realize how fragile they are, I think they get engaged in it, and then they get sad. I mean, I watch them see the skeletons and the ... So I hope that, that beauty brings them into it and also that they see themselves a part of it, there's a lot of human skeletons in there too. I rarely have non-skeletons that are human in the work, except when it's me, and then I usually have both. And those are a memento mori just realizing my own mortality too. But I can't answer just one, but I do think that probably they resonate for people the more local they are.

Joanna Marsh:
That was a great answer. Thank you, Bethany. And speaking, I'm going to ask one last question and then we'll transition. Speaking of being drawn in, I'm super curious about what we're looking at behind you, what's in your background?

Bethany Taylor:
That's the first tapestry I showed in the thing, and it's a snake, but it says, we're not ought to be ware of good omens, and it's a snake tied in ... it's a mating snakes basically. And I like that image because it ties into a lot of medieval kinds of things, but it's actually just a really natural phenomenon as well. And so that's what this is behind me, it's part of the tapestry. I just put it up so I wouldn't have a blank wall, but it's so close that you can't see the whole thing because it's rather large. So there's a snake over my head here. I'm in the ball of snakes.

Joanna Marsh:
It's much larger than I imagined. Yes, having not seen those tapestries in person, it's much larger than I imagined it. Thank you.

Bethany Taylor:
Yes, this is like a fifth of it, where my head is. Yes.

Joanna Marsh:
Fantastic. Well, we are just about out of time. Thank you to the audience for asking so many great questions. And Bethany, thank you so much for spending all this time with us this evening. Are there any parting comments you have, anything else that we haven't touched on you want to share before I wrap it up?

Bethany Taylor:
No, just I really appreciate being part of this show because it's really what I'm all about, is this interdisciplinary connection that we've just talked about already. So thank you and I'm glad it survived the whole two years, even though there was the pandemic. I mean, literally, I don't know if people know it was three days after I installed it, the lighting wasn't even done, and the whole show was closed. And so that was a little disappointing, but again, that's about change, right, and adapting. And I think that's what we all have to embrace is this idea of adapting. And we're in it now with a pandemic, really. And a lot of this is stuff that we're implicated in and have to remember that were part of it, not separate from it. I guess that's what I leave us with.

Joanna Marsh:
Perfect. Thank you. And thank you for sharing your work with us for two years now. We're so delighted that we were able to open this exhibition and showcase your and all of the other artists' work in the show. So if you'll join me now to thank Bethany Taylor for being with us, I'd also like to give really special thanks to all of those who made today's program possible, donors, volunteers and viewers like yourself, and of course, all of the partners of the Natural History Museum who help us reach, and educate, and empower millions of people around the world today and every day, thank you.

As Amanda said at the top of the program, the next featured artist will be Jenny Kendler, you can find a link to register in the Q&A box, as well as where to find more information about the whole program series and the exhibition, which as I said, will be on view through March. We hope you'll join us for the rest of the series and other programs that Natural History has on deck. Also, if you have a moment, you'll see a link to a survey, and we hope you take the time to respond. Your input gives us a lot of really valuable information about the programs you want to see and experience, and we hope to see you next time. So thanks very much.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar with artist Bethany Taylor aired January 26, 2022, as part of the Unsettled Nature: Artist Event Series. Watch a recording in the player above.


In this video, artist Bethany Taylor discusses the concepts behind her artwork, which is featured in the Unsettled Nature exhibition, with the co-curator of the exhibition, Joanna Marsh. Taylor’s artwork shows the intricate connections between life forms on Earth. She creates digitally woven tapestries of natural settings, accompanied by fiber-based drawings of animals, humans, and plants from the ecosystem represented in each tapestry. Taylor’s drawings are made of string, implying each must be connected to something else. The installations adapt to each space where they are installed — just as species adapt to environmental conditions — and the tapestries are strategically unraveled in certain places by the artist to emphasize her message: Flux and change are natural, all living things are connected.

Unsettled Nature: Artist Event Series

What is "natural" in a world where the human imprint is everywhere? In the new exhibition Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans at the National Museum of Natural History, contemporary artists challenge viewers to think about the changes we make to our planet. Join us for a series of conversations with them on the power of art to illuminate our relationship with the natural world. September 2021 – March 2022

Resource Type
Videos and Webcasts
Social Studies
Unsettled Nature: Artists Reflect on the Age of Humans