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Beautiful, Sacred, Valuable—Artist Explores Complexity Of The Land Through Intricate Works

Cooper McKim
Artist Nina Elder standing next to her drawing: "Kennecott Corporation: Silver City, New Mexico." The work was done with graphite and pulverized mining slag on paper.

Your phone, your house, your car. It all originally comes from the earth. Artist Nina Elder is fascinated by the complexity of land being at once something beautiful, sometimes sacred, and often extremely valuable - providing resources that the modern world depends on. Through long journeys to mining-based communities, Elder collects found materials and creates intricate drawings that help tell the multilayered stories that lands have to tell.

She's been supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation, Rauschenberg Foundation, and the Pollock Krausner Foundation. Elder has been features in VICE Magazine, PBS and Art In America. She's also held positions as an Art + Environment Research Fellow at the Nevada Museum of Art and Polar Lab Research Fellow. Wyoming Public Radio's Cooper McKim speaks with Elder about her latest exhibit now at the University of Wyoming's Visual Arts Building called Nina Elder: Accumulations.

Credit Cooper McKim
University of Wyoming's Visual Arts Building On The Opening Night of "Nina Elder: Accumulations"

Nina Elder: It's a large exhibition of, I think, about 25 drawings that are all pretty large drawings depicting different ways that humans have interacted with and interrupted ecosystems. And so, some of the bodies of work range from nuclear tests to clear-cutting in forests to pit mines that are all kind of looking at how humans engage the world in order to sustain our contemporary life.

Most of my work is pretty photorealistic. I take a I do a lot of research myself where I'm hiking and backpacking into sites of industrial and military impacts and taking photographs and interviewing people. I also use a lot of historic photographs and I also collect materials when I'm doing research. So, all of my drawings have some site specific materiality to them. So, like the radioactive drawings are made out of radioactive charcoal that I have harvested and the drawings of mine are actually made out of pulverized mining detritus.

Cooper McKim: So, what fascinates you about energy in particular.

Nina Elder: I think it's really important for people to understand where the material goods of their lives come from. And I think a lot of how the world is set up for us right now, it's easy to distance ourselves from where our mined materials come from. Well, in my point of view, everything comes out of the earth, you know, our food, or water, our gas, all of our materials and it's so easy to forget that.

And so the reason I make my work and the reason I make it the way I do is to help people visualize and understand those impacts that they're having in a global way... that their individual decisions about how they might heat their home or how they might spend their money or how they might, you know, choose to consume and waste - that those are part of a much larger system.

I do get criticized sometimes from I'll say, you know, environmentalist, because I'm not demonizing industry and I'm not demonizing the energy companies, I'm just saying, we've really got to look at this, we have to be much more knowledgeable about the impacts of our daily lives.

Cooper McKim: So what role does art have to play in this conversation? For something like energy, that's a conversation that Wyoming has every day, for example.

Nina Elder: There's always going to be so many different opinions about every single topic, and there's always going to be different perspectives on land use and I think it's really important to create a space where people can bear witness to it and form educated opinions about the impacts that they're having, and industry and energy and what that actually looks like. And so, art is interesting because it can at the same time shine a light on despair and hope... it can illuminate environmental degradation, but also human dependency, you know, it's a place where complexity can exist. And not all of the questions have to be answered. And so I hope that my art just continues to ask more and more questions and that people come to my art because they want to engage that space of curiosity.

Cooper McKim: And of course, whoever sees your art, there's no goal from your perspective. But that, to me, sounds a little targeted you hope people glean something? Is there anything else you hope people take away from this exhibit?

Credit Cooper McKim
Closer view of the "Kennecott Corporation: Silver City, New Mexico" drawing.

Nina Elder: I think by engaging in art that might make you a little bit uncomfortable, my work does make people uncomfortable. It might actually spark curiosity, they might go out into the landscape tomorrow and say, Oh, my gosh, I'm seeing things a little bit differently. I'm able to see how humans and the environment are interacting rather than than just having a big blind spot. I think often we've been told not to look at our energy systems, we're often told not to look at our waste system. And to me, it's like, those are monuments to human engineering. These are like, the greatest structures we've built, we need to be able to both admire them and question them.

Cooper McKim: Is it particularly meaningful to you to have this show in Laramie, Wyoming versus somewhere else?

Nina Elder: It's incredibly meaningful to be here in Wyoming. This is a school that has one of the highest local enrollments... statewide and local enrollments. And so people that understand these land-based issues are the students here. And I also see that they're going to be the future energy executives, miners and, you know, all the people that are working the land, this is such a land based state. So I think it's super important to have these conversations with them while they're students. You know, as the energy world changes and the industrial world changes if these kids are the future executives. I'm pretty excited about it, honestly.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.
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